Marriage - what's new,what stays the same

As marriage manuals go, few are any smaller than a slim 19th-century volume that until last weekend had been tucked away for decades in a Midwestern attic.

Quaintly titled "The Christian Minister's Affectionate Advice to a Married Couple," the 130-year-old book measures just 3-1/2 by 5 inches and contains only 128 pages. Even so, within its gold-embossed ivory covers and gilt-edged pages lies a message that is often remarkable for its timelessness.

The first two pages fold out into a marriage certificate bearing the name of a great-great aunt and her husband. It reads: "This certifies that Joseph Moore and Miss Maggie A. Courtney, both of Saxville, Wis., were united in holy wedlock in my home in the town of Leon on the twenty-fourth day of July, A.D. 1870. By me, D. A. Campbell, Minister."

What follows is a charming essay, written by the Rev. James Bean, outlining the ingredients for marital happiness.

Outwardly, marriage has changed since Mr. Bean first published his work in 1829. A new egalitarianism has replaced the rigid roles that prevailed in his era, when men were breadwinners and wives were subservient homemakers. Describing that time, he writes, "It is a serene region in which a woman moves; not so that into which the head of a family is often driven for the support of those who depend on him."

But Bean's hints for marital success also reveal how little has changed and how constant the daily demands of marriage remain. Avoiding psychology and jargon, he begins with a solemn statement, as true today as it was then:

"The marriage relation is the most important of any you are capable of forming in this life.... It is a union constituted with a view not merely to the reciprocal benefit of the two persons who agree to form it, but likewise to the manners and the happiness of society at large. Smaller communities are the nurseries of larger ones."

Calling a husband and wife "fellow-travelers on the road of life," Bean warns that "conjugal affection is a delicate plant. It can not thrive under indifference." He exhorts couples to preserve the love that made them decide to be "partners for life." He cautions against "frivolous disputes." And he urges them to treat in-laws and relatives kindly.

Bean also cites the advantages of order in a family, noting that it tends "to render everyone comfortable." He suggests setting "a fixed hour for rising, for devotions, and for meals."

So important is the subject of a "kind and amiable temper and deportment" that he devotes an entire chapter to it. Without a good temper, he writes, "you can neither enjoy a pleasing situation nor support an inconvenient one. Seek the improvement of your temper at any price."

Above all, he stresses the value of religion in marriage. "There is nothing that has so frequently struck me as a cause of unhappiness to married people as the want of religion," he explains. "This defect ... produces most of the miseries of a state which was designed for the happiness of the sexes."

No one today knows whether the19th-century newlyweds, Maggie and Joseph, read Bean's book and forged a happy union. For 21st-century readers, surrounded by breezy self-help books on "relationships," his point of view may be too unbending. Still, in making a case for harmony, he offers a thoroughly modern definition of home.

"What will your house be without good nature?" Bean asks. Then he answers: "Not a home." Home, he explains, is "a place in which the mind can settle; where it is too much at ease to be inclined to rove; a refuge to which we flee in the expectation of finding those calm pleasures, those soothing kindnesses, which are the sweetness of life."

Then, switching to italics for emphasis, he adds, "Endeavor to make your house a home to each other."

What modern "expert" on marriage could improve on those 10 words as a recipe for conjugal happiness?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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