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The Book of Marriage undertakes to provide an overview of one of the greatest human institutions at a time when its future is uncertain. This year, for the first time, fewer than 25 percent of American households consist of a married couple and their children. (Admittedly, the significance of this census finding is disputed.) The number of single-parent households and unmarried couples is increasing. Changes in social, religious, and sexual standards are undermining the traditional belief that marriage is a lifetime commitment. The divorce rate is appallingly high and multiple divorces increasingly frequent, with well-documented severe consequences to an ever larger number of children.

Dana Mack and David Blankenhorn intend The Book of Marriage to provide an alternative to inadequate college-level textbooks and marriage-preparation literature which, they say, are intellectually weak, noncommittal on the value of marriage in contemporary society, and rarely address marriage in its cultural, historical, and spiritual dimensions. Their aim is to celebrate the “diversity and essential humanity of the marital experience in a way that is accessible, entertaining, and useful.” The editors are not neutral on the value of marriage. By drawing on readings from a wide range of world literature and thought, they hope to convey a sense of the great historical, social, and cultural import of marriage and want their readers to come away from the book understanding that “in marrying, [people] are doing something really big.”

To organize the vast array of material needed for this overview, the editors divide the anthology into ten chapters, each asking a big question about a particular aspect of marriage and each presenting a rich collection of readings by novelists, theologians, sociologists, poets, anthropologists, philosophers, and others. The questions asked include: Why get married at all? What are we promising? What about when we fight? What about divorce? Can love last a lifetime? The spectrum of perspectives ranges from Greek drama to Shakespeare to Tolstoy; from St. Paul to Aquinas, Luther, and Maimonides; from Milton to Bill Cosby. Among the many gems are selections from Chinese and Japanese literature, the Mahabharata , and various traditions of Western Scripture and theology.

At the end of their introduction, Mack and Blankenhorn write that “it is our firm belief that a successful marriage is in a real sense the finishing school of civic education. Through marriage, after all, we can learn the true meaning of community, of tolerance, of mutual understanding, of responsibility, and of spiritual cultivation”all of the things that make for the kind of society in which the good life is accessible to all.” This is an admirable summary of what they have attempted to convey in the readings they have chosen, and to a large extent they have succeeded. However, they have made a serious mistake in their choice of a subtitle for the book: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions . The book has been organized around a series of questions, but for the most part the readings do not”and do not intend to”answer them. There is a wealth of imaginative literature here, all of which offers wise, sometimes witty, sometimes profound observations, illuminating images and metaphors, and material for reflection, but never answers. The book’s many impressive essays that address the philosophic, cultural, and historic bases of marriage don’t provide answers either. Rather than offering solutions, the writers collected in the book explore such issues as loving marriages as the basis of a healthy civic life (Martin Bucer), the subjugation of women, gender inequalities and possible reforms (John Stuart Mill, G. B. Shaw), marriage as a private contract (John Locke), the obligations of the marital promise (Erasmus), and the origins and fundamental elements of marriage (Edward Westermarck). Certain of the theological and scriptural passages do give answers”and instructions”but many of these seem legalistic, dry, and barren. They may once have served to develop and preserve a framework that bolsters marriage as a social and religious ideal; today they are interesting only as relics.

The closest thing to real answers comes in the contributions of the research-based sociologists who write with authority on the subjects they have studied. Essays such as John Gottman’s “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Judith Wallerstein’s writing on divorce and good marriages, and Erik Erikson’s reports of his work with the elderly are filled with fascinating facts and testimony that bear the stamp of the passionate involvement the subject demands. There’s no arguing with the evidence, and though readers may want to question some of the conclusions, these authors are very persuasive. Wallerstein in particular”with her lively and learned perspective on divorce (especially its effects on children) and good marriages”is one of the stars of this collection.

An additional weakness in the collection arises from an omission. In their introduction, the editors list “the big questions of marriage”questions relating to the nature of marital love, to sexual fulfillment, to money management, gender roles, child rearing, mixed marriage, marital conflict, the death of a spouse, divorce.” With one notable exception, each of these questions is explored in one of the ten chapters of the book. The exception is “sexual fulfillment.” “Yes, yes,” the editors might say, “the importance of that subject goes without saying.” Well, it doesn’t. The importance of all the other big questions might go without saying too, but it doesn’t. It is certainly stated in almost every one of the nonliterary selections in the book that sex, in one way or another, forms the basis of marriage. In many passages it is identified as “conjugal duty,” in others it exists solely as the means of procreation. It is a duty, a complicating factor, a danger, a pleasure. Passion is usually relegated to the immature and impulsive, as in the “passionate sexual union of youthful romance.”

Contributors who do turn their attention to the importance of sex in marriage recognize it as a constant presence in the marriage relation that enhances the spiritual connection between partners. My husband laughed when I told him that the sexiest reading in the book was the passage in the Odyssey when Odysseus returns home after twenty years. To assure herself that this is indeed her husband Penelope devises a test of his identity that brilliantly reveals the secret life of marriage in its solidarity, sexual attachment, understanding, friendship, and shared traditions and habits that are known only to the partners. Literature is filled with comparable fine descriptions and recreations of sexual encounters that are in no way unseemly or inappropriate to the purposes of a book like this one. A straightforward and thoughtful exploration of the place of this wonderful human faculty in married life and in the institution of marriage would have been quite appropriate.

I do not think the editors of this volume are prudish, but in their earnest efforts to emphasize the social, theological, and historical aspects of the cultural institution of marriage they have needlessly downplayed the aspect of marriage that has the greatest power to nourish or destroy it. Reflections of thoughtful and knowledgeable experts in this field would have been as welcome as they are in the other areas that the book addresses.

The concluding chapter”“Will We Grow Old Together?””comes closest to illustrating the strength of the sexual bond in marriage. Erik Erikson, in a fascinating and moving section from his study “The Voices of our Informants,” quotes from interviews with elderly people about their experiences with marriage, divorce, losing a loved one, and remarriage. One widow recalls “earlier sensuality [that] seems to serve as a source of happiness as it brings to life intimate experience that has been missed for many years.” Other people mention as particularly significant “the intimacy that has dominated their adult lives,” or the “spontaneous, affectionate physical contact that is so much a part of old loving.” This whole section, which deals with illness and the death of spouses, with forced separation and widowhood, is a reflection on the indelible bond between long-married people, the permanent imprint of one person on another.

In the voices of people speaking to interviewers, as well as in the greatest works of imaginative literature, we hear the joy and pain of people who have experienced the inescapably intimate bond of marriage”a bond that engages people in the most private, vulnerable aspects of their being. This is true whether the marriage is good or bad, an arranged marriage or the impulsive act of a couple of sex-crazed teenagers. Marriage constantly exposes one’s self to that of another. The best selections in this excellent volume make us aware of this most remarkable aspect of a truly essential and irreplaceable human institution.

Molly Finn is a (long-married) writer living in New York City.