Why Get Married?

Lifestyle

Why Get Married?

A quest for the lost meaning of marriage

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Why get married today? This is a pretty relevant question if you find yourself in a long-term relationship in the 21st century. Seriously, why do it? We live in a hyper-novel world where the incentive structures are the exact opposite of commitment and loyalty to one partner and you are constantly being lured into bullshit narratives and ideologies that promote self-love over the love of others, fraud over authenticity, narcissism over compassion.

 

On the other hand, why not just give into the bullshit and keep adding fuel to the fire and throw your hands up in a YOLO moment and embrace the fakery? We are in a free fall after all so why not get some attention, pleasure, and satisfaction on the way down?

 

This is the reality we are faced with in today’s relationship-marriage-complex. Here are some of my thoughts on how my partner and I navigated our way through it all – on a quest for the lost meaning of marriage.

 

 

The Christian Tradition

Since Ola proposed two years ago, we’ve been unsure how we wanted to get married. For a long time, I just wanted to do it alone, in a remote place far away, just the two of us. I didn’t feel any connection to the traditions and culture around weddings and marriage, and frankly, I dislike and object to it. 

 

To get married the Christian way, in a protestant church, is one of the major traditions in Norway, which is our home country. Many people stick to this tradition, for the sake of it being a tradition, but increasingly many are not outspoken Christians today. In other words, they do not believe anything the church stands for, that is if it includes anything about sacredness, ritual, or the concept of a God. As a way of coping with this decreasing trend of religious affiliation, the church has decided, much like a business, that it needs to stay up to date. So, what has happened in the last decade or so is a hyper-modernization of the church and its traditions for marriage – which many people applaud.

 

No wonder, you might think. If you live in the 21st century, you very often think that anything not up-to-date, modern, and high-tech, is boring, repetitive, and uninteresting. We applaud the fresh-up, smoothing out the rough edges, throwing out the religious connotations, the things we don’t like (very often the things we don’t understand) to make it relevant, salient, and catchy. Again, much like a business. So, today the priest is much like a salesman making a sales pitch which means he has to speak the lingua of the moderns: Comparing marriage commitment to training commitment (the latter being part of a new kind of religion called self-realization) and by all means – omit all the talk of God and sacredness! You have to do everything in your power to avoid the rolling of eyes and detest from the couple and their guests because a good salesman knows that the customer must be satisfied. The customer does not appreciate being preached at or told what to do and think, they want to be assured that what they’re doing is the right thing, and they want to feel content and comfortable with their decision. And what is wrong with that? What is the difference between Nike making a fresh-up and re-branding and the church? It’s all a game, isn’t it? We must all adapt and renew to win in this game. A perfect encapsulation of the nihilistic cynicism of my generation. 

 

That’s how far we’ve come. Everything that can be made a commodity is being made into one – and we have blurred the lines so much that even questioning this is seen as preposterous and old-fashioned. So, what am I saying really? Should we go back to the good days with the church preaching to citizens every Sunday about how they should live their lives (in many cases openly not themselves living what they preach), shaming and blaming everyone who dares to question anything God said (through them) and guilt-tripping everyone who wanted to get a divorce because they made a mistake of marrying someone (maybe whom their family had decided for them)? Is this the glorious world I’m saying we should get back to? Because it was much better in the good old days? No. I’d be a hypocrite beyond belief if that was what I’m trying to put into words. 

 

My point is that the major Christian tradition in the country that I and Ola grew up in was no longer a possibility for us. It was never on the table. Because to use the church for all of its beauty, aesthetics, symbolism, and ritual, and not believe in any of it for its depth, authenticity, and transcendence, is like being a crow – just wanting to wallow in the pretty, shiny things because they look nice and glorious. And you can’t force yourself to believe in anything you don’t believe in. This is not how human cognition works. You can bullshit yourself into believing in stuff,  and it is a whole lot of bullshitting going on, but this is self-deception. On the deeper levels, consciously, subliminal, or unconsciously, you can’t force a belief that you don’t believe in. You know this is true when you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t feel as confident with your bullshit game as you might be in bright daylight. 

 

 

The Secular Humanist Tradition

However, many people don’t have a Christian faith and choose a secular way to get married of course. This takes us to the other major tradition in Norway, which has increased drastically in the last decades due to declining religious affiliation. The most common secular way to get married is through The Norwegian Humanist Association which is one of the largest secular humanist associations in the world. As they say on their page: «The Norwegian Humanist Association is an organization for people who base their ethics on human, not religious values. Most of its members are agnostics or atheists. We offer humanist ceremonies all over Norway, giving you the choice of dignified and formal ceremonies from cradle to grave, regardless of where you live. Our ceremonies have a distinct humanist profile, without elements that may be perceived to be religious practices.»

 

Basing ethics in human values is something all reasonable people would stand behind. In the end, we are all human regardless of religious affiliation, and much suffering, pain, trauma, and division have indeed come from religious traditions. The secular humanist wedding ceremony includes everyone and praises you for being as you are. You can base your commitment to marriage on the human values you would like to live by and uphold, which makes space for the individual to express freely what they stand for and gives a lot of leeway for diversity and inclusion. Okay, so what is the problem? The secular humanist movement faces the same problem as the church, they need to keep up, smooth out the rough edges, and stay modern. Remember, it is all a game, and we need to adapt and renew to win in this game. 

 

In our process of choosing how to get married, Ola and I contacted several secular humanist organizations, including individual ceremony masters who did secular wedding ceremonies for a living. Every answer was virtually the same, «you choose what you want us to say and we will say it. If you don’t have anything particular you want us to say, we will say some standard words that everybody can stand behind, and we will of course make sure you feel good.» (These were not their exact words always, but it was the essence of the message). And you may think, isn’t this what we want? It sure as hell seems like the answer many people have landed on. And why shouldn’t they if we all live by a nihilistic cynical philosophy of life? Nothing has intrinsic meaning, nothing lasts forever, everything is fucked, and the grass is probably greener on the other side (so I should at least keep the door open for that possibility).

 

I would propose that it should at least be allowed to question and wonder: is the project of just dispensing with God and the sacredness of religious traditions (where many of these traditions have stood the test of time, making them evolutionary adaptive strategies), and live our modern lives based on human (individualistic) values failing? In the West today, we have broken every possible chain from the past, leaving a path through life with no boundaries to respect, no standards and values to uphold, and no principles that should be above anything else. You are free to do whatever, with whomever, whenever, in the name of your desires and wishes (no matter how whimsical, destructive, and volatile) based on human values. Because no sacred authority figure will ever again, I say NEVER AGAIN, tell you that you should strive to be better and aspire to higher goals and morals. You base your reality on your individualistic values and that is nobody else’s business. (As a side note I will just point out that my generation is eager to scream and cry about having the freedom to choose what to do, think, and say – almost always when it includes morality, or someone pointing out that not all of modernity and its wallowing in what we call kos (pleasure) in Norwegian should be applaud. Nevertheless, the same people constantly obey every cultural trend, social code, and societal narrative without asking any questions. The freedom to think for yourself and become an actual individual thinker is just something we scream about whenever someone points out something we don’t FEEL like considering. The dissonance is glaring.)

 

Doesn’t it seem rather strange, and noteworthy, for this massive liberation in the West to be accompanied by such obvious misery, disorientation, and in many cases, complete despair? 

 

 

Our covenant and marriage

We were caught in a bind; on the one hand, we do not associate with any particular religion. We have a scientific worldview if you want, and for this reason, we couldn’t get ourselves to get married in a church because of its beauty and tradition when we don’t believe in the foundation and sacredness that built these magnificent buildings, rituals, and traditions in the first place. On the other hand, the secular version of wedding ceremonies often falls into two categories: either they are completely stripped of anything that resembles real love and human bonding. The commitment and covenant between two people is reduced to the legality of marriage – a piece of paper that makes it official. On the other hand, secular wedding ceremonies have become a complete farce. It revolves more around finding the best marketer (bullshit artist if you want) to cook up some elegant, flattering words about love so that we all can get drunk and have a party because, at the end of the day, we all know that the chance of divorce is more likely than a commitment for life, so please leave out the chores. We want to feel like we are in a romantic comedy, if only for one day!

 

So, what do you do if you are in our shoes? When the institutions you have at your disposal are anything but something you feel connected to? How are you supposed to navigate this landscape? Choose not to get married? Being a leaf in a stream? Just following along with what we’ve always done? Anyway, who am I to say that something is missing, less authentic, and/or out of touch with our institutions?

 

When a nihilistic and cynical worldview is not a viable option, you have no choice but to go out and be a seeker on a quest. A quest for the missing elements that connect you to reality. A quest for meaning and earnestness. A quest for the lost meaning of marriage. Of love. Of aspiration.

 

And that is what we did. What we found were Agape, Eros, and Philia. 

 

AGAPE

The roots of Agape come from the Christian tradition, in the personalized form of Jesus. It symbolizes giving love, sacrificial love, compassionate love, and love of neighbor. It is a kind of descending love, from yourself to another, which is selfless and generous. What is special about this kind of love is that it always requires a sacrifice: you have to sacrifice your own egotistic needs to show real love for others. The choice is made not to gain something, a specific outcome, from the sacrifice, but for the intrinsic goodness of the sacrifice itself. Agapic love is compassion in the purest sense and it calls upon a deeper meaning of love.

 

We often understand this kind of love as the love a parent shows and gives their child, which is probably why we don’t intuitively, in our current cultural climate, interpret this value as important in a marriage between two adults. However, if we look at the evolutionary history of love it seems like the concept of love started with the love between mother and child, which indicates that all other relationships built on real love are an extension of this concept. This is also, in religious terms, the messaging of the ancient Christian traditions following Jesus’s footsteps: the sacrificial element is a vital part of the concept of any kind of love.

     

    In our wedding ceremony, we had a sacrificial ritual where we each sacrificed a part of ourselves in the form of three textiles to symbolize our commitment to each other and our journey through life together. This does not remove our individuality, but it emphasizes the importance of sacrifice to make a marriage between two independent human beings work and function. As we each sacrifice a part of ourselves we repeated the mantra: I sacrifice my current freedom to aspire to wholeness. 

     

    article-why-get-married-agape-ritual
    Agape-ritual: Sacrifice

     

     

    EROS

    The concept of Eros goes back to ancient times with Diotima’s speech about Eros (love) to Socrates in one of the famous dialogues by Plato, Symposium. The idea is that Eros represents an ascent, an ascending love, which is illustrated with the metaphor of a ladder of love. To climb the ladder of love is a process of learning to love beautiful things that are more and more good and meaningful. In this way, Eros represents aspiration towards human excellence and Socrates appears as the personified Eros in Plato’s writings: The ability to transcend the first love of one body and beget beautiful ideas, all the way up the ladder to finding the love of wisdom. This love never passes away and is always beautiful. Only at this point will a lover be able to give birth to true virtue.

     

    This ancient interpretation of Eros is a stark contrast to the modern conceptualization of Eros which is mainly about erotic lust and desire. It captures the much deeper meaning of love between two people and the possibility of human bonding in ascending love towards human excellence and ultimately the Good.

     

    In our wedding ceremony, we had an aspirational ritual where my longest and dearest friend read an excerpt from Diotima’s speech, a part about the ladder of love. We ended the ritual by drinking red wine from the same wine decanter as a symbol of our commitment to the mystical elements of marriage.

     

    article-why-get-married-eros-ritual
    Eros-ritual: Aspiration

     

     

    PHILIA

    Philia (Philo) translates to a friend in Greek and is part of the etymology of the word philosophy. Pythagoras is the inventor of the word philosophy which is composed of the words philia/philo and sophia, meaning friendly love of wisdom. What Pythagoras meant with the invention of the word was that a philosopher is a person who loves wisdom in community with others.

     

    In his book, The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristoteles outlines the deep meaning of the word philia. He writes that there are always two elements present in every case of philia: an emotional bond (of varying intensity and depth) and a clear awareness that the parties have certain rights and duties in relationship to each other that can form the basis for social and moral actions. With both the etymological origin of philia and the two elements present in all cases of philia, we can say that philia represents reciprocity in human relationships. As such it functions as a virtue in the relationship between Agape (the sacrificial love) and Eros (the ascending love) making these three kinds of love a kind of trinity of virtues and values to live by.

     

    In our wedding ceremony, we invited our guests to participate in a reciprocal relationship with us by writing down (beforehand) their best advice for living a good life together as a married couple. On the wedding day, everyone brought their note of advice and my dear little sister read them all out loud. As part of the reciprocity ritual, we ended by blending two types of seeds (two separate human beings) in a vase. We poured the seeds three times each, every second time, and with the first pouring we said: “For Me”, the second pouring “For You” and the third and last pouring “For Us”.

     

    article-why-get-married-philia-ritual-
    Philia-ritual: Reciprocity

     

     

    Why get married?

    In no man’s land, on a peninsula on the Greek island of Samos, surrounded by raw, powerful nature: the unpredictable, spectacular Aegean Sea in the foreground, the magnificent Kerkis mountain towering in the back, wild, dry, green nature, and a capricious, melodic wind. In a scene set by Mother Earth, much beyond our control, we chose to enter into a marriage, a covenant, a commitment to each other for life, based on the three kinds of love: Agape, Eros, and Philia.

     

    article-why-get-married-the-location-samos
    The peninsula of the Greek island of Samos

     

    If there is one thing I’ve learned from the two years of questing and wondering why to get married and eventually how to do it: You have to get out of the regular mode of having something as a means to an end. To do that you have to separate yourself from the modern cultural narratives surrounding marriage because, today, it only drags you into predetermined nihilistic and superficial camps. Marriage is a long-standing ritual that has stood the test of time, cross-culturally, making it an evolutionary adaptive strategy. Nevertheless, it is a ritual, and the goal of a ritual is not in itself the ritual, but the transformation that can come from the ritual. In the case of marriage, we can say that the rituals in a wedding ceremony symbolize virtues to live by, individually and together, meaning they can transform the way we live and enact virtues and values in our lives.

     

    Marriage is a dance. If you don’t select any values to stand by and don’t have any confines in the infinite number of choices to make on your journey, you will never learn to dance. But if you try to control too much and perceive your partner as a problem to solve, you will never get into the flow. And the flow is the whole reason to dance in the first place. Selecting and confining creates the space to begin the learning process, but the flow is what creates the creative tension, the synchronicity. It is what creates the deep meaning. And from there, real love can emerge, grow, and live forever.

     

    Fortunately, there are a million ways to dance, that is the beauty of humanity. I hope you find your way to dance in life.

     

     

     

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