If marriage is a sacrament, then the way in which practices that lead to marriage function as liturgies deserves attention.

“Before ‘I Do’,” a new study published by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, offers evidence of the ways certain common individual and cultural pre-marital practices can shape the experience and quality of a marriage. The research involved more than one thousand unmarried Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four who were in a relationship when they entered the study between 2007 and 2008. Over the next five years, 418 of these individuals married, and data about these marriages were collected and analyzed. The research finds that past decisions and conduct in romantic relationships were linked to the odds that the marriages would be high quality. The study offers three major findings:

  • Those who have had more romantic, sexual or cohabiting partners before marriage are less likely to report a high-quality marriage than those with “less complex” romantic histories. For example, men and women who had slept only with their future spouse before marriage report higher marital quality than those who had other sexual partners as well. In addition, having a child in a previous relationship is linked to lower marital quality for women (but not men).

  • The intention (or lack thereof) with which the married individuals make transitions from one relationship milestone to another—by what the study terms “deciding” or “sliding”—is also linked to marriage quality. Those individuals who “slid” into relationship stages before marriage (including “hooking up,” cohabitation, and engagement) rather than “deciding” to do so with intentionality have lower quality marriages.

  • The greater the number of guests at the wedding, and the more formal the wedding ceremony, the greater chance that the marriage is of higher quality, even after controlling for income and education.

Among the conclusions the authors propose from the study’s findings is this: “rituals and community matter.”

On the surface, one’s history of past relationships, the deliberation with which one makes decisions about relationship milestones, and the number of guests in attendance at one’s wedding appear to be widely divergent indicators of marital quality. Yet all of these factors, in one way or another, reflect practices that accumulate resonances and become ritualized ways of relating to and being with romantic (and potential marriage) partners. The practices that lead up to marriage reflect—and at the same time construct—social imaginaries about marriage. What we imagine to be true and good about romantic relationships—and the practices adopted as a result of those visions—affects the sense of one’s marriage quality.

The study’s findings bear out James K. A. Smith’s insights about cultural liturgies outlined in his two books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the KingdomPractices, Smith explains, form habits. Practices can be “thin” or “thick,” or, in other words, they can be routines we undertake, not as ends in themselves, but as means to some end (“thin”); or routines which, as ends in themselves, are infused with personal meaning and are thus tied to our identity (“thick”). Over time, Smith explains, thick, formative practices “embed desires in us for a particular version of the good life.” Thin habits can become thick practices, Smith says, when they reflect, or even cultivate, our larger commitments and thereby connect, even if only implicitly, to our vision of human flourishing. For example, the “thin practice” of hooking up becomes a “thick practice” when it comes to shape one’s identity and form one’s vision of how flourishing might be achieved. Thus, Smith argues, “no habit or practice is neutral,” for such actions cultivate our desires even as they serve as perceived means of fulfilling our desires for the good. Practices embody our ultimate beliefs, Smith explains, drawing upon the work of the twentieth century sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, who says, “Practice has a logic which is not that of the logician—a logic that is performed directly in bodily gymnastics.”

This recognition that the power of ritual is made manifest in material forms illuminates how the bodily practices that underlie the behaviors in the study—premarital sex and cohabitation, deliberation over relationship decisions, and the gathering of supporters and witnesses in the marriage ceremony—shape marital quality. It makes sense that those who have a history of practices involving fewer lost commitments report higher quality marriages. Serial relationships and co-habitation transform commitment into trial runs. Drifting into stages of a relationship can become a ritualized way of living no less than the opposite, intentional approach. The correlation about the formality and size of the wedding is less intuitive, but the study’s authors surmise that these factors “may foster support for the new marriage from within a couple’s network of friends and family” or reflect the existence of already existing strong networks of support. “This is undoubtedly why all cultures have rituals that add force to major decisions about the pathway ahead,” the study states. “We tend to ritualize experiences that are important.”

And when our rituals are connected to matters of “ultimate concern,” as Smith puts it, they “constitute and function as liturgies.” Within a traditional understanding liturgy refers narrowly to the forms by which public worship is practiced. But in a secular age in which visions of human flourishing are no longer limited to religious belief, other practices—even those that are seemingly private but ultimately public—compete with those of worship in shaping the desires we follow in pursuit of the good. In reflecting visions of human flourishing, cultural liturgies take on religious resonance and function, Smith argues, as “pedagogies of ultimate desire.”

“Before ‘I Do’” makes clear that the practices one engages in before marriage influence the quality of the marriage. Since, as Mollie Hemingway points out in her report on the study, the vast majority of people desire to marry someday, the habits that surround courtship and marriage are inherently “thick practices” that embody our beliefs about human flourishing and construct our social imaginaries. For most people, marriage is an ultimate concern, which means premarital practices are cultural liturgies that constitute the shape of the marriage just as religious liturgies shape our worship.

Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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Articles by Karen Swallow Prior

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