An Open Letter to Millenials About the Insanity of Marriage

Dear Millenials: Surveys show you’re losing interest in marriage and, from what I hear, the main reason is this: to you, marriage doesn’t make any sense. And I know why you feel that way—it’s because marriage doesn’t make any sense.

marriage

Photo Credit: Scurzuzu via Compfight cc

One life has enough sorrow of its own. Why would you volunteer to share the sorrow of another human being, too? Why would you double-up on pain and mess?

Marriage is a crapshoot. Half of them end in divorce. Do we really need to go out of our way to add things to our life that are going to end up dying anyway? Isn’t that what pets are for?

If marriage is to work, you have to give in. Daily. You have to submit, allow, release, and let go. At least half the time. For crying out loud, it’s hard enough to get a leg up in life, who has the time and energy to spend their days lifting someone else up, too?

Human beings seem to be wired for attraction to many different people. Our appetites are not easily whetted. Why would anyone spend a lifetime trying to rein in that craving?

And people get old. The person you’re attracted to now will eventually be replaced by a smaller, plumper, more shriveled version of themselves. What if, eventually, you’re not attracted to the person wearing the lines and signs of a lifetime together?

Not to mention the brokenness of people. No matter how amazing a person is, they’re still going to mess up. A lot. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a ruthless thing. Every time you do it, you have to let something inside of you die, like your instinct for retribution or your self-righteousness. And after all, we’re here to live, not to die, right?

Except, Dear Millenials, we actually are here to die.

Not in fifteen years or fifty years. We’re here to die today. And tomorrow. And the day after that. We’re here to let the part of us we value most—the part we cherish without even knowing it—slowly wither away.

That part of us is our ego.

It’s the part of our psyche responsible for protecting us. And it’s merciless. It will do whatever it takes to keep us safe. It starts out by hiding us away behind a false self. But when it can’t hide us—and who can hide in a marriage?—it almost always graduates to subtle and not so subtle kinds of violence. When we don’t feel good enough, it raises us up by knocking other people down.

This year, my oldest son entered the ego minefield called middle school. In adolescence, egos are growing bigger, faster, and stronger at a precocious rate. Insults are thrown around like spitballs and it doesn’t really matter who they stick to, as long as they sting someone else and keep the thrower feeling powerful and better-than.

Yet, somehow, my son has seen the whole thing for what it is: a game we all play. He wears a pencil in his ear, and when people tell him it looks goofy, he tells them it’s a fashion statement. When they tell him he knows too much about world events, he tells them he’s “culturally informed.” It’s like he’s Neo and he chose the red pill and he can see the Matrix and they’re firing ego bullets at him and he’s picking them out of the air and studying them, amused by them.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed even he’s started to fire a few ego bullets of his own. At his friends. At his brother. At me. And of course he has—it’s almost impossible to live amongst egos for too long and not have them trigger the growth of your own. Which is why, someday, my son is probably going to need marriage, too.

After all, that’s the healing and holy purpose of marriage: to shrink the ego back down to its proper size.

Dear Millenials, many people are pessimistic about your generation. I’m not. In fact, I’m quite optimistic, because I believe you care more about the human race and the survival of our planet than any other generation before you. I just don’t think you’ve been given the tools to accomplish it.

Marriage is one of those tools.

“Tool” sounds so mechanical. But remember, a paintbrush is a tool. A chisel is a tool. A pen is a tool. A kiln is a tool. They’re all tools for creating beauty. Marriage is that kind of tool.

It’s where our egos lay down so our souls can get up and walk, like newborn foals on wobbly legs. It’s where our egos go to sleep so our souls can awaken, like squinting eyes in the bright light of a brand new day. It’s where ego-things—like condemnation, competition, and condescension—go to die, and soul-things—like empathy, courage, sacrifice, commitment, forgiveness, unity, and peace—grow and blossom and flourish.

Marriage is the space in the world that prepares us to change it from the inside out.

Because the heyday for the human ego is over. Now, it is becoming increasingly clear, if we want to survive as a species, we need to do away with it and the tribes it leads us to form and the violence it leads us to perform. If we don’t come together now, we’ll fall apart eventually.

And marriage is where we learn how to truly come together.

Which is why, Dear Millenials, marriage is really the sanest thing of all.  

With hope,

Someone Who Believes in You

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Anita Colanzi

    Not sure this works all the time. My wise grandmother said “you’ll be fine as long as you grow at the same rate.” A narcissistic or violent person cannot be made to grow at anyone eles’s rate

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Kelly, thank you for your bright eyed optimism for others today. When we can all get so busy doing the things that have to be done and should be done and those elusive things we hope to get done, it is amazingly reinvigorating to take time to share in your optimism that there are wonderful, difficult, fulfilling, and awe-inspiring paths laid out before a generation that will be taking new steps on wobbly legs. Every now and again, they will likely need to borrow some of our optimism and our joyful sense that it is worth taking the wild ride together.
    Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Shel! I know how much conflict my kids see between my wife and I, and I wonder if they will conclude it’s not worth it? I think it’s important we provide the broader context of what we’re struggling toward and how beautiful the big picture can be!

      • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

        They get to make their own determinations about whether it is worth it for sure. But I have to think there is value in modeling healthy and productive ways to air conflicts in our marriages so that our kids will know that we continue to have ideas, opinions, and differences that we can respectfully—if heatedly—work through together.

  • Kevin

    Kelly, thank you for a thought provoking article. A very interesting read and perspective. I would add that selfishness needs to go as well as walls. The percentages of divorces is frightening no doubt, to anyone contemplating it. There is risk, vulnerability is essential to keep the relationship alive and an attitude of doing for the other and connecting in true intimacy (emotional and physical). My concern for the Millennials is that with heads more focused on phones and facebook friends far outnumbering real interactive friends, they may not be developing the interpersonal skills and authenticity they will need to succesfully navigate the journey that develops a fulfilling marriage. It takes two to make it work.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Kevin. Absolutely. The work of releasing the ego requires quiet space for ourselves and vulnerable space between each other, neither of which is promoted by many of the trends in technology. It’s going to require a great deal of intentionality in the next generation.

  • Standing up clapping after reading this. Bravo! The only thing that gave me pause was the “half marriages end in divorce.” I’m not sure that is accurate. I’ve read that the 50 percent figure came from projections of what researchers thought the divorce rate would become based on divorce numbers rising in the 1970s and early 1980s when states were passing no-fault divorce laws.

    But we never hit those numbers, and in fact, it’s been declining. The Bible says hope deferred makes a heart sick, and we are so influenced by numbers and by culture. As you know Dr. Kelly, in psychology, what we believe affects how we feel, and then it leads to action. Four our of five marriages are happy and the ones that aren’t can turn it around when people are willing to step into the smashing of the ego, the discipline of dying to ourselves and pursuing love above all.

    Now I say all this with the ugly truth that my own marriage (of 21 years) ended in March. We had overcome things that would have destroyed a thousand other marriages. I often thought our story would be an incredible testimony of forgiveness, commitment and transformation. In my heart of hearts, I did not want this divorce to happen. But the years of being with a partner who HAD A FAULTY BELIEF LOCKED IN HER HEAD and who was so destructive to herself and those around her, and completely unwilling or unable to do anything different, I had to make a choice to save our kids and myself. But that has not kept my heart from being broken. It has not erased the random, haunting thoughts that I failed her as a husband. Yet on the positive side, I am not bitter about marriage. It is beautiful, difficult, amazing and tragic…like life itself…and truly the best place to die to oneself.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Anthony, I’m really sorry to hear about the end of your marriage, but also glad to hear it was still able to do its work in you. And you’re right, 50/50 is a shortcut. Forgive my laziness!

      • Certainly not meant to be a criticism or inference that you’re lazy Dr. K. You rock.

    • Corinne Ruth Johnson

      I am sorry that you had to seek divorce, as well. I did, too, because my ex couldn’t accept that he was part of our problems, he was only willing to blame me and not accept any responsibility himself. Unfortunately, we could never have changed our partners. When we come to such a crossroads, something has to die and sometimes letting the marriage die is best to allow other things the chance to live.

  • We need positive messages on marriage more than ever. Our next generation needs help in defining what a healthy safe relationship looks likes. They don’t know how to nurture and develop their relationships and our culture suppers the notion that there is always someone younger, thinner, richer or smarter out there.

    Trevor Crow Mullineaux, LMFT

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Trevor.

  • Romany Thresher

    Having been married now 22 years. The best part of being married is not having to do it alone. Yes it was rocky and we wanted to divorce on more than one occasion but as you start learning the value of people and relationships. When you experience how horrible the world can be and how good the world can be, the best person to share it with is the one who chose to love you and be with you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I really like this image of marriage, Romany. Sharing in the entire human experience. It feels true.

  • guest

    Gosh, you must be so happy in your marriage Dr Kelly, lucky wife, lucky husband. Lucky kids. My marriage has been a drama of 30 years and the saga has no change and no end… I mean, it change colours but the essence is the same; big love (or big co/dependence?) but (too) big differences… We are still trying after many separations and comebacks and posts like yours make me cry and give me hope… and perhaps explain why Im still in it (im a big fun of ego-crashing oportunities in prol of the growth of the soul). But it also pose the question: is the conflict really realy really worth it? Thanks anyway and blessings on your already blessed union with your companion.

  • ShareBJoy

    Well you certainly hit the nail on the head with the thoughts on why marriage doesn’t make sense. I have been struggling through those very things myself, and I was fortunate enough to grow up under the banner of an ideal, loving, selfless, patient, dedicated, beautiful marriage. My parents have as close to a “perfect” marriage as two faulty people could ever have. I have seen what practices and dedication it takes – and that it IS possible – and I still simply do not understand why anyone would want to get married. I appreciate your thoughts in the second half of the post and will take some time to tumble them in my brain.

  • Charisse Harris

    I love your insight and your posts are spot on- Thank you

  • forgot-about-income-taxes

    Sure, that’s something that can be found in marriage. It can also be found in family, friendship, community, service, and committed relationships that aren’t marriage. It can happen in any context where humans connect and put the needs of others ahead of their own.

    I have nothing against marriage, but this article seems to be pushing it as a requirement, selling it as if it were the only legitimate forum for transcending ego and connecting deeply with another. And in doing so, it neglects to recognize the cases where it actually exists in service of the ego, where people stay in terrible relationships that may have once worked well but have deteriorated beyond repair, for no better reason than “it’s marriage and that’s what you’re supposed to do.” That’s not transcending ego, that’s egotistic adherence to dogma.

    Life is often long, complex, and unpredictable. People change, their needs/goals/desires change, and not every pairing is suited adapting to every possible type of change that may come up. That isn’t to say there isn’t still incredible potential value in making life-long commitments. But we have to look the institution’s history as a literal survival tool and recognize that it was at least partly designed to fulfill needs that are not nearly as universal as they once were, as well as acknowledge that equally viable alternatives exist for fulfilling the needs that still are. And that includes the spiritual ones.

  • Steven Carlson

    Quoting Richard Rohr: ““If you allow life to help you die to your egocentricity, you can move beyond the egocentric levels into the sociocentric levels of development. The most common life circumstance that offers death to the ego is marriage. If you marry with any sincerity and are honest about relationship, you are giving up half of your egocentricity. If marriage doesn’t convert you, these wonderful little beings called children often come along and take away your egocentricity for at least the next twenty years! That’s why I think most people are called to marriage and child rearing. It’s the surest path to death of the ego, if you really allow your partner and children to mirror you, revealing your ordinary and weak self, and also helping you to experience unconditional love. Life has a way of revealing that you are not the center of anything and forcing you to give up control. We must keep growing–and that always implies death to the previous level–which many just will not do. Again and again we must move beyond our narcissism.”

  • Oskar T. Brand

    this article made zero sense

  • Chase Arrington

    Beautifully written! Thank you for the encouragement and love for our generation!

  • obamistake

    For marriage to work women must submit to their husbands, respect their authority, and allow them to lead.

    Epehsians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife”

    Esther 1:20
    “When the king’s edict which he will make is heard throughout all his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small.”

    Esther 1:22
    “So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language, that every man should be the master in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people.”

    Colossians 3:18
    “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”

    1 Peter 3:1
    “Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your husbands, so that even if they refuse to believe the word, they will be won over without words by the behavior of their wives”