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If you were from another planet, and all you knew about society came from television and movies, you’d probably think marriage was the dumbest thing ever.
Olivia Newton-John’s high school character in the movie Grease is described as being “lousy with virginity” before she sexes up to get her man. Tim Tebow has been mocked for his inability to keep a girlfriend because he’s saving himself for marriage. Henny Youngman made a living out of asking audiences to “take my wife — please.” The old show “Married With Children” might be enough to ward you off weddings by itself: Purposely preceded by the ironically placed theme song “Love and Marriage,” it featured a lewd man with a particular loathing for his attractive but lazy wife.
In the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” on the other hand, even after hearing an interminable and repellent litany of his love interest’s 33 sexual partners, Hugh Grant’s commitment-phobic character manages to stammer out a non-proposal asking the woman if she’d “agree not to marry me? And do you think not being married to me might be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?”
All of which and more led me to mingle fascinatedly Thursday night amongst a quarterly gathering in Arlington — its first-ever in this region — of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists.
I was dying to know what they thought of marriage.
Quite frankly, I was stunned. Not by their unanimous view of the importance of the institution, but by their sense of the immense magnitude of marriage’s impact on both the individual and society.
“Marriage, historically, has been the true touchstone of nations,” says Chaplain Rich Stoglin of Arlington, a member of the Board of Examiners who has ministered to Marines, inmates, Gold Star families and more. Without a healthy institution of marriage, he says, “society dissolves.”
“Marriage is part of the fabric of our culture and our society,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Jennifer Smothermon of Abilene, chairwoman of the board. “Strong marriages create strong families; strong families create strong cultures. It’s at the core, at the crux of our culture and society.”
“Marriage is good for society,” says therapist and board member Lisa Merchant, assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Abilene Christian University.
So, if marriage is so vitally important, why is it so disparaged in our culture? We love weddings and throw bridal showers and rice and see wedded couples off to what we hope is wedded bliss, and then as a society we throw shade on the whole idea.
And look at all the added stressors and distractions thrown at families these days. Besides hundreds of cable channels and TVs all over the house, there are all manners of depravity available at the click of a mouse on an internet that could make a Parisian harlot blush. Merchant notes reported exposure of live-action erotica to 8-year-olds.
More innocent but no less intrusive are the ever-present smart phones — which Merchant, head of a batterer intervention program, says are involved in about half of the domestic violence incidents she deconstructs. “It’s amazing to me how often phones and Facebook and social media play into the reason (batterers) are in my class,” she told me.
Technology appears to connect us, “but it actually leads to disengagement, is what we’ve found,” Smothermon adds.
Busy lifestyles also put stress on marriage and family, and can make it seem as if couples mostly see each other on the way to separate events or chores. Overcrowded schedules can have an especially adverse impact on children. Smothermon says in such cases, with just a little attention paid to such kids, “We see a lot of behavioral problems vanish.”
Both marriage and divorce rates have fallen in recent years — in some part due to younger Americans choosing to delay getting married until they’re more established (and, by the way, more mature), or even to eschew marriage all together.
It leaves us with a quirky statistic, though. From what I can tell, women’s median age of first marriage in the U.S. is 27 — while their median age for first childbirth is 26.4.
As for how to have a happy marriage, Smothermon shares advice once given to her by a long-married uncle.
“Every day, wake up and out-love and out-serve your partner,” she says. “Just out-do each other in love.”
It might not make for a great sitcom, but it may be the script for a long marriage.