Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Economics of love

Frankly, a source of deep puzzlement to me is the well-documented trend in my culture towards delayed marriage.

Curt and I spend a lot of time around single adults. For going on 20 years we've welcomed them to our home and lives. We listen, teach, mentor, and learn from them. They compel us.

At first, in Alaska, they were 20-somethings. Those particular 20-somethings are now 40-somethings. Along the way some married. A few married each other. But a fair proportion of those gifted and able friends remain single.

Today in Abu Dhabi our dear ones are expatriate professionals from everywhere, 20- and 30-somethings. Sharp, educated, mature men and women. Many embody deep faith in Jesus. They are employed and well-compensated.

And there’s the puzzle. Put a room full of them together week after week to fellowship over good food, study, pray, and connect socially. Watch them chat and share and obviously enjoy one another. Watch friendships grow over the sharing of scripture and prayer, movies, camping trips, parties, ministry projects, hobbies, and coffee together. And wonder at how disinterested most seem in exploring anything further.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not inclined to be match-makers. We work hard to create a safe, un-loaded environment for those who describe other “singles group” experiences as like being in a meat market. I rejoice that we don’t suffer from relational tensions of the infatuation/disappointment/breakup/who-likes-who-this-week variety. Discretion reigns among these men and women of God.

It is the disinterest, as if it is just not on the radar, that intrigues me.

Because WE WERE SO NOT LIKE THAT! (You know, back in the olden days.)

Some allow me to explore my dilemma with questions. Which leave me more confounded. “I’ve been busy with my education.” (We thought part of education was the relationships, the search for a life-partner.) “My field, well, there are a lot more men than women there. I’ve never been around many women. And what with close friendships in my fraternity, I never thought much about it.” (HUH????)

The advanced degrees that must be completed, the school debts that must be paid, the travel and adventure that apparently can only be accomplished single, the debt-free homeownership goal…. Things that Curt and I did together are explained to me as necessities of singleness, prerequisite to love.

And then there are the boundaries. “I can’t see myself married to a man who isn’t at least five years old than me.” “I love where I live. I would only consider someone who wants to spend her life there, too. And she must have a career that fits in with that.” Boundaries of place, race, denomination, profession, education, age and personal history. Maybe it’s the influence of e-Harmony, because it starts to sound like a very customized order.

So what is going on?

History moral and economic
A hundred years ago, people married younger, had more children, and stayed married for life. Families stayed closer together. For women, at least, sexual promiscuity was out of the question. Moms stayed close to the house with the kids, cooked and cleaned, gardened, canned and sewed. Dads were nearby working the land, and were likely to pull out the Bible and lead family worship after dinner. The church looks back to those days as more moral times—better times.

Perhaps that sounds a “moral” picture. But at the same time universities were filled with men, and women were excluded from most professions. Women could not vote, and were denied other civil rights we deem basic human dignities today. As were countless others based on the color of their skin. Moral times? A wife could not resort to law to protect herself or her children from a husband’s abuse, nor could she leave the marriage. A single woman would find it very hard—or impossible—to make a living, and all who worked the land needed stable marriage and several children to achieve efficiency sufficient to provide a moderate standard of living.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Fast-forward fifty years to Ward and June Cleaver. The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape. Ward spent most of his waking hours away from the family in an office or factory while June dressed in high heels and pearls to run the vacuum cleaner. Technology rendered her contribution to family wealth minimal and her time empty, and she became luxury and ornament. If she did leave the house for work, she was paid a fraction of what a male doing the same job would make—even if she did the job better. (This was my own mother’s lot until she landed a union job when I was 13.)

June Cleaver still had no access to police or courts for domestic abuse, little control over family property, and her dignity and worth as a contributor to the family well-being was vastly diminished. In TV fiction they were happy. In the real world women of her era found their lives less laborious, but their choices about what to do with the freed-up time and energy were limited, and their satisfaction and fulfillment greatly diminished. They became restless. And poor Ward was far less involved with his wife and children, and his role in their lives narrowed to financial provider and figurehead.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilled marriages.

The church has glorified the Cleavers with their two kids and stay-at-home mom, and faithful Ward who turned up every night for dinner, briefcase in hand. Even touted it as a biblical norm and today’s “feminism,” including the travesties of divorce, abortion and sexual promiscuity as gross moral decline and godlessness. At the same time, and similarly to the rest of the culture, Christians now marry later or not at all. Without necessarily delaying sexual activity, or marrying “until death do us part.”

Yet in the midst of it all, there are some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Does the state of marriage today represent gross moral decline? Has not sin abounded at all times since the Fall? Could it be that changing economic realities, rather than a less moral humanity, has simply changed the conversation? A hundred years ago marriage--early and permanent, along with a plethora of children, made sound economic sense. Maybe even was economic necessity. It was a coveted marker of the passage into adulthood.

But with technology, child labor lost value and the need for higher education brought the cost of rearing a child to astronomic levels. The traditional work of wife and mother contributed less and less to the family budget. And the capstone: as earning capacity depended less on physical size and strength and as women received more equal schooling, both young men and young women could make a go of life alone.

Children, and then marriage, became luxuries. Optional. A nice thing to add to a whole list of experiences and acquisitions. Or not.

The Bible on marriage
So, if what I witness in my living room has more to do with changing economics than with moral decline and diminished “family values,” how are we who love Jesus to think about marriage and family?

As I read and pray I am struck more and more these days by things the Bible does not say, as well as by what it says. Paul, famously, makes it plain that to remain (chastely) single for the sake of the gospel is a legitimate calling. Marriage is not, apparently, necessary to a fulfilled or a godly life.

In fact, the Bible says very little about the mechanics of marriage: age, methods of choosing a mate, roles and duties. It does tell believers to marry within the faith (2 Corinthians 6:14), and that God hates divorce and family violence (Malachi 2:10-16), which Jesus permitted only in very limited circumstances, and that sexual chastity is the rule for the unmarried (Matthew 19:1-12). The loyalty of a husband is to be to his wife above all others (the “leave and cleave” principle of Genesis 2:24). And a wife is called to voluntary submission to her husband’s leadership—all within the context of their mutual submission and his sacrificial self-giving towards her best fulfillment (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Oh, there are the stories, the history—how certain people did it in a long-ago Eastern agrarian tradition. Samson, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Bathsheba. The less-than-traditional wives Deborah and Huldah. Hosea. No good marriages described, but plenty of dysfunctional ones. Real life variety played out by messy people in a fallen world.

What is clear about God’s design for marriage is captured in just four places, and it is beautiful!

Genesis 1-3 display marriage as the God-designed fundamental human community. The first human was lonely and inadequate despite the companionship of animals, and even of God Himself. The only “not good” of creation. And so God made gender—male and female from the one human. When the man beheld the woman, he cried a joyful “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” “Wo-man:” fully as human as he was, perfect counterpart to meet his loneliness and to provide strong support in the task of stewarding God’s earth. Companion and partner. Until the Fall, his joyful exclamation declared her beloved, admired, cherished, his true completion.

The Fall brought intrinsic consequences to the fundamental natures of both the man and the woman. He would now act to dominate, as first demonstrated when he asserted over her the authority God had given him over animals. He named her. And, post-Fall he did not choose “Beloved,” or “Joyful Completion.” Instead, “Eve.” “Mom.” A name descriptive of function and economic value in a new world of scarce resources and toil for basic needs. By the end of Genesis 4 God’s perfect design of one-man-one-woman-as-one-flesh-for-life was so perverted that only 5 generations later Lamach married multiple wives and called them by names meaning “trinket” and “tinkling.” And the woman, in order to preserve the relationship, put up with (or even enabled) him to do it.

But there in Eden existed a pure married love. Companions. Partners. Because they knew no scarcity or fruitless labor, economics played no part in their community. No competition. No need for children, and reproduction is not mentioned as a reason for God’s creation of gender. Though children would surely have come as added joy and delightful expression of their one-flesh existence together, they were not needed in order to complete the man, the woman, or their union.

Song of Songs is delightful erotic poetry depicting the growth of married love between a man and woman from initial infatuation through realization of the cost of committed love to a life-bond entwining heart and soul. “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a might flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Songs 8:6-7.

Powerful and exciting language of passion and admiration. Never once does Songs refer to economics or reproduction as reasons to marry. The lover is a shepherd and his beloved prefers him to wealthy and powerful Solomon. He longs to know her fully, body and soul, with no reference to whether she will bear him children to share his labor, protect his inheritance and continue his name.

Nor does Songs define roles like breadwinner and/or homemaker. None of that matters to the power and potential of their married love for one another.

Ephesians 5, oh, that most-quoted passage. Last year I conducted an impromptu gender seminar in an evangelical Bible school. To start, I asked students to tell me what they could recall the Bible to say about gender. They talked about Genesis, and about Ephesians 5, but what they noticed was that women are to submit. None mentioned the miracle of God’s gift of gender; the fulfilled need for companionship and community; the depth of passion, safety and sacrificial love involved in leaving and cleaving. And no one noticed the call to mutual submission or the charge to the husband to love sacrificially in the manner of Jesus Christ.

How sad! For Ephesians 5:21-33 describes marriage as loving and sacrificial self-giving, supportive partnership, and empowering respect and honor.

• Both Ephesians 5 and Revelation 19:6-9 invite us to consider human marriage as testimony, as shadow, as image of Christ’s relationship with His Church. The Church is Bride! Beloved, protected, chosen, beautiful. Chosen not because of need or for what labor or reputation she can bring, but out of pure, self-giving love.

To sum up, in God’s design and description, marriage is a deep, committed and passionate love for another human being for life. A place to find loneliness met and gifts and callings complemented and supported. A relationship with the potential to illustrate Christ’s love and desire for His people, and ours for Him. God’s design was deeply marred by the Fall as human sin perverted love’s potential and purity and an economics of scarcity created new reasons for marriage and childbearing that had nothing to do with love.

Application to what’s going on in my living room
Technology has brought to the West, at least, a wealth unimaginable even 50 years ago. And along with that, a lot of freedom and choice. The single professionals we love so much do not need marriage—or children—to build economic security, or to find a satisfying, fulfilled life. In fact many are financially better off unmarried. Along with that, they are free to go where they want, buy what they want, and do what they want without consulting anyone else or caring about another’s hopes and dreams. Marriage and childbearing are risky, and for one committed to following Jesus, they are lifetime risks.

And so marriage and childbearing are on the decline. Children are expensive, and certainly not needed to provide for old age, and with contraception and abortion readily available, sexual activity outside of committed marriage has little in the way of an economic or social downside.

Perhaps for the first time in human history, for many people singleness is a viable choice. Which means marriage is no longer a necessity either, but also choice.

We dwell in a fallen world where self prevails more often than not. Where freedom is used to serve self. Singleness is a legitimate calling for a believer when it allows a heart to be free to focus on building Christ’s Kingdom. But where it simply allows a heart to be free to play, to spend, to build one’s own kingdom—well, it is the way of our sin nature to pervert freedom and end up in lonely waste.

But what opportunity! To be free from the constraints of an economic need to marry—well, could that not be seen as a return to Eden’s potential? A return to the possibility of marriage purely for love, with all the depth and potential that entails in Jesus Christ? A shimmering, vibrant witness to the reality of God’s love for the world poured out through our lives of love for one another?

Lord, grant these ones that we love courage to love, to give themselves wholeheartedly to You—and to others as You invite them. Grant them completion in You—in whatever form You have for each one. Amen.


Cam and Esther Ruth said...

Jeri...I enjoyed reading your thought provoking entry on the economics of love. Looking at the big picture and God's plan gives new perspective.
Minor point...I think you wanted to say ...complement...not compliment...
Complement...something that completes or makes perfect.
Welcome back to Abu Dhabi, whenever you get here. Esther Ruth

Susan said...

Wow! Thanks for this informative post. Interestingly, this survey made headlines in the USA:

Jeri said...

Always a typo somewhere.... Good catch, Esther Ruth. Susan, thanks for the link!

Dan said...

I read and liked your blog post. I wanted to write down some thoughts, and hopefully you’ll find some interesting bits. I’ll just bullet-point them in no particular order for (relative) brevity:

• Men need to feel like they’re really grown up before they want to get married. Many (most?) men--even into their late 20s and beyond--still feel like kids in their hearts. By contrast, women don’t consider themselves fully grown up UNTIL they are married, so they seek it more readily. It takes longer to feel “grown up” when men are doing more schooling and/or floating around in their careers.

• As people put off marriage longer, they expect a better match in order to justify how long they waited. Expectations spiral upward. This effect goes for both genders.

• An (economically) successful man will marry in his 20s if the opportunity is right there, but he likely finds women fickle at that age and he gets frustrated. He decides to concentrate on his career and wait it out. If he remains single into his 30s, he hopes to have a house, a career on autopilot, lots of vacation time, a solid wardrobe, a financial cushion, and well-honed social/dating skills. Then, he’ll find a great wife AND have a more wealthy/relaxed lifestyle, all with less stress and heartbreak. Successful young men, by their very nature, readily delay short-term gratification for future benefit. This thinking pattern is EXTREMELY seductive to my personality type. Every year I remain single, I can see my life improves AND dating gets easier (because I become more attractive).

• I and most of my peers have divorced parents. Nearly all of our friends are single. Singleness is all we know. Marriage is foreign--it’s the stuff of books and TV.

• It’s a bit long-winded (especially the introductory portion), but I think you’ll find this article really fascinating: Skip down to “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men” and I recommend skipping the video near the top.

Jeri said...

Thanks, Dan. Great stuff, and I want to think and digest for awhile. I hope we can chat again in person soon--was so sorry to miss your visit last month! I read the Atlantic piece--yes, long-winded, but more to chew on. Blessings!

Doris said...

Hmm. Thank you for putting so much thought and heart into our 'singles predicament'. I will offer my own case as a 'case study'.

I always assumed I would marry and have a family, I did not put much thought into it. My late father (who married after age 36, unusual for his time, he was born in 1910) encouraged us (his 6 daughters) to get an education (the sky was the limit) and "enjoy life before settling down"— my mother agreed. The last time I saw my father alive (the family was scattered as an aftermath of the Lebanese civil war), he told me "not to take his advice too far" (at the time I was 30 and had just finished medical school).

When I look back, finding a suitable mate didn't figure into my decisions or plans. My energy was focused on my studies and work and planning my next adventure--a new field of study, an exciting career opportunity, exploring a new continent, etc...

One day I looked at my watch and I was 36! I had honestly lost track. I was living in Thailand at the time, not exactly the best place to find a suitable mate. I was 39 when I left Bangkok.

Despite my globe-trotting, I did manage a handful of long term relationships-- they were usually cross-cultural and long distance. I was engaged twice. My first fiancé, a medical resident, wanted me to give up medical school ("one doctor in the family is enough") and the second wanted children and by then, it was not likely that I could have them without IVF (and he was a staunch Catholic).

Although I professed to be a Christian, God was definitely not at the center of my life or my partners'. I think this is key to the 'problem'.

Some general observations:

• We think strategically about our careers but expect our love life to fall magically into place.

• We look around us and conclude that it is far better to be alone than married to the wrong man.

• In general, men are intimidated by highly educated and independent women.

• Conversely, women don’t generally find men worthy of their ‘submission’ or ‘sacrifices’.

• Self-centeredness: God is nowhere to be found —we put ourselves, or the other person, at the center— a form of idolatry.

• As a consequence, we rely on our own strengths and efforts to make a relationship work—a formula for failure.

• We only ‘love’ the other as long as s/he projects favorably on us.

• Power struggles and competition – happiness at the cost of the other’s - lack of compromise.

• Unrealistic expectations – although I’m a clay pot, I’m looking for Ming china … or an iron cauldron (that won't break).

I think you "hit the nail on its head" in the following statement: "We dwell in a fallen world where self prevails more often than not. Where freedom is used to serve self."

I'm all for realising Eden's potential!

MerryKate said...

I also found your commentary insightful, and I'd like to answer some of your questions. A lot of us are not single by choice. I would like nothing more than to be married, but I'm nearly to the point of giving up hope. Not only do men in my generation delay marriage until they're successful, but once they're ready to marry, they look for younger partners. Most men on singles' sites are looking for a woman 10-15 years younger, who can bear children. When you see them mixing with their single peers, they probably don't see those women as viable partners.

On top of that, there are three times as many single women as men in the church, which has led to some sad behavior on the part of the men. They can be choosy, and some have taken to dating 3-4 women at a time while they decide which one is "the best." When they finally make a choice and get married, they leave behind a number of broken hearts. It hardly lines up with Paul's admonition for single men to treat women in the church as their sisters!

The result is, a woman past a certain age and still single seems to have the choice of settling for a single life or marriage to a nonbeliever.

Jeri said...

MerryKate, sad to say that I have only just seen your comment. Cracked Old Post lay fallow for a year, and I now see that I neglected to change the email address for notification of comments. Thanks for your engagement. You speak of a segment I have not encountered much, so it is helpful to add to my consideration. Not encouraging. I recently read a thought-provoking piece about men and their games and toys that took a delayed-maturity angle.

I do wish you God's best blessings in whatever life brings. Courage, fellowship, and conscious experience of His presence and goodness in all things.