We know how God designed marriage, but our broken world often leaves God out of the equation. As a result, many people don't know or understand marriage's bigger purpose, but view marriage as "a private relationship," "just a piece of paper," or "any two people who love each other." But marriage is so much more than a private relationship.
The strength of any fabric — from the sheerest muslins to the sturdiest upholstery — is its pattern of tightly woven threads. Similarly, the social institution of marriage is a pattern that strengthens the fabric of families, churches, communities and countries.
The words "social institution" may seem like an academic way to describe what we often think of as a private, romantic relationship, but marriage has deep cultural meaning in nearly every human society. In The Future of Marriage, scholar David Blankenhorn writes that a social institution is "a pattern of rules and structures intended to meet social needs."
Though marital customs, traditions and responsibilities vary by country and culture, Blankenhorn writes that nearly everywhere: Marriage at its core is a woman and a man whose sexual union forms the basis of an important cooperative relationship.
This "cooperative relationship" creates a framework for meeting the physical and relational needs of women, men and children in a way that is healthy for and protective of the next generation. Marriage has been so effective that other institutions, such as the government and the church, recognize and support marriage as essential to the well-being of families.
A Higher Purpose
Marriage has thrived cross-culturally because its purpose surpasses the meaning that any one couple, religion or government chooses to give it. A couple entering marriage willingly commits their bodies, wills and lives to each other, as well as to an established relational design for men and women.
The public vows of marriage make a clear statement to family and friends about the commitment of the spouses—that their sexuality is exclusive and their lives and worldly goods belong to one another. The vows also make a statement to the community. The couple's willingness to enter marriage indicates that they are capable of trust and duty.
The sexual aspect of marriage underscores its procreative purpose — not just the creation of a child, but the permanent bonding of the couple. The couples' sexual bond is of critical importance, as Blankenhorn writes "so that the mother and father will stay together to raise the baby."
Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, emphasizes what marriage does for fathers:
"When a baby is born, there is bound to be a mother somewhere close by. If we want fathers to be equally involved in their children's lives, biology alone won't get us very far. The word for the way cultures attach fathers to the mother-child bond in...virtually every known human society is marriage."
When Marriage Fails
Our need for the social institution of marriage is most visible when it unravels. Unfortunately, those who suffer most are frequently the least prepared to bear that burden. If a marriage breaks up — or never occurs — children lose the financial, relational and emotional stability provided by a married mother and father. Often, financial support for these fractured families comes from taxpayers.
One Rutgers University researcher estimated that the cost of a single divorce to the state and federal governments is about $30,000. This includes the cost of food stamps and public housing following a couple's split, as well as the costs associated with increased bankruptcy and juvenile delinquency that often descend upon a broken family.
Sociologists continue to find evidence that marriage makes a difference for families — especially children. The Center for Law and Social Policy says most researchers now agree that, on average, children do better when raised by two married, biological parents who have a low-conflict relationship.
Marriage is the only human institution that uniquely interweaves our private needs with the public need for commitment to the next generation. The tapestry of a society will be only as strong as the pattern of its threads. Marriage between a man and woman must be celebrated and supported by communities, families and individuals who depend upon it.
Our society has experimented with marriage over the years, with practices such as no-fault divorce, cohabitation, "same-sex marriage," "open marriage," and even polygamy and polyamory. These experiments have proven disastrous — for children, for men and women, and for our culture. The next two articles explore children's need for a mother and father and the damage from our culture's devaluation of marriage.
Jenny Tyree served as a marriage analyst for CitizenLink, a partner of Focus on the Family. This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Focus on the Family Citizen magazine.