Marriage versus Single Life: Choosing the Lesser of Two
Why write on this topic when there are many burning current issues to be raised and discussed? I never intended to write anything on the subject matter. I am not an authority on family affairs, or marriage or family guidance and the like. But I was forced, or rather provoked, to write this article because of two basic reasons. Firstly, a friend of mine showed me a pictorial sketch of a man showing his image before marriage and after marriage. Mind you, the picture is only one piece of sketch but when you see it reversing the position up and down you can see two images of the same picture, the same man. The “before marriage” face implicitly shows cheerfulness, joy and happiness. On the other hand, from the “after marriage” image you may read a face stricken with wrinkles, grief and sorrow.
So after looking at the picture again and again, I wondered whether single life was actually better than married life. I tried to remember my past years as bachelor. I tried to explore the lives of my friends and relatives and myself before and after marriage. I tried to reflect the days of happiness and sorrow, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, harmony and disunity both before and after marriage. I tried to remember the many couples in the town I know. When I saw them during their courtship period, that is before marriage, at parties, movies, recreation centers, swimming pools, wedding ceremonies, or in the church I always observed them with faces of jubilation, joy, mutual affection and caring for one another and wanting one another. Every minute meant so much for them during that period. But when I observed the same couples after marriage, after a year or two, whether at the same place or in other places, or driving their car or walking together, etc, I usually observed them looking angry, arguing over some petty things, gloomy and what not, and I seldom saw them with the happy faces they were observed before marriage.
Probably, this is the condition that our cartoonist in the above- mentioned pictorial sketch wanted to depict. But is this the true picture of single life and married life? Can we generalize from the above situation that to remain single is better than to get married? Is it true that after marriage there are no moments of happiness? Why do we observe such changes in behavior before and after marriage? Is it human nature, or is it because marriage is simply like that? Or because of other problems such as religious, economic, social, political and financial problems; infidelity, extended family system, sexual dissatisfaction, etc…, I really don’t know. But anyway, I wanted to say something about the subject matter which, I hope, will provoke other appropriate authorities to come up with more plausible discussions than my crude statements.
Secondly, I thought that we Ethiopians live in a time when everything seems to be guided by politics, and politics alone. Politics has become a way of life and pervading all walks of life. There is too much polarization and hostility amongst the protagonists in the nation's political arena. Our society is undoubtedly polluted by too much politicking and national politics gone awry because of our nationalist demagogues and extremist elements circulating in the political marketplace. I thought of writing this article so as to make a modest contribution towards tempering the prevailing hostile political environment by some amusing piece such as this one. Let me now go back to the topic in question.
What is marriage? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 1980, defines marriage as “legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a Merriam Webster, USA, 1973 edition, defines marriage as “the mutual relation of husband and wife: wedlock; the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family.” The latter dictionary also acknowledges marriage of convenience which is a marriage contracted for social, political, or economic advantage rather than for mutual affection.
The above definitions implicitly and explicitly express the fact that any union of man and woman as husband and wife in order to be called marriage must be legal, must be socially and culturally or religiously performed, and performed in accordance with the law of the land, in compliance with convention, religion or accepted cultural norms and impositions in a given country and society. Thus the nature and content, prescriptions and requirements, rites, wedding ceremonies and attendant festivities or formalities may vary from country to country, from one culture to the other, from religion to religion and even in one country between different peoples, ethnic groups, and regions. But the essence of marriage is universal in the fact that the union of two people or more to be accepted as marriage is always the union of man and woman, or man and women.
From time immemorial, men and women seem to have respected the aforementioned divine purposes. Besides helping one another in marriage, according to Professor Dimitri Valenti, it was confirmed from world demographic studies that “since the beginning of the human race on earth, the population of the world reached the first billion in 1825, the second billion after 110 years since then, the third billion after 30 years in 1960, and the fourth billion after 15 years in 1975. According to the forecasts of UN population experts, world population will reach at least 6.5 billion in the year 2000 and 12.13 billion at the turn of the 21st century.” Thus, world population will increase at such a very high rate of growth for a long time to come by “being fruitful, by multiplying, by replenishing the earth”. But at what number and population figure the earth will reach its saturation point as regards its wealth, resources and its productive capacity is the puzzle of tomorrow.
To come back to our main point, the past ages and eons of human as well as world history have witnessed unimaginable changes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. From the early primitive communal society to slave society, from slave to feudal society, and then to capitalist society, human history has recorded many civilizations, political and social as well as cultural and industrial revolutions, scientific and technological breakthroughs and great strides in all aspects and spheres affecting the lives of people throughout the world. Such immense changes and progress have resulted in great changes in human outlook, beliefs, social and cultural values, religions and conventions, laws and obligations. In this age of technology, cybernetics, robots and automation to help him, why does a man want to get married to a woman or vice versa? Why does a free man or a free woman seek to enter into legal and social bondage, enslavement, so to say, or union, sacrificing all his or her personal freedom, rights, privileges, principles, etc…? What is the motive behind this union? Can’t a man or a woman live single and yet be happy? Can’t this union called marriage be temporary (five minutes, an hour, a month or three) only for such purposes as sexual pleasure and reproduction, happiness in companionship and other mutual benefits, etc, without any commitment attached to it legally or socially and without any quarrels or fanfare and legal proceedings at every disunion or separation? These and other perplexing questions revolve around the act of marriage.
Yet marriage is a truth since man/woman came into being on this planet called Earth. Marriage has always been, is and will forever remain so. As there is marriage, there is also single life: bachelorship or spinsterhood. Single life has always been and it will forever be. No one knows their ultimate end; their omega, so to speak. Marriage and single life are both full of happiness as well as grief; both are abundant in tragedies as well as comedies. They exist in the unity of opposites principle. Like day and night, light and darkness, winter and summer, life and death, happiness and grief, etc., marriage and single life exit side by side. No social or political, cultural or economic phenomenon will alter this state of human affairs although man himself plays a considerable role through such actions as birth control, family planning, health measures which greatly decrease mortality rate, etc, to maintain the proper balance between marriage and single life. But which one is better: To marry or to remain single? To come up with a satisfactory answer to this question does not seem as simple as posing the question. No philosophy or social science or spiritualism or religion in the world has so far been discovered which would convince mankind as to which course of action is better than the other: To get married or to remain single.
When Socrates was once asked whether it was better to marry or to remain single, he replied, “Whichever you do, you will repent it!” Such statements of disillusionment regarding marriage abound in literature and in current conversation. We often come across married men and women who ask themselves whether marriage has actually contributed more to their happiness after wedlock than before. On the other hand, there are many bachelors and spinsters who also wonder whether marriage does actually contribute to happiness if they get married. There are many single men and women who always ask themselves whether marriage can give happiness and thereby contribute towards building a happy home. There are many who think marriage is full of intolerable problems and sufferings and that single life is full of joy and pleasure.
After many years of closely observing different marriages or married couples and the lives of many single men and women, I have formed the opinion (not research-based, of course) that marriage is a better choice between two evils; choosing the lesser of two evils, so to say. It is a choice between the two evils of coping with a myriad of economic, social, political, cultural, sexual and psychological problems and other “worldly evils” all alone without a serious and permanent matrimonial bond existing between a helper of the opposite sex or sharing all these problems with someone else- a spouse, children and family-- with all the negative consequences and inconveniences such union brings forth with it. Getting married is an evil. So also is single life. Both are a dilemma but unavoidable.
Marriage is an evil because of many reasons and factors, such as sharing one’s independent income, losing one’s personal friends as well as property, secrets, interests and hobbies, freedom, rights, principles and convictions; shouldering immense family responsibilities which curtail one’s mobility, decision-marking, happiness, personal ambitions and plans; possibility of grief and sorrow, agony and misery at the illness or death of one’s spouse or children or relatives; family quarrels and misunderstandings over so many economic and social issues; monotony of living and sharing so many things with the same husband or wife in the same house, even the same bed, for years and years end; shortcomings in properly raising, educating and feeding one’s children up till adulthood or adolescence and sometimes beyond; fault-finding, criticisms, and petty annoyances; grim possibility of married life ending dismally with all its negative eventualities, etc.
On the other hand, to remain single is also a great abominable evil owing to various reasons, such as losing family tie which is often taken as “the closest, the most tender, and sacred of any on earth;” perpetual loneliness and absence of reliable and caring life-time partner at home particularly in times of sickness, distress, absence due to many reasons, old-age, death of a family member and need; irregular affections and friendship and sexual dissatisfaction; feelings of despair and insecurity in life and in the future; inability to cope alone with the innumerable economic, social and cultural problems; failure or incapacity to contribute to the perpetuation of one’s race and social order as well as human happiness; cowardice to assume family responsibility, etc. Since a family is the basic unit of any society, any one who is not married and thereby has not created a family, irrespective of all the problems that hover over him/her, such as problems of insufficient income, lack of shelter, etc, is not making his or her share of proper contribution to society.
The Holy Bible is full of verses in the Old Testament and in the New Testament
favorably supporting matrimonial bond. Let us cite a few of these verses:
· “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18)
· “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24)
· “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing (Proverbs 18:22, Solomon’s Proverbs)
· “He that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage does better: (I Corinthians 7:38)
· “Husbands, love your wives --- so ought once to love their wives as their own bodies. He that
love the his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but
nourished and cherisheth it---“ (Ephesians 5:25-33)
From the above verses we come to understand that except for St. Paul who in I Corinthians preached remaining single, preferring it to marriage and married life, the Bible clearly supports and prescribes marriage for any person’s, female or male, happy life. As regards St. Paul since he had no wife so far as we know from the Bible and whereas King Solomon of Israel had seven hundred wives, Solomon ought to be the better judge than St. Paul regarding marriage, and Solomon’s judgment is:
“Whose findeth a wife findeth a good thing.”
The above verses and statements are the teachings of the Holy Bible. Since they advocate the sacredness and significance of building a well-regulated family contributing towards the healthy development of society, it must be noted that these are universally acceptable standards of
behavior and not mere idealism or illusion.
“Such well-intentioned religious standards of behavior as integrity, justice, compassion and care for people’s well-being, respect for labour, truthfulness, mutual respect in the family, respect for the elderly and a striving to know the world deserve universal recognition as does the struggle of clergymen for the equality and independence of nations and their liberation from the oppression of colonialists and foreign conquerors, against the exploitation and oppression of man by man, against fratricidal wars, for world peace,” (Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, Moscow, 1982, Political Terms- A Short Guide, p46). Thus throughout human history, marriage was supported and encouraged not only for the purpose of “peopling the earth and perpetuating the race,” nor was it contracted merely for social, political, or economic advantage and mutual affection, but to “promote social order and human happiness,” to prevent irregular affections; and through well-regulated families, to transmit truth, civilization, customs, culture, technologies, science, social values, etc, from age to age. “Around it cluster all the purest and truest joys of home and race.” After all, the full development of an individual is possible only in a collective and only with an active attitude towards social life. Single life, selfishness, arrogance and opposition to the collective hinder human progress and the reshaping of society. Although many social, economic and cultural problems are hindering the harmonious adventure of serious and permanent marriages, married life is by far better than single life. Both are full of problems and short-comings. Both are evils. As Socrates said, “Whichever you do, you will repent it!” But marriage is a better evil to live with, a lesser evil to repent of and thus a choice between the lesser of two evils. And to make the best use of this lesser evil called marriage, those who already are married must heed to the following recommendations by family guidance experts: “Though a husband and wife may be admirably suited for each other; it is quite impossible for them always to see things alike. After all they are two different individuals, each with his own background and outlooks, and each having a different role to play. As they seek to understand these differences, they can make life a harmonious adventure together. Each can contribute character traits to the marriage that the other may not have, and as these characteristics supplement those of the other, the marriage can be wielded into a solid relationship which will bring abundant happiness and deep satisfaction to both. Always respect the point of view of the other and make allowances for the differences. Recognize that it is wise for a person to keep his eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterward. The husband and wife mean so much to each other that criticism cut more deeply than were ever intended. Hence always avoid fault-finding, criticisms and petty annoyances. If in marriage each partner can seek out the best in the other, enlarging encouragingly on these good points, he or she will receive rewarding love and life-long appreciation in return. Expressions of confidence and faith always bring out the very best in another. Since love thrives on these positive virtues, use them lavishly.”
And those many single men and women who seek to get married, heed to the following admonition: “That which rightly used is of greatest blessing; when abused becomes the greatest curse.” The marriage covenant must be entered into intelligently and with due consideration for all its responsibilities. Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and take your time to really study one’s background and outlook. Realizing the seriousness and permanence of the matrimonial bond never, never forget the utmost importance of solemnizing your marriage vows by some authority and making the covenant before men or convention, law or church, whatever your convictions might be. Always avoid hasty and ill-advised marriage, spur-of the- moment weddings, thoughtless and impulsive sexual excesses before marriage with your would be partner, and avoid pregnancy or reproducing
offspring's before marriage; avoid abuses and strange ideas and profanity before and after marriage; make every effort to really understand about family responsibility; freely and genuinely discuss your ideals, convictions, interests and differences; never, never conceal or lie about certain sensitive issues such as ethnic background, virginity, offspring born out of wedlock, personal income, property, etc..., and never take too long a time in courtship, get married as soon as possible. In addition, always remember the aforementioned recommendations forwarded to married couples.
On the other hand, it must be understood that there are no reliable formulae for life, no menu prescribed for life styles. Social life is quite complicated. It is only through tolerance, mutual respect, thoughtful actions, understanding, truthfulness, faithfulness, and love for one another that we can traverse on the bumpy road of married life. Married life is a struggle, a challenge and hence it requires intelligent and thoughtful planning and decisions.
I know about a couple who after 13 years of thoughtlessly and impulsively united life, a covenant that had not been made before men or church or law, and a union without any marriage vows, wedding ceremonies and attendant festivities strengthening the union, without mentioning other deficiencies, who regretfully say that both of them have really gambled with their future happiness upon a flimsy and temporary foundation which has resulted in frequent misunderstandings, annoyances, arguments, dissatisfaction and brawls. This situation, I am afraid, cannot hope to succeed for long to the unhappiness, regret, and even eventual ruin of all concerned themselves and their children. Because of their hasty, emotional, ill-advised and spur-of-the-moment “cleaving unto one another and becoming one flesh” union which has not been ever since their united life approved by all concerned: law, culture, convention, religion, relatives and friends, they have been forced by conditions to lead a life full of dilemma, and unhappiness. Such marriage, if at all we can call it marriage, must be avoided by every intelligent and thoughtful man or woman if he or she wants to minimize the frequency of repentance which is inherent in both marriage and single life.
I have thus attempted to proclaim about marriage like a clumsy gospel preacher and have ended up clumsily supporting marriage. I wonder whether readers of this article who know me would point their fingers at me and ask me, “by the way, are you successful in your married life?” My answer would be Yes and No: Yes, because I am blessed with a large family of five lovely daughters and three handsome boys; No, because of not strictly adhering to the aforementioned prescriptions and solemn advice. Whatever the case, no preachers are accused of not adhering to their preaching/sermon and their wise advice is: “Do as I say, Not as I do.”