It is largely because marriage
(and monogamy) is so widespread that arriving at a definition of it is so
difficult. That is, the practice of marriage transcends our society and its
customs, habits, legal systems, social institutions, and ways of life. Any
attempt to define marriage would have to define it in terms of social
institutions or practices that were necessarily present wherever marriage could
To most Americans, "marriage"
means the legal, public contract into which a man and a woman enter
voluntarily. A civil, religious, or humanistic ceremony is the setting for
validating the contract. Religious traditions consider marriage to be "til
death us do part," at least as the initial intention.
In addition to conventional
monogamy, other forms of marriage are developing in the United States and
elsewhere. Nonexclusive monogamy (which permits sexual expressions outside the
marriage relationship), child-free monogamy, contractual monogamy (with a
specified agreement on duration and other matters), trial marriage, communal
marriage, and polygamy, though not all recognized by law, are viewed as
marriages by their participants.12 (In the
summer of 2000 the Netherlands legalized same-sex marriages.)
Nonmarital relationships such
as "living together" by members of the opposite or same sex, are forming other
models of companionship for which the term "marriage" is less frequently used.
The morality of each marital
and nonmarital arrangement can be debated without end. In the last analysis any
moral approval or disapproval will depend on "what's taken for granted" about
the purpose(s) of intimate companionship. For example, it is taken for granted
by many persons that the purpose of marriage is for the lifelong union between
a man and a woman and for the procreation of children and that such a marriage
is the only good form of intimate companionship. Variations in this traditional
view include approved modifications such as moral grounds for annulments and
divorces, intentionally childless marriages, and so on.
marriages are motivated by money, status, fear of loneliness, sexual security,
professional and business benefits, and covers that mask an individual's real
needs, desires, or exploits (e.g., the hiding of Don Juan encounters). The
substances of some marriages are aggressive love, debit love, dependent love,
and other types of love or "loves" in various combinations. For the benefit of
those who choose interpersonal love as the norm for intimate companionship, the
following questions may be asked prior to making a commitment.13 They may be used for opposite as well as same-sex
couples; the latter sometimes include children in their family lives.
1. Do we really enjoy each
other as companions? Some persons considering a commitment of marriage or
another arrangement have not thought of each other as friends or companions.
They may view each other as sexual partners, providers, caregivers, lawgivers,
and/or obedient housekeepers. The relationship is more an assignment of duties
than an interpersonal adventure. If one partner hopes for interpersonal love as
the bonding principle but the other intends a congenial sharing of tasks, a
conflict exists from the outset. Or, if their respective feelings of love are
incompatible (one feels debit love, the other solo love), conflict is
inevitable. Because individuals are often on their "best behavior" prior to
making a commitment, these types of incompatibilities might not be evident; in
some other instances people see what they want to in their beloved rather than
what is really there. This question attempts to "get it all out in the open,"
so that the individuals themselves may have greater clarity about their hopes
2. Do we intend our
commitment to be for a fixed duration or until death separates us? Either
alternative has consequences. The choice of a fixed term carries with it not
only a sense of open-endedness if the relationship does not work out, but also
the possibility of an undercurrent of insecurity and instability, even fear by
one partner of the impending termination. A term suggests that emotional
investments can be turned off at a certain date. The choice of a lifelong
commitment can bring about a trapped feeling and the possibility of a messy
divorce if the relationship falters. On the positive side, by committing
themselves to one another in a relationship intended to be permanent-for better
or worse-the partners create a climate of security and stability within which
they can deal with difficulties inevitable in all human relations; divorce is
still an option when irreconcilable differences solidify. The intention of
lifelong companionship sets a psychological tone different from one with a
3. What promises or vows do
we actually want to make? It is hypocritical for partners to echo beautiful
words that have little or no meaning for themselves. Promises of love, honor,
and fidelity for life compromise the integrity of an individual whose heart and
mind do not reflect the words.
4. As individuals and as
companions, what do we want out of life? "When we made the commitment, I
didn't realize (s)he'd spend so much time working; I thought our home life
would be top priority." Different or conflicting priorities provide contrasting
satisfactions. What priority, if any, does a child or children have in the
relationship? Why does a couple want children at all? (As pets? As the primary
bond between them? As persons we want to mold into our own ideals, perhaps a
better me?) What about family planning? What methods of family planning
can be used in good conscience? What about adoption? Perhaps what we want out
of life is compatible, perhaps not.
5. How open are we to each
other as unique persons? Some partners wear masks; some classify and
categorize their companions in certain defined roles, as discussed in the
chapter on identity. Is the commitment being made to a whole person or to a
mask worn or imposed?
6. What do we want to do
separately? Few companions are identical in their interests and
friendships. Is there room in the relationship for some separateness? If one
partner dies, does the whole existence of the survivor(s) crumble, too?
7. Do we intend to change
each other? The fundamental personality of an adult is quite firm. Though
some habits can be changed voluntarily and behaviors modified willingly, the
intention to change a companion after making the commitment is misplaced.
8. What dislikes have we
acknowledged, discussed, and accepted in each other? Some things about each
other annoy the most devoted companions. How significant are the dislikes?
Would it be a better life without him/her and these irritants? Can annoying
moments be transformed into symbols of a partner's preferred presence rather
than empty absence?
9. What, if anything, are
we holding back from each other that someday could be hurtful? We are not
suggesting that every negative thought, word, and deed be confessed; some
things are better left unsaid. However, if a potentially damaging event lurks
in the background, it may be prudent to deal with it prior to the commitment
10. How do we resolve our
differences? By silence? (An inflaming punishment). Sulking? Getting even?
Being sweet and calm all the time? Talking matters through with real feelings
exposed is another alternative.
11. What will our
relationships be with our "in-laws" and our own parents? To what extent, if
at all, is it necessary to defer to the wishes of one's parents or "in-laws"?
If there is to be a wedding ceremony, who is doing the major planning, the
persons being married or a partner's parent(s)? In the case of illness or death
of a partner's parent, what responsibilities, if any, does the son or daughter
have? Is it necessary to spend a day every week or particular holidays with
parents and/or inlaws? Are they free to "drop in" at your home unannounced?
12. What are our respective
attitudes toward money? How important is money to us? Who is a spender? Who
is a saver? Will there be a major conflict here? What about buying on credit,
budgets, separate and/or joint savings and checking accounts?
13. Are we established in
jobs? Whether yes or no, what are the implications for our relationship
regarding child care, household chores, schedules for work and leisure, and so
14. Are we interested in
living in the same part of the world? Does a partner have a hidden
intention to live in California while the other yearns for his New England home
15. Are our respective jobs
of equal financial reward and potential? If not, how do we feel about the
difference? Can a man (or woman) be comfortable with a woman's (or man's)
higher income? Can a man (or woman) accept the role of homemaker while the
woman (or man) earns the living, if this arrange ment develops? If partners are
working and one is to be transferred by the employer, how will this dilemma be
16. Are our educational
backgrounds similar? If not, how do we feel about the difference? Does one
partner feel stupid because (s)he hasn't the formal schooling of the other?
Does a companion with more formal education feel superior?
17. Are our ages
similar? If not, how do we feel about the difference? Can we accommodate
accidental or vicious remarks, such as "This must be your parent!" Or, "Cradle
18. Have we admitted that
we will find other persons attractive, both physically and emotionally? Do
we feel something is wrong in our relationship when other persons are
19. Is total sexual
fidelity to be part of our relationship? If not, what guidelines have been
established? (The chapter on sexual ethics includes a discussion of various
forms of sexual intimacy).
20. Have we talked, or will
we communicate, about our individual sexual preferences and satisfactions?
(See the chapter on sexual ethics.) [If these questions are used by a
counselor, the purpose is not to be inappropriately intrusive, but to suggest
to the couple that they explore these matters themselves.]
21. If we are considering a
religious ceremony, what does this mean to us? Can we use the prescribed
words with integrity? Are we yielding to family pressures that will force
public hypocrisy on us? Do we intend any continuity with the religious
tradition after the ceremony?
These 21 questions can be adapted for use by any model of
intimate companionship. Though participants can offer what they believe to be
"correct" or ideal answers, only honest disclosures can accomplish the purpose.
Whether the commitment is made by means of matrimony or verbal agreement to
live together, the partners' feelings are usually involved deeply. Incompatible
or unrealistic expectations and investments on anyone's part can, from the very
inception, lead to mere coexistence, ongoing friction, or breach.
Palmer, "The Consolation of the Wedded," in Philosophy and Sex, eds.
Robert Baker and Frederick Elliston (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1975), p. 179.
12See "New Forms of
Marriage," the cover theme of The Humanist (March/April 1974);
"Polyfidelity: The Kerista Village Ideal," Psychology Today (May 1980),
pp. 42-43; and Charles Westoff, "Marriage and Fertility in the Developed
Countries," Scientific American 239, no. 6 (December 1978), pp. 51-57.
13Many couples resist a
process of premarital or precommitment counseling. They rightly do not want
invasions of their personal privacy, an incompetent series of lectures on how
they must live in order to be good, or a sense of having to qualify for a
counselor's approval. However, an opportunity to communicate with each other on
some matters, with the guidance of a prepared counselor, can expose major
problems prior to the commitment or develop some awareness of areas needing