The Institutionalism of Marriage

The disintegration of the institution of marriage in our society is obvious. However, those things which are often seen to be the sources of this – the rise in promiscuity, divorce, the push for gay ‘marriage’, etc. – are only the symptoms.

The roots of the breakdown of marriage as a social institution actually occurred in the mid 20th century when it began to be assumed that marriage is sustained by an individual relationship that two people participate in, rather than it being understood that the institution of marriage is what sustains and gives integrity to the relationship.

In the latter approach, marriage is bigger than the two people involved. Under this understanding, marriage is an institution that ushers a man and woman into an entire ecosystem of obligations, responsibilities and priorities. Historically this ecosystem has been sustained by numerous factors that people used to take for granted, ranging everywhere from how we think of the home to the role of the extended family, to legislation regarding the place of illegitimate children within society.

It is this larger ecosystem that has been lost today. Those who get married today are not immediately surrounded by a broader web of social obligations, responsibilities and priorities.

Marriage is Bigger Than the Couple

In an interview for Volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, David Blankenhorn pointed out that “The current conception of marriage is that the couple is now bigger than the marriage. To put it in religious terms, the couple is the god of their marriage. They define it. They give it all its meaning. Marriage is a private religion that the couple defines…. The couple becomes bigger than the marriage rather than the other way around.”

Blankenhorn, who subsequently went over to the other side to support gay marriage, pointed out that a marriage cannot so easily be disposed of when a society treats the institution as being bigger than the two individuals involved, rather than visa versa.

Mr. Blankenhorn also explained how a society that has a high regard for the institutional integrity of marriage surrounds the couple with an entire network of laws, taboos, traditions and expectations that place the marriage relationship in a larger context. (See ‘Marvin Olasky Interviews David Blankenhorn‘)

The sense of marriage as an institution that is bigger than the participating couple was embodied in the practice of having the couple recite marriage vows that were given to them by the society. These vows represented fixed standards external to the couple to which they promised conformity.

By contrast, today it has become increasingly normative for the couple to compose their own vows. For my own wedding I wrote the entire service (using bits of the Book of Common Prayer according to my inclination) for precisely this reason: to reinforce the personalized and individualistic nature of the contract.


Under the older framework, marriage was seen to be an objective institution first, and a subjective relationship second. The consequences in a society that has reversed this are legion.

One immediate ramification is that couples are no longer encouraged to conform to the expectations of marriage, but are in many respects discouraged from doing so, as Guy Brandon has pointed out in his discussion of moral hazard.

It is becoming increasingly popular for couples to write their own wedding vows

Or, we might legitimately ask, if marriage is pretty much little more than a close relationship, then why is marriage even necessary if cohabiting couples think they can enjoy this same level of relational closeness?

There have also been more subtle and less obvious ramifications, affecting our very concept of marriage itself. Think about it: if the relationship between two people is bigger than the marriage, and if the relationship is what keeps the marriage alive rather than the marriage being what keeps the relationship alive, then once the relationship turns sour does marriage suddenly lose its integrity? The answer given by our ‘no fault divorce’ laws is yes.

Or again, if marriage is a private relationship that the couple defines (as embodied in the practice of the couple composing their own wedding vows), then are there any limits to what can be encompassed in that definition? Can anything count as marriage? This is a question that has been explored here, although the implications this has for current debates about ‘gay marriage’ should be immediately apparent.

Marriage Sustains Love

The institutional importance of marriage was encapsulated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a wedding sermon he wrote in May 1943 for a young relative on her wedding day. In the sermon, titled ‘A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell,’ and later collected in the volume Letters & Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote that:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom….

Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office….

A little later in the sermon, Bonhoeffer wrote a wonderful line that gets at the heart of the issue: “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

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