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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16 thoughts on “Defining Marriage

  1. I think this is a good start. It’s helpful to put things in the context of vocation, as we are all called to be something and to live some kind of life.

    • Thanks, Evan. We hope to build on this in the future as we continue discussing the concept of vocation. We don’t claim to have all or any of the answers, but we’re enjoying the learning experience of writing about these issues and interacting with all of you.

    • I know a hetrosexual couple who decided early on in their marriage that they didn’t enjoy sex and have been together in a deeply loving relationship for forty years without it. I know others who due to profound or illness are unable to have sex with their spouses yet have very happy marriages based on other forms of physical and emotional intimacy. Standingonmiddleground is very right to say that marriage, whether for gay couples or straight, is about far more than just sex which isn’t even necessarily an essential part of it.

      • This is a good point. Not all marriages include sex, for one reason or another. This is one of the reasons that we don’t want to reduce any vocation to “the presence of sex” or “the absence of sex.”

    • Kay, as we have replied to many of your comments, we do not reduce the vocation of celibacy to “the absence of sex.” Likewise, we do not reduce the vocation of marriage to “the presence of sex.” When considering both celibacy and marriage as vocations, no, we do not see “sex” as the most obvious difference.

    • Hi Joe. We do plan to secure some form of legal protection for each other. We want to be sure that we are able to care for each other in times of need, and we’ve been in situations before when we’ve traveled to certain US states and haven’t been granted the freedom, for example, for Lindsey to be with Sarah in an emergency room. We want to make sure those things don’t continue to happen to us as we live the rest of our lives together. However, no matter what form of legal protection we determine to be best suited to our needs, we will never be referring to our relationship as a marriage because that is not how we see it. It is not important to us what any government considers our relationship so long as we aren’t denied the basic ability to care for one another. What’s more important to us is how we understand our relationship in light of the teachings of our Christian tradition and our own sense of vocation.

  2. Interesting. Maybe I missed it, but do you consider yourselves married? By the way, have you ever read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body?

    • Hi Manny, we do not consider ourselves married. The point of this post on defining marriage is that we, as people who are living in a celibate vocation, do not want want to put words in other people’s mouths about how they understand their marital vocation. While some of our readers provided definitions of marriage that they deem to be inclusive of how we live our lives, we note that many kinds of friendships would fall under their umbrella of what marriage is. Because we believe marriage and celibacy both reflect the kingdom of God, we’re not terribly surprised that similar benefits are observed in both vocations. Regardless, we do not consider ourselves married and find it problematic when other people try to assert that we are married.

      Sarah has read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in its entirety; Lindsey has read passages.

  3. Thanks for this post. It can be illuminating to bring together many different perspectives on marriage in this way. I apologize in advance for the length of what will be a very long comment.

    I think that there is a serious problem with the way that the question is posed, however, as I believe that there are a number of implicit but mistaken assumptions within it. I am referring to the assumption that marriage is to be defined by the perspectives of the people within it. Indeed, I believe that to define marriage this way is to surrender the most important point before we have even started discussion. The problem is that, to the extent that it is genuinely an institution, marriage exists to serve ends that transcend the ends of the persons within it.

    Defining marriage this way is perhaps akin to trying to define the institution of the army around the answers given to the question ‘what does the army mean to you?’ by persons in the military. Some might say that it is a way that they can earn a living, others that they want to ‘be their best’ and believe that the training of the military helps them to achieve this. Others might draw attention to the camaraderie they enjoy in the military. Others want the honour of serving their country. Some are in the military for the adventure. The problem is that the question of what the military means for those serving within it doesn’t really answer the question of what the military itself is for, because the military doesn’t exist primarily for the sake of the persons within it and their personal ends.

    Any ‘institution’ that could adequately be defined in such a manner would probably exist purely as a mutually beneficial arrangement voluntaristically contracted between individuals, a decidedly ‘liberal’ sort of institution (in the more technical sense of the term). Seeking to define marriage in such a manner is therefore, I believe, unwittingly to rule out more traditional understandings of marriage at the outset.

    It seems to me that this approach to definition also places too much emphasis upon the ends realized by individual marriages, rather than upon the ends served by marriage as an institution in society. The tendency then is to depreciate the significance of any marital ends that can’t be realized within a given particular marriage, most typically procreation. The argument that, if there are infertile couples, then bearing children can’t be integral to marriage’s purpose, is not too dissimilar in its logic from the claim that, since some soccer games conclude in thrilling goalless draws, goal-scoring can’t be a central purpose of the sport.

    If I were to pose a different question—as just one example among many of questions that are lost through the current framing of the enquiry—it might serve to highlight dimensions of the purpose of marriage that will easily be forgotten if we focus narrowly upon married couples. That question is: What does my parents’ marriage mean to me?

    My parents’ marriage means a lot for me. I find my origin in the union of the bodies that they pledged to each other in their marriage. I am a concrete expression of their ‘one flesh’ union and am implicated in their commitment to each other. Their rock solid commitment to their marriage is a commitment to the bond from which I arise and which I express, a commitment that has given me a sense of existential security from my earliest years. I knew that I never need look beyond their loving union to discover my origins. My origins were forged in something deeper than any arrangement of law, politics, technology, contract and market, in the free union of bodies, making clear that I was begotten, rather than made. My origins are entirely in a private and intimate bodily union of my mother and father. There is no other parent or party beyond this that would place any of my origins in a realm beyond one of deep love and personal commitment.

    Through their marriage vows, their life together was held open to my existence from even before I was conceived, affording a secure place of welcome. As I was begotten out of the promised union of bodies they shared, my place in their lives arose naturally from their place in the lives of each other and was profoundly personalizing. I was not a secondary project of their marriage, a child that must justify its existence by being ‘wanted’. Rather than it being their ‘right’ or ‘choice’ to have me, by submitting so fully to the institution of marriage, they were committing to the claim of my interests upon their lives as integral to their honouring of the life they shared together.

    Their commitment to each other upholds the unity of my connection with the legacy of my family. It is a commitment to the social and relational capital of our family (not just its financial capital), ensuring that it won’t be sundered or damaged in divorce. Their union maintains the social force of the bonds of blood between me and my brothers and between me and my extended family. It has served to pass on a cultural, spiritual, and moral legacy to me and my brothers, preparing us to pass it on ourselves as we make our existential turn from the concerns of our generation to those of the next as we marry too and have children too.

    Their relationship models a healthy relationship between the sexes in society more generally, one of permanent loving commitment, a sharing of life and its goods, and mutual belonging in a responsible cooperation in the service and realization of the good of society. Their relationship stands against the idea of the sexes being indifferent to each other, antagonistic, mutually objectifying, competitive, or merely united in temporary and occasional sexual relations. Both as father and mother and as a married couple, they honour the place and responsibility that both men and women have in the procreation and raising of the next generation and their union together in something greater than the realization of their private and individual interests.

    Much, much more could be said about my parents’ marriage and its significance for me. I am just one of several interested parties who have a stake in it (God, the Church, their immediate Christian and social communities, society more generally, the state, their parents, our wider family, future generations of our family, other married couples, and even single persons are all others).

    Marriage exists for so much more than the immediate couple. It also places claims upon people beyond the immediate couple. As an unmarried person, I seek to honour the marriage bed by refraining from sexual activity. I am called to honour my father and mother in their union, being a child who brings them and our family even closer together, rather than playing them off against each other for my own ends. I must act in a way that honours and passes on the legacy of their commitment to each other. I must honour the marriage of my neighbour by not coveting his wife or doing anything that would sow discord or intrude within their union. I must honour marriage within society as a whole by upholding its dignity and authority through my speech, both privately and publicly, in which I refuse to make humour of divorce, infidelity, or marital discord. Etc.

    It seems to me that, until we recover something of the broader vision of marriage as an institution, we will struggle to articulate its rationale within current debates.

    • Hi Alastair. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. We agree with much of what you’ve said, especially about the necessity of recovering a broader vision of marriage as an institution.

      We would like to tell you a little about where we were coming from when we wrote this post and envisioned it in the first place. We had written another post within our very first week of blogging called “Defining celibacy.” In that post, we had hoped to discuss some defining characteristics of celibacy as a vocation from the perspective of people who are actually living celibacy. In that post, we focus on our own perspective primarily, but the way we see celibacy has been shaped by the hundreds of encounters we have had collectively with other celibates (both before and after we decided to pursue celibacy ourselves). We weren’t intending to come up with a comprehensive definition of celibacy in that piece, but only to start a discussion about how people define celibacy. We got a lot of feedback about how the characteristics we listed for celibacy can be (and are often) present within marriages. Fair enough, we thought. All vocations are supposed to point us toward Christ, so naturally all vocations will have some similarities. But many people began to tell us that celibacy is nothing more than the absence of sex, and we’re dreaming if we think it’s anything else. In conversations with some of these folks, we saw how problematic it can be when the only people defining a particular vocation are those on the outside. Celibacy means far more to most celibate people we know than simply “the absence of sex.” We got to thinking about marriage and realized that a similar problem might occur if only unmarried people were to define the vocation to marriage. We were curious to see how other people would define marriage, so we started asking. This post was the result of all those conversations.

      We weren’t trying to imply at all that any vocation exists only for the people who are living it, or that only they can have an understanding of what it is. But we believe that getting the insider’s perspective is highly valuable. Perhaps it would be better for us to say, “Regarding aspects of what day to day life in a particular vocation looks like, it’s best to let the people living that vocation define it. But vocations also extend beyond the people who are living them.” We would consider writing more about this topic in the future, and we’re certainly interested in how vocations impact people who *aren’t* living them in addition to other inquiries as well.

      What are some of the questions about marriage, celibacy, and vocation that you would like to see us address on the blog? We’re always open to feedback.


      • Thank you for taking the time to respond, Sarah.

        I read your ‘Defining Celibacy’ post and really appreciated it. I actually linked someone to it yesterday and had an interesting conversation arising out of it. I think that the first person perspective of particular vocations is very important and appreciate the attention that you are giving to it. While I am pushing back a bit on your position here, I hope that it will be clear that I am doing so from a position of quite substantial agreement.

        I would be inclined to distinguish between speaking about an institution—such as marriage—and speaking about the vocations within it. I would also argue that, while the subjective experience of these vocations is of great significance—as is giving a phenomenological account from the perspective of those within them—these cannot be the whole story. Indeed, to the extent that our vocations exist for more than ourselves, I believe that it is important that they also be defined by those who are not within them. You are entirely correct to observe the danger of the outside perspective dominating in our accounts, though.

        I have been listening in on your blog for some time and have enjoyed hearing what you have had to say. My main advice would be to keep up the good work. As a secondary issue, one of my own fundamental concerns is that we develop a ‘wide angle lens’ approach to such things as the questions of marriage, celibacy, and friendship. For instance, I think that we need to be asking structural and institutional questions such as ‘what structural elements must be in place to ensure that marriage is entered into as a vocation, rather than as a private lifestyle choice?’ or ‘what is it about the form of the modern practice of marriage and society that makes same-sex marriage appear not just thinkable, but perfectly natural?’. I don’t think that we can fully understand our current problems without some grasp of the historical, economic, social, political, institutional, and ideological contexts within which we find ourselves.

        It seems to me that marriage, celibacy, and friendship as we know and practice them in our culture, for instance, have been deeply shaped by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism and are profoundly attenuated and distorted as a result. The family gradually ceased to be a centre of production, economic and cultural, becoming a reserve of domesticity, and often even only a sentimental retreat for individuals and a site of shared consumption and emotional attachments. In a late capitalist society where we must all move a lot more for education and employment, the family is also one of the only places where we can enjoy both given and enduring bonds. If and when we choose a spouse, for many of us we are making the choice of our only lifelong friend and companion (is it any wonder that many marriages crumple under the weight?). One person can come to bear an overwhelming measure of responsibility for fulfilling our human need for close community. I would like to see Christian discussions paying more attention to the problematic form of our culture, how it exacerbates our problems, and how we ought to go about restructuring our communities to enable their members to establish deep, meaningful, and enduring relationships.

        Along these lines, I am also interested in the form of Church and sorts of institutions that can sustain celibate vocations and in the question of how the health of the Church as a body—not just its celibate members—requires such institutions. Celibate vocations and the institutions that sustain them are clearly of blessing to celibate persons within the Church. However, I am concerned that we pay no less attention to the fact that celibate vocations sustain institutions that are of immense importance for the health of the Church and that, without them, the Church as a whole is so much poorer off.

        Thanks once again for the interaction!

        • Hi Alastair, sorry it’s taken us so long to get back to your comment. I (Lindsey) am going to push back a bit from my perspective.

          One of the tricky things about defining celibacy and marriage is that while one can argue marriage is an institution, it’s much harder to argue that celibacy is an institution. From my vantage point, institutions arise because a wide swatch of the population has a shared experience of social relationships. Every celibate person’s experience of celibacy helps create a definition of celibacy; even in our own post of defining celibacy, we were translating lessons we learned from getting to know other celibate people. A similar phenomenon happens when newly engage people begin the process of defining marriage. They look to people who are already married. As such, people’s experiences of their parents’ marriage and every other marriage relationship around them growing up influence their definitions of marriage.

          For the most part, I think that contemporary society has lost its imagination about the structures of celibacy. Most people hear the word “celibate” and begin thinking about a single person living in an apartment by himself or herself. “Celibacy” is often regarded as being synonymous with loneliness. If we’re going to talk structures, I think we need to be honest about the way we’ve privileged narratives of “Man falls in love with his best friend and decides to begin a life in the suburbs together” where various nuclear family units move around the globe following employment opportunities. Going with your initial questions of “What does my parents’ marriage mean to me?” I’d also challenge you to consider “How do I intend to care for my parents as they age?” The social structures of answering the last question are wildly in flux, and incidentally, I think the same set of forces are at work in visioning what vocations look like in the here and now.

          One of my favorite things to inquire about is “Do we understand how the Industrial Revolution has changed vocations?” As an engineer, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that the Industrial Revolution fundamentally distorted human vocations. I think that the Industrial Revolution has reorganized society, but it’s difficult to say that the resulting social forms are intrinsically geared towards more inequity. Feudal lords, for example, enjoyed many of the same benefits associated with being able to commandeer wealth (land). I’m inclined to say that one of the more pervasive problems in cultivating Christian vocations in our current age is related to stability. If it takes adults 2 to 5 years to build meaningful relationships, what is happening when people are constantly moving in order to take new employment opportunities?

          We’d love to continue the conversation with you! -Lindsey

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