Joining: Men and Women

In considering the arc of life, I emphasized that marriage was the deepest and most meaningful relationship we can undertake. Today, that institution is under threat in the developed nations. Perhaps a third of our children are born out of wedlock, and less than half will reach their majority under the dedicated guidance of their natural parents.

We cannot deny that this reality greatly impedes the development of children into mature adults. For that reason, many of our leaders decry the fragility of the institution, and seek to impose social and legal pressure to ensure its stability. But this begs an important question: does marriage work for anyone? If we want to preserve the institution, we should set about ensuring that we understand how to make it work. When a relationship works for the participants, only the fools among us would abandon it.

Historically, the results are mixed. In most circumstances, of course, the larger social issues were not an issue to most couples: the rigors of daily survival left little energy for sexual politics. But to characterize the extremes: we have had cultures in which women were treated as hostages to the procedures of inheritance. The more educated and confident they were, the more likely they were to chafe at such restrictions, and undertake rebellion to achieve some measure of satisfaction in life. Dominant males therefore found it convenient to deny women the opportunity to develop as personalities. At the opposite cultural pole, women have used their control of home life to divorce children from their fathers. Boys grew up without strong models of masculine responsibility, and entered their majority either as uncreative drones or as hot-headed barbarians. Girls entered their majority without the experience required to channel aggressive male procreative urges into deeper avenues of integration.

Except as focused by economic goals or survival, very few marital relationships attained much depth. At best, the participants had a respectful appreciation of the value of their differences. Each gave something to the other. At worst, the marriage survived because open expressions of hostility and discontent were suppressed by cultural mores.

It isn't hard to see why this would be. The male and female experience of life is enormously different. Those differences make us alien to one another. Obviously, biology and procreative roles have much to do with the matter. A secure environment is of enormous benefit during the 38 weeks of pregnancy, and while nursing.

But female vulnerability occurs among other species that bear their young live. Among these species, the roles of males and females vary greatly. The social pattern of human marriage obviously reflects not just biology, but also our ideas about the proper order of society, and theories of male and female psychology. My assertion is that our failure to successfully propagate models of marriage from one generation to the next indicates that the concepts we have evolved are inadequate to guide young men and women toward integration of their personalities.

Any truly rewarding relationship is a spiritual engagement. Sexual technique and economic partnership are not enough. In pursuit of a deeper understanding, let's reconsider the nature of gender.