The Ethics of Marriage
What, then, are the conditions of a good marriage? The answer, in its simplest form, is the meeting of the valid human needs of each party to it.
First among these is the need for security: the deep awareness, which goes deeper than any specific bit of knowledge, that no matter what one is or does he really counts for the other person and can always feel completely at home. It means that no matter what the ups and downs of the world may be, or what one's experiences outside the home, or even within the home, in the pinches one can really count on the other person. To put the matter differently, an essential need that marriage must meet is the need of mutual dependence.
Second among these needs is that of understanding, both in the sense of being understood by the other person and doing everything one can to understand that person. In other words, it involves a constant effort to get at what the other person genuinely means, however inept or inadequate or even destructive the overt expression may be. Such understanding as this is not something with which we are born, nor even with which we enter marriage. It is rather the fruit of our experiences tempered by human sensitivity. In the best sense, it is indeed an extremely difficult thing to achieve, coming out of the pains and hardships we have experienced and whatever patience we have learned in the course of it. Ideally such understanding is the sharing of experiences with another person on the deepest levels of one's being.
Finally, a good marriage must be characterized by a feeling that each person is genuinely concerned with what happens to the other. Again, as with the feeling of athomeness and the sense of security, this concern is rather an atmosphere and an attitude than a specific act or expression. Nor by concern are we to understand that furrowed-brow attitude that we assume when we think of "problems." Instead, this concern is an affection, an emotional identification, which gives one the feeling of being cared about, of being loved for oneself alone. In the immature romanticism which is dominant in our culture, we have identified love with sexual passion. It is not this. For people may and do have many different sexual passions which have nothing whatever to do with love. On the other hand, love between mature men and women involves sex, but sex is not its essence. As Felix Adler has pointed out, love is essentially living in the life of another person: feeling his pains and pleasures, his sufferings and joys, as one's own.
Now the problem of meeting these very basic human needs is the problem of marriage. For by definition they comprise the major challenges to what we are as persons. The romantics used to say that marriages are made in heaven. However that may be, they are contracted on earth and, to make a serious play on words, they can be either contracting or expanding experiences.
Apparently, however, there is a contradiction here. Successfully to meet the challenges implicit in this relationship requires a good deal of maturity. Yet none of us is at the outset of marriage mature enough completely to meet them. In this apparent contradiction, then, a genuine one? Not at all. For it points to the central thing in all ethical life, the necessity of personal growth. Marriage thus viewed is a maturing experience, in many ways the most maturing of all. One is constantly pushed and pulled by the very nature of the relationship to grow up sufficiently to meet the needs of one's mate. Nor is this process ever finished, with a person reaching a point where he can say that he has finally achieved complete maturity. It is exactly for this reason that a good marriage is a relationship through which one can grow until the end of his days.
What are some of the major implications of marriage thus conceived? First and foremost, of course, is the family. This is not the place for a discussion of the meaning of children and the ethics of family life. But it is evident that one of the deep needs most people have in a good marriage relation is the need for offspring. This, in the strictest sense, involves the most creative act of the marital relation. For the creation of personality is only started with the act of procreation. It carries on through the efforts to develop the best possibilities in children; and this constitutes the basic common challenge for the parents themselves. Doubtless we have all known couples who were at sword's point with each other and yet who were, at the every same time, simply magnificent with their children. And we have seen the parents themselves grow through this experience, growing even to the point where it was possible for them to work out a much better relation with each other. This is not to say, as is sometimes advised, that couples who are having marital difficulties should have children in the hope of thereby resolving their problems. Indeed, nothing could be worse. In the first place, in the majority of situations the difficulties will not be eradicated by this expedient. Second, and far more importantly, children should never be wanted as problem-solvers or substitutes for our other unmet needs. They should be wanted for themselves alone, and we know this is basic to their healthy development. It is true, however, that concern with children can be an ethical transformer in the marriage relation itself.
Another implication of a good marriage is the contribution it makes to the work in which one is engaged, whatever that work may be. The maturing experience of marriage should give added leverage to a person's vocational life. Nor is this to be understood simply in the traditional sense of giving a person added incentive to make more money or to do a better job. Deeper than this is the fact that growing to the point where one can measure up to the demands of marriage brings one the comprehension and perspective in his working relations which should make him capable of performance which was never before possible.
Finally, a good marriage should be the source of one's making an increased contribution to the life of the larger community. For one way or another the security, the understanding, yes, and the affection, too, which characterize a good marriage relation should be brought to bear in the larger areas of life. That is why a good marriage is both a basis of an adequate approach to ethical problems and but the beginning of our dealing with them. Such a relation carries over into a drive to make the lives of other people at least a little more secure.
This, then, is the ethics of marriage, the ideal upshot of it. As in all the dimensions of life, so in this, the essential meaning comes down to our growth as persons. We say in general that our ethical growth comes only through and with other people. There is no relation in life in which this is so evident as in marriage. To shy away from the challenges which are implicit in the problems characterized by marriage is to stultify oneself, to cling to one's immaturity. To be challenged by these very problems, to be grateful for the opportunities which romantic love brings in its wake, this is to penetrate to the meaning and the ethics of marriage.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion, edited by Howard B. Radest.
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