Some reflections on marriage

I recently officiated my brother’s “Western” wedding ceremony in Koh Samui, Thailand.  Here’s what I had to say about the venerable institution…

Marriage is unique to the human animal – a distinction shared with bureaucracy, suicide, the emotion of disgust, the capacity for language, and not much else.

The act of getting married involves a peculiar use of language.  Perhaps the most common use of language is to make assertions. When we assert, we represent the world as being a certain way, and we implicitly give others permission to ask us how we know it to be that way.  I can safely assert that we are in Koh Samui because, if you asked me how I know, I could point to my recent flight here.  I can safely assert that Ed and Waenyod are standing in front of you because, if you asked me how I know, I could point to them.

A few of us witnessed a quite different use of language recently, when Ed and Waenyod were married in Bangkok.  There, Princess Sirindhorn didn’t assert but declared that they were married.  It would have been silly to ask her, when she said this, “How do you know?”  At best, the correct response would have been, “Because I say so.”  Only a delusional narcissist would assert that we are in Koh Samui because I say so.  But with declarations, saying makes it so.  Declarations thus seem to involve a kind of magic, an exercise of sovereign power.  Marriage is, in this sense, magical.  But the magical structures erected by declarations can be fragile.  What can be made with a word can also be unmade with a word.  What’s more, declarations do not automatically succeed.  Only the right person, in the right context, with the right audience can successfully make a declaration.  I cannot declare Ed and Waenyod married today, both because I am not empowered to do so, and because they are already married.  But what does it mean to be empowered to make a declaration?  Among other things, this power, which seems to reside in the sovereign individual, actually derives from the acceptance of the community.  Sirindhorn was empowered to declare Ed and Waenyod married not because she has divine blood, but because the broader community accepts her declarations.  What might seem to be the mysterious power of the elite is actually grounded in the attitudes and activities of the masses.

Marriage involves another peculiar use of language, one distinct from both assertions and declarations.  Marriage involves, perhaps more than anything else, a commitment.  Commitments share one important feature with declarations: it’s senseless to ask someone making a commitment how he knows.  If I promise to call you at noon tomorrow, it would be bizarre to ask me how I know that I’ll call.  But commitments are importantly different from declarations.  Someone who makes a commitment puts himself on the hook.  If I commit to calling you tomorrow at noon, but then fail to call, you would be within your rights to hold me to account.  Marriage is a commitment in this way: both parties put themselves on the hook – not just to each other, but also to all of us, to everyone who makes their marriage binding by accepting its declaration.

The commitment of marriage thus differs both from everyday assertions and from the magic of declarations.  But marriage is unusual even by the standards of commitments.  If I promise to call you at noon tomorrow, the conditions of my commitment – what will count as living up to it – are clear.  What counts as upholding the commitment is spelled out in advance.  The commitment of marriage is different.  While the platitudes surrounding marriage are well-known – “to have and to hold,” “to be true” to one another, “to cherish” one another – what will count as living up to the thoughts expressed by those platitudes is impossible to spell out in advance.  Every moment of marriage is not only a choice of whether to live up to one’s commitment, but also a discovery of what that commitment entails.  And this continuous discovery, this exploration of the promise one has already made but whose terms are revealed inch by inch, day by day, can only be undertaken with the guidance, reassurance, and acceptance of one’s community.­­­

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