"The only true marriage is between souls who have no compulsion of desire or need to be married!" (anonymous)
Well, ok, so there aren't any such marriages to be found! (At least not commonly.)
Human nature or perhaps only human culture bestows upon us an idealized image of marriage, cast in terms of romance and "happily ever after." While no one with life experience would buy into that in a sober state of mind, lots of people buy into it emotionally (at least when attending weddings, or deep into romance novels or movies).
Paramhansa Yogananda wrote a poem called "Friendship." Here is an excerpt:
Friendship is noble, fruitful, holy—
When two separate souls march in difference
Yet in harmony, agreeing and disagreeing,
Glowingly improving diversely,
With one common longing to find solace in true pleasure.
When ne’er the lover seeks
Self-comfort at cost of the one beloved,
Then, in that garden of selflessness
Fragrant friendship perfectly flowers.
For friendship is a hybrid, born of two souls,
The blended fragrance of two unlike flowers
Blown together in love’s caressing breeze.
Friendship is born from the very core
Of secret, inexplicable likings.
Friendship is the fountain of true feelings.
Friendship grows in both likeness and difference.
With the easy accessibility our culture offers for pursuing romantic and sexual urges, we find that marriage is taking place later in life and we see a greater recognition of the importance of friendship (over the intoxication of "being in love"). Perhaps this is the modern form of "arranged" marriage: arranged by higher values and interests rather the compulsion of hormones or a "pretty shade of lipstick and a handsome bow tie."
I don't know the stats but I bet more couples meet by the arrangement of dating sites than by random bumps in a bar.
The candid atmosphere of conversation around sex has the positive effect of shedding light on its darker sides such as aggressive and inappropriate behavior, abuse of position, disease, and pornography, not to mention an long list of criminal activities.
Being in love may seem a harmless form of intoxication, but note that we "fall" in love. All forms of intoxication are similar, even experiencially. All involve a hangover! Taking another step downward, alcohol (or other drug use), sex, and violence can become a kind of demonic triad that clearly has aspects in common. Thus, societies worldwide seek in some way to re-direct sexual impulses into more positive expressions.
Besides, in our calm and sober nature, we are all genderless souls. As we mature, our attractions, to the extent based on gender differences (however much we regale them at the time of our anniversary or at weddings), will naturally subside. Romantic love is designed, even by nature, to evolve into friendship.
Friendship, then, is the New Marriage paradigm.
Romance may be the spark of ignition but once the motor of friendship is running smoothly the sparks become secondary and, over the years, even tiresome or artificial to re-ignite. This is not news but it is becoming increasingly true and conscious in society, or so I maintain (whether now or in the years to come).
Indeed, it is easily demonstrated by observation that unless friendship does kick in, the sparks of sex and romance are insufficient to keep the motor of a close and committed relationship running smoothly.
Some of the natural characteristics of friendship include loyalty, service to one another, shared ideals and interests. And, as Yogananda's "Friendship" poem recounts, it includes acceptance of differences and disagreements. It also involves, increasingly, a shared commitment to community service or other high ideals, including spiritual growth and attunement.
When I opened this article by saying that the only true marriage is between two souls who are not under any compulsion of desire to marry, I am essentially describing two people who are secure in themselves.
This maturity and inner security frees one from the normal and usual neediness and co-dependence that characterizes most [immature] relationships. The freedom implied here allows these two friends to give each other space to evolve and grow while yet retaining respect for their differences in habits and opinions. It also means having the courage to work out or at least attempt to reconcile differences in a harmonious, respectful way.
I do not mean to describe an open-ended marriage. Loyalty will naturally be the basis of a mature marriage. I am referring to the all-too-common fears and insecurities that compel one spouse to fear or resist, or, alternatively, demand, changes in the other. And, when I say "changes" I refer to essentially positive and expansive changes in consciousness or habits (rather than self-destructive tendencies which too often emerge during the course of marriage).
Some of the changes that I've seen that are typical include a change in profession or career (which might require further education), diet or exercise, extreme sports, a spiritual awakening, foreign travel or residency, a hobby, and any number of positive changes in habits.
In this society where men and women mix freely and long-standing taboos around proximity and association are at an all-time minimum, a rising issue in marriage centers on friendships with others.
Yogananda warned that "magnetism [between a man and woman] is the law," and too close of contact (physical, digital, etc.) between two people might flare into a relationship which could erode the trust and commitment of one's marriage. We bristle at the thought of being told "NO," but we have yet to learn that the new "taboos" require a greater personal and internal awareness of the need for self-regulated boundaries. These boundaries are not formed by custom or society. They exist in the mind, in the form of thought, contact, imagination, and feeling. American society, it seems to me, is largely unaware of this more subtle reality of human nature. Look at the issues arising in daily news around inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Another increasingly common change in marriage is facing a decision to end the marriage. Divorce is already common but friendship emphasizes harmony not contractual rights. If a parting of the ways must happen, a commitment to friendship means the separation should be, if possible, mutual, and in any case, as harmonious as any such sundering can be. Joined at the hip for years, even decades, means the dissolution of marriage will require surgery, and surgery is going to generate some pain and discomfort no matter what.
It is not uncommon now to see separation taking place in the later stages of life when mature couples seek to nurture the impulse to be alone, and free from unnecessary obligations. The need to prepare for the "Final Exam" by pursing spiritual pursuits (prayer, pilgrimage, meditation) or, more mundanely, a bucket list, is an important reality for some.
It seems to me, however, that if a couple enters marriage with friendship on the altar, they will do relatively well no matter how long the marriage endures.
Only acceptance and respect for one another's independence and freedom to make, or unmake friendship and the strength and courage to enter into such a relationship can the house of marriage stand as the noble and divine state it can be. To those with a belief in the law of karma (and its concomitant precept, reincarnation) and the courage to follow it through, we are better able to accept the premise that no one owes us anything. Love is a gift and any gift given for profit (with conditions) is merely a contract for goods and services.
The Ananda communities worldwide are part of a movement in this direction. Our wedding ceremony is surely among the most beautiful not only in its poetic and musical aspects, but in its expression of the ideal of divine friendship. At the same time, it is also grounded in the acknowledgement that when differences occur there is a commitment to work things out as best one can. When men and women, generally, and therefore also in marriage, are now free to follow similar pursuits (even serving together) and increasingly share equal status in society, it is important that marriage not turn into a competitive sport at the risk of friendship. The vows in our ceremony include a "non-competition agreement!" (:-)
If you would like a copy of this ceremony, feel free to write to me.
Though a high bar for marriage partners, these ideals can also help us lift our relationship above petty demands and opinions. The lives of many Ananda couples are a testimony to this uplifting, joy-giving power which is nothing less than the power of divine grace.