Choosing Transformational Marriage

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
July 16, 2014

A culture built on hacks doesn’t have much time for institutions or circumstances that are simply un-hackable in the long term. Thus you can find without much intensive searching a handful or more of articles per week revealing the (usually counter-intuitive) secret to hacking marriage: the latest trend, featuring a near constant stream of iterations in various publications, is polyamory.

It isn’t that the concept is new (from tacit understandings about mistresses to bell-bottomed ‘key parties’, philandering has always had an array of raiment to dress it up) or that the concept itself is any more salacious than the next that encourages the ongoing rumination on it, but rather that the idea of a solution to the problem of marriage is always tantalizing, especially when snap-fingers simple. Just do this, the usual marriage-secret article goes, and you’ll be happy, which is how you know your marriage is succeeding.

Thus, much of public discourse on marriage is devoted to figuring out what hacks can be applied to stave off dissatisfaction and ultimately divorce. Aiming to obviate marital discord (as much as policy can) seems wise to me; on the other hand, the notion that dissatisfaction’s natural conclusion is divorce seems to reveal a serious problem in how we conceive of marriage culturally. Should we imagine marriage to be an arrangement wherein personal satisfaction is the goal, or is it more intelligible theologically and socially to imagine marriage as its own project, something transformative and worthy of our service in its own right?

I agree with Stanley Hauerwas that the latter approach is the wiser one. According to Hauerwas, defining marriage as a tool for either the expression of a particular sentiment or the maintenance of it is, given the vicissitudes of satisfaction, a recipe for disaster:

We assume a couple falls in love and come to the church to have their love publicly acknowledged. One problem with this romantic view is that it tends to the presumption that if the love that was initially present in the relationship is no longer present, the marriage no longer exists. Romantic accounts of marriage simply cannot comprehend the church's view that marriage names the time created through a faithful promise that makes possible the discovery of love.

In other words, the view of marriage that imagines quick-fixes to be solutions to prevent the dissolution of the marriage already mistake the nature of the institution. In the view Hauerwas calls the ‘romantic’ view, marriage obtains insofar as love does because it is only ever a declaration of love; the deluge of media mediating on how to restore affection, satisfaction, or interest to a marriage is evidence of this sense of divorce as the inevitable outcome of weakened sentiments.

Yet, all these projects intend to manipulate marriage to better serve one’s own purposes, while, as Hauerwas points out, marriage is better thought of as a purpose to be served, in which the long story of love unfolds. And though the utter saturation of pop theories on how to rig the perfect marriage may suggest otherwise, evidence on the foundations of lasting, happy marriages actually supports the more orthodox view.

Consider the four decades of research conducted by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, recently profiled in The Atlantic. After surveying and observing couples over a number of years, John divided them into two sets—‘masters’ and ‘disasters’—based on whether or not they had remained married or divorced after 6 years. He then analyzed the behaviors of both sets, and concluded this about the ‘masters’ of marriage:

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

That charity is discussed here as a ‘habit of mind’ is no accident; contrary to styles of marital thought that envision a ‘perfect match’ or ‘the one’, Gottman envisions the underpinnings of strong marriage to rely much more on how partners choose to relate to the relationship:
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

The type of sustained hard work that results in habituation to virtue tracks well with the transformational view of marriage that founds the Christian approach to the institution. When one is married, as Hauerwas intimates, something rather profound changes: A diminishment in satisfaction doesn’t impact that change, nor does the waning of sentiments or even a loss of love. Marriage, rather, changes the individuals who enter into it: Sealed together, they are fundamentally different than they were before. It is the capaciousness of this truth that allows it to sustain the metaphor of the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church, and it’s the strength of that metaphor that informs us of the gravity of marriage.

The relative regularity of divorce allows us a good view of the approaches to marriage that are functional, that is, the ones that don’t favor divorce as an outcome. In the case of the Gottman’s research, the result is clear: Marriage lasts wherein the couple allow themselves to be transformed by it, and faithfully commit to that transformation, re-orienting the way they relate to one another and the marriage itself by willful habitation to the virtues of charity and kindness. Marriage is already oriented toward divorce wherein the couple has high expectations of constant and instantaneous stimulation, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment.