The counter-cultural values of marriage

“Marriage spells the end of ultra-individualism. In a mindset where self-realisation is the ultimate good, a contract that asks two people to sacrifice their own best interests for the “family” seems outrageous blasphemy. Everyone should aim for total autonomy; inter-dependence is for the weak and needy.”
Cristina Odone

In her article in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, Cristina Odone identified some of the lyrics of the ‘song’ our culture is singing: ultra-individualism, self-realisation, total autonomy… These are the things our culture worships and teaches us to value above all else.

She is writing in response to a report from the IFS suggesting that having married parents is no better for children than having unmarried ones. However, she allows herself to confuse and conflate the value of marriage with the value of being married parents and in doing so I think weakens her argument.  She’s trying to say that marriage is good, and the quotation above makes the point very clearly about what it asks of people, but in allowing herself to drift back and forth between the benefits of marriage per se, and its benefit for children, she gives the impression that actually marriage doesn’t really have much going for it in and of itself.

The Bible doesn’t command that people should have weddings. It doesn’t mention white dresses, the exchange of rings, vicars, flower girls, page boys or champagne receptions. It doesn’t prescribe the singing of Jerusalem or the reading of 1 Corinthians 13, in fact, it doesn’t even mention a religious ceremony.

What it does envisage is the joining of a man and a woman irreversibly into one unit.

A wedding is a way of marking the day on which that joining takes place, and in many cultures, including ours, it defines the point at which the legal statuses and obligations of the bride and groom change, but it is just a cultural construct. In God’s eyes, the moment a couple has sex, they are joined as one – married.

So what are you saying, Jennie? You don’t think there’s any reason for people to get married after all?

Not at all.  In a culture where weddings and legal arrangements exist, the decision not to formalise your commitment to one another is, as far as I can see, a decision to keep your options open. A marriage ceremony doesn’t have to be a huge, expensive, emotional deal (though as Odone points out, it does require a basic degree of organisation), so the ‘I don’t want a fuss’ argument doesn’t wash. The fact is that if you decide to split up after being married, it is a great deal harder, takes longer and costs more, and is thus a bigger deal than splitting up from cohabiting. The emotional scars are the same, though, so on that level it is no harder.

The decision to marry is the decision to be boldly counter-cultural. It is the decision to lay aside – forever – your ‘ultra-individualism, self-realisation and total autonomy’, and choose instead to ‘sacrifice [your] own best interests’.  But the real miracle is that in surrendering your interests to those of another, you find you are doing that which is in your own best interest after all.

I hope one day to be married. Before that time I will refuse to accept (even if it’s offered!) the easier yet harder option of cohabitation, and will celebrate with my friends and family when they tie the knot or pass another anniversary. Yay you! Keep up the great cultural transformation that comes from putting another’s needs above your own.

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. clairemusters
    on Jul 26th at 4:59 pm

    Great post! I especially like your second-to-last paragraph and think that the following sentences may well find their way into some of our marriage prep class discussions in the coming months!

    ‘The decision to marry is the decision to be boldly counter-cultural.’

    ‘the real miracle is that in surrendering your interests to those of another, you find you are doing that which is in your own best interest after all.’

    I was engaged by the age of 18 and married just after I turned 20 (quite a few years ago now!) I was in my first year of uni when I got engaged – and my uni friends just didn’t understand. A few made jokes about the fact that we Christians got married young because it would be the only way we could have sex. At the time I found it hugely offensive – now I let such comments roll off my back, but I realise how much our society has now missed the point. That giving yourself so totally to someone else that you are willing to sacrifice everything does more for your own character than you’ll ever realise…

  2. newsong40
    on Jul 26th at 5:40 pm

    Thank you so much Claire. Really appreciate the encouragement, and the testimony from someone who can say ‘it’s true, it works’!

    May God give you and your husband many more happy, committed mutually self-sacrificing years together.


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