Recovering the Lost Meaning of Marriage

Jim Tonkowich

Recovering the Lost Meaning of Marriage

Gene Simmons, lead singer of the rock group KISS, recently married former Playboy model Shannon Tweed. It was billed as “the rock-and-roll wedding of the year” and the climax of the couple’s reality television show, "Gene Simmons Family Jewels." (Wedding merchandise is available here.) Simmons and Tweed tied the knot and went off on their honeymoon after cohabitating for 28 years and raising two children, Nick (age 22) and Sophie (age 19).

On the one hand, I’m thrilled that against all odds they’ve managed to stay together for so long without marriage and that they finally did marry.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder why after 28 years of living together they would bother. Was it a grand romantic gesture, a publicity stunt to boost ratings, an excuse for a party or … or something very human?

The same question came to mind when I read that Mexico City is considering a proposal to allow temporary marriages. Rather than promising “till death do us part,” a couple agrees to stay married for a defined term with the minimum set at two years. When their term is up, couples can re-up for another predetermined term or the marriage times out and they’re automatically divorced. The law would require them to work out a separation agreement before the wedding to make everything nice and clean on expiration date.

As a romantic gesture, this is about as warm and wonderful as a trip to the DMV. Perhaps it’s an excuse for a party where he and she get to be the center of attention and everyone brings gifts. Rather than a “celebration of our love,” a temporary marriage strikes at best as “a celebration of our like.”

Nonetheless, most people today — at least most people in the West — think of marriage as the ultimate, extravagant, risky romantic gesture. We marry for love, which in our culture has been highly romanticized — hearts, flowers, country inns, walks on the beach, gazing into each other’s eyes, fabulous sex and all the rest.

Now, I’m all for romance, but marriage has to be more than “That’s Amore!” After all, those who fall into love can also fall out of love, as divorce statistics make abundantly clear. A romantic gesture lasts only as long as there’s romance in the air. True marriage must be more than that.

The first thing to understand is that marriage is God’s idea and design. That does not mean, however, that marriage is something you find in the Bible and thus applicable only to those who believe the Bible.

While the Bible fills out the meaning of marriage by presenting it as a picture of the love and commitment between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:31-32), marriage as the union of one woman and one man is not a Christian thing; it is a human thing. As David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, commented to World Magazine after an comprehensive study of marriage:

"Marriage is what scholars call a natural institution — it exists everywhere, in all human societies, across history. It’s part of who we are as a species. It certainly exists independently of any particular religious creed or tradition, and, though typically connected to religion, also seems to exist somewhat independently of religion in general. These are matters of scholarly and historical fact."

As to the benefits of marriage, the Manhattan Declaration begins with the near universality of marriage: “Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education and welfare of all persons in a society.”

That welfare for all persons begins with the most vulnerable persons, children, the natural result of marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman is how the next generation — the people who will carry on after we are all dead — is brought into the world and formed into virtuous people and good citizens.

There is a mountain of social science data showing that by all measures, the children who do best are those who are raised by their own married biological mom and dad. They are less likely than their peers from non-intact families to get into trouble at school, drop out of high school, use alcohol and drugs, smoke cigarettes, become pregnant, break the law and go to prison. They are also more likely to have successful marriages and strong families as adults.

As David Blankenhorn put it, “Everywhere, marriage exists in large part to ensure that the woman and the man whose sexual union makes the child, stay together in a cooperative union to raise the child.”

Marriage is also designed for spousal unity. God said before creating Eve, “It is not good that man should live alone” (Genesis 2:18). Matthew Henry, the Puritan Bible commentator, described the resulting beauty of their prototypical marriage, “Eve was not taken out of Adam's head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” This is revealed in Scripture, but is also well known to those without Bibles.

Temporary marriage, whether by statute in Mexico City or by easily obtained divorce in America, does not sustain “the health, education and welfare” of anyone. Marriage as a short-term arrangement for the self-expression or amusement of autonomous adults is, in fact, detrimental to the health, education and welfare of adults, children and society as a whole.

That’s something we seem to know intuitively, something, as University of Texas Professor J. Budziszewski puts it, that we can’t not know. Ask Gene Simmons’ and Shannon Tweed’s grown children.

Nick and Sophie grew up in a wealthy home and were apparently loved and well cared for. Yet when they were asked, “What did this wedding mean to your family?” their answers make it clear that they have long known the difference between marriage and not-marriage.

Nick responded, “For me, it meant that my father chose our family, definitively, over everything else: What he’s said over the years, what’s expected of him in his line of work, etc.” Marriage means a new stability, something Nick missed growing up in a cohabiting household. Marriage means the family, and he as part of the family is “chosen definitively.”

Sophie reflected the same understanding: “It meant we finally were a family. There were the Tweeds and the Simmonses, but now there are the Tweed-Simmonses. As long as that last name is, it feels 10 times better.”

While Christian doctrine fills out the meaning of marriage, marriage as the union of one man and one woman for life is deeply human. And it is the deeply human truth about marriage and family that Christians and others need to defend.

More of Jim Tonkowich's writing can be found at

Publication date: October 25, 2011