“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
“You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.”
Among a subset of the thoughtful and orthodox, “it doesn’t matter who you marry” has become a bit of slogan. The line of thought behind it seems to go thus: we’re sold the notion that marital happiness, and marital obligations, depend on marrying “the one.” If you make a mistake, or your spouse’s personality changes, or you find yourself relating to them differently than you did at first, pulling up stakes and looking for a better deal falls somewhere between licit and incumbent. But in reality, what matters is the choice to get married, not who your partner is.
“It doesn’t matter who you marry” is an understandable reaction to a consumerist understanding of marriage and spiraling divorce rates; still, I have my doubts about its truth, utility, or prudence.
It is not clear that carefully considered, affection-driven spousal choice is an exclusively recent phenomenon. We can’t know the real lives, feelings, or practices of early 19th century couples from fictionalized accounts, but we can glean insight into what was socially valued, implicitly and explicitly, what was expected, what went without saying–hence the apt name “comedy of manners.” And even amid the venal machinations of Austen’s marriage plots, affection for a potential spouse and care in exercising one’s choice is presented as a standard, at least for the virtuous and well-bred.
Even in communities with no practice or concept of autonomy in courtship, the importance of a suitable match still shows up. Benjamin Franklin says in his autobiography
“I inquired concerning the Moravian marriages, whether the report was true that they were by lot. I was told that lots were used only in particular cases; that generally, when a young man found himself disposed to marry, he informed the elders of his class, who consulted the elder ladies that governed the young women. As these elders of the different sexes were well acquainted with the tempers and dispositions of their respective pupils they could best judge what matches were suitable, and their judgments were generally acquiesced in; but if, for example, it should happen that two or three young women were found to be equally proper for the young man, the lot was then recurred to. I objected, if the matches are not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy. “And so they may,” answered my informer, “if you let the parties choose for themselves”; which, indeed, I could not deny.”
It seems possible that it’s precisely the significance of whom you marry that moves some communities to take the decision out of the hands of the young couples themselves.
The discourse around the interchangeability of marital partners often implies that ideals of compatibility or the love-match are themselves the cause of current social ills. But low divorce rates and divorce stigma have co-existed with at least aspirational value attached to both scapegoats. This makes sense; presumably a robust understanding and institutional enforcement of marriage’s structure and obligations could support a variety of secondary norms.
Insofar as the problem is one of cultural misconceptions, the relevant point is not “what is the best way for an individual to enter into marriage?” but “what does the institution of marriage entail?” As long as marriage in its socially constructed entirety exists only as a symbolic validation of love, or an at-will leisure activity that either party can opt out of at any moment, it will become perverse. It will sicken as an institution no matter how many individual couples keep their legally toothless vows, and whether the secondary norms attending it devolve on gendered labor, material security, interpersonal intimacy, political alliances, or sexual attraction.
It’s easy to see the aphoristic value of “it doesn’t matter who you marry,” or “just get married” here. The phrases jar the listener, reject the supposedly all-conquering powers of the soul-mate, and shift attention from personal happiness within marriage to a consideration of marriage itself. It’s entirely possible that proponents of marry-whomever-ism are engaging in a sophisticated bit of provocation designed to reframe cultural conversations about marriage rather than seriously presenting an alternative norm for how one should enter it.
But the aphorism needs at least an imaginary person’s particular plans and happiness as context, and so the futility of trying to address institutional breakdown at an individual level remains. Nor is futility the only problem.
Insofar as this advice has any teeth, it has them within communities already convinced of the seriousness of marriage. “It doesn’t matter whom you marry, just get married,” is unlikely to convince anyone who plans on a pre-nup, but it might convince very ardent, very young culture warriors who already see marriage as the sine qua non of a happy and valuable adult life. It’s most direct effect may be to encourage extremely imprudent action in a landscape that will offer the ardent couple very little succor in staying married once they have taken the plunge.
Not all reasons for care in spousal choice reduce marriage to a symbolic ceremony designed to validate and celebrate the discovery of “the one.” Marriage understood as the formation of a family implies an enormous undertaking, a shared project. The person with whom you enter into will not only be your ally and co-conspirator, your bedmate and sexual partner, but the father or mother of your children. Considered with the permanence and indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, all this tends very strongly towards discretion in decision, and a positive wish to marry rather than a negative and random default.
Nor is it true that people as a rule change so much as to render all consideration meaningless. People will change over a life-time of 60 odd years, and new circumstances always reveal new facets, but in general, major character traits do not simply disappear overnight–neither the good nor the bad ones. No matter what the flaws and virtues of a spouse, the duties of marriage remain, but it is criminally foolish and presumptuous to walk into a lifetime of avoidable difficulty in discharging your most serious obligations
Even romantic love, while not the absolute and only mode of marital choice, has some solid potential benefits behind it. Marriage creates a family bond between two previously unrelated people. The kind of love that sees with particular clarity and attention the excellences of the beloved, and that stakes a possessive claim on them, is not a bad kindle to the requisite fire. And the hardy, long-standing friendship that autonomous courtship often enables can make the transition from strangers to spouses, and to spousal friendship, a smoother and happier one.
Anyone who tells you that they are discerning a call “to the religious life” is nine tenths talk. Discernment starts when they find a house they might enter, when they encounter a specific charism and community of sisters to whom they might pledge their lives. And even after they enter to try their vocation, it takes long months of probation as a postulant before they are truly a sister, and often another three to five years before they make their final vows.
Entry to religious life, to which we are all called by virtue of our baptism, requires deliberation, persistence, and careful consideration of a particular community. The rigors of lifelong poverty and continence might require a superabundance of caution unnecessary with marriage, but still–uniting lives and families is serious business too.
Insofar as “It doesn’t matter whom you marry” replaces erotic love with sacramental grace as a magical cure all, I’d like to see the concept go away. There’s a blind romanticism to it, a fetishization of the leap into the unknown that, while rooted in something true about human relationships and commitments, distorts more than it reveals. What should replace it, I don’t know–there doesn’t seem to be a good slogan for marriage discernment. Don’t let stupid reasons stop you from marrying, but don’t rush imprudently into marriage. Don’t tell yourself that love is reducible to a feeling, but don’t try to will yourself into loving when it’s still time for taking the measure of your love. Don’t be afraid, don’t be an idiot.