How to Misunderstand Marriage and Underestimate Institutions

When the U. S. Census Bureau released its data on “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” last November, The Pew Research Center called one aspect of the study to our attention: a link between educational attainment and household relations among American families. Building on its previous research, The PRC highlighted that higher education among parents is linked to (a) having children in wedlock, (b) remaining together, and (c) living under the same roof with their children.

In short, more education, more domestic stability.

The evidence is there, but let’s not be too hasty. Is this a causal link? Does one follow from the other? It’s one thing to recognize that education bears on domestic stability and yet another to believe that it leads to such. It’s one thing to believe in education, but another to believe it will fix our social ailments. Educating for shalom is one thing, seeing education as shalom is another. In each of these, I think many of us believe the latter. And that worries me.

A piece of paper isn’t glue. A diploma, as many of us know, bestows as many problems as solutions. For some of us that piece of paper is a chain. Though having a better sense of the world, we leave that university with more questions than we began. Though potentially affording more employment opportunities, we accrue debt. Though granting us newfound friends and networks, we now have more birthday gift obligations and opportunities for shame.

Education can have negative effects on a marriage.

With every advancement a setback appears, every benefit is accompanied by a lingering detriment. It’s time we dusted off that unread copy of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.

Don’t get me wrong: I vote for education over ignorance every time. Ignorance isn’t always bliss. I have no interest in returning to some primitive state of nature. All the same, education won’t prevent another world war and it certainly won’t keep our marriages together. Right action doesn’t necessarily follow from knowledge, wise decisions from options, or 40 years of faithfulness from four years in a classroom.

And yet some of us think so.


 All sorts of conversations in academe, think tanks, and the public today regarding marriage fall victim to various forms of reductionism. Those involved in these conversations look at an issue—such as divorce—and attribute the root of the problem and its solution to one cause. One looks to fixing oppressive legislation. Another looks to reforming public school curricula. Yet another looks to regulating sexual advertising. “If we would just . . .”

But reductionism never gets to the root of the problem because reductionism is the problem.

Some of us out there actually think that if we all just got a little more education, we, culturally, would get smart enough to keep it in our pants and stay together for the kids.

Call me cynical, but I’m not buying it. If it were only that easy.

Marriage is part of a larger social organism and environment. We cannot single out one problem and prescribe a solution without taking stock of a host of other factors. We cannot be understood apart from our networks, and our marriages cannot be abstracted.

Thomas Hobbes called the household a “little city,” Immanuel Kant called it a “domestic society.” Both saw the home as a society proximate to and in constant relation to other “cities” and “societies” grouped together and extended across space and time. Few of us see it this way. I think they capture something essential. We don’t see our home as a body politic in its own right that prepares, reinforces, and reforms other social bodies around us. We don’t see how the rules and regulations of our “city” are in competition with others. We don’t realize the influences and forces at work in, with, and against our marriages and families.

We are organisms organized alongside, with, and in other organisms, and so are our relationships and institutions. We tend to overlook our reach and what reaches us. We fail to appreciate the power of a society and its culture.

We have to see the cultural vein in which marriage, family, household, society, and culture at large flow through if we even want to understand our marriages, let alone change them. A college education may bear on healthy sexual choices and domestic commitments, but so does a mother’s upbringing, economic conditions, geographic location, the opinion of friends, the wisdom of mentors, the guidance and support of a religious community, and Skype while away on business. You’ve got more in your favor and disfavor than simply a college education. You’ve got more for you and against you than a couple of letters after your surname.

A child is raised by a village, and a marriage sustained by a society.

“Sustained.” Yes, while we’re on that subject, preservation is a bit substandard, don’t you think? One doesn’t live life by trying to protect it. One doesn’t have a prosperous marriage by shooting for a stable one.

Roommates try to keep things stable. Occupants want to keep the peace. Field trip parties stay together. Spouses should strive for so much more. Staying together is not the goal of marriage, but a result. The goal of marriage runs beyond that of a legal union and avoiding court appearances. If stability is what we’re after, let’s save ourselves the trouble and find a friend with benefits or a partner to share life with, because having a piece of paper in a drawer and tugging around tarnished metal on your finger isn’t worth the long, windy, dirt road marriage takes us on. There are far easier and more convenient ways to enjoy commitment.

I’m not content with stability, I’m not content with staying together. I would like to think there is so much more to marriage than that.

I would like to think that marriage has a greater calling. I would like to think that there is more explicit justice in its practice than simply keeping society from dissolving. And I would like to think there is more implicit justice for us to uncover and feed through it than simply doing what it requires.

Call me crazy, but I would like to think that institutions don’t just bring things and people together and order them, but take these things and people to new heights. I would like to think that institutions help us blossom.   

-Kyle David Bennett received his BA from Geneva College and his MA and PhD from Fuller Seminary.  He has taught philosophy, ethics, and religion at Azusa Pacific University, Providence Christian College and The King’s College and lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife Andrea and their  five- year old daughter Elliot.