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The  general question subject to our group of fifteen diners was “What is marriage for?” My table of four discussed this for about an hour, and then we had a more general conversation with the whole group about our independent group’s findings. This was a great question, because it sounds so simple, and we all have some experience with the general subject, but when you get into it a complex array of subtleties come up. A good question doesn’t really have a pat answer, but it generates a lot of thought and interesting conversation. Our table group was already in a playful mood, so our flexibility of mind was in good position to come up with plenty of alternate ideas.

At the beginning, I sort of tuned out for a minute to collect my thoughts and wrote a list. Marriage is for the protection of the children, of the family fortune, to create a stable community, to have exclusive claim to my spouse, for community support of our personal commitment, to emphasize our personal honor to one another, to prevent being killed by violated relatives’ honor code, to have reliable sex and affection, for companionship, for money, to give continuity to our personal life, for Darwinian evolutionary survival, for equity of property. We covered all of those subjects when one of our more legally experienced members said, “Marriage is a legal contract for exclusive use of each other’s genitals.” We were all a bit shocked at that statement, but we also recognized and valued the compactness of the definition.

After a while we came back to the role of children in a marriage, and that it was a set of personal obligations and responsibilities between the potential parents to take care of one another so they together would provide a better likelihood of a good life for their children. From this arose the statement and idea that for women the marriage was more about raising the children, and ownership of the family was more important to the man. One woman quoted her mother’s parting words when she departed home for a career, “Don’t forget your duty!” and by that she meant to go forth and have children. An older couple mentioned that their relationship had to be renegotiated several times during their decades together. After the children were out of the house they needed to rediscover one another in a personal relationship that now became based on totally different goals. This apparently wasn’t easy for them or for many other couples.

It became clear as we were working through the various ideas, that this whole subject is vast and complex, and we barely touched on marriage outside of modern America. But we agreed that marriage is an opportunity to explore and live through many of the most meaningful experiences that we as human beings are capable of experiencing. At the end of the general group discussion I got to recite the sonnet, I made for Jenny Lowood’s marriage in Berkeley back in 1992.

The goal of marriage is to raise a child,
A perfect rose to your ideal self.
Upon which every loving eye will smile.
Praise good in him! He’ll be your living elf.

For one that’s praised for good, will become good,
But, no one knows which way he’ll turn from pain.
Thus, mature loving parents know they should
Eulogize, not scold, as the way to train.

This goodly rose you’ll raise need never fade,
But grow into a new born genesis,
That winds its self into a bud-filled braid,
And blossoms forth to fill your life with bliss.

The task is now set; and the course now laid;
There will be much sweat; You will be well paid!

“The goal of marriage.” recitation wasn’t planned, because I didn’t know that was to be the subject of tonight’s discussion, but it was an appropriate finish to the evening.

The goal of marriage is to raise a child, a perfect rose to your ideal self.