As the institution of marriage continues to implode in the West, there seems to be a growing and near-universal apprehension about the social vacuum it is leaving behind. While most conservatives continue to advocate for the good of marriage by pointing to the central role it has played throughout human history in creating healthy and just societies, more and more progressives are searching for a marriage replacement.
At least some of these replacement efforts come from a place of genuine concern. Sadly, a great many Americans have experienced the costly effects of the breakdown of marriage firsthand, as their own parents, grandparents, siblings, or children have gone through divorce or had to cope with the challenges presented by out-of-wedlock birth.
But some efforts at replacing marriage are animated by a calculated hostility to marriage.
“What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life?” That was the question The Atlantic asked in a notable headline this past month. Embedded in this innocent-seeming question and the story that follows is a society-killing subversion that deserves our attention.
If, as The Atlantic asks, marriage was not the “center” of life — an intentionally vague metaphor with a thousand possibilities — and friendship were to genuinely replace it, what would the world look like? I would answer that question with another question. Have you ever seen a dystopian movie where the end of the human race plays out on screen?
Reading this article from The Atlantic, the effects of the breakdown of marriage are on full display. The amount of divorce and heartbreak and sexual confusion and even suicide in the lives of these individuals who have apparently attempted to prioritize friendship over marriage raises a question about causation: does prioritizing friendship over marriage actually doom healthy marriages? The cases presented in this article would seem to suggest so.
But perhaps the most glaring omission in this article is any sustained reflection on one of the central aspects of marriage throughout human history: procreation. If marriage is de-centered, then what about children? But to ask the question of children is to ask a question outside the self, outside the here and now, which is to shine a light on our neurotic obsession with ego. But it is also to highlight a fundamental difference between friendship and marriage: the possibility of a relationship being about more than the relationship.
The Atlantic article includes a story about two friends, Kami West and Kate Tillotson, who are trying to navigate the dating world and their own friendship at the same time. West recalls a time when a previous boyfriend disparaged her best friend out of jealousy, and she broke up with him — which was probably the right call on her part. But because of this experience, West has vowed that no one would come between her and Tillotson again: “West and Tillotson know what convention dictates. ‘Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1,’ West told me. ‘Our worlds are backward.’”
Are our worlds backward, as West suggests? If convention dictates that boyfriends and significant others and spouses are all supposed to be the priority relationship, then of course the convention is wrong — just not the way West thinks. Boyfriends and significant others are not supposed to be the priority relationship. But if you have a spouse, then they are to take the priority. Period. But why?
The Bible teaches that the husband-wife relationship is unique among human relationships. No other human relationship is described as two becoming one. No other human relationship is given the divine blessing for the fulfillment of our God-given sexuality. And no other human relationship is given the divine blessing for procreation in order to propagate the human race. Because of this, no other human relationship is as necessary for the continuation and flourishing of the human race than marriage. What is more, the Bible begins and ends with a marriage — Adam and Eve in the garden in the beginning of all things typify the marriage of Christ and his church at the end of all things.
Does the Bible’s centralization of marriage then denigrate other human relationships, such as friendship? On the contrary! Marriage enables and informs all other relationships. Marriage is the cornerstone of the family, and family is the foundation of human society, but human society consists in variegated relationships.
Movements to sideline marriage like this one in The Atlantic are not new. It has been well established that marriage’s implosion is owing at least in part to the residual mines sown during the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the unending barrage of torpedoes launched today by the revolution’s heirs. The rise of sexual libertinism set free a host of demons that haunt the institution today, including expressive individualism, anti-natalism, and narcissism. A society possessed by these spirits has no need for marriage; instead, marriage becomes a burden to be avoided — or replaced.
But we must stand athwart such movements and bear witness to a deeper truth: the goodness and centrality of marriage and the family.
We could ask The Atlantic’s question in reverse, “What if [Christian] marriage, not friendship, was the center of life?” If we play on the vagueness of the question and backfill it with Christian imagination, then we could imagine a world in which divorce rates plummets, children are reared with joy, families and societies flourish, and — this is crucial — friends, including singles, are welcomed into warm homes where they would support and benefit from the overflow of familial love. In other words, it’s not friendship vs. marriage. Marriage and family underwrite the possibility of friendship.
And, since we modified our question to include “Christian marriage,” all of it would point to the life-making love Christ has for his church.