I am no expert on marriage, but I needed to respond to Seth Adam Smith’s latest post on “Marriage isn’t for you”. Here is my latest post for Feminist Studies in Religion.
I read Seth Adam Smith’s post, “Marriage isn’t for you,” and thought it had some good advice, but does it really speak to women today? I rarely write in response to a blog post, but this one kept gnawing at me for days, so I needed to reflect on it to articulate why his understanding of marriage did not sit right with me.
I am pretty sure Seth makes a great husband and that his wife of one and a half years is content, but does he have the deep insight to address real life crises and realities of a marriage? His wedding photos on his blog site show a deep sense of love and happiness. But he has been married less than 2 years. What possible advice can he give to those who have gone through child birth, child loss, job loss, death, life, separation and divorce? Not much. He is just in his honeymoon phase.
He quotes his dad on what marriage is about:
“My dad giving his response to my concerns was such a moment for me. With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”
As a feminist theologian, I believe that this is a beautiful proposition, but it is only half of the picture. The history of marriage reveals that marriage was about women leaving her family to become part of a man’s household, where he had ownership over her. She was to marry to have children and to help continue the patriarchal lineage. In the Asian context, it was the woman who left her parents’ family to join the family of her husband. Her name was moved over to the husband’s family book. She now belonged to her husband’s family as property and was thus treated as such. Even if she was unhappy, there was no way for her to return to her parents’ family. She had to remain part of her husband’s family.
In that context, yes, ‘marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married,’ except that the man in the marriage was not expected to have the same reciprocal relationship. In his eyes, it was all about him and his family.
Women had to endure this for centuries and much of this point of view still lies in the shadows of marriage today. Women are constantly told to sacrifice and give up themselves and their bodies to carry and deliver babies. Because marriage really isn’t about a woman’s body, it is about the survival of the family into which you married.
Women are also told to give up their careers or education for the sake of raising their children. Remember, marriage isn’t about you.
As middle-aged women go through mid-life crises, they are again reminded to stay in a loveless marriage, because marriage isn’t about you, it is about your children, your husband’s career and about your family’s position in society.
Women who are living in abusive relationships are constantly told by the church to stay in the marriage, because marriage isn’t about you. It is about the family. Women cannot break up the family.
Women have constantly been told that marriage isn’t about you, it is about the other. In some ways, it is true. In marriage, we need to give in and give up. We need to make sacrifices and compromises for each other. So Seth, I think you got it half right.
The other half that Seth failed to get was that marriage is also about “me”, because both partners in a marriage must share the idea that each in turn acts for the benefit of the other. If marriage were all about selflessness, it would be better to join a convent which trains nurses and takes care of the poor. There one has less chance of encountering abuse. Marriage is about my own happiness, it is about my career, it is about my body and it is about my own fulfillment and love. If we cannot think about our own inner beings, what does that leave us to believe a marriage is? Marriage then becomes nothing but a patriarchal reenactment of ancient times. In order to fulfill one’s partner to the fullest, one must have a fulfilled life as well.
In a marriage, my own happiness is important enough that I in turn will make the sacrifices for the other partner. But leaving the “me” out of the marriage is a dangerous thing. We need to move away from this dualistic mind-frame, dictating it has to be one or the other. We need to realize that marriage is about both. It is not about you; and it is also totally about you—and totally about me.
[read also: Redemption and Survival]
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 5 books, Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers (Palgrave, forthcoming), Contemplations from the Heart (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming), Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit (Palgrave Pivot), The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Pilgrim Press). She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.