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Marriage: The Impossible Commitment

by Donna Schaper

Ms. Schaper is associate chaplain at Yale University. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 20-27, 1979, p. 669. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The causal explanations for the rise in the divorce rate are as numerous as the breakfast cereals on the supermarket shelf.

I

Extended adolescence. Young people grow up more slowly, find employment later, depend on parents longer but marry too early. Before the adolescent becomes an adult, he or she makes an adult commitment. Thus the theory develops that the first marriage is only prelude to second marriage and a greater maturity.

Women’s liberation. The entry of women into the job market, their demand for freedom, their interest in being cared for as well as caring for others all place a strain on marriage as we have known it. If these were not legitimate interests on the part of women, blame could be placed. The tragedy is the price women are paying for their “liberation” and the price men are paying for their refusal to engage in systemic change. Women suspect that career success is incompatible with two things: marriage and motherhood. Men have structured their lives in appreciation of that view for years. Systemic change would equalize both the burdens and the advantages of marriage and career.

Masculine shortcomings. Men, it is said, don’t know how to relate to strong women; therefore, as women grow stronger, men withdraw. Centuries of mothering have prepared them for this choice. The ego-protecting chauvinism of those who prefer the relationship they were taught as boys to expect combines with the women’s movement theory like fire to dynamite.

Economic issues. The need for two incomes in many American families removes the woman from the home, by her choice or not. The family needs a “wife,” once man and woman both take on a job. Nurture and housekeeping are the tasks left undone by dual-career couples. Inflationary pressures mount, rising consumer expectations join them, and income takes priority over relationship, marriage and family.

The genetic explanation. Now that reproduction is possible without sexual union, some say that men and women no longer biologically need each other. According to this theory, our conflicted state is reflective of an evolutionary determinism to which technology has educated our psyches.

Lack of commitment. Both the right and the left indulge in charges here. From the left comes a self-righteousness about the capability for intimacy (“You have been to Esalen, haven’t you -- or at least been analyzed?”). The right displays the stiff upper lip, the assumption that suffering builds character and that marriage involves a legitimate suffering. The issue, however, is not one’s capacity to make a commitment but rather the question of whether one is committed to the self’s agenda or the selfless agenda. Moralisms grow in the fertile soil of difficulty. A “tsk, tsk” attitude only exacerbates the problem, applying a veneer of legalism over a tangled human ambiguity.

A rise in sexual expectation. Birth control having liberated sex from procreation, recreation substitutes as the goal. We are told that it is wrong not to pleasure ourselves (what a switch!), and so we righteously insist on pleasure. For those who married before the advent of this compulsive liberation, another pattern had been established; the discovery of sex as an end in itself has caused many individuals to search for greener pastures.

The apocalyptic interpretation. The culture is dying or dead, we have lost faith in ourselves and our institutions, and therefore we experiment desperately with new forms. Is the institution of marriage in worse shape than the schools? In the cry that all have sinned and fallen short, there is a small comfort. At least we are doing no better or worse as married individuals than we are doing in our other social roles. Nothing is more absolving of personal responsibility than the apocalyptic theory.

Peer pressures. Covenantal relationships are fragile. Without social support for the institution of marriage, with the sense that “everybody’s doing it” -- that is, divorcing -- marriage becomes a minority behavior and suffers all the pressures thereof.

The Turner thesis of American history. “Go west, young man”: The sad and ridiculous procession of older men leaving their wives for younger women would support this thesis. We would be fools to assume that the great American escape would restrict itself to the continental landscape. Escape/avoidance is the archetypal American response to difficulty.

II

I would give all these theories some credence, and then add one more. Carl Jung talks about the psychology of marriage as essentially that of the container and the contained, the paradigmatic structure of male and female. One must envelop and structure the other; relationship requires hierarchy. The church historically has understood marriage as a sacrament, an adventure into impossible commitment which has divine sanction, encouragement and blessing.

The rhetoric of equality between men and women has disallowed Jung’s hierarchical model, and the cultural if not actual death of God has made the pursuit of impossibilities meaningless. We’ve had enough of exciting adventures in the secular scene. There being no bottom line to failure, we simply fall through to the bottom.

I think marriage, particularly of the exalted, egalitarian model now being pursued, is impossible. One cannot do it alone, nor can two. With the aid of neither transcendence nor forgiveness -- a bottom line on the freedom to try again after failure -- relationships are thwarted. And marriage being the primary relationship, it becomes the first to evidence the signs of an unredeemed and unredeemable brokenness.

Do I argue for God out of desperation, out of the profound experience of human failure and brokenness? Not at all. Surely at the limits of our own experience we do reach out for something more. But that search is damned by its own dependent origin. God’s gifts are hard enough to receive even when they come to successful human beings.

Rather, I argue that the profound and seemingly unmanageable pressures which marriage faces are a spiritual and not a psychosocial matter, one having to do with questions of human destiny: are we to live for ourselves, or for others, or for both in some yet undiscovered dialectic of being? Can we deny ourselves pleasure, care or stimulation and avoid the Freudian trap of destructive unconscious resignation? If we give up, is there any comfort beyond our own selves? If we hang in, is there any support beyond what we ourselves can muster or our friends provide? Just how ultimate are our personal decisions? To questions of destiny, questions of nature adhere.

III

The question of purpose intersects that of nature and destiny. Is marriage an end in itself -- or is it part of a nurture fitting us more ably for larger purposes? Until the spiritual condition of modern persons is addressed, marriage will continue to be a victim of a larger malaise.

To those struggling with marital decision and to those living with the consequences of their decision -- whether commitment or separation, marriage or divorce -- the same words can be spoken. Human relationships are not carried out in a human vacuum. Persons unresponsive to issues of nature and destiny, the recourse when suffering comes, the purpose of their life and times, will find relationships difficult. Without commitments in these areas, the self is not formed concretely enough to include an other. Emptiness encounters emptiness, and confusion reigns.

Persons uncertain about themselves and their faith dare not engage in an intimate relationship unless all they expect are psychosocial benefits, of which there are some. But to get married for these reasons and to expect to stay clear of more ultimate issues is to beg the sanity and sanctity of human experience.

Few are able to live close to another and, at the same time, live with such aridity. Few can resist their own urge to understand levels above and below the superficial. Marriage is a covenant involving our deepest selves -- our sexuality, fertility, generativity, talent, inadequacy and death. It is our link to past (parents) and future (children). Its very nature is intolerant of superficiality. Until the larger questions of destiny, nature and purpose are grasped coherently and communally, marriage will continue to be the victim of a formerly Christian culture that has lost its identity and therefore is incapable of maintaining its institutions.

Intimate relationships maintain their victim status so long as psychosocial explanations dominate. The myth of no connections, implying culture’s demonic power and otherness, is a stranger to reality. Reality demands that we own the culture we have permitted to exist, and that we accept complicity if not responsibility.

IV

The church can aid the married and the unmarried only by refusing the victim posture and by incarnationally addressing the questions of nature, purpose and destiny. All the “marriage encounter” weekends in the world will not save what theology has relinquished.

The church’s message is primarily neither psychological nor economic. It is the good news that speaks a word of freedom to these and all other factors. The good news is not that the God of love delivered us from difficulty and failure but rather that he permitted, by his own death and resurrection, our entry into these experiences with hope. Herein lies the power we have to risk the impossible -- namely, fulfilling an intimate relationship. We are not condemned to a life of petty and possible dreams; rather, we are free to lift our sights to the humanly impossible and there to wager the accompaniment of God. More than failure, we fear the petty dream and the absence of engagement in human reality.

What do we ourselves deeply want? Do we prefer the script of unredeemable failure to the drama of God? With what degree of freedom do we acquiesce or claim a destiny? Which vision of our nature will claim us? How much suffering will we tolerate or choose, and for what purposes? Precisely to what extent are we able to repress and avoid the question of creation? Did we, in fact, make ourselves? Are we the pride and pinnacle of it all? Can we bear that loneliness? Are we here for a reason?

God, after all, in an eschatological yet primitive promise named our life as good. Then God claimed it in new covenant and named it saved. We are the ones damned by and desirous of the alternate options -- the script of unredeemable failure, the purposelessness, the assumptions of impossibility.

Perspective soon becomes the issue. Marriage is not the only stage on which we act. I see nothing in the Word itself that elevates matrimony to the level of salvation. If anything, celibacy is the preferred state, biblically speaking. In the land of ultimate questions, our fidelity to one partner is a small region. That we choose safety or hope, possibility or impossibility, love or hate is a matter of another order. It’s a matter of the spine in the soul, the lust in our heart rather than the lust in our behavior.

What is not penultimate is the basis for our decision. Do we love beyond our own capacity, give beyond our own capacity, or hope beyond our own capacity? Once the energy conversions occur, we are responsible for our decisions and live beyond continual regret over consequences in a knowledge of hope. These are the points at which we take our marriage vows seriously -- where we accept the help of God. If brokenness occurs following that release to larger power, then we move into that brokenness in hope. God will call us to love again, or in another way. We will risk brokenness again, or in another way. These risks mark our journey, our nature and destiny.

Some hurts will never go away, nor should they. But they are not the final word about us or God. We may have failed; we may have failed another; another may have failed us. Or these sins may tangle with each other in an unmanageable web. Trust can be irreparably broken between people.

V

The stakes are obviously high. If small homogeneous communities can’t work, then what chance is there for larger heterogeneous communities? If we cannot acknowledge our personal failure with one partner, on what basis do we risk future encounters? But we risk the truth of the gospel by living as though its promise were already here. I know of no other way to appropriate it save in the risking. Possibility is the stone we throw at the Goliath of impossibility.

The issue of hope is confronted in our faith about our capacity to change and in our faith about the other’s capacity to change. The faith is not a duty but rather an attraction to the deeper self within us whom we wait to know as one that confronts and goes beyond brokenness. In both instances, by our own power we will fail. In the power available to us in the incarnation, we find another situation. It is not necessarily the power to “save a marriage” but the power to assure that love and justice are motivating factors, that they be both the means and the ends of our action.

The gospel provides few answers about how we should live or what decisions we should make. It is not a recipe for right living. The gospel transcends the law only to name a more difficult law -- that of love, first of God and then of each other, even ourselves. There is no provision in the Word which avoids on our behalf human ambiguity. We make our own decisions and live with their consequences. But in a -love that will not let us go, God provides the clue to our purpose, nature and destiny. We are, quite simply, called and empowered to the task of love and to its consequent justice. We are called simultaneously to provide each other with the sanctuary of love and the challenge of justice, and to expect the other to provide the same for us. This expectation is not private or individualistic; it is the mission of humanity, not only of spouses.

To the extent that our marriages are based in and led by those purposes, we are responsive to our created image. To the extent that they are not, whether by pursuit of law’s safe moralism or in rebellion against it, we miss the mark. In Paul’s words, we sin. And then, and only then, do we move from the power and presence of God.

We can never know whether we have loved enough or hoped enough. That is a luxury denied to us, and which we deny by the safety of self-deception. We can go only so far in those directions and then relax in the love that knows no limits and the hope that has no bounds. And there at the edge of our own limits, I believe, we are surprised by the transformation of impossibility into possibility.


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