Marriage is for life

Last year, I wrote that comparing marriage with a country, especially in support of the idea that a country can be broken up, as prominent Kenyan economist Dr David Ndii had grown used to doing, does harm to the idea of marriage. As I stated, I am of the persuasion that marriage is a lifelong affair, and thus cannot be ended except by the death of the spouses.

In that article, I also recognised the fact that there are many who disagree to varying extents with this premise. To them, there are factors that can justify the end of a marriage before the death of one of the spouses, which we refer to in the common parlance as divorce.

Because of this, I promised to follow up that article with a defence of my opinion, but the vagaries of life (of which you now know) have combined forces to deny me the chance to do this. That ends today. In this article, I will explain why I think marriage should last until at least one of the spouses gives the proverbial bucket a solid kick.

I feel it necessary to preface my argument by admitting that there are factors, like physical abuse and chronic infidelity, that really harm the marital bond. In cases, they may even necessitate that spouses stop living together for while (which is a real tragedy, since common living is a key feature of marriage, though not a sine qua non).

I also wish to acknowledge that some arrangements commonly referred to as marriage may be ended without violating the principle I advocate for. For instance, a couple that cohabits without formally marrying may at any point cease their liaison without any harm to the idea of marriage. I would not say the same of their living together without marrying though.

Those who are coerced into a marital union, as in the case of a girl who is forced to marry a man she neither knows nor loves, may avail themselves of the possibility, when it presents itself, of making a dash for freedom. Likewise, a cohabiting homosexual couple, even in those realms where the practise is sanctioned by the state, may easily break apart.

In cases like the three I have outlined (and a few others), the marriage so ended was not really a marriage to begin with. Cohabitation is not marriage. Forced marriage does violence to freedom, a necessary condition for a valid marriage. And a homosexual union is infertile by definition. With due respect to nuances, these cases all fall outside the scope of this article.

In this article, therefore, we will talk of marriage as a publicly-declared and sanctioned union of a free man and a free woman (free with regard to the intention to participate in the project), intended to last the whole of their lives and established for the good of the spouses as well as the procreation and education of children.

The discerning reader will immediately realise that the definition of marriage is actually the bone of contention here. For one to hold that a marriage can be ended before a spouse dies, they have to subscribe to a different definition. Hence, my intention is to defend what I hold to be the correct definition of marriage.

As the adage goes, wisdom begins with clear definitions. Definitions matter. The definitions of important things matter even more. And, among important things, marriage ranks near the top. In fact, after food and sleep, I cannot think anything more important (I know, I know, you want me to put God just before food… but God ain’t a thing bro).

Therefore, we must define marriage properly. Failing to do so dooms us to a future of broken families, which is a euphemism for broken individuals. That is the task I have set myself here. And while the other elements of the definition are just as important, I am particularly interested in the part that bids us to hold that marriage is lifelong.

To me, the most immediate reason for the permanence of marriage is the dignity of the human person. I know it is a cliché, but each of us is unique and unrepeatable. This is the basis of the inherent urge we all have to give ourselves to the others. In the case of marriage, the gift of self reaches an extent that cannot be revoked without doing violence to the very idea of human dignity.

It involves, as it were, the immolation of the self, and its being subsumed into a collective “we.” Of course, this giving is not objectively total, because the self does not actually cease to exist independently. Rather, it consists in the sure willingness to go to this extent if it were possible. This is why this kind of gift cannot be revoked. If it were taken back, it would mean that it was never really given in the first place.

Of course, this can be said also of friendship. The difference is that friendship does not need public sanction, in the way marriage does, and has slightly different particular goods for its end. And this is where the second reason for the permanence of marriage comes in. While only two people can get married, the state of marriage is open to and ordained towards the generation of more people.

The good of these new people, the children, demands that the marriage of their parents be permanent. This might sound brazenly pragmatic and, to some extent, it is. Much of the evidence gleaned from social sciences does back it up. Across all societies, studies show that the children raised within stable and lasting marriages have better life outcomes, in general, than those from broken families.

But the good of children is more than just the way their lives turn out. It consists of more than the clothes they wear and the schools they go to. It is about their essential right to know and live with their immediate biological progenitors, to the greatest extent possible. The adage that says a measly meal in a shack with family is better than a party in a mansion alone poignantly illustrates this.

Humans are not meant merely to survive and breed, like trees and animals. We know this, and treat each other as if we assume it to be true. We live and love, laugh and cry. We need to grow, not just physically and emotionally, but also psychologically and intellectually. This is the purpose of education, and parents are the primary educators. Interrupting this through divorce is an injustice to children.

The third argument, and the one at which we will stop, is the fact that divorce harms the individuals who take part in it. Of course, you may point to those who have divorced and seem to be just OK (and add, for effect, those who are not particularly happily married). Look, they are not damaged, you may say.

But I do not mean that kind of harm, although sometimes it may express itself externally. What I mean is the violation that the person goes through in the total loss of trust in the person to whom one has gifted the self, with its intimacy and vulnerability. It is a radical rejection of one who is known at the deepest level.

This does not mean that marriage is not tough, or that the temptation to jump out will not be there. Not by a long shot. It is tough, and sometimes one can think of nothing except running away. I am not married, but I know enough married people to know this. But the beauty of marriage warrants the struggle, and the joy that comes from perseverance cannot be beaten.

There are many more reasons that can be formulated in defence of the permanence of marriage. Mine does not claim to be a conclusive, or even scholarly, treatment of this matter. But it is my little attempt at an apology for the institution without which our societies are doomed to collapse. We break marriage at our own peril.

Feature image: Photo by Stéphane Delval on Unsplash.

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  1. I was hesitant having seen the title. Then each paragraph kept calling, it illustrates a rich understanding in the institution. A writer with a mind of their own. A breath of fresh air.
    What am I trying to say? BEST READ ON MARRIAGE I’VE READ SO FAR!

  2. This is well put Mathew. It’s gonnah be helpful to a few friends I’m sharing with in a few.

    Keep writing on such topics!

  3. It’s really a part of society that has been neglected in terms of address. I literally fear talking it, as people would say am not married too. Bravo! For bringing this out clearly

    1. Marriage is for Life, Totally Convincing! Thanks for addressing that Sensitive Issue around this Noble Institution. Thanks Abiero.

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