Defining Marriage

Since releasing our “Defining celibacy” post over a month ago, we’ve received over one hundred questions about its content from our readers. These inquiries fall into three general categories: 1) questions about how our definition of “celibacy” differs from how many people would define “marriage,” 2) questions about how we would define “marriage,” and 3) questions about how we understand our specific kind of celibate vocation relative to other celibate vocations. We are eager to respond to each of these in time, and today we hope to make a beginning at dialoguing with our readers on numbers 1 and 2.

In today’s post, we make our first attempt at exploring how one might define the vocation of marriage. We are adamant that celibate vocations are best defined by celibate people, and we are equally convinced that the vocation to marriage is best defined by people who are married. We believe it would be inappropriate for us to discuss what marriage is without asking for the input of those who are married. Over the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting responses to the questions, “How would you define the term ‘marriage’? What does ‘marriage’ mean to you?” via our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and through personal conversations with people we know who have been married for varying lengths of time. We’ve communicated with younger couples and older couples, gay, straight, and bisexual couples, religious and nonreligious couples (some with one person of each), couples who have experienced divorce and are currently in their second or third marriages, and couples who have been married for decades. We’ve also spoken with a number of married pastors who have shared with us what topics they find important to raise in pre-marital counseling sessions. What we’ve come to realize is that there are perhaps as many definitions for marriage as there are married couples, and sometimes within a marriage the two partners will have different understandings of the term.

Some of our respondents focused on how marriage provides a way for two people to enjoy life together and become the best they both can be:

“Marriage, to me, is loving someone enough to give things up to help them achieve their life goals, knowing they will do the same for you. And having fun and having intellectual conversations along the way. So marriage is living each day knowing you’re helping making yourself and someone else a better person.” –Shae

Other respondents emphasized emotional intimacy, physical attraction, and commitment as key elements in defining marriage:

“I feel like I’ve found the person who is enough like me that we can truly understand each other and different enough from me that we can have our autonomy and entertain one another. We are also very physically attracted to each other, which, for us, feels important. I think the institution of marriage is neat because once you’ve found someone you truly enjoy and trust, you can make a decision to take on the world together. We make each other better, more productive people. It’s an accountability system in a way. Ideally, marriage also provides you with a partner who cares more about you than anyone or anything else in the world. I have an immense feeling of emotional security as well as physical security in my marriage. We also pick up the slack for each other in areas like household chores and bill paying. We are a team. My favorite thing about being married is having a best friend that I can share intimacy, intelligence and laughter with…but who is soothing and present for me when I’ve had the worst day in the world and just need kind words and for someone else to make me dinner. Which he does.” –Mary

A large number of respondents defined marriage within the context of their specific religious traditions:

“I’m Catholic, so I believe that marriage requires not only a lifelong commitment, but also openness to children. That is essential to the way I believe God intends married couples to serve the world. Whether they actually have children or not isn’t the point. It’s that they’re always open to bringing new life into the world, providing a home for children who were brought into the world by other people, or both. In my faith, that’s what marriage is. But I understand that isn’t how everyone understands marriage. Openness to children isn’t a foundational element of marriage in all religions, or even in other Christian traditions. If somebody isn’t religious, or is Protestant, or is Hindu and decides that being open to children isn’t a necessary part of their marriage, I’m not going to tell them they aren’t really married. That’s just wrong. I think married people need to respect that there are many ways people in the world talk about marriage.” –Anne Marie

We were also honored that a few readers trusted us with deeply personal details of struggles in their marriages, claiming that these trying times have made their marriages stronger and have proven to them that marriage is truly “for better or for worse.” One reader shared with us that after weathering the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder, job loss, and financial troubles, she and her husband were dangerously close to ending their marriage, but found the strength within themselves to fight for each other and the life they share:

“[My husband] and I have both agreed that if one feels neglected by the other we must wave our flag high at that point and retreat to devote ourselves to one another again. We don’t wait until it’s late in the game either, we find time for one another immediately. We have stayed together and come out stronger through things that would tear most people apart. I can honestly say because all of the horrible times I love my husband more now than I ever did, because he (like I) decided to run this race with me. We have a bond that love cannot even begin to define. I know that no matter what happens, he’s going to be beside me. I’ve thought a lot about prearranged marriage, and while I am thankful that I did get to choose my mate, I know why so many prearranged marriages lasted, while so many “loving” marriages of today don’t last. People today are so ready to give up. They toss in the towel at the first stumbling block, if that. People actually enter marriages with the thought that if they don’t like it they can always get divorced…No one is held accountable to stay married…I’m not saying I’m against divorce and I realize there are certain situations where it cannot be avoided, but the rapid rate of divorce is despicable… If I had to define marriage I would say commitment, along with perseverance and hard work which can lead to an unbreakable bond.” -Kristen

We selected the above responses from the 37 we received in total. If we’d had time to discuss this topic with more people, we’re sure we would have encountered an even greater diversity of ideas about the definition of marriage.

When reading the responses, we began to notice many commonalities. It became clear to us that every married person who responded expressed love for his or her spouse. Other similarities we noticed were assertions that marriage involves doing life together, being present for one another, and experiencing shared intimacy. Among our respondents who affiliate strongly with a religious tradition (mostly Christianity), the eternal nature of the marriage commitment and emphases on shared faith-based values arose frequently. Responses received from married pastors who conduct pre-marital counseling showed a common theme of focusing on conflict resolution and the practical aspects of living out a marriage commitment. Some indicated that “family” and “children” were among the most essential topics, but these were not the majority. Likewise, we noticed that the majority of our married respondents in general did not include “children” or “openness to children” in their definitions of marriage.

Thinking back to our aforementioned “Defining celibacy” post, you might be wondering if all this information has caused us to reevaluate the vocation we feel called to live together. It’s true that many qualities mentioned in these definitions of marriage are also present in our relationship. More than one reader has suggested that when we describe our understanding of our shared vocation, we are actually talking about a “celibate marriage.” If married people tend to agree that marriage involves commitment, intimacy, being willing to work through difficult situations, and sharing a set of values, couldn’t our relationship be considered a “marriage” of sorts? Perhaps. But here’s another bit of food for thought: every item we just listed is also present in other types of human relationships. Perseverance, closeness, willingness to stay when things get complicated, and so on…one could find all of these qualities just as vibrantly in monastic communities as in marriages. Furthermore, many of these characteristics describe healthy church communities and also relationships a person might have with very close friends or his/her “family of choice.” Would we feel comfortable defining all relationships with these characteristics as “marriages”?

Our first try at defining celibacy focused on vulnerability, commitment, radical hospitality, and shared spiritual life. Could all of these aspects also be present in the vocation of marriage? Absolutely. It could be that these four characteristics are at the heart of all vocations, but manifest differently in each. We do not believe that defining a term must necessarily mean defining it against another in every possible way, especially when related to people’s senses of calling in life. We’ve found that if someone asks us to define “celibacy,” more often than not, that person anticipates that we will discuss celibate vocations in terms of how they are different from rather than similar to marriage. However, when we say that vocations allow people to reflect the Kingdom of God, we expect that all kinds of vocation will have certain commonalities.

In the future, we would like to explore more deeply some of the differences we see between marriage and our celibate partnership. One major point of difference that keeps coming back to us is our sense of call to serving the broader world rather than focusing as much on service to a narrower sense family. We do consider each other “family” and have made a decision to expand our family in the future, but we have no idea what that means or who it will bring into our lives. Within our Christian tradition, the majority of married people would contend that openness to children is an essential element of marriage. This is not to suggest that marriages in other traditions (or nonreligious marriages) with other definitions of the term somehow fall short of “true marriages,” but to say that we have a particular framework from our faith tradition that impacts our understanding of what a marriage within that branch of Christianity would look like. While we aren’t opposed to the idea of welcoming children into our life in some capacity, we don’t feel that God is calling us to the specific work of raising children. We would like to explore other ways of opening our home to people with various needs who have no other place to find support, and we see that as an essential part of our celibate vocation. Feel free to ask questions about this, as we intend to address it further in future posts.

Discerning vocation can be, and often is, a complicated task. It is helpful to get to know people living out diverse vocations as we discern the best language for describing our particular type of celibate vocation. We learn just as many lessons from married couples as we do from monastics and individuals pursuing other varieties of celibate vocations. We think that because marriage is such a dominant vocational pathway in our society, many people have cultivated an expansive definition of “marriage.” It is our hope that by discussing the celibate vocation, our readers will come to a deeper appreciation of the diversity within celibate vocations.

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