A friend was saying how remarkable it is that so many of us seem to have found the right mates -- not paragons but people who possess the qualities that are important to us and who make our lives more complete.
I suggested this possibility: Maybe it isn't their wonderful qualities that make us cling to those we've chosen to marry; perhaps it's the marriage that makes us see those wonderful qualities.
I thought it was a fresh insight until, in a recent conversation, David Blankenhorn called my attention to a letter that the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written from his Nazi prison cell to a young bride and groom in 1943. "Your love is your own private possession," Bonhoeffer told the young couple. "But marriage is more than something personal -- it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man . . . .
"It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love."
If this seems a strange subject for an op-ed, the truth is that almost everything I touch these days impels me to consider the troubled institution of marriage. I think of it when I see so many of my Duke University students settling for uncommitted relationships -- living together or merely "hooking up." I think of it when I see young children struggling academically because their single mothers are unable to give them the economic, emotional and directional support they need. I think of it when I see young boys run amok -- and young men overpopulate our prisons -- in large part because they haven't had the loving discipline that fathers can provide. I think of it when I see young women who don't know how to judge the men who pursue them because they haven't had the experience of a good man at home.
And I think of it when I see young (and not so young) men who can't seem to make sense of their role in modern life.
As often happens when I think of these things, I call Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and a leader of what has been dubbed the "marriage movement."
When I called him in New York last week, Blankenhorn said I shouldn't be surprised at the sense of rootlessness and directionlessness, especially among young males. "After all, we've been saying for a generation that fathers aren't really necessary. Why is it so shocking that some men are starting to believe it?"
What strikes him, he said, is that there are so many fathers -- married fathers -- who, by any standard, are doing a terrific job. "They are very involved with their children, their marriages look pretty good, they respect their wives as equals -- they may be the best fathers we've ever had.
"But in terms of numbers, they are being swamped by families that don't have a father at all."
The thing we seem to be forgetting, Blankenhorn says, is that, as Bonhoeffer observed, marriage is more than a personal relationship between spouses. "It is," he says, "a social institution, with rules, public meaning and a story to tell. We used to know what married men were supposed to do -- less time out drinking with the boys, saving some money. Marriage was a status we graduated into, and it was bigger than we were. It defined us, and not the other way around."
Now, he says, we seem to be losing the institutional imperatives of marriage, leaving only the private relationship -- and that is increasingly likely to turn on such things as personal satisfaction.
He recalled something actor Bruce Willis said after his marriage with Demi Moore broke up. The actor noted that he was, in some ways, "as close now as . . . ever" to Moore. "Our friendship continues," Willis explained. "The institution has been set aside."
And maybe it is the setting aside of the institution that worries me when I think of young people and marriage. We have tried to sell our children on the pragmatics -- particularly the economics -- of marriage, and it shocks us when they start weighing marriage in the way they might weigh a career change or a job relocation. Whatever works, and as long as we love. . . .
Maybe Bonhoeffer had it right -- that it isn't love that sustains marriage, but marriage that sustains love.