Universal Ethics > Wise Choices > Index > Marriage


Marriage is a committed relationship that is recommended for humans who wish to mate. By contrast, uncommitted sexual relationships among humans tend to produce heartbreak.

For the purposes of this article, the term marriage refers to a union between a man and a woman. Other forms of marriage such as polygamy are homosexual unions will be covered elsewhere on this site (coming soon).

A typical wish

People marry with the intent to have their own family. It is a commitment to stay together and to take care of their children, so it supports the family ideal: "I wish to have a loving family, where the parents will love the children always and care for them as long as they need it, and where the parents are committed to stay together always in love and friendship. This ideal applies to my family that I was born into as well as a family that I may create as an adult."

To have one's own special companion for such a long-term endeavor is a nice wish, but it's not always easy to achieve. A marriage between two people can be like heaven or it can be like hell, depending on the pair and how well they get along together. When it's like heaven, it goes beyond just a shared project to raise a family; each person has a "soul mate" who will help them, comfort them, and care about them for as long as they both shall live.

Surveys of married adults reveal that on average they report greater happiness than single adults, so overall the odds are favorable. It's a worthy goal, but also one to approach cautiously, because also there are pitfalls to avoid.

Making the Wish Come True - Recommendations

There are many books written about friendship, dating, marriage, married life, human sexuality, reproduction, parenting, and interpersonal relations, all of which are relevant to this topic. However, to avoid expanding this article into an encyclopedia, we'll focus here on a few very important recommendations for any who consider entering into a sexual relationship.

Each of these points is elaborated below, after which some hyperlinks are provided to other useful web sites on the topic.

  1. Humans need love
  2. Sexual activity before marriage is counterproductive
  3. Compatibility Matters
  4. Commitment is Important
  5. It is necessary to keep the love alive

1. Humans need love

Love is a strong affinity for another person, where people enjoy being together because of common interests, values, goals, and compatible personalities, to an extent that goes beyond friendship.

I recall watching an old Western movie of a bygone era, where a young man approached the father of his intended bride, seeking his approval for their marriage. He said that he wanted to marry because he loved her. The father, however, wasn't satisfied with that answer. He asked the young man if he liked her.

Sometimes people confuse love with sexual attraction. Sexual attraction is very useful for a couple who chooses to mate, but it's not enough for a long-term project like raising children. Being together with a person in the same home can be problematic at times, as people can "get on each others nerves," and even more so when there are children to take care of. To get past the difficult times, it's important that they VERY MUCH like each other.

When two people love each other, they are special to each other to such an extent that they will wish to be together forever. Each person will have comfort that the other person will be there not only to enjoy good times with them, but also to help and console them when needed. It gives a person a sense of well-being, confidence, and security. It's something that many people seek but don't always find.

2. Sexual activity before marriage is counterproductive

When single adults meet for the first time, they each judge attractiveness of the other based on physical appearance. That's immediately apparent, whereas interests, values, goals, personality, etc., are not. It can take some time for those to be discovered.

If two people are interested in each other, there may be a temptation to engage in a sexual relationship before they have gotten to know each other well enough. If they do that, they tend to get stuck at the "attraction" stage and never get past that to really love each other. It is a stereotype that men more than women may focus on attractiveness, as if mating was a kind of achievement, but that stereotype may in fact hold some truth as a result of evolution.

We see in many species that males don't stay with their mate to raise offspring. This is true of deer, bears, lions, and many other animals. In such animals, the offspring aren't helpless at birth the way a human baby is, and it doesn't take 20 years to raise them. The fawn can walk a few minutes after birth, and if a few die, there are still enough to carry on the species. So, if "dad" doesn't stick around, it's not a problem for them.

Furthermore, the mating decisions in simpler animals are quick decisions. A couple may do a brief mating dance to establish the fitness of each other, and if they qualify, the mating is done and they go their own ways. There is no concern about personality or intelligence or anything else that can't be verified within a few minutes.

Humans are more sophisticated, and there is a reason for that. If humans behaved as these more primitive animals do, human children would die in most cases. Unlike insects or animals that reproduce in large quantities, humans would become extinct. So, humans have evolved traits, that lie in the higher reasoning area of their brains, layered on top of the older reptilian brain that is at the core.

For a human, their whole brain cannot be satisfied by a mating that would be satisfactory to a simpler animal. If a man mates with a woman without there being real love between them, it may seem to him that he got what he wants because there can be some element of satisfaction to it. She, on her part, might think this is forming the bond that she wants. But this typically does not progress beyond that stage to develop true love between them. He has his trophy, but it's not durable. As soon as there is some challenge between them to overcome, there won't be sufficient love to hold that relationship together.

Remember that physical attraction comes first, and love may come later--but not necessarily! To avoid heartbreak for both people, it's best to be sure that the love is there first. And if you really want to be sure that the love is there, a willingness to commit serves as an effective test.

Sometimes people may despair about ever finding love, and resolve that "if I can't have love, at least I can have sex." Unfortunately, if they take that route, it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

If there are people out there who could potentially love them, and who seek a loving relationship, those people will seek a potential mate who would put love at a higher priority than sex. Therefore, when a person takes a path where he (or she) seeks sex over love, that person will not be attractive to one who might really be able to love them.

In personal relationships, we must remember that both sides are looking to find what they want, and no partnership will happen unless both sides are satisfied. If a person will "get by with sex" even though they want love, they are essentially disqualifying themselves from getting what they truly want.

With humans, there is no rush to mate. A single adult doesn't need to find his (or her) "true love" at the next encounter, nor even in the next week, or the next month. Some adults search for many years before they find the right person. Though it can also be futile to hold out for perfection, it generally pays off to have perseverance and avoid temptations that are based solely on physical attraction.

3. Compatibility matters

This is a corollary to the above points: compatibility between a couple is essential to a successful marriage. Compatibility doesn't necessarily mean that they should have identical skills or personality; sometimes it is helpful to have differing characteristics that provide each other some benefit that the other lacks.

For example, one may be more outgoing, so they feel confident in speaking in front of a group, while the other does not. So, when the pair has a need to represent their opinion, perhaps the timider person conveys to his/her spouse what he/she would like expressed to the group. Or maybe one of the two is more patient, and can handle some tedious that they need to get done jointly. Or one has particular skills that the other lacks. Differences can be an advantage if they both have the cooperative skills to make them work in their favor.

As a couple passes beyond basic friendship and into talking about the possibility of marriage, there are other compatibility matters that they will wish to discuss. Assuming they wish to have their own children, what is their philosophy of how children should be treated? What will they need for their home, and how much debt do they think is reasonable to take on? This and many other goals for their union are things that need to be discussed.

Furthermore, they each need to look for clues of whether the other person is being sincere and honest. It is important for each to observe how their potential partner treats others, such as family members and friends. To see the person's true colours, they need to spend a lot of time together in dates, vacations, hobbies, helping out others, etc. Especially during an engagement period of some weeks or months prior to a wedding, where the pair agree not to date others, it is important to observe if each other keeps that commitment.

Another obvious matter of compatibility is common interests, and that is what many "couple compatibility tests" are based on. But even more important than that is common morals and values. When one person picks another to be their companion forever, they generally seek a moral standard that higher than someone picked at random from the population. Something less than that can be very frustrating when they are together all the time, and the other person keeps doing things that seem not as kind or generous as had been hoped for.

Moreover, this is not a one-way street. The other potential partner will be making similar judgements when seeking a companion for forever. If one person has a low moral standard for his/her own behavior, he/she may not be able to attract a person who quite fits the wish for "mr/mrs wonderful." So he/she either needs to raise his/her standard, or get realistic about what is achievable. Nobody is perfect even to their own aspirations or ideals, so each person needs to realize that about himself (or herself) and accept that in another person too. Also, some praiseworthy attributes such as generosity have variable levels, and there can be problems of compatibility both from having a partner who is more generous than ones' self (giving too much away) as with one who is less generous (being stingy).

If you are single and you have a friend who you are interested in to be something more than "just a friend," try this Marriage Compatibility Early Assessment test. You will answer 12 questions about yourself and 12 for your friend, regarding important behavioral standards and values, and then you will be presented with assessment results.

Hyperlinks to other compatibility tests are given in the references below.

4. Commitment is Important

The commitment that I speak of, is to make a solemn promise that there will be an exclusive relationship between the two partners, so that they will stay together to raise any children that they produce, and so that neither of them will have any sexual relationship with anyone else. This commitment is made in front of witnesses, and we call it a marriage.

If either or both of the couple are unwilling to make that commitment, it's a pretty strong clue that they aren't willing to take responsibility for offspring that arise, or that they aren't sure enough of their love to stay with each other when difficulties arise.

Some people might profess that they merely want to avoid the cost of an expensive ceremony, but that's an excuse rather than a reason. A marriage doesn't have to be expensive. Couples may want a memorable celebration with many friends, and it's certainly OK to spend some money for that within your means. But really all you need is a civic or religious official to conduct the ceremony and a few witnesses who are typically close friends. I can think of no better example of that than my own grandparents, who had a simple civic wedding and who had a very happy marriage throughout their whole lives.

If either of the couple are unsure if they wish to make a commitment, it's best that they be honest about it. It is reasonable to take more time for dating each other exclusively to get to know each other better, rather than to proceed with something they aren't confident about.

During such times, one or other of them might suggest that they "live together" and "try each other out" in a sexual relationship, in order to see if it will work. In some cases that could lead eventually to a happy marriage, but the odds are against it. Statistics show that a marriage is less likely to be successful by that strategy than by waiting until they are sure, and then having a traditional marriage. Having a sexual relationship as a test is a very risky strategy. If it doesn't work out, it results in greater heartbreak than ending a dating relationship.

Also, in a "living together" sexual relationship, there is some risk of a pregnancy resulting, notwithstanding that contraceptives may be used. Different kinds of contraceptives very in efficacy, but many of them are about 80% effective, which still leaves about a 20% chance of an unexpected pregnancy. A significant number of "live together" relationships produce unintended offspring.

If a young couple is married and they intend to have children, but not right away, it may not matter if the contraceptive is ineffective and they have a child anyway. But if they were just "testing each other out," that situation can be very problematic. A child could be born where either or both parents resent the child, where one is simply unwilling to take care of the child, or where they simply don't have enough love between them to handle challenges that they face.

In some societies, laws create "common law marriages" as a way to force couples to take responsibility for their children even if they didn't choose to marry. In such a case, a "live in" partner may feel trapped, because it wasn't their explicit choice. In some of those cases, maybe they wanted to marry and would have done so anyway. But they may never really feel confident of that, because one or both of them wouldn't make the commitment when it mattered, in front of friends and other witnesses. There will always be this question of whether they were trying to kept the door open in case they wanted to have sexual relations with one of those friends.

This brings us to the most important part of the commitment, which is to actually keep it after the promise is made. Adultery is one of the top reasons why marriages break up; it shatters love, turning it into a disappointing, false illusion. It also brings forth bitter anger, because a person's dream is ruined, having put all of their effort and time into a path that took them where they didn't want to go. That's time that cannot be rewound and redone.

5. It is necessary to keep the love alive

A typical marriage begins with a romantic period of a year or two, and then fades into a quieter and less exciting life. That change is not necessarily all bad. In the early years, couples are more eager to be together but they also have more misunderstandings and conflicts. There is some advantage to settling into a comfortable long-term relationship where each partner knows what to expect, supports each other, and have well established trust between them.

Nevertheless, complacency can become a growing problem. Before marriage and in the early married years, the couple went on dates. Later they may have children and sleepless nights for baby feedings, and other things that gobble up their time. So, it is important for the couple to find times even so to do things together that they enjoy. At other times, one of the partners can relieve the other from their regular duties, to give them some time to relax by themselves. That's a kind of gift too. There are whole books written on this matter, that can't be crunched into a paragraph. Suffice it to say that each of the partners need to put some time and effort into their marriage to keep it healthy.

Marriage can be a bit of a roller coaster, with times of pleasant periods and others not so pleasant. If the unpleasant periods are extreme ones where one partner is abusing the other, or family members, so as to cause physical or psychological harm to them, then indeed that roller coaster has gone off the rails, and it may be necessary to have a divorce.

But in many cases, the roller-coaster isn't off the rails entirely, and it just needs some neglected maintenance. If that's the diagnosis, it's not the time to give up. As the saying goes in a popular song, "we're not broken, just bent; we can love again."

If both partners remember the dream they had when they were young, of the kind of loving family that they wanted and would cherish, then they realize that its not something to give up on, because it's within their power jointly to make it so.

Also on this site...

Related topics:

Links to Other Sites

Check out these sites that contain much more information...

Marriage compatibility quiz

In addition to the

Marriage Compatibility Early Assessment on this site (related to behavioral standards of each potential partner), here are some other free compatibility tests:

Note: these serve as clues only when dating someone. You need to consider what is important to each of you, and also that nobody is perfect.

Advantages of Married life:

Failed Marriage - Divorce Causes

Uncommitted sexual relations

A dating couple who are seriously considering a permanent relationship can spend a lot of time together including going on vacations, and this might sometimes put them in the same hotel, home, cabin, or campground, without sharing a room or bed together. However, it is generally not called "living together" unless a sexual relationship is involved, and that is what the following information is about. Also, the earlier in life a person enters in to such a relationship, the more risky it is:

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