A recent article in Psychology Today by Marty Nemko reflected on “Marriage’s Purpose.” In an era when so many marriages disintegrate, or don’t even happen, such a discussion is helpful. Why get married in the first place? What is the purpose of marriage? These questions have been asked since the beginning of the human race by people in all walks of life and from all different backgrounds. They address an essential part of the human experience.

Discovering the Purpose of Marriage

“The whole point of marriage is to encourage your partner’s development and have them encourage yours.”

Nemko, a career coach, author, and columnist, takes as his starting point a popular quote from Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford: “The whole point of marriage is to encourage your partner’s development and have them encourage yours.” Nemko terms this definition of marriage “peer mentoring.” The popularity of Dweck’s quote shows that many recognize the truth in it. While it would be hard to defend peer mentoring as the whole point of marriage, surely supporting each other’s growth and development and helping each other through life is an important aspect of the marriage relationship.

Nemko goes on to question the idea of peer mentoring as the “whole point” of marriage. He lists a number of marriage’s other possible purposes. For example, one purpose of marriage may be to fulfill sexual desires:

Mightn’t two people who…share a big sexual appetite marry at least partly to have ready sex without having to pay for it nor incur the health and emotional risks of multiple partners?

Or perhaps two people marry for the structure it gives to their lives:

Mightn’t two people…marry at least in part to have someone with whom to share life’s rituals: kissing good morning, having breakfast together, sharing workday’s events and pastimes, and/or going to sleep with the comfort and security of a life partner lying next to you?

Nemko identifies another possible purpose as giving children the best possible environment in which to be raised:

Mightn’t two people…marry in part because they want children, and the legal and spiritual bonds of formal marriage make it more likely they’ll stay together, which they view as good for the child?

Or two people might marry simply for the security it brings:

Mightn’t two people…, especially if older, marry for security–financial or healthwise—so they won’t be left helpless if, at an advanced age, they lost their job? It isn’t easy for older people to find work, or if they got seriously ill, to fend for themselves.

Finally, Nemko mentions that the reasons a person marries – or stays married – may vary over time. The benefits one receives in marriage might be different for newlyweds in their 20’s and an elderly couple who have been married for decades.

All of the reasons for marrying – Dweck’s peer mentoring as well as Nemko’s multiple reasons – have merit. One can see each reason as a potentially large factor in the decision to marry, or to stay married. But are Dweck and Nemko covering new ground with these insights, or are they rediscovering ancient wisdom?

Ancient Wisdom

Marriage is fundamentally a natural, not spiritual, institution, and so one does not need to be a spiritual person – or even acknowledge the spiritual life – to arrive at certain truths about it.

As an institution that has been around for almost 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has had a long time to reflect on matters that impact human existence and its purpose. Marriage, as a central institution of human existence, is no exception to that reflection. The Church, in reflecting on marriage, has based its teachings on the Bible, insights from saints and theologians, as well as the lived experience of millions of married couples over the centuries. From this reflection, the Church has traditionally declared three purposes to marriage, in the following order of importance:

  1. The generation and nurturing of offspring.
  2. The mutual help of spouses.
  3. The remedy for concupiscence (i.e. a way to satisfy one’s sexual desires).
    (source: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott, p. 462)

Looking at these three reasons, one can’t help but see how each one is mentioned by either Dweck and Nemko. Of course, neither presumably looked to the Catholic Church when contemplating the purpose of marriage. However, the primary purpose proposed by the Church is similar to Nemko’s third example: marriage is the best environment – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – in which to raise children. The Church’s second purpose is very close to Dweck’s peer mentoring. Each spouse is to work for the good of the other, and accept help from the other. And the Church’s third purpose of marriage is quite similar to Nemko’s first example. Each person has a sexual urge – of varying intensities – and marriage allows one to fulfill that drive, in Nemko’s words, “without having to pay for it nor incur the health and emotional risks of multiple partners.”

It should be no surprise that there is overlap here. Marriage is fundamentally a natural, not spiritual, institution, and so one does not need to be a spiritual person – or even acknowledge the spiritual life – to arrive at certain truths about it.

Difference of Perspective

Marriage is part of something transcendent, something that is true no matter the person or the culture in which it is practiced.

However, I think there is a distinction between the perspective of the Catholic Church and the perspective of secular psychologists like Dweck and Nemko. Dweck and Nemko and many others like them are essentially asking the question, “Why get married?” In other words, why should I choose this activity as opposed to all the other options? In many ways, it boils down to “What’s in it for me?” This is an important question, but it centers the discussion around an individual’s desires. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is asking, “What is the purpose of marriage?” In other words, why does marriage exist? The purpose of marriage is not dependent upon an individual person’s feelings or desires; it is part of something more transcendent, something that is true no matter the person or the culture in which it is practiced.

This difference in perspective can be seen especially in the primary purpose given by the Church for marriage: the generation and nurturing of children. Dweck’s “whole point” of marriage doesn’t even mention children, and Nemko frames his third reason to be married in the context of the couple “wanting children.” But for the Church, children are the primary purpose of marriage; in other words, it’s not about you. No human society can exist for long without the generation of children, and marriage is the institution intended for that propagation. As we’ve seen in our own day, without marriage, society will witness both a tremendous drop in the number of children being born as well as a tremendous drop in healthy environments for raising children.

Today many scoff at the Catholic Church as a hidebound, outdated institution that has little to offer in today’s world. However, we can see from the Church’s teaching on the purpose of marriage that often today’s experts are simply reinventing the wheel – and sometimes their “wheel” isn’t as well-built – instead of looking at the wisdom of the ages which can be found in traditional institutions like the Catholic Church.