All-or-Nothing Marriage

“All-or-Nothing Marriage” a sermon

by Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton

March 16, 2014


Marriage is fascinating.  It seems like it has been around forever.  It’s easy to assume that the marriage construct we know has also been around forever.  You know what I mean, two young people meet, feel attraction, fall in love and with the best of intentions choose to join one another in marriage with the goal of being partnered for the rest of their lives and perhaps raising a family. “Will you still feed me, will you still need me when I’m 64.” sang the Beatles.  “I want to see your smiling face 45 years from now.” added Stan Rogers.  “A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home, And they shall travel on to where the two shall be as one.” sang Peter Paul and Mary quoting St. Paul.  Those are pretty generally accepted cultural givens about marriage around here.


Except that the love and romance thing is actually quite new.  Marriage has been around forever, but the form we think we know is comparatively recent.  And according to Eli Finkel the author of our reading, it is changing again.  Given the generational shifts we have been experiencing, that’s not really a surprise.  The questions now are how is it shifting and what is the future of the institution?








One thing is sure:  marriage has always been a critical part of human society both shaping and reflecting the needs of religion, culture and economics.  As society changes, as our human needs and expectations change, so marriage has changed.  That’s the part a lot of folks haven’t realized.  So perhaps marriage can give us some clues about where we are all going next in this time of generational shift and cultural change.


There have been excellent historical discussions of marriage in recent years.  In his excellent article, Finkel summarizes the conclusions well.


For as long as history bears us record, marriage in culturally Christian countries began as an economic and sometimes political institution.  Forget romantic love – weddings were about building alliances.  Think of them as corporate mergers on both small and grand scales.
















Marriage was first about survival and later about building wealth and stability.  Of course, women were often considered to be the property of their fathers and later their husbands.  Hence we have in many wedding services the arcane custom of the father ‘giving away the bride’.  We also have the holdover of the betrothal where I get to ask, “Will you have this woman/man to be your wife/husband?”  Originally that was the formal legal and contractual act of engagement done months, even years before the actual wedding.  It was the promise noted in old novels when someone backed out and was sued for breach of promise.


Marriage might have been solemnized before God, but as is today, the really important part was the contractual obligations taken on by both families.


Of course when great houses of royalty, nobility or simply economic giants were coming together this contractual aspect is obvious.  But it was true in the meanest of marriages as well.  The simplest of farmers married in order to share the workload of the farm, and to give birth to new workers in the form of their children.











And in this majority of marriages among the commoners, husband and wife often toiled together and were with one another many hours a day.  That’s not true now.  The idea of compatibility was reasonably important because the couple would have to live and work together, especially in common marriages, but love and romance – if they could be found – they were just bonuses.  Folks didn’t expect that.


This was the era of Institutional Marriage.  And it lasted until the 1850’s.


By then the shift to an urban lifestyle was well underway.  In literature it was the era of romantic poets singing the virtues of true love. Though there was still a need for the teamwork of marriage, the city lifestyle removed many of the dangers and uncertainties of rural life.  A new pattern began to emerge which Finkel calls Companionate Marriage. He writes “…Marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life…Men increasingly engaged in wage labor outside of the home, which amplified the extent to which the two sexes occupied distinct social spheres.  As the nation became wealthier and its social institutions became stronger, Americans had the luxury of looking to marriage primarily for love and companionship.”







Finkel and his team theorize that this model of marriage ran from about 1850 through 1965.  Of course there was spillover on both sides of those dates, and we still feel the expectations of this kind of marriage even today.  I think it is safe to say that were I to ask you to describe marriage, most of you would describe a companionate model.


But since 1965 Finkel and his team have detected another shift.  When I read his description I had a kind of ‘oh yeah’ reaction that suggested that marriage has changed, that I have noticed it (and indeed experienced it), but never really understood that the whole institution was shifting.  Let’s see if any of you have that reaction


Finkel calls it the era of Self-expressive Marriage:


“…(People) now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.  Fuelled by counter-cultural currents of the 1960’s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfilment..In the words of the sociologist Robert Bellah, love has become in good part, ‘the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”









Finkel then makes a nice leap connecting the evolution of marriage to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs.  Abraham Maslow described a pyramid with the base needs being physiological, like food and water.  Then comes safety, like shelter and protection, then comes love and belonging, followed by self esteem and finally self-actualization.  The key is that the lower needs must be satisfied first before we become concerned with the higher needs.  Once we are confident about food and shelter, we are free to think about love and community and so on up the chain.


Finkel suggests that as society has stabilized and grown wealthier, marriage has followed the same pyramid.  Institutional era roughly parallels needs for food, shelter and safety.  The companionate era bridged into love and belonging and self-esteem and now we are pursuing self-esteem and self-actualization.


Finkel argues that as couples ascend the pyramid they need to give more attention to the quality of their relationship.  That includes shared interests, shared friendships and a deep interest in the other person’s views and activities.









However he suggests that other aspects of today’s living are making that harder and harder.  Consider these statistics from sociologist Jeffery Dew:

In 1975 spouses without children typically spent 35 hours a week together.  By 2003 that had dropped to 26 hours.

In 1975 spouses with children at home spent 13 hours a week together.  By 2003 it dropped to 9 due largely to time-intensive parenting.


And remember, 2003 was when the internet was really just starting to become popular.  I can’t help wonder if those couples can even maintain 9 hours.  It certainly changes the emphasis of a marriage.  We spend more time at work or with kids or doing other things than we do with spouses unless we are very intentional about finding that time.


Now I don’t cite these numbers to raise alarm or even to suggest that one set of numbers is good and the other bad.  I am merely pointing out a cultural phenomenon that exists.  Finkel calls it the All-or-nothing marriage. Today’s unions are either the most satisfying ever, or they fall considerably short.










What goes for marriage extends into culture as a whole.  We have so many choices and function so independently in so many spheres that our world has changed.


Here in church and in voluntary associations everywhere we see the same pattern.  The age of self-expression has also brought declining commitment, declining membership.  It is as if when we are in an age when our whole society has become cautious about long term anything.  In fact, until recent legislation changes, the longest commitment most of us were making was for our cell phones!


I will come back to marriage in my conclusion, but first I am going to divert for a moment with a word from our sponsor, as it were.


In the last few years we have noticed that anything billed as a Canvass sermon only draws the same folks who are longterm supporters.  We decided to subversively slip a canvass message into a ‘regularly scheduled sermon’. But today’s topic provides an appropriate segue.












Tied to this concept of marriage is the concept of home. Back in the days of institutional marriage, hearth and home was a place of safety, and church was one of the critical supports and gathering places that brought an even greater sense of community safety.  That’s not so much the case these days.


Well, this church is our home, and each of us has to figure out what that means for us today.  Our Canvass theme is “There’s no place like home!” and there isn’t.  Chair Andrew Mills has invited each of us to think about what it means to have this place available as a spiritual home.  More importantly, I would ask those of you who have not pledged yet to ask yourselves what it would be like if this place was not here?


Each week I remind us all that this is a free-standing institution.  We have to pay our bills ourselves.  There is no great benefactor who pays for us.  If we want this as our home, we have to heat it and light it and keep it in good repair and pay for the programs we want to see here.


It’s not cheap.  We need to raise about $160,000 from ourselves just for the basics.










In order to help the Board plan our finances and put forward a reasonable budget in May, we ask members and friends to make an estimate of what they will give between July 1 and June 30.  That includes me.


Some people have the means and the passion for this place and give a lot.  Others have more demands and more meagre resources.  How much you give is less important than you making a decision to share in the responsibility for maintaining this wonderful home and community.


The problem, the challenge is that in this age of self-expressive marriage, we are asking you to act for a moment as if you were in the age of institutional marriage, to decide to possibly move out of your comfort zone and take on a partner’s share in financing this church.


I guess that I have been doing this so long that I am comfortable with that.  More than comfortable, I actually take a measure of strength from belonging to a community like this one.  As a single parent earning about $78,000 I am planning to contribute $3,250 next year, and increase.  I could spend that money elsewhere for sure, but this commitment matters to me.  Our President Michelle Van der Molen and her husband John Pater have given me permission to tell you they are pledging…  It matters to them too.






I’m not offering these numbers to suggest what you have to pledge…we just don’t work that way.  There are many smaller pledges and I can promise you, Andrew and the rest of the leaders are grateful for every single one.  The amount is less important than the decision to commit to this church for a year.


What I am suggesting is that Andrew would really like to hear from you with any amount.  If this church matters to you, if this place helps you with self expression or self-esteem or just gives you a place to sing or play or eat or rest in silence or think now and then, please consider it your home and treat it accordingly.


Ok, back to our regularly scheduled sermon:


We have shifted from institutional to companionate to self-expressive marriage.  But there are some aspects that bridge all three.  Marriage remains about two people (sometimes more, but that’s another avenue for a different day), so it’s about two people deciding that being together will serve their needs better than being alone.  Alone is scary for many people, though not all.  Even today, some couples join for sense of safety and security and for a pooling of resources and goals.








But we also live with a powerful culturally reinforced belief that marriage should also include love, passion and sexual fulfillment.


And the latest shift in this era of human rights. women’s rights and the right to control your own body, mind and spirit, is that we should be free to become fully ourselves within the boundaries of marriage.


When that works, wow!  But I think many, if not most of us have come to understand that marriage is not the absolute necessity it once was, that we can have good and rich lives both inside and outside of wedded bliss.  The challenge is finding the way that works best for you, that gives you the best balance of needs.  It’s a challenge without a definable right or wrong answer.  Today we can only seek a workable answer.