Why the World Revolves around Marriage and Romance in Modern Civilization—and How This has Euthanized All Other Relations
The title of this article indicates a premise to which I have given much thought in recent times. Everywhere one turns in modern culture—from every film, story, show, or advertisement produced by our media, to the billboards on the highway, to the “Single and over 40?” signs stuck in the ground down the road from my place, to the sermons, marriage seminars, or dating and purity rallies of Church and youth group culture, to the very associations we have regularly with even our closest friends and family—we are all bombarded with the ubiquitous and all-pervasive preoccupation and exemplification of preparing for, acquiring, or enhancing a romantic or marital relationship with a significant other. It is obvious to those in this context that this central, climactic relationship with one’s beloved is the one that not only takes preference above all other relations, but is the only means one has of closeness, intimacy, and avoiding loneliness. It is the only outlet for meaningful, vulnerable communion that goes any deeper than a very shallow level. I would like to look further into how I believe this situation came to be, and what this means for all of the other relationships in our lives outside of that primary, special someone.
ONLY TRUE LOVE’S KISS CAN BREAK THE SPELL
By the grace of God, Disney in recent times has been catching on to the cultural and psychological devastation they have caused through the pumping out of innumerable stereotypical fairy tales that focus exclusively on the fireworks of romantic love. Films such as Frozen (2013) or Maleficent (2014) are reintroducing audiences to the strength and potency found in the love of familial connections, even suggesting the shocking implication of romantic love taking a secondary place beside this intimate bond. My prayer is that this reshaping by the media of our culture’s viewpoint in this regard will continue down this “radical” path (from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” a return to our foundations), because there remains an incredibly long way to go. I can know someone for months before learning whether they have a significant other. For all of the females in my family (even my five-year-old niece!), the very first thing they notice about someone new, before they even learn their name, is whether there is a precious metal on their ring finger. The person’s marital status is the core of their identity. The assumption of, and exclusive attention given to, romance and marriage so permeates every fiber of our society, that anyone who may not be designed for the vocation of matrimony is either ostracized and isolated or—out of frustration or confusion—becomes caught up in the insanity of gender and sexual identity crisis due to their inherent inability to find the warmth and tenderness of intimacy in traditional romance or marriage, which is the only relationally fulfilling option offered by our society.
I work for a catering company and am a videographer. I am therefore present at many weddings, where the expense and all-consuming infatuation contributed towards the dreamy goal and end-all-be-all unit that holds our world together of romantic union is absolutely mind-boggling. I do not mean to be cynical towards the holy estate of marriage established by God as a sacramental vocation in the Church. But, I still struggle with what, namely in the traditional arrangement of the marriage ceremony of the West, looks like a gathering together of all the people who were ever important to the bride and groom so that they can pronounce in front of them all that they love one another infinitely more than any of those present, and that everyone else now takes a back burner to this special person in their lives. If we think about it, this is pretty harsh. As the bride and groom exchange their vows of how the other is their best of friends that surpasses everyone, that they enjoy spending time with more than anyone, and they want to spend their whole life with them and no one else, what are the best man and maid of honor thinking to themselves, who have likely been lifelong comrades to the bride and groom? Why can they not be considered the bride or groom’s best friend? What is wrong with them that they can never be cherished in any similar way? I take issue with using the term “best friend” for one’s spouse because your spouse is not your best friend; they’re your spouse. They cannot fill all the relational roles in your life. It is true that other relations cannot take priority over one’s spouse, but why does no one seem to possess any notion of having true fidelity or constancy or committed priority with a friend rather than everyone seeking this in marriage and marriage alone?
The wedding ceremony of the Orthodox Church, interestingly, has never included an exchange of vows, for marriage is not a mere duet, but a Trinity, not a commitment to one another but a commitment to Christ through the martyrdom of dying to oneself in loving care of the other. Thus the very structure of the wedding ceremony in the church of the Western world, along with Evangelicalism’s widespread disdain for monasticism, has not been a help for the pickle we find ourselves in today. To me, the most glaring—yet subtle, on the surface—iconic revealer of our attitude and disposition towards romance and marriage at a wedding, is the bouquet and garter toss. This custom operates on the assumption that all singles anticipate, or should be actively pursuing, marital intimacy with a significant other—even violently pushing and shoving our way through those around us, casting them to the side, to grasp our prized token of receiving the same monogamous fate as the bride and groom, the ultimate ambition and fulfillment.
“PIGLET SIDLED UP TO POOH FROM BEHIND.
‘POOH!’ HE WHISPERED.
‘NOTHING,’ SAID PIGLET, TAKING POOH’S PAW.
‘I JUST WANTED TO BE SURE OF YOU.’”[i]
With all the attention given in today’s world to romance, marriage, and finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, the relation of friendship is one that has not only taken a back seat, but young people coming up in the world are given no direction or information at all about what friendship is, how to navigate it, or why it is significant. Friendship today is extremely fluid and seasonal in nature, with a constant turnover of different people in and out of our lives, especially for the younger population, who are therefore able to accrue thousands of Facebook friends without really having a relationship with any of them. My conviction is that this devastating tragedy is a totally modern phenomenon and is a major contributor to how screwed up people are emotionally and psychically today.
Historically, people grew up in the same place their whole life, within the same community, and had the same life-long friends with whom they interacted basically every day. People did not perpetually move to another state to take a job or go off to school, and societies were small enough to be tight-knit and intimate. I believe this is the ideal, and that it has been modeled to us by the very quintessential example of what it is to be a human being, Christ Himself. Jesus went straight from life in family upbringing to living in daily community with group of close friends, pouring His life out to them, with diminishing circles of intimacy within that group. As the world goes mad around us, we Christians need to be more active in being counter-cultural by making our lives conducive to this relational ideal, getting and staying close and intimate with one another, instead of perpetually uprooting ourselves. This is even one of the four vows an Orthodox Christian monk makes, that of “stability”—that he will not move around but stay put in his community. In my view this is what is most spiritually healthy for us all.
It amazes me how Christian culture stresses and emphasizes to its young people not to go around dating and giving their heart away, but to save it for their spouse so they are not broken and emotionally fragmented by the point of marriage. But when it comes to friends, it is a given that this is simply the way it is. People come in and out of our lives like we change clothes. The average American today moves at least every five years. Everywhere you go people are from everywhere. As a result, people in our culture, Christian and non-Christian alike, have become incapable of getting truly close to friends because the modernization and globalization of our world has totally snatched relational stability out from under us. When we make an acquaintance and form a relation, we do not have in mind that this has the potential of “till death do us part” like we do when we find our spouse. Subconsciously, we know that the relationship is temporary and transient, so we remain shallow and see no need to (or even recognize) the possibility of going deeper. Relationships outside of our significant other have become meaningful to us only by means of what we stand to gain through the connection, the “networking.” Only marriage can provide some semblance of that fidelity and constancy we all long for, although with the divorce rates as high as they are, even among Christians, this too is an unsteady confidence. And so, everyone struggles with loneliness today (see my article “The Pervasive Struggle of Loneliness”).
Dr. Patrick Deneen, professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame, makes this observation concerning his students:
Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments . . . Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive: a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions. Ancient philosophy and practice praised as an excellent form of government a res publica–a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first Res Idiotica–from the Greek word idiots, meaning “private individual.” Our education system produces solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history. They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions. [ii]
RETURNING TO RELATIONAL SANITY
As I was riding in the catering truck with a middle-aged coworker, she asked me if I had a girlfriend, to which I said, “No.” She then asked if I had a boyfriend, to which I also said “No.” At this point in this kind of conversation the inquirer normally reaches the “what are you waiting for?” or “did you have a bad breakup?” prying, but never once does it cross anyone’s mind to think this person is perhaps receiving their intimate relational needs in the non-romantic relations they have, and are content and not supposed to pursue marriage, maybe ever. If I were to respond, “No, I do not have A girl-friend or A boy-friend, but I do have several close friends,” people would not know what to think of this, probably because they do not understand and have never learned what true friendship looks like. Trying to find in other relations the intimacy that people look for in monogamous romance—since this is so rare—is viewed as unhealthy, and such individuals clearly need to just pursue marriage and not be such a drain to their friends by being so clingy. The few remaining examples of classic friendships like Frodo and Sam, Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, or David and Jonathan, are now being given the stink eye as being subliminally inappropriate for children; people are no longer capable of fathoming the existence of true affection, tenderheartedness, and faithful bosom friendship that is not a sexually-charged romance, and that actually penetrates the superficial plane of camaraderie and mirth.
It is time for Christians to stop following suit in the idolization of romance, sex, and the vocation of marriage and to begin re-teaching everyone what the rest of our relationships are supposed to be, and that marriage is not the only means of meeting our intimate relational needs. Churches should begin holding seminars on friendship, what true friendship is, how it has been exemplified by Christians throughout history, and how to live out this lost art of closeness with those around us, especially in the Church. Christ privileged us with some insight into our eternal state after the resurrection, contending that individual marriages will no longer be the case [Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25] as we enter into the Paradise of communion with God and His saints. The implication is that, in some sense, we will all be married to one another in a way that we simply are not prepared for or are able to understand at this point in our Theosis. A lot of what I discussed in this article is probably also connected to an emphasis in Western Protestant traditions on individual, personal salvation (I am saved), as compared to a more Eastern Orthodox communal approach (we are saved in community). But, individual marriages on this side of eternity prepare us for this ultimate reality of intimate community, and if we are to make any progress towards our heavenly Kingdom, we are going to have to start preparing ourselves for that marriage banquet of the Lamb in true communion with one another, reaching beyond the limits of that significant other to all those in our church community, then to the world at large. As Christ said:
I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me [John 17:23].
[i] A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner (Winnie-the-Pooh, #2). Dutton Books, 1988 ed. First published 1928.
[ii] Patrick Deneen. “How A Generation Lost Its Common Culture.” Minding the Campus. Feb. 2, 2016.