And when He [God] desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws; among them He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation…. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 105.

Can a marriage last? Can marriage become, as the Baha’i teachings suggest, a “fortress for well-being and salvation”?

Yes, there is hope for marriage: It truly is possible to succeed.

Today, many of us explore the idea or reality of marriage at a time when our culture devalues it, and cohabitation and divorce seem common. Your friends or family have likely gone through divorces or relationship breakups after considering marriage. You may even see the character quality of “commitment” as difficult or scary.

All of us want guarantees about how things will turn out. That seems to explain the trend toward lavish weddings these days. We think we can control the outcome of a wedding—but the outcome of a marriage seems far more difficult and uncertain. However, the Baha’i teachings say perhaps that’s not really true:

God has created such union and harmony between man and wife that no one can conceive in this world a greater plane of union. You must irrigate continually the tree of your union with the water of love and affection, so that it may remain green and verdant throughout all the seasons, producing the most luscious fruits for the healing of the nations. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 6, p. 20.

New, Hopeful Research

newlywedsMore than any time in the past, new scientific research and information has confirmed the value of marriage, and identified the ingredients of a successful marriage. Marriage researcher Shaunti Feldhahn (www.shaunti.com) was puzzled by all the bad news she heard, so she spent years talking to researchers, reviewing original marriage data, and coming to different conclusions than the media has portrayed [See her book The Good News About Marriage]. It turns out that the so-called 50 percent divorce rate we all heard about was a forecast, not a fact. Instead, the actual divorce rate Feldhahn found is closer to 20-25 percent for first marriages; and 31 percent for all marriages. She also found that:

  • About 80 percent of marriages are happy
  • Those who act on their faith have a lower divorce rate
  • Remarriages are only seeing about 35 percent failure (vs. over 60 percent as reported in the media).

Feldhahn concluded that “most marriage problems are not caused by big-ticket issues, and simple changes can make a big difference.” [See her book “The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages”]

Succeeding at Marriage

Everyone understands that it takes effort, sacrifice, and selflessness to create a unified and harmonious marriage. But understanding isn’t enough—both partners need to put in the time and attention to stay connected, to consult about all matters, to have common goals, and to work through challenges (with outside help as needed). Marriage includes thoughtful service to each other delivered with loving-kindness. Including these types of behaviors in marriage contributes to its joy, most particularly when both parties commit to action.

Marriage also requires wisdom. Wisdom is “making good choices based upon knowledge gained from careful listening, observation, education, and experiences, as well as through insights from reflecting that help to determine whether it is best to speak, remain silent, act, or be inactive.” For example, it is wise to balance sacrifice and selfless service with moderation and self-respect, so we don’t go to an extreme that reduces our nobility as human beings:

“…Man’s supreme honor and real happiness lie in self-respect, in high resolves and noble purposes, in integrity and moral quality, in immaculacy of mind. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 19.

My husband and I try to give selfless service to each other in our relationship. When I’ve had a tough day, he brings home my favorite yellow flowers. I contribute to his well-being by sending him to work with a bag of healthy snacks. He notices when I need to run away from my desk for a couple of hours. We both know when it’s time for a date. I spot quotations and articles that will help him in his work, and cartoons that make him laugh. He rubs ointment into my neck when it hurts. We make prayer requests and raise topics with each other regularly for consultation, a necessary sacrifice of time.

Service helps us avoid selfishness and an over-focus on ourselves, something that seems to derail many marriages. In the book Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, the authors talk about building the capacity of “generativity” as a way to have a happy, successful life. They define it as “an act of giving that enables another person to manifest his or her own strengths and gifts through love.” This “generative” giving, they suggest, protects our mental and physical health and sustains the unity in our relationships:

Note ye how easily, where unity existeth in a given family, the affairs of that family are conducted; what progress the members of that family make, how they prosper in the world. Their concerns are in order, they enjoy comfort and tranquility, they are secure, their position is assured, they come to be envied by all. Such a family but addeth to its stature and its lasting honor, as day succeedeth day. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 279-280.

Post and Neimark say, “When we nurture others, we nurture ourselves.” They cite studies that show teens who learn generativity retain it as a lifetime lifestyle. Generativity links to life success, spirituality, warm family relations, better health habits, and social competence. This good evidence supports helping teens and young adults engage in service to others and improving society. Generativity, it turns out, also creates a good foundation for marriage.

So, as you search for a marriage partner, or as you assess the health of your current marriage, remember the good news: most marriages are happy, and those who put in the effort usually succeed at marriage.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

4 Comments

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  • Mar 24, 2016
    I wish those who want to promote family values would work for reform of divorce law. There is a lucrative industry in destroying rather than trying to save marriages. Many young people are avoiding marriage because of their fear of this legal system.
    • Susanne Alexander
      Apr 14, 2016
      Daniel - the truth is that both are needed. We need to strengthen marriages and prevent divorces. What I hear from young people is that they have seen so much pain from divorces that it makes them afraid to marry. They aren't afraid of marriage as much as divorce. Although they also often don't know how to be successful at marriage. For me, I focus on the marriage end - I don't have the legal knowledge to tackle divorce law. I appreciate your comment though - someone will hear you!
  • john cashman
    Mar 24, 2016
    Somebody needs to look into the relationship between a chaste and holy life and marriage. Too many marriages today fall apart because carnal desires get the best of people. I wonder if there's evidence to suggest that waiting till marriage and avoiding cohabitation has a long term healthy effect because as individuals we learn self-restraint in our youth.
    • Susanne Alexander
      Apr 14, 2016
      There is research on cohabitation and infidelity. I don't think the researchers are quite yet ready to firmly say no sex before marriage though. You can see some of what they are finding at sites like nationalmarriageproject.org and smartmarriages.com. You can also see some hopeful research at www.shaunti.com.