A giant three-metre-high replica of an ordinary torsion spring clothespeg arrested my wife and me while walking through a sculpture garden in New Zealand some time ago.
The ‘sculpture’ was simply labelled ‘Marriage’.
Marriage? Why, of course: two separate entities joined together by the spring creates a brand new entity – a clothespeg! Without the spring, you have just two loose pieces of wood. Two ‘loose’ individuals joined together by covenant creates a whole new entity called ‘Marriage’, greater than the sum of the parts.
That image has so stuck with me that I have often presented a large clothespeg (as above) to couples getting married to stress the essential significance of the ‘spring’: the covenant they are making to each other before God, their family, their friends, the church and the state. Marriage is not held together by the marriage certificate, a ‘mere piece of paper’, but by the promise, the public covenant made for all to witness, symbolised by the wedding ring. It is not in the first place held togther by the warm fuzzy feelings we often call ‘love’.
For Christian marriage involves entering into a life-long commitment ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death’. Romantic feelings are not a reliable foundation to build a life-long relationship.
Today there is much confusion about marriage and widespread acceptance of couples living together without any covenant – even in church circles. Yet can you imagine a wedding ceremony where the officiating party asks: ‘Do you promise to love this woman until someone more attractive comes along?’
Irish singer Gilbert O’Sullivan sang about Matrimony, a rather old-fashioned word for marriage, as ‘Something that begins with an M and ends in alas’. Too often that is true. Marriage itself does not guarantee that we will live happily ever after. Yet as Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation says, while marriage may not be a panacea, it stacks the odds in favour of stable families.
Richard Kane, the initiator of Marriage Week, says if you are lucky enough to be in a marriage relationship, then you’d be smart to look after it. If you neglect maintenance on your car, it will eventually fall part. If you neglect maintenance on your marriage, it too risks falling apart. Like driving a car, marriage demands certain skills, skills that can be learned.
Marriage Week, starting this Wednesday, February 7, and ending on the 14th, Valentine’s Day, celebrates humanity’s oldest and most enduring institution. It is an occasion for couples to do something special together to invest in their most significant human relationship.
Learning those skills makes much sense. These include forgiveness, kindness and commitment, as we read on the Marriage Week website:
Forgiveness is about pressing the reset button so that we can start again. Practising this daily on the little things each day will train us well for when we find ourself needing to forgive bigger stuff. ‘Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die’.
Kindness involves first discovering what makes our partner feel loved. Is it principally through our affirming words, through spending quality time together, through affectionate touch, through thoughtful presents or through helpful actions?
Commitment is the glue that holds a relationship together. It takes work and its hard sometimes, but it’s the foundation for a healthy and happy relationship. It will also mean resolving conflict.
Although researchers have repeatedly established that marriage is associated with numerous positive outcomes for both adults and children, few dare to champion marriage publically out of fear of sounding judgemental about the range of alternative sexual relationships seen as ‘normal’ today. We are supposed to accept ‘open’ relationships and affirm people’s sexual preferences, gender choices and living arrangements.
The truth however is that marriage is the cornerstone of flourishing human order, most strongly associated with human happiness, financial well-being and better health. It provides the best environment for children to grow and develop into thriving adults. Children raised by their married parents are much less likely to be poor; have a far lower risk of being abused; and are more likely to receive a better education.
That is not to decry the heroic efforts of millions of single parents to raise their kids in face of all the challenges in society today. They need all the support and encouragement they can get. Most would not choose to be in that situation.
So if you are married, what will you do together this week to strengthen your most significant human relationship?
Weekly Word is an initiative of The Schuman Centre for European Studies. Jeff Fountain is a New Zealander holding a Dutch passport, is currently the director of the Schuman Centre for European Studies (www.schumancentre.eu), and lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Jeff graduated with a history degree from the University of Auckland (1972) and worked as a journalist on the New Zealand Herald (1972-3), and as travelling secretary for Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship (TSCF) (1973). He has lived in the Netherlands since 1975, and has travelled and spoken in almost every European country. For twenty years following the fall of communism, he was the European director for the international and interdenominational mission organisation, Youth With A Mission. He was chairman of the international, trans-denominational movement, Hope for Europe, for which he organised two pan-European congresses in Budapest in 2002 and 2011. In 2010, he established the Schuman Centre for European Studies (www.schumancentre.eu) to promote biblical perspectives on Europe’s past, present and future, to encourage effective engagement in issues facing Europe today.