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Review of "Understanding Marriage"

By Richard Taylor
Prometheus Books, 2004
Review by Nick Trakakis on Nov 8th 2004
Understanding Marriage

This was the last book written by the eminent philosopher and beekeeper, Richard Taylor, who died in October 2003 at the age of 83 after a nearly year-long battle with lung cancer.  Taylor was keenly interested in such topics as friendship, love, sex, and marriage (see, in particular, his 1982 book, Having Love Affairs), but here he reserves his still-sharp philosophical mind for the institution of marriage, relying in part on the knowledge gained as a certified marriage counsellor and, no doubt, on his own experience of having been thrice married.    

 Taylor begins in Chapter 1 ("Marriage and the Illusion of Happiness") by debunking the customary conception of marriage, according to which a man and a woman fall in love, become engaged soon after, and at an agreed-upon-date quite suddenly make the transition to married status when, in the course of an elaborate and expensive ceremony, the presiding cleric declares, "I now pronounce you man and wife".  Taylor holds that "all this is a myth, an elaborate fabric of errors, nourished by romantic notions that have little to do with life" (p.13).  A couple, Taylor argues, can become married without any wedding or vows or ceremony of any sort, as happens in 'common law marriage', where a couple may be deemed married in virtue of cohabiting for a certain time.  But Taylor also adds that "the mere legality of a marriage is not sufficient for the creation of a genuine marital state" (p.16), and offers as examples a couple that marries in order that one of the partners gains citizenship, and a man or woman that marries only to acquire the wealth of the other person.  I would prefer to call such couples 'legally married', and reserve what Taylor calls 'true marriage' for couples that share a loving relationship.  Taylor, however, counterintuitively claims that marriages that are merely legal "are not marriages at all" (p.60).

  In any case, Taylor aims to replace the legalistic and conventional conception of marriage with a more philosophical one.  But as he is fully aware, any account of marriage must face the fact that deep happiness often eludes married couples.  Taylor often points out that any given marriage (in the United States) now has a fifty-fifty chance of ending in divorce (unfortunately, this figure is not compared with divorce statistics from other countries), and even when a married couple have no intent to divorce their marriage may already be dead (as is illustrated by Taylor with some harrowing real-life cases).  This raises a most interesting question: "If the institution of marriage is in such a sorry state, why get married?" (p.39).  To borrow an example of Taylor's, would you sign up for an exciting cruise if you were warned that there was a good chance you would end up in some dismal foreign port from which escape was possible only at great expense?  Taylor therefore examines whether there is any longer much point in getting married, and he does this by comparing the benefits of marriage with those of cohabitation.  Conventional marriage, Taylor concludes, has no advantages over cohabitation other than providing, in some instances at least, greater economic security.  But this does not address the original question, for assuming that cohabiting couples separate just as often as conventionally married ones, and at just as great an emotional and financial cost, the question remains: Why bother?  (For an interesting attempt to develop such considerations into a critique of marriage, see Dan Moller, "An Argument against Marriage," Philosophy 78 (2003): 79-91; but see also Iddo Landau's perceptive response, "An Argument for Marriage," Philosophy 79 (2004): 475-81.)   

In Chapter 2 ("Ceremonies, Vows, and the Meaning of Marriage"), Taylor insightfully identifies courtship as one of the major reasons why many marriages fail.  Courtship, as practiced today, involves a great deal of acting or role-playing, to the extent that neither party comes to really know the other, especially the other's faults.  As part of "an intelligent alternative to this madness", Taylor encourages governments to regulate that couples intending to get married must live together for a certain minimum time before a marriage license can be granted (p.49).  There is, however, little prospect of such a policy ever becoming law, as Taylor acknowledges.

Taylor next casts his critical eye on "the classic American wedding", with its arduous preparations, culminating in a grand and costly ceremony, reception, and honeymoon – as Taylor notes, "it would be difficult to imagine a less suitable way of entering into marriage" (p.52).  Taylor then briefly discusses second marriages, providing some clues as to why such marriages tend to be even more unstable than the first ones (pp.54-56), before moving on to the topic of prenuptial agreements, arguing that such agreements should be (but are unlikely to ever be) a legal precondition for issuing a marriage license (pp.56-59).  In the remainder of the chapter Taylor focuses on more central concerns, beginning with 'the meaning of marriage' (pp.59-64).  Advocating an ethical rather than legal conception of marriage, Taylor writes that "what is essential to being married…is not anything readily seen, but rather a strong bond of love between its partners that is lasting and gives meaning to the idea of lifelong commitment" (p.60).  This bond of love, Taylor goes on to explain, is founded on the promotion of the other's sense of self-worth and the mutual fulfillment of needs (pp.64-75).

In the next and relatively short chapter (Chapter 3: "Failed Marriages"), Taylor notes that marriages break down for a variety of reasons, some of which involve a real (and not merely perceived) fault, such as physical abuse, while others involve some surprise occurrence.  In this latter category Taylor includes the discovery of infidelity, but also the sudden rise in one partner's career prospects.  The common denominator, however, in failed marriages is that "the partners simply were not meeting each other's needs" (p.89).    

The final chapter, "Dissolving the Marriage", is procedural and quite practical in nature, detailing five ways a marriage can be dissolved, beginning with the most acrimonious and moving on to more friendly methods.  Taylor's 'Five Ways' are, in short: (1) warfare: litigation involving attorneys, with children likely to be used as weapons; (2) arbitration: engaging a neutral, third party (such as a judge) to settle disputes; (3) standard mediation: an agreement is reached in accordance with divorce law but with the help of a mediator; (4) 'open' mediation: as with (3), but the agreement is based not so much on the legal entitlements as on the needs of the two parties; and (5) self-managed divorce: with much co-operation, if not magnanimity, the two parties draw up an agreement without turning to lawyers or mediators.  (I might point out that many of the legalities discussed in this chapter will only be relevant to U.S. readers.)

The only criticism I could make of this book is that it does not exactly live up to its sub-title, 'Knowing When to Leave'.  There is much discussion of knowing how to leave, but little is said about the difficulties of, for example, determining whether it is better to end a twenty-year marriage that has run into seemingly intractable difficulties rather than trying to resurrect it.  This is, however, an excellent book, combining philosophical and psychological insights with many helpful practical suggestions on an important subject (one that is sadly neglected by philosophers).  It would make an ideal gift for any engaged or newly-wed couple.   


© 2004 Nick Trakakis


Nick Trakakis, Department of Philosophy, Monash University, Australia.