Modernity and the Fate of Marriage

Originally written in September 2011

“It is to be enjoyed till it lasts and let go of when it stops working.” – This is what we hear today when we ask people about their take on relationships. And by relationship I don’t mean a fling. I am talking about the one where people seriously consider a life-companionship. “Stops working” is a new idea in our times. Gone are the days when marriage meant a life-long companionship. This modern mindset indicates dwindling faith in marriage, and that calls for contemplation on the future of marriage.

If I ask my parents (or the generations preceding them) whether marriage should be enjoyed till it lasts and whether divorce is “okay”, they would lament at the modern thinking. For in their traditional conditioning such a thought was absent. And miraculously, almost all marriages worked! Well, by worked if we are to mean perfect, then no. Perfection is nowhere. But somehow they lived a stable life which was beneficial for the children, family, thereby themselves, and the society as a whole.

So what happened? After some reflection over it, this is what I think has happened: It is today’s milieu – social structure coupled with conditioning being imparted by the mass media – that has made life-long relationships almost impossible.

The earlier generations were raised with a different type of conditioning. Divorce or separation was unthinkable for them. Not because the society would disapprove of it, but because people were so conditioned that however problem-filled their marriage was, they just wouldn’t think of divorce, because it was ingrained in their minds as something unethical. And just in the same way, marriage was real seriously considered a sacred and must-have element of life.

Besides, and importantly, earlier marriages were not about sex and passion (romantic love), but more about providing companionship and security, and broader social goals, which was a far-sighted arrangement. Romantic love was not even considered a good thing, because it is impermanent, and hence shouldn’t be the basis of marriage.

As humanity developed, science and philosophical development started challenging many of the religious views (around 17th-18th century) and in the time period which is called the Enlightenment Era, the power of religion over people’s lives began to dwindle. With lessening power of religion the traditional wisdom (which is mainly propagated by religion even today) started to become weaker by the day, and people received freedom of thought. Freedom of thought is a good thing, but as an offshoot of this development humanity lost something called moral uniformity and far-sighted wisdom.

Earlier there was single moral code, which was pronounced by religion, and religion made sure that it is adhered to by the society. Sex before marriage was sin. Romantic love was sin. Adultery was sin. And those sins were severely punished too. People had no choices at all. It was both good and bad. Bad, because people had to repress their biological passions. Good, because in the long term, this system made sure that humans got their human needs (comprising of social contracts and security) fulfilled safely without ruining their life by giving in to their animal instincts in the short term. And don’t take the term animal instincts in a wrong way. They are not bad in that they are innate to us, but are not productive with regards to the long term human goals. We are communal animals, not savages. We can’t thrive by indulging our animal instincts alone without being socially bound by responsibilities.

I tend to think that that system was on the whole good. Because, wise as they (wise men who must have formed the traditional wisdom) seem to be, they did not condemn romantic love and sex totally. After the marriage people could have it with their partner. Thus, they provided a model for living – marriage and family – which has provisions for everything that humans crave, from sex and security to meaning in life (in the form of pursuance of one’s family’s well-being). Just imagine if people can’t sustain marriage and split every time their passion is gone (and it does) what would happen to the children, and what would give people the meaning and motivation to live when they are past their youth and lonely? As communal animals we need genuine companionship. Genuine, meaning which has a basis better than – or in addition to – sex. (No, romantic love is far from genuine basis.)

What about romantic love then? – one might ask. Most people I meet believe that (romantic-) love conquers everything. I too would love to believe that. But it’s no mystery anymore (and not because I am saying this) that romantic love conquers everything is a myth. There’s plethora of research and material (scientific as well as philosophical) screaming of it being a myth. Romantic love has a definite purpose in nature and it wanes in almost all cases. The real love in a relationship is like what best friends share. Respect and empathy. That’s what true love is, and that is the essence of marriage. Not the euphoric passion. And to be in marriage, even after the passion of sex/romantic love is gone, is in a way, being giving – hence it must have been said that true love is about giving. It’s a pity if one can’t see the mutual gain that comes as a result of this giving – a life-partnership.

What happened over time is that the traditional system started losing its ground and people became free of religious morality and the fear of God. With further advancements religion also lost the power to punish people for their “sins”. Even though God remained, God’s teaching is gone. Now people are free to act on their animal instincts (romantic love falls under that part, because it’s basically mating drive, and hence aptly to be called sexual desire of a subtle kind) freely and take their decisions without depending on morality laid down by religion. And freedom of thought has ensured that every one has one’s own philosophy as to what is right and wrong in these intricate matters involving a trade-off between fulfillment of one’s sophisticated human needs and one’s needs as an animal.

Since we are also animals the animal nature is not bad, as I already said above. But for that matter the traditional system did have provision for the fulfillment of animal nature by allowing the “sins” after marriage. At the same time, by condemning adultery, they also made sure that human needs are fulfilled. Thus, in a way, it gave everything – everything but perfection which is a chimera anyway.

As against that, since masses have taken charge of their social interactions in their own hands, we see what has happened. Sex is almost restriction-less in the modern societies. As a youth, I am happy because of this. But in the long term people have more hectic life. Children have hard time adjusting to their changing parents. People need shrinks, anti-depressants, and alternatives to provide meaning in life. Consumption, for example. People today are more obsessed with material and superficial things – gadgets, style, career, wealth – than with the things with essence like family and friendship. Families are hard to create and maintain, because marriages are as a norm based on romantic love. When the euphoria of romantic love wanes (because it has to) the basis of marriage is gone and people conclude “it’s not working”. And real friends are hard to make because since everyone has now got a free pass to indulge their animal nature, romantic and sexual pursuits leave little time and scope for creating other meaningful relationships with human beings. Earlier people used to feel the guilt even at having the thoughts of sex. Feeling of guilt is not healthy, but important is to note that it was being compensated by the great feeling of being morally right, because so was their conditioning.

So who is to blame? Maybe it’s just a part of our evolution. Because the developments that eroded the power of religion were not all bad. Science developed, and many axiomatic teachings of religions came under scientific scrutiny. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides, I haven’t mentioned that religion was in many ways corrupt and oppressive too. The new findings and increased human knowledge just rendered religious teachings outmoded. It was natural that the power shifted away from religion.

But unfortunately the new social structure which these good and natural developments were to bring about was to strip humanity of the ingenious arrangement of having a meaningful and secure life in the long run. What has happened seems like a very natural course of evolution of humanity. Sooner or later this change had to happen. Environments change, and creatures have to adapt. It’s a painful process, but so it’s always been. That’s evolution!

Marriage seems to have become outmoded in today’s milieu. With passing of time humans will become less emotional and more practical in this area. The evolved man will be comfortable without the security of marriage and family. Or so we hope.

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