• The Case Against Marriage
  • By Rabbi Shmuel Boteach You've made a Heaven for me right here on Earth!
  • Is it natural to be married? Is getting married an automatic human impulse and aspiration? Is marriage an intuitive culmination of desire on the part of single beings to join together and thereby permanently assuage their loneliness? The answer is an emphatic. 'NO!' I contend without any reservation whatsoever that marriage is not a congenital human state. I further contend that the knowledge that marriage is not natural is the single most important element of any successful marriage, and that the quicker we realize it, the better. We will be on guard constantly to make our marriages work, and to ensure that we are devoting and dedicating ourselves constantly to their success.

    Judaism believes that the fundamental challenge of human living is for man to rise above his human inclinations, rather than allowing them to govern him. Only then can we be guaranteed fulfilling and extraordinary lives which are not the product of mere impulse and whim. When we speak of marriage as a holy institution or G-dly institution, "Holy Matrimony," we must attune our ears to the serious implications of these words: marriage is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one. It does not come intuitively; we do not slide comfortably into marriage. It must be worked upon, and we must never take it for granted.


    In the past, we have spoken extensively of humankind's resistance to monogamy,, and how it constitutes a constant challenge to our earthy state. To illustrate the point, supposing you received the offer of a lifetime. A beautiful beachfront home is yours, with every luxury amenity provided, at fifty percent below market price. There is one catch: You must move into the home and never move out again. You cannot sell it or rent it out. There may be some slight provisions for moving out, but they will be accompanied with severe financial penalties, emotional drainage, and pain. Are you still interested?

    For those of you that aren't, and I suspect that you are not an insignificant number, you must ask yourself why then are you prepared to be married? There is no other example under the sun, in any other facet of life, where individuals will be prepared to commit themselves, amidst any possible eventuality, to a lifelong prospect. How can we? How can we know that things won't go wrong? If you are indeed so infatuated with someone that you wish to marry them, why not just live with them? Don't be silly enough to say things like 'Till death do us part,' or 'I will love you forever,' when you have no guarantee that you will wish to preserve the relationship fifty years hence. Why sign your commitment and your life away in the process? It's far more reasonable and logical to take things gradually and see how things go. You wouldn't commit this way in any other circumstance. Why, then, for marriage?


    The answer is that marriage is not a human, but a divine institution. I suggest sincerely and with no fear of refutation that if G-d had not commanded us concerning marriage, and instituted it in the Bible as a cornerstone of life, mankind would never have invented marriage. To be sure, humans might have devised some structure for living together, but it would be entirely predicted on the emotions of the moment, and with no provision for commitment into what is at best a vague future. We are all only too aware of the unpredictability of emotions. It might even be argued that the need to formalize a commitment in such a serious way, as is done in Jewish marriage, betrays a significant flaw in the love which the couple has for one another; if they really felt so deeply there would be no need to contractualize their affections. Surely, if two brothers entered into business together, one would take it as an insult when the other brings his lawyer to draft contracts and ensure the other's commitment, faithfulness, and honesty!

    Powerful contemporary proof to the effect that marriage is an exclusively religious institution is this: now that we are living in what is largely a G-dless age, where religious commitment exists in only a fraction of the population, marriage and marital fidelity are being diminished commensurate with the evaporation of religion from main-stream society. The average couple are finding increasingly little reason to marry and are opting to live together instead.


    If marriage were a human creation, then it would be gaining strength in this supreme age of logos and rationalism. But the historical fact remains that many rationalists, indeed many great philosophers, were fiercely opposed to marriage. Many of' the leading libertarian lights saw marriage as the most oppressive of all institutions, and labeled it as such. The Oxford Book of Quotations lists 62 entries on the subject of marriage. Only four are positive, a few neutral, and the rest, well over fifty, are negative. These people felt that those who married acted in direct contradiction to free love. They could see little rationale in the entire enterprise, and not only refused to marry themselves, or openly broke their marriage vows, but savaged marriage in their works with undisguised glee. They drew pleasure from pouring scorn and derision on marriage, and those poor fools who were naive enough to have been ensnared into its clutches. The following is just a small sample:

    Lord Byron: "marriage from love, like vinegar from wine... All tragedies are finish'd by death. All comedies are ended by a marriage." William Congreve: "The marriage makes man and wife one flesh, it leaves 'em still two fools." George Farquhar: "Hanging and marriage, you know, go by Destiny." George Bernard Shaw: "If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?" Robert Louis Stevenson: "Marriage is a step so grave and derisive that it attracts light-headed, variable men by its very awfulness." Jonathan Swift: "What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressively, that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage."


    No, marriage is not natural. And the quicker we realize this, the more secure our marriages will be. In fact, the belief that marriage is natural has led to terrible misconceptions and inestimable damage in relationships. There is a common contemporary complaint among married couples that things change once they marry. They claim in many cases, the person whom they are married to is different, sometimes radically so, than the person they were dating. They feel that their husband, or wife, was somehow more sensitive, more caring, more responsive while they were dating, as opposed to when they finally tied the knot. How can this be? From where do these changes spring? Does marriage then have a magical, yet sinister capacity for changing a woman from Snow White into Attila the Hun just by standing under a canopy? Can the act of a man putting a ring on a woman's finger suddenly transform him from Doctor Jekyll into Mr. Hyde?

    The real explanation for the sudden rude awakening is that couples mistakenly believe that it is natural to be married. Therefore, whereas when couples date they exert every effort to impress their intended partner because they understand this is vital and necessary, when they marry they suddenly exert no effort at all, thinking that, since it is natural, it will all happen automatically; bliss will just flow automatically from their union. They do not see marriage as a constant struggle, a constant challenge, in which a person must be on alert at all times to be happily married.

    Every man and every woman knows that in order to build and sustain an attraction with a member of the opposite sex, one must work very hard. When a man and a woman date, they seek to impress one another. There is a universal recognition of the need to manifest one's most humane talents in the act of wooing the member of the opposite sex into marriage. People recognized that impressing someone enough to win their approval for marriage is a highly laborious and time-consuming process which essentially runs against the grain of human nature. People will not commit themselves to a life-long endeavor impetuously.

    But after marriage things seem suddenly to have changed. He is no longer on his best behavior, losing his temper frequently and with little cause. Nor, is he as generous, complaining that they must conserve their money for the mortgage. Nor is she as patient with him and as loving as she once was. They sit around with their heads in their hands wondering what went wrong?

    And the answer is staring them in the face They have made the mistake of assuming that once a couple get married, the process of impressing one another is over. Stated in other words, they think that marriage is something which one does once only, and then is married. But marriage is a constant act, and we must always engage ourselves in the act of becoming married. Marriage is not a natural state, and the natural resistance to its monogamous demands and huge commitment necessitates a constant and conscious effort to make it successful.


    Marriage is a hungry animal; it needs to be fed constantly We must pour an inexhaustible supply of love, affection, attention, caring, and understanding into this magical brew. Just as one does not merely eat once and thereby become satisfied, no-one walks under a canopy and just emerges married. Marriage is alive. We must monitor its pulse constantly, if it is not to die.

    In this respect, the only success we will ever have in marriage is if we always focus on what we can put into marriage. The same applies to every relationship. We must never focus solely on what we can take. In my job as a Rabbi, I hear all too often of young couples complaining that they do not get anything from the relationship. Before marriage a man and woman are separate and distinct beings. If they are to join together as one, then they both must reach inward towards one another, constantly contributing to each other.

    If the couple focuses on what they can receive from one another, instead of what they can give, then each partner is reaching outward, effectively away from one another. How can they be joined?

    This should not sound radical because I am not arguing that we do not derive any benefits from marriage, Nor am I suggesting that there are not any legitimate needs on the part of each spouse in a marriage. Rather, by both husband and wife focusing on .what they can contribute into a marriage, it follows that automatically they will both be receiving. But, in this scenario, they will not be enjoying the benefits of companionship and marriage as strangers, but as loving halves of an indivisible whole.