Marriage goes far beyond spouse and children. Your family, friends, and entire community have a stake.
I was at the wedding of a close friend recently, and someone asked me what I had learned about marriage from my years as a divorce lawyer. At the time, it all came down to two core truths: Conflict is inevitable, and community is part of every marriage.
As to the first point, I have often written here about how important conflict is in relationships. Conflict allows us the greatest access to our unresolved fears and to creating intimacy with our partners.
Regarding the second point, especially in the chaos of planning a wedding, couples often forget about the power and purpose of community in their marriage.
Stephanie Coontz, in her well known book Marriage, a History, writes that community ties have always been fundamental to marriage. Throughout time, marriage has appeared in just about every form imaginable: In China, for instance, young girls are still occasionally known to marry ghosts; in Tibet, brothers are often expected to all marry the same woman. The one common thread in marriages across the world, however, is the involvement of community. Usually this means establishing financial, land-related, or diplomatic ties with other families. There’s safety in numbers, and so marriage serves the purpose of uniting more than just the couple. It unites families, tribes, and entire communities.
This is why marriage is made as a public declaration. We bring our communities together and make a commitment before them while they make a commitment to us. Both are strengthened as a result.
Sometimes the couple or the community forgets about the commitment, and that is where the reciprocal relationship comes into play. As a divorce lawyer, I saw repeatedly how negative talk about a marriage in the community can kill a relationship. Likewise, when couples bad-mouth their relationship to their communities, they destroy their support structure and hasten their own divorce. The community has power over the marriage just as the marriage has an obligation to the community.
The commitment the community makes to the couple is not explicit; it depends on why and how the couple is marrying, and every couple is different. That said, the typical commitment in America today is to put the marriage first. As friends of a married couple, we are usually making a related commitment to put the marriage itself first, to uphold the relationship before the individuals.
And that brings us back to my first point, that conflict is inevitable but it can deepen the relationship. The couple will sometimes forget this fact and great pain will ensue, sometimes ending in divorce. That’s when the community steps in to remind the couple about their commitment, and about what’s possible. Other times the the community will forget about the commitment, and that’s when the couple must stand up for their own relationship and act as an example for the community.
Marriage cannot in fact exist without community. It is a product of community and exists for the betterment of it. The community plays an integral role in marriage success, and in recognizing conflict for what it is, an opportunity to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship.