A topic sometimes neglected in wedding sections is marriage: marriage as an institution, its moral and ethical issues, preparing one's heart for it. The paraphernalia of the wedding event tend to take center stage:
The flurry of crystal and flatware, the marathon of finding a dress or morning coat, the new concerns (what the bride and groom's wedding preparations say about them as people), and new duties (the groom may now share in addressing invitations), and so on.
The ethical questions of marriage arise as people start asking themselves, What, after all, does it mean to be married?
One issue that comes up time and again is what Roger Plantikow, director of the Institute of Religion and Health in New York, calls ``balancing the need for autonomy and mutuality.'' Or, ``How do I balance my own personal needs with the needs of my partner and the relationship?''
``The issue now has ethical and moral implications. `How open shall I be about my own personal needs and longings?' `What might that do in terms of jeopardizing the relationship?'''
People hungering for a relationship sometimes ``finesse discussing deeper issues, like, `What are my deeper goals?' in order to get a relationship established,'' says Dr. Plantikow. ``Then they find they both made some assumptions that are not true at all.''
The Rev. Larry Burton of University Hospital, who teaches family therapy and ethics at the Kantor Family Institute in Cambridge, Mass., defines morals as related to our customs or culture, while ethics are ``more universal and constitutive rules - the rules by which we make rules.'' He says there are three ways families think about moral and ethical decisions:
The first way is traditional.
Those who use this sort of ethical framework reason that there are certain rules, and it is our responsibility to follow them.
The second paradigm is individualistic. This person feels he can look inside for his own truth.
The third, the negotiating paradigm, is in between the others.
The person who reasons this way is concerned both with traditional moral issues and with protecting individuality. In response to ethical questions, this person says, ``It depends.''
A conflict arises when people's assumptions and ways of dealing with ethical questions are not the same. Due to the mobility and mass communication of modern life, two people from different backgrounds may seem very similar in superficial ways, but their views on deeper issues may clash.
Often such problems surface when the couple have a child, says Plantikow. Then ``deep unconscious allegiance to their own heritage surfaces.'' People start asking themselves what attitudes and values they want to pass along to their offspring.
Sometimes people disagree, but they don't know that the reason is they hold different world views, says Burton. ``The honeymoon is over - staying in love is beginning. We find that being a couple has work associated with it.''
People have affairs as a way of ``reasserting ambivalence about commitment - '' he comments, ``to get `distance.' It's the difficulty of letting go of options in a culture that has preached a gospel of maximizing your options.''
Sometimes, says Valerie Dillon, family life director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, we are making ethical decisions and don't realize it - for instance, when we decide how we spend our time. ``Time pressure is the most commonly mentioned stressor among married couples - not having time for one another or oneself, not having time for the family as a whole.''
Children cost time and money. Sometimes lack of these is a deciding factor in the decision not to have children.
Dr. John Vogelsang, field officer for education and training at the Episcopal Church Center, says, ``We're living in a society where there really has been a major shift on what the family is. When I hear some people talk about the return to traditional values, I hear them arguing for a reality that no longer exists.''
``I don't think there is enough emphasis given to the preparation for marriage,'' says Orthodox Rabbi Milton H. Polin, head of the Rabbinical Council of America.
``What one should look for in a mate and what a marriage is and what a family is - these all need a good deal more consideration.''
David Matthews, director of the counseling services division of the Lutheran Service Society of western Pennsylvania, agrees - but says this is easier said than done.
``Premarital counseling is one of the most difficult [types] of all counseling,'' he comments. ``Most couples, when they are about to be married, are pretty well convinced their marriage is made in heaven. And normally the thing that brings people to counseling is pain.''
A happy relationship in an age of narcissism may seem like a difficult goal, but Plantikow says overemphasis on autonomy is self-defeating. ``Eventually that kind of collapses in on you.''
He mentions a serigraph by Corita Kent that quotes the poet E.E. Cummings:
``be of love (a little)/ More careful/ Than of everything.''
``So I suppose you could say that anything careless about love is ethically wrong - love for yourself, your partner, your world.''