In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller puts his finger on one of the fatal modern myths of marriage: that marriage shouldn’t be based at all on “a piece of paper”—the law, the contract. Law stifles true love. Marriage should always be voluntary, never coerced—or else it cheapens love. As Joni Mitchell sang back in 1971, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true.”
One guest on the most recent Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life, Kurt Braunohler, certainly endorsed this viewpoint. He and his girlfriend, his high school sweetheart, had been together for 13 years, but they had never gotten married. One thing was holding them back, they came to believe: they had never been with anyone else romantically or sexually. What if there was someone better out there for them?
So they decided that they would take a month-long break from their relationship—the secular New York City equivalent of the Amish Rumspringa. And during that month, they would allow themselves to sleep with other people—which they did. One month turned into many months. The couple finally decided to break up entirely.
Read what Kurt took away from this experience. Then read what Ira Glass, the married host of the show, says in response.
KURT: I do have a theory now that if I do get married in the future, what I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years it ends, and we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.
KURT: Because you get to choose, and I think it would make the relationship stronger.
IRA: I don’t know what I think of that, because I think that one of the things that’s a comfort in marriage is that there isn’t a door at seven years. And if something is messed up in the short-term, there’s the comfort of knowing, like, we made this commitment, and so we’re going to work this out. And, like, even tonight if we’re not getting along, or there’s something between us that doesn’t feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, like, you’ve got time to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier! Because you do go through times when you hate each other’s guts. And the “no escape” clause is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.
Guess whose side I’m on?
Keller contrasts the stick-to-itiveness of marriage that Glass describes (not to mention the Bible) with the consumer mentality that Kurt describes. If Kurt had his way (and I suspect he’ll outgrow this particular conviction), he and his future wife would have to keep selling themselves. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
There is another way in which the legality of marriage augments its personal nature. When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves. We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.[†]
While I’m not endorsing the singer’s viewpoint, here’s the beautiful young Joni Mitchell singing what will become the second track on one of my favorite albums, Blue.
† Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 85.