By Mike Metzger & John Seel
Tides rise and fall.
A rising tide lifts all boats. The converse however is reality for engaged couples. Ebb tides drop all boats. Most couples think that they can ignore the tides. They can’t.
Consider any engaged couple in the U.S. These couples tend to be woefully naïve about tides, since Americans assume marriage is merely between two individuals. Few see marriage as being established within the context of powerful family and cultural currents. They fail to appreciate how the assumptions of the media, education, entitlement, and consumerism influence what we imagine the good life to be, and with it marriage. And so it is that most marriages simply go with the flow.
To measure the strength of these currents, consider that the median age for first marriage is 27 for a woman and 29 for a man. That’s nearly six decades of assumptions at the altar. Add to that the two sets of parents. They represent roughly 200 years of cultural trends. Then add the overlapping institutions to cultural images and a couple is drifting in several hundred years of cultural currents of which they are largely unaware.
Best to check the currents before diving in. While it has been reported that divorce rates are dropping, the numbers are still close to half of all marriages. More specifically, 50 percent of first marriages, 67 percent of second marriages, and 74 percent of third marriages end in divorce. But what is most notable in America is the huge increase in the acceptance of cohabitation. Sixty-five percent of altar-bound men and women live together before getting married. And yet, research shows that people who live together prior to getting married are more likely to have marriages that end in divorce. After five to seven years, only 20 percent of cohabiting couples are still together. Children of divorce have a higher risk of divorce when they marry, and even higher risk if the person they marry comes from a divorced home. David Popenoe, a Rutger’s sociology professor who studies these trends, observes, “The United States has the weakest families among the Western world because we have the highest divorce rate and the highest rate of solo parenting.” It’s an ebb tide for marriage.
These tides reflect changes in our view of marriage. Marriage today is largely conceived as a romantic choice between two autonomous individuals. Few couples have wrestled with how his or her assumptions about life’s most unique and challenging long-term commitments has been influenced by reality TV programming such as the Bachelorette (marriage as a consumer choice) or movies such as the Twilight series (marriage as salvation). Few consider the odds of success or weigh the pain of failure. There are not many twenty-year-olds that would casually play Russian Roulette with their lives. So why the cavalier attitude toward marriage?
It comes from no longer knowing the social context for marriage. Marriage ebbs and flows in cultural tides—which is why it’s smack dab in the middle of the Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28). Here we find the first reference to marriage and family: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth…” A rising tide lifts all boats. Cultural tides largely determine whether marriage flourishes or falters.
This is why culture and marriage are linked in Jeremiah 29. In Babylonian exile, the Jews are to make culture: “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what [the Babylonians] produce.” The Jews are also to “marry and have sons and daughters… increase in number there; do not decrease”—an echo of “increase” from Genesis. The point of making culture and building marriages is the flourishing of the Babylonians. The Jews are to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v.7).
Read that last verse one more time. Jeremiah says the Jews’ marriages flourished only as they promoted flourishing in their captors’ marriages. Translated in our present day, marriage in faith communities flourishes to the degree that marriage in the wider world flourishes. All marriages rise and fall on the same cultural tides. It’s how reality works.
Most couples—engaged or married—have forgotten this. Throughout Scripture, marriage is seen as a resource for the flourishing of others. Marriage was never considered to be simply two believers becoming one. Rather it was a social institution with a social task—that is, until the 17th century, when family became defined as more of a residential unit, according to McGill University architecture professor Witold Rybczynski.1 This turned the focus of marriage and family inward rather than outward.
The Industrial Revolution took it a step further, defining marriage and the family as a refuge from work rather than a partnership in work. The “domestic” economic system was replaced by the factory system. Women stayed home while men went to work in dark and dangerous factories. “From the 1830s on, moral reformers argued that the family home was a key to a Christian life. In a crass and stormy world, fathers would carry out the grubby business of earning money, and mothers would make the home a refuge where the family could pray and grow spiritually,” writes Alexander von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies.2 This made religion and marriage a privatized experience.3 Home became “a haven in a heartless world.”
Today the notion that marriage is a private relationship between two people is assumed without question. Its consequences are profound. According to the 2004 General Social Survey and the 1992-94 National Survey of Families and Household, modern married people are less likely than the unmarried and the divorced to live with, visit, call or write relatives. Unmarried people are more than twice as likely as married people to socialize with friends, neighbors, and to provide emotional support and practical help to friends and neighbors. The result is an ebb tide—the view that marriage is a resource for the flourishing of others is receding. In its place is a tide promoting marriage and family as a refuge from reality. It’s not shalom.
Shalom is the calling of all believers in everything they do, but in marriage it is calling to something larger than the relationship itself or even an eventual family. In fact, calling—to shalom and not merely someone else—is central to the decision of a life partner.
The purpose of marriage is not to create a family, but to form a mutual partnership enabling both spouses to further their God-given callings. The family is not an end in itself, but the basic social community where we learn the dynamics of serving God and others. Families are to be about something—something larger than the family. A family centered on children is a family centered on idolatry. It is a recipe for self-centered immaturity and enmeshment. Families often lack a sense of calling because the marriage itself was never established on calling and shalom. Richard Foster writes,
The basis for getting married that conforms to the way of Christ is a regard for the wellbeing of others and ourselves and a regard for the advancement of the kingdom of God upon the earth…. Christian marriage is far more than a private undertaking or a way to personal fulfillment. Christians contemplating marriage must consider the larger question of vocation and calling, the good of others, and the wellbeing of the community of faith, and most of all, how their marriage would advance or hinder the work of the kingdom of God.4
Without a clear sense of gifts and calling, marriage is reduced to romantic love and sexual attraction. These are important elements to consider, but they were never the basis for marriage until recently. Marriage is a partnership in the service of shalom, a melding together of complementary gifts and personalities in order to serve God’s kingdom as husband and wife in ways that cannot be as fully served individually.
In today’s ebb tide, most engaged couples fail to account for family systems, including their generational patterns of good and ill. The dynamics of how each spouse deals with his or her father or mother is a major factor in the new marriage. Since fewer and fewer people of marrying age have come from stable, loving two-parent families, the current is strong against any potential marriage. Second, because so few couples have a shared or complementary calling to shalom, they are in no position to assess objectively the benefits of the impending partnership. In fact, in ebb tides, even fewer care. Feelings dominate and overtime feelings will inevitably disappoint. Reality has the last word.
This is why American marriages are not flourishing. And they are not likely to flourish until marriage itself is reframed and the romantic, individualistic, therapeutic basis for marriage is abandoned. This much is certain: “God words” and superficial pietism will not help Christians overcome the cultural tide in which modern American marriages swim. Proof? For starters, the divorce rate for Christians is slightly higher than that of the mainstream society.5 Coming to faith makes little difference, as 90 percent of all divorced couples claiming to be Christians split after they come to faith.6 Professor Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who specializes in family issues, says: “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.” This is sobering. It’s shameful.
All marriages rise and fall on the same cultural tides. The American faith community has ignored the present ebb tide and yet has not escaped the undertow. Only shalom can shake this individualistic and insular view of marriage. Only shalom recognizes a rising tide lifts all boats.
1 Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (New York, NY: Penguin, 1987).
2 Alexander von Hoffman, “Home Values Are Down, and Not Just at the Bank,” Washington Post, July 20, 2008; B01.
3 Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996).
4 Richard Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1985), p. 135.
5 George Barna, “Family,” 2000. Barna Research Online. See also George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree (Regal, 2001), p. 42.
6 The Barna Group, The Barna Update, “Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to Divorce,” August 6, 2001.