Is Marriage Good For You?
Marriage has been getting a bad rap lately, and it’s entirely unjustified. Decades of studies on human wellbeing, especially the landmark, 80 year, Harvard Study of Adult Development, provide the same conclusions consistently: By every measure, marriage wins over staying single or living without ceremony with another individual.
Married people live longer, stay physically and mentally healthier, are kinder to each other, and are less likely to abuse one another. They experience less physical pain, feel more secure, make more money, retire with more assets, and are more likely to say they are happy with their lives than their cohorts who have stayed out of formal marriage or been divorced. Similarly, the children of marriages are healthier, happier, smarter, safer, and contribute more to the rest of society.1
You may find it strange, but living with another individual without the ceremony provides almost none of those advantages. Let me cite one astounding demonstration of this phenomenon, Dr. Jim Coan’s hand-holding study at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Coan’s group was testing whether having someone hold your hand as another someone pricks your toes will reduce hypothalmic response. In other words, does it hurt less? Coan wasn't looking for evidence of the marriage bond, but the data screamed it out at him. As he puts it, “Married couples, but not cohabiting couples, had reduced hypothalamic activity in response to threat cues while holding hands with their partners.” Indeed, we are homo ritualis, creatures molded by ritual.
Is Marriage Risky?
Yes, there are risks. Yes, there is commitment. .Yes, there are fights, tears and emotional turmoil. Yes, there are sacrifices.
But there is no difference between these sacrifices and those we make today to get a solid education, find a well-paying job, make long-term financial investments and prepare to retire in comfort. No difference, other than that the payoff is so much greater.
As for the risks: as with a home or a car, with proper maintenance and precipitous action those can all be greatly reduced.
Yes, that’s hard work. Everything good is hard work. Good, healthy fun is also hard work. That’s what makes it good—because it’s something you achieved through your persevering, don’t-let-go-don’t-ever-let-go hard work.
So what have we done to marriage? What was wrong with it that we so easily threw it away? Why have so many otherwise intelligent people deliberately attacked and torn apart such a precious institution?
Truthfully, I can only see one cause. Society acts as an organism. When it feels it has lost its viability, it triggers its own demise. The decline of marriage is the soulless, impotent non-culture of secularism shutting down its mechanisms of reproduction, atomizing into unconnected individuals, preparing the bed of its own extinction. Without a sense of the transcendental, there is no oxygen left for life to breathe.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Having children and raising them involves enormous sacrifice . . . religious people understand the concept of sacrifice . . . (but) throughout history, people in a secular, consumerist, individualist culture find it much harder to live by sacrifice.”2
To marry is to have faith in life. To believe that there is purpose to humankind, and eternal meaning to your own existence.3
Marriage on a Higher Plane
The truth is that marriage is much more than a commitment to life with another person. It is a choice to live life on a higher plane.
Look at the world around you—a plethora of living beings and things, each traveling its own road in its own direction, each fighting for its own survival, seeking its own pleasure and fulfillment, as though the entire universe is about nothing but this small creature.
If you did not know otherwise, you would expect a universal battle between innumerable forces, a cosmic traffic jam, a cacophony that should last less than a moment before all is destroyed in the havoc.
But you know otherwise. You have been there as the sun veers further south each morning, the trees shed their summertime attire, the squirrels obsess over hoarding nuts and seeds—indeed, as the entire world turns about in majestic harmony. And then the autumn winds bring the sleep of winter, winter awakes into the glorious eruption of spring, and the creatures of spring somehow all agree to slide gently into the heat of summer.
All about you the cycle of life plays again and again, the elements of planet Earth miraculously fine-tuned to the orbits of sun and moon, as the organisms that grow, scutter, swim and fly upon this earth dance elegantly to that tune.4
What makes this miracle possible? Something most inexplicable. Embedded within a world defined by diversity and change are universal constants, unchanging over time and space.
And to their meter, all of life pulsates in harmony.
Now that is astonishing. The eternal breathes within the temporal, the unchanging within constant change, infinity within the finite. How does this work?
It could only be with a power that transcends all such terms and definitions, neither being nor not-being, but the Creator of all that is transient and all that is constant, finite and infinite, of all the above. In this dance of life, heaven and earth join to touch G‑d.5
The Choice of Marriage
So our world tells its story at the intersection of two themes, and you choose where you wish to live—as yet another competitive organism fighting to survive, to win in a struggle over many other little lives, to avoid pain and to attain pleasure, to gasp a breath of air and then begin its journey to decay, as another spark that erupts to glow for a fleeting moment, only to darken, to fall and to perish into the dust.
Or to choose to dwell in the wondrousness of eternity, to join with another who is not you and dance within that circle of sun and earth, day and night, love and awe, summer, autumn, winter and spring again. To bring yet more life into this world with the awesome power of the Infinite, as a new little person emerges out of the nothingness to join your circle-dance, and then another, and yet another, and from them others who will beget yet others. You have risen to the eternal, “as the days of the heavens upon the earth.”6
At a marriage celebration, the kabbalists say, an infinite light descends into the world in an explosion of unbounded joy. From that light comes the power to create life without end.7 That is why marriage must be sanctified. Because only through that sanctification can this union rise beyond the desires and passions of temporal creatures, to enter into the cosmic eternity.
Marriage at the Center of Being
The mystery of marriage runs yet deeper; it lies on yet a higher plane—not only in the circle, but in the point around which that circle turns, and in the dynamo that turns it. The marriage of man and woman is a reflection of the cosmic marriage. As a circle is turned by the dynamic of opposite poles engaged in union by a higher force, so the universe is brought into being by its Creator through the union of opposites. And a marriage, too, is sustained by the dynamics of those very same opposites.
That is why marriage is not about finding one who is the same as you, or even one who is just right for you. Even if by some miracle this person were just right for you when you started, at some point the tectonic plates will shift, even so slightly, and the parts will no longer fit.
And who would want such a union of sameness—one that demands that you remain as you are, ever still, so as not to disturb the perfect-fittedness of this other? You are alive. Life is change. Life is forever being “not that”—ever-transcending, escaping that which you were a moment ago.
Rather, marriage is a union with one who is not you. It is in marriage that you learn to step beyond the cramped boundaries of defined being, to discover your true self that can be neither spoken or known—but only touched, deeply, by the other with whom you unite.
Marriage is the union that lies at the center of all life—the union of energy and matter, time and space, body and soul, heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal, Creator and the created. It is the generator of life, of being, of existence.
In marriage, man and woman play G‑d. Indeed, when we were created, we were created in G‑d’s image, as it says, “In the image of G‑d, the human being was created”—and what is that image? “Male and female He created them.”8
That is the image of G‑d upon this earth: A man and a woman, two selves, two others, ever-becoming one. Nothing can be more transcendent. Get married. Stay married. Become eternal.
FOOTNOTES 1.For a thorough review of the evidence accrued by the year 2000, see Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case For Marriage (Broadway Books, 2000). The book is a little repetitive and mean on the polemics, but a good summary can be found in Gallagher’s article in City Journal (autumn 2000), “Why Marriage Is Good For You.” Yet more evidence has accrued since then, including from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. 2.Keynote address at The Chautauqua Conference, July 13, 2017. 3.See Tosafot to Talmud, Shabbat 31a, citing the Jerusalem Talmud: “A person has faith in eternal life, and therefore plants seed.” 4.See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of Torah 2:3. 5.See Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, Hemshech 5666, p. 163; Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, Maamar Patach Eliyahu 5715, sec. 2. 6.Deuteronomy 11:21. 7.Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson, Maamar Bati Legani 5710, sec. 5. 8.Genesis 1:27.
By Tzvi Freeman Tzvi Freeman is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth and, more recently, Wisdom to Heal the Earth. Subscribe to The Daily Dose of Wisdom and Freeman Files for regular updates. More from Tzvi Freeman