Time to commit

The national debate about the nature of marriage provides an opportunity for Unitarian Universalists to develop a new theology of marriage.


Same-sex marriage has stirred a new idealism in our midst. We are poised for a new look at marriage in our denomination, a fresh conversation about an important social institution that we have allowed to become the domain of religious conservatives.

I am at once proud of and bemused by our current denominational work on behalf of same-sex marriage. Given our collective silence on the value of marriage until recently, I wonder sometimes if we believe in marriage or just in the right to get married. Does it matter to us what happens to newlyweds of any gender after someone signs their license? With marriage now so prominently on our agenda, I hope we can ask ourselves why marriage matters in the first place and whether we want to help UU married couples achieve the audacious goal of a loving, lifelong union in the bosom of a community of faith and practice.

I come to this conversation as a big fan of marriage, both same-sex and straight, and with a background as a Catholic seminarian, a Unitarian Universalist for twenty-seven years, a university professor, and a practicing marriage and family therapist. With this history, I feel I have gone through a kind of whiplash on marriage during my adult life. As a Catholic, I knew marriage was a permanent covenant and a sacrament. As a new UU and liberal professional, I decided that marriage was not so special—just a personal lifestyle that should not be subjected to so much social pressure about entering and exiting.

Now after thirty-three years of marriage to the same woman and a career working with couples in distress, I see lifelong marriage as a countercultural act in a throwaway society. Without ignoring the shadow side of marriage and the pain of divorces that cannot be avoided, we religious liberals can support marriage and shape its future according to liberal ideals.

But reclaiming marriage won’t be easy. As a denomination, we have no visible theological discourse on marriage beyond the civil right to marry and divorce. We have no set of pastoral or community practices to support couples across their life cycle together, no message that says we value marriage and will help couples who choose marriage to succeed in their life together. Our congregations celebrate weddings and sponsor divorce support groups, but in between there is a big pastoral and theological hole.

It’s not by happenstance or oversight that we have neglected marriage until now. Contemporary liberal Christian denominations such as Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ also have been quiet about marriage for decades. Like us, these liberal denominations emphasize the right to get out of a bad marriage and the importance of supporting and not judging people who make that decision. Sometime in the 1970s, divorce became a transition and not a tragedy, and for many religious liberals, marriage came to be seen at best as a personal lifestyle among other lifestyle options and at worst as an institution compromised by patriarchy and heterosexism.

This liberal religious ambivalence about marriage has been influenced by more than two centuries of political and social thinking on the left, whose leading thinkers have been negative about traditional marriage and family life. Some radicals in the French Revolution wanted to abolish marriage and family life as shackles on individual freedom and obstacles to a true voluntary, collectivist community. Marx and Engels saw the bourgeois, marriage-based family as the enemy of social revolution. In the first half of the twentieth century, many socialists and artists disdained marriage as a conservative, middle-class institution.

But it was feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s that brought this critique of marriage to the mainstream of liberal thinking in the culture and the churches. Feminists recognized that women’s full equality required making connections between the personal realm of marriage and the public realm of social inequality. They forced a reluctant culture to confront the horrors of wife battering and the injustices of unequal division of household labor. Feminist leaders championed women’s right to get out of stifling marriages and joined with legal reformers to create no-fault divorce in the 1970s. The idea that women needed marriage to have fulfilling lives was disputed in the mainstream liberal culture, as epitomized by the famous quip: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” (Often attributed to Gloria Steinem, the phrase actually belongs to an Australian educator, Irina Dunn.)

Parallel to these political and social developments in the late 1960s and 1970s was the triumph of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls expressive individualism, the cultural norm that the pursuit of personal fulfillment is the cornerstone of life and the chief criterion for evaluating personal relationships such as marriage. Expressive individualism disdains the ethic of duty in favor of flexible choice based on current personal satisfaction. As therapist Fritz Perls wrote in 1969 in his Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.” I know people who recited this at their wedding in the 1970s.

The trifecta of expressive individualism, the feminist critique, and relaxed divorce laws sent the institution of marriage reeling in the 1970s, from which it is only now appearing to recover. (I believe that same-sex marriage can help the recovery.) The demographic trends towards more divorce, childbearing outside of marriage, and cohabitation occurred in all religious denominations—conservative, mainstream, and liberal. But liberal denominations for the most part embraced the new view of marriage and lifestyle trends, whereas conservative denominations such as Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists did not. Mainstream denominations like Methodists and Lutherans split along ideological fault lines within their own ranks.

As a liberal religious denomination without a self-conscious theological tradition on marriage, Unitarian Universalists readily went along with the new cultural flow. Our churches became the chapels of choice for people who wanted a religion-lite ceremony in a real church building. Our clergy tended to adopt the neutrality of the therapy world, where divorce was viewed as a strictly personal decision with no stakeholders other than the individual making the decision; children were thought to be highly resilient if their parents found personal happiness. Our distinctive contributions in the area of marriage were our endorsement of (seldom used) divorce rituals and the new wedding vow that one of our ministers gave to the world in 1977: to stay together “as long as we both shall love.” While religious conservatives worked the side of the street that emphasized staying married no matter what, we worked the other side: the right to get out when you chose, no questions asked.

Although I used to hold these standard liberal views of marriage and divorce, my professional and personal experience has taught me some different truths: that there are many stakeholders in a marriage beyond the spouses, that many people are better off working through their problems than walking away from them, that some people act irresponsibly in breaking up their good-enough marriages to pursue dreams of more happiness and better lovers, and that children, extended families, friendship groups, and church congregations are often wounded by unnecessary divorces. I now see divorce as a sometimes-necessary evil to prevent greater evil in a toxic marriage or to end an already-dead marriage, but not as a sacrament of personal liberation.

The cultural tide is turning toward a new seriousness about marriage. Steadily declining divorce rates and Gloria Steinem’s own marriage in the year 2000 alerted culture watchers to the fact that we are in a new marriage era. In 2001, the Rev. Dr. David Sammons—a UU minister who used the new “love vow” in response to the wishes of many couples—told USA Today that 1,700 weddings into his career, he would ‘‘never use such permissive language anymore. People need to take their vows more seriously. Talking about marriage as something you ‘tried’ has had an impact on the high divorce rate. . . . I want a couple to really mean their vows. If marriage is something you’re going to play at, I don’t want to be involved.”

We Unitarian Universalists will always be liberationists—it’s in our heritage and our hemoglobin. But today’s freedom struggle for marriage is not against the chains of marriage that bind people in a stifling grasp, but against the Velcro marriage that gives way too quickly in the face of the inevitable pulling and wrenching of mates working out a life together. The struggle now is against what I call consumer marriage, the invasion of market values into the intimate sphere of life.

During the go-go economic years of the 1980s and 1990s, when market economies triumphed over socialist economies all over the world, the consumer culture captured the hearts of Americans in new ways. To be married well in the consumer era meant to make sure that one’s needs were being met and that one’s options were always open. The emergence of this consumer ethic of relationships was the culmination of the spirit of individualism that has been growing gradually for more than a century. Mid–twentieth-century marriage, which featured high expectations for personal satisfaction, mutated into consumer marriage, with the same high psychological expectations but now spiced with a sense of entitlement and impermanence. (Lizabeth Cohen’s book, A Consumers’ Republic, documents how the consumer mentality and metaphor captured other American institutions during the last third of the twentieth century.)

While the consumer attitude toward marriage is all around, like global warming, we can detect it most readily when we are bothered by something in our mate or our marriage, and hear ourselves thinking or saying things like, “What am I getting out of this marriage, anyway?” or “I deserve better!” or “What’s in this for me?” Not that these thoughts are altogether inappropriate; if your spouse is having an affair or hitting you, then focusing on self-interest is quite appropriate. But when your mate is not the lover you had hoped for, or nags you more than you want, or is not emotionally expressive enough for you, then consumer thinking suggests that you have not cut the best possible bargain in marrying this person. As one of my therapy clients recently put it, “This is not the deal I thought I was signing up for.” Therapists now use the term “deal breaker” to describe reasons for divorce, as in asking a client, “Is this a deal breaker for you?”

Perhaps you think I am exaggerating when I say that the consumer marketplace culture has invaded how we think about marriage. Advertisers know a cultural trend when they see one and are quick to use it to appeal to consumers. A magazine ad pictured a new Honda Civic with the headline, “the sad thing is, it’ll probably be the healthiest relationship of your adult life.” Honda explains: “You’ve tried the personals, blind dates, even one of those online chat rooms. Why? The Civic Sedan is smart, fun, reliable and good-looking. Not to mention, it’s ready to commit, today.” Then, lest the reader feel suddenly commitment-shy, the ad ends in the wink of a headlight: “Looking for a good time?”

Apparently we must seek “healthy adult relationships” with cars because, as an ad for Levi’s jeans has recognized, marriage can’t be counted on anymore. In a lavish six-page magazine spread we see happy dating couples, with captions announcing how long they were together before breaking up. The final page shows two female roommates, one consoling the other about a recent breakup. Just behind the two roommates, on the kitchen wall, is an art poster with the Spanish words, Mis padres se divorcian: “My parents are getting a divorce.” The caption underneath delivers the ad’s take-home message: “At least some things last forever—Levi’s: they go on.”

The message here is that we can only count on what we buy, not on what we share or the people we are committed to. And the only role that endures is that of consumer. Companies that want our business will do whatever it takes to meet our needs, unlike our spouses who sometimes put their own needs, or the children’s needs, before ours. Levi’s will be there for us, even if our parents divorce and our lovers leave us. How comforting.

At the heart of today’s consumer culture is the idea that our purchases and our relationships should be therapeutic, good for us psychologically. Marriage is (or used to be) our culture’s most cherished venue for personal growth and fulfillment. But steadfastness and self-sacrifice are not in this picture of therapeutic consumption. When the marriage relationship becomes psychologically painful or stunts our growth, there are plenty of friends and professionals around to serve as midwives for a divorce. Most baby boomers and their offspring carry in our heads the internalized voice of the consumer culture—to encourage us to stop working so hard or to get out of a marriage that is not meeting our current emotional needs. In consumer marriage, the customer—you or me as individuals pursuing our just rewards—is always right.

In practice, most couples embrace a variety of values for their marriage, including the values of responsibility and commitment. It’s not that we suddenly have become selfish louts. But these values are always in danger of being trumped by the consumer values of personal gain, low cost, entitlement, and hedging one’s bets. We still believe in commitment, because we know that committed relationships are good for us, but powerful voices coming from inside and outside tell us that we are suckers if we settle for less than we think we need and deserve in our marriage.

In this consumer culture of marriage, let me ask: Is it sufficient for a religious community to emphasize only equality of entry into marriage and judgment-free exit from marriage? Those are our current Unitarian Universalist contributions to the public dialogue about marriage in our time. The civil rights dimension of marriage is an important plank in a liberal religious platform, but it’s only one plank—and in my mind, not the best argument for same-sex marriage. Standing alone, the individual rights perspective will be co-opted by a consumer culture that turns all rights into personal entitlements bereft of responsibilities, spiritual depth, and communal obligations. We need something more.

Fortunately, some liberal religious thinkers are developing a marriage-affirming body of work. They reject both the patriarchal dimension of traditional religious views of marriage and the hyper-individualistic views of the anti-traditionalists. The work of a diverse group of liberal Christian theologians, Don Browning, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Pamela Couture, K. Brynolf Lyon, and Robert Franklin, provides a good starting point, as reflected in their 1997 book From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate. They call for a “critical culture of marriage” in religious thought—critical in the sense of taking seriously what feminists and other skeptics have pointed out about the power imbalances of traditional marriage, but are decidedly in favor of marriage as a relationship, institution, and source of personal, spiritual, and community flourishing. Their liberal religious ideal for contemporary marriage has three core elements:

  • A lifelong commitment, the container from which the rest of the good things about marriage flow.
  • A relationship of equal regard, defined as “mutual respect, affection, practical assistance, and justice—a relationship that values and aids the self and other with equal seriousness.”
  • A relationship with both private and public privileges and responsibilities (communities have responsibilities to families and families to their communities).

I believe that many Unitarian Universalists could embrace this view of marriage, although the devil is in the details. (What does justice look like in marriage? How do you decide that a lifelong commitment is no longer viable?) We would be concerned, as Browning and his colleagues are, about not disparaging singles and unmarried families, and we would not leave same-sex marriage off the table, as Browning and his colleagues did in 1997. But this view of marriage includes core UU principles of equal worth, dignity, and justice in the personal and societal domains. It implies a democratic process in marriage, but UUs may want to make this more explicit.

So far, the perspective I am describing is a humanist one, without overtly theological language or the language of reverence. Later in their book, Browning and colleagues introduce the theological concept of “covenant” to convey both the spiritual depth of the marriage commitment (it’s deeper than a “contract”) and to suggest that God and the religious community are stakeholders in the marriage of a believing couple. Although not all UUs would want to use the “God” language, many of us resonate with the term “covenant” as something stronger than “contract,” and we use it in our official declaration as congregations who gather “to covenant and affirm.”

Locating uniquely Unitarian Universalist sources for a new model of marriage (beyond the individual rights perspective) will require a reclamation project on our history. We can look at the work of William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and others to see what they had to say about marriage. Many UUs may not know that Parker penned an affirmation of marriage that has become widely used in weddings. My daughter Elizabeth and her husband asked me to recite it at their wedding in October 2003:

It takes years to marry completely two hearts, even of the most loving and well assorted. A happy wedlock is a long falling in love. Young persons think love belongs only to the brown-haired and crimson-cheeked. So it does for its beginning. But the golden marriage is a part of love which the bridal day knows nothing of. . . .

Such a large and sweet fruit is a complete marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long winter to mellow and season in. But a real, happy marriage of love and judgment between a noble man and woman is one of the things so very handsome that if the sun were, as the Greek poets fabled, a god, he might stop the world and hold it still now and then, in order to look all day long on some example thereof, and feast his eyes on such a spectacle.

Parker himself had a troubled marriage for many years, endured the hard times, and finally came to a good place with his wife.

We can also turn to Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975), who came to Unitarian Universalism late in his career as a naturalistic theologian. For Wieman, “creative interchange” that leads to the appreciation of others in their uniqueness is where the divine is most fully experienced in human life. He wrote in Man’s Ultimate Commitment that “the lifelong bond marriage . . . more than any practical alternative creates the most profound and comprehensive appreciative understanding of the unique individuality of one another.”

In other words, marriage provides a unique opening to “that direct experience of transcendent mystery and wonder” that we affirm as the first of our Sources of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. A lifelong marriage is a spiritual crucible beyond what any monastery can offer.

Taking marriage seriously means finding ways to support couples on their journey. We know that the heavy lifting in marriage begins after the wedding day, the time when our congregations let their support weaken. Couples love, drift, become alienated, recover their love, and struggle again—mostly in silence and anonymity. Some eventually become masters of the marriage experience but have no place to pass on what they have learned. Maybe a couple talks to the minister about their marriage, but it’s all confidential and a source of embarrassment if they are having problems. Most couples fly solo in our religious communities.

Some denominations, like the Roman Catholic Church, have good premarital programs, and others are now offering support groups and enrichment experiences for all couples and mentoring programs for young couples and those who are struggling. I believe in the creativity of UU congregations if we set our minds to the task of supporting all marriages in our communities. With more same-sex marriages now blessing our congregations, we are obliged to do more than just express the standard surprise and regret when these new unions crash and burn in the same flames that have consumed straight marriages. In a conversation at the 2004 General Assembly I wondered out loud how we will feel when the first round of legal same-sex divorces hits our congregations in Massachusetts and replaces the euphoria from the first round of legal same-sex weddings. A denominational leader whom I respect responded almost cheerfully that it will be an opportunity to develop new rituals for divorce. That’s our recent liberal religious sensibility speaking, not the best prophetic voice from our tradition.

More than anything else, I believe we need a Unitarian Universalist view of marriage that combines our traditional strengths in individual freedom, our more recently acquired affirmations of gender equality and equality by sexual orientation, and the new ground we will have to plow to develop a theology of commitment, spiritual growth, and public and private covenant in marriage. It would be a powerful message to American society and religious critics of same-sex marriage if we publicly commit ourselves to forging a new theology of marriage for a new era, linked with innovative practices of congregational support to offer all couples, of whatever gender, the spiritual and community resources they need to flourish for a lifetime together. It’s time to go deeper on marriage.

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