Marriage on the sidelines

Marriage on the sidelines McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 21, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > September 21, 2000 > Marriage on the sidelines

| Does marriage gets short shrift as a subject of academic inquiry?

Daniel Cere thinks so. Cere, a religious ethics expert, the director of McGill's Newman Centre and a lecturer in the Department of Culture and Values in Education, recently completed a report titled The Experts' Story of Courtship for the Institute for American Values in the U.S.

Cere's study examines the major academic theories related to courtship -- he focuses on three of the most influential schools of thought and finds them wanting -- at least in terms of explaining the forces at work in sustaining long-term marriages.

"My argument is that these theories are popular because they reflect facets of our culture. They articulate trends in the culture itself."

For instance, exchange theory offers a capitalistic, consumer-based viewpoint about what draws men and women together.

Men and women seek out romantic partners as a means of securing certain tangible commodities -- a better standard of living, sexual pleasure and somebody with good genes to make kids with.

But, in Cere's view, exchange theory reduces marriage to a simple contract between consenting adults. Marriage is more complicated than that in his view and a marital breakdown disrupts far more lives -- and at a deeper level -- than would the termination of a typical contract between two former partners.

Sociobiological theory, in Cere's estimation, pretty much focuses on the dating game as a mate selection process that offers sex (to men) and security (to women) as the payoff.

According to this framework, men seek out women on the basis on their youth, fertility and appearance. Women seek out men on the basis of their ability to look after them and their children.

Cere says this theory could explain dishonest approaches to getting romantic partners. Some women fib about their ages while men fudge about their prospects because those are the details that can make or break a potential pairing. There can be benefits to these sorts of motivations, notes Cere: men might actually strive to accomplish a few substantial things in their quest to impress the fairer sex.

But again, the theory seems to Cere to be something of a sad and limited prism for examining romantic relationships, breaking them down in terms of fairly selfish goals.

The third theory, and the one that is gaining more adherents these days, is close relationship theory. The theory is pretty much summed up in the name: to develop a close relationship with somebody.

The goals here are pretty laudable: intimacy, trust, a desire to really know somebody else.

Cere's qualm with this theory is that the relationships that are sought aren't necessarily permanent ones. It puts a 25-year-old marriage on pretty much the same footing as an intense but short-lived affair. And he doesn't buy the notion that the two are essentially the same.

"My feeling is that we have a dumbed-down view of marriage," Cere says. "I think we need to think more seriously about marriage itself. We need to get a handle on the depth and meaning of marriage, something I don't think we do particularly well in our culture.

"Marriage has survived for centuries. It has deep religious and historical roots. It has a covenantal dimension that makes it a unique form of relationship."

He thinks the three dominant relationship theories essentially ignore the "deep human need for lasting love."

Surprisingly, Cere says that one of the more complex portrayals of marriage he has come across recently was put together in Hollywood -- and scripted by a gay writer to boot.

"Much of the material in American Beauty was deeply suspicious about marriage; it exposes the pain and confusion that you can find in a marriage. At the same time, it exhibits a grudging respect for marriage too. There is a strong sense of the elemental power of marriage."

The organization that sponsored Cere's study, the Institute for American Values is a pro-family think tank that receives funding from the right-wing Donner Foundation. It collaborates with some heavyweight scholars, such as Jean Elshtain and Norville Glenn.

Cere admires some of the work that comes out of the pro-family camp, but thinks their take on marriage is limited too.

Books like the new The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher argue, for instance, that divorce can have a devastating impact on kids.

But Cere believes such works often present dry laundry lists of marriage's benefits. "The definition of marriage they tend to deal with is kind of banal. It lacks energy."

Cere warrants that marriage might be a difficult topic to wrestle. "At some levels you can only deal with it in terms of myth and poetry." But he urges the scholarly community to give it their best shot.

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