Why get married anyway? What I have learned from 30 years of marrying couples
‘Marriage is the creation of that space from which we go out into the world to live the life we consider most right and worthwhile, and to which we return at night to talk through our day’
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
I dedicate this essay to Nicky, for whose love, intelligence and common sense I am daily grateful.
‘It is not good for the human being to be alone.’ These words, upon saying which, God separates man and woman and makes possible the first partnership, have remained Judaism’s motto with regard to marriage ever since. Life can be hard even with someone else by one’s side; Judaism’s overriding presumption is that life alone is even harder. The cold to which Ecclesiastes (4:9,11) refers when he says ‘Better are two than one…for how can the one become warm?’ should be understood not just literally but also metaphorically. Further, Judaism understands that we are here on earth to fulfil ourselves, morally and spiritually, by doing what is right and just, but also physically and emotionally by giving and sharing love. Hence we thank God in the wedding blessings for the creation of the human being and for the gifts of joy, friendship, partnership and love. Judaism has also always believed that a stable, sanctified relationship within the context of wider family and community is the best path to such happiness and fulfilment.
There is also a Hasidic ‘translation’ of the famous verse from Genesis which throws a different light on the key words heyot ha’adam: ‘It is not good to try to become a true human being on one’s own’. In other words, we cannot fully develop our heart and soul or live out our values on our own. We need the context of relationships to help us grow and become our truest, deepest and most fulfilled selves. This applies to children, it relates to the many friendships we would hope to have over the course of our lives, but it is truest of all of marriage. So, at least, we hope. We are blessed if we have a partner who brings out the best in us, as we strive to do for him or her. I sometimes ask couples to write before the wedding both about the values they bring to the marriage from their upbringing and about what is so special to them in their partner. I often read sentences like, ‘Her love and kindness have made me a much better person. She’s helping me to become the person I truly want to be’.
For many years I’ve run short courses for couples getting married. Naturally the first sessions tend to focus on the wedding itself. But I’m often reminded of the gift which Nicky and I received three days after our chuppah. It was accompanied by a short note: ‘Sorry this is too late for the wedding; we hope it’s not too late for the marriage’. The real issues concern the values underlying marriage. There is always the danger that preoccupations with the details of the ceremony obscure every other concern and I was heartened when a girl said, about a month before the big day, ‘I don’t really care that much the wedding. Well, I don’t exactly mean that, but it’s the marriage which really matters to me. I just want us to spend the rest of our lives together.’
So what are the key values underlying marriage? It goes almost without saying that there must be chemistry and romance. The rabbis interpreted ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ as prohibiting marrying couples who have not previously met; it’s cruelty to force two people together who experience no mutual attraction. But the ‘value’ I want to focus on is values themselves; a marriage is ultimately made sacred both by the values expressed within it: trust, honesty, fairness, consideration, compassion, and by the values shared in the home love creates around itself and in its own image. A crucial question for a couple contemplating marriage to consider is ‘What are our common values?’ Obviously, marriage isn’t the same as signing up to an ideology. But marriage is the creation of that space from which we go out into the world to live the life we consider most right and worthwhile, and to which we return at night to talk through our day. If we don’t share core values with our partner we are likely to experience a growing dissonance and isolation.
An equally important matter to share is sharing itself. Perhaps worse than the ‘solitude’ of being on one’s own is the loneliness of being with another person with whom we simply can’t communicate what’s in our heart. But a relationship doesn’t simply happen. It requires one of our most precious commodities: time. ‘Love grows,’ a good family friend said to me when, a lot younger, I was hesitant about the whole idea of marriage. Love generally does, but not if taken for granted and neglected. Soon after I got married a relative told me, ‘When it gets late, I take my sewing and go upstairs; that’s the sign for my husband to join me and we spend the last few minutes of the day just talking to one another.’
Faithfulness in the context of marriage is too often thought of only in connection to its opposite, being unfaithful. It goes without saying that this is deeply wrong and profoundly wounding in the context of any relationship, let alone marriage. But faithfulness in marriage should be thought of more as it is in the context of religion. Like its Hebrew original, emunah, it means trust, the sharing not only of our today but of our unknown tomorrow in the context of our bond with one another. The faith we give and receive in marriage is our readiness to share our one and only journey through this life.
Marriage is a unique and exclusive bond, but not the only relationship which matters in our lives. Marriage fits within the wider context of family and community. Inevitably there are stresses and differences; the Talmud notes that there is no such thing as a wedding without family rows. A couple are truly blessed if their own relationship becomes a harmonious part of a supportive family network. It is equally important, and lies within our choice, to belong to a community, to share friendships in which we can live out our values, support and care for others, hopefully raise children and study, practise and celebrate our Judaism. Judaism is a major ally to marriage; Shabbat offers the gift of time to counterbalance the pressures of the working week, festivals bring a profound historical and spiritual context into the home, Jewish learning creates a framework in which tradition and values can be studied and shared together.
Whereas marriage is Judaism’s ideal, it is important to include an appreciation of other relationships. Across almost the whole spectrum of denominations Judaism has revised its understanding of gay people, acknowledging that sexual orientation is not usually a matter of choice. It must then be seen as cruel to preclude people from entering into and celebrating faithful partnerships. Judaism stands here for the same values of trust, love, stability and faithfulness as it does in the context of heterosexual marriage. In contrast, there are also times when it is understandable that people choose not to marry, not only when exploring if a relationship will or won’t work out. This may be the case after the pain of divorce or bereavement, or later in life when, because of each party’s children or complex family reasons, a supportive relationship may exist without formalisation in marriage. These bonds, and the courage and faith in relationship itself which they represent, should be respected in the community.
As everyone well knows, it is sadly the reality that marriage does not always work out. Judaism generally regards this as a matter of sorrow rather than blame and its chief concern is for the wellbeing of children and of each partner. The get is at once a document of divorce and an express authorisation to begin anew to seek a life-long partner.
The faith in life, love and marriage remains.