A colorful painting of several figures outdoors with a tentlike shelter


My first thesis is that marriage, as the continuation of childhood, is as wrapped up in family as it is in the desire for love that gives rise to it.

We are born into a family and it forms the context of our lives through our upbringing. We make friends and eventually we split off from our family in order to form another. But that act, if we pursue it, is also part of the family dynamic, which posits its continuation and views marriage, particularly from the standpoint of the parents, as a vehicle of generation. Marriage could be thought of as a genetic conspiracy between grandparents and their grandchildren. In time, everyone joins up. The year’s feast days bring the family together “under one roof.” Cousins meet and form a larger cohort. The elders may age and die, but the family lives on.

Marriage recreates the intimate tension of the family at its heart. We enter the family by passing through our mother’s birth canal and then attaching ourselves to her breasts. Long before this, we take hold amid passion and make our presence felt. Once born, we relate to our mother physically. That physical intimacy, the realm of childhood, is forcibly put aside until our hormones stir and our bodies change. At that point, we may seek lovers. Not always consciously, we may want children.

There’s a hardwired aspect to this, and not everyone shares the wiring. So, instead, I could say that at a certain point, we want another (or others) with whom to share an intimate tension. Family may be both the cause and consequence of this. We do so despite the inconveniences, the unhappiness, and even the dangers that come with it.

For my purposes here, I’m going to set the untoward aside. Marriage in one form or another is a common feature of life, so it exhibits the full range of human behavior. There are sociopaths and psychopaths out there. A lot of family life is toxic in one way or another. This is not about that toxicity. Its sense of family is more benign than not.

Yet the inconveniences and unhappiness are real. And there are dangers, even among the benign. You can be messed with without anyone laying a hand on you, often with the best of intentions. Misunderstandings abound. We bring our natures with us, on arrival. Parents do their best to deal with us, and then friends, lovers, and partners take their turns.

Yet we invite this, throwing our ill-suited natures into unlikely combinations that nonetheless attract us. This too is like a family, which despite the bond of blood is a genetic menagerie. Perhaps instinctively, we want to mix it up. (Personally, I give destiny some credence.)

What family has going for it is staying power. Not for nothing do cults seek to break its hold. Cults and gangs are family substitutes, but poor ones that suffice only when the real family doesn’t cut it. And of course a lot of families don’t; those that do manage to transcend our species’ self-centeredness often enough to be altruistic. This altruism is limited, as Swedenborg noted. (He condemned families for tending to restrict their kindnesses to themselves.) It’s limited, but it’s a start. You have to learn altruism somewhere. Altruism is an evolutionary tactic for the family and our species. Xenophobia and tribalism persist, but the cosmos we inhabit suffers from them. Intimate tensions at the community level have a way of exploding. The family is where we first learn to negotiate difference. (Not everyone learns, of course.)


My second thesis is that marriage passes through what Zen Buddhism calls gates or barriers. One of these is the transition from personal to familial love.

Behind this thesis is the Buddhist notion of practice. In Zen parlance, gates and barriers are not markers of progress, but of the depth of exploration of the same phenomenon, so to speak. Love, marriage, and friendship are practices, too. Family is one of their contexts.

When I first arrived at this thesis, I was thinking of the birth of my oldest son, a remarkable event that even now I can remember vividly. Birth reminds us that we’re a species. It puts us in the timeframe of evolution, faster moving than geological time, for example, but also subject to time’s river-like shaping. My son stared at us and we stared at him, meeting for the first time in one of life’s sacramental moments. In this respect, acts of lovemaking are like the collisions of galaxies, each bringing a unique but overlapping genetic ancestry, conjoined at the heart.

Marriage exists in everyday time and evolutionary time. The family is both a socio-economic unit and an evolutionary unfolding, dynastic and genetic. Against this background, the marriage partners work through their individual and shared desires, dilemmas, and frustrations. They acquiesce and they rebel. They age. Life unfolds and the marriage experiences stresses and strains.

Many of these are age-old. Sometimes they break us, break the marriage, and break the family, but the family can also be a refuge. Families are typically more accepting, between the generations and among siblings, than the partners in a marriage may be in the midst of its turmoil. The family in this sense provides both a reason to keep the marriage going and a model for how to do so. What families exhibit—familial love—is more likely to forgive, more likely to be unconditional and accepting, and more likely to see ruptures as an aberration.

This reflects a consciousness of evolutionary time that becomes clearer as we get older. We begin to understand that our own life has threads, a “heaping up of small acts,” as both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching put it. This continual modest effort may get us further than repeated acts of “reinvention.” Time is a background dimension in life, but families can bring it into higher relief.

One of the purposes of marriage is to bring us out of ourselves. This is something that work, for example, only partly accomplishes. Behind this is our individual ripening, the slow shedding of ego for being. The “great matter,” as the Zen Buddhists call it, seems to relate to this. (I’m not an adept, so all I know is what I’ve read.) Familial love exemplifies being as much as having. In their dynastic aspects, families appear rooted in having, but when you scratch the surface, being is what persists. What families possess is more often the means to new ends.


My third thesis is that the acceptance of marriage’s dynastic purpose is aided rather than subverted by the freedom its parties allow themselves.

I’ve used the word familial to describe what married love becomes when personal love is transmuted or transcended by the family’s pull. To the extent that families will consciously or unconsciously seek their perpetuation, familial love is tied up in what tradition knows as dynastic purpose. And while this seems like the stuff of aristocracies of one kind or another, all families nonetheless engage in it to the extent that they look to their future as a family, concerning themselves with their children’s and their grandchildren’s lives, wishing for and often working for their success.

Accepting the dynastic purpose of marriage is a logical development of familial love. The family provides a context for the marriage, and the marriage partners start to see themselves as an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately, they end up as elders. If they’ve earned it, they’re respected and sought out as guides by the younger generation. There are often property and other assets to be considered. Some families are like businesses: the elders look for successors, if they can find them, to carry it on.

Let me be clear that what I’m describing is one pattern out of many. Not every married couple even thinks of itself as a family. Not every married person wants to “get past” an initial desire for a purely personal relationship with another. Indeed, this transition can be difficult and even a disaster. Yet from the other side it can look more like a breaking through than a breaking down.

Accepting the dynastic purpose of marriage makes the family more valuable to the partners. Whatever tensions exist between them, they have more incentive to resolve them. This can be taken in several ways. Tradition argues for hierarchy: family first, often with one or the other partner “in command.” Despite the lip service paid to modernity, this model persists. In its modern form, the family may be invoked to stifle dissent. To me, this is not a modern marriage. It’s the traditional model trying to cope with modernity. A modern marriage accepts that its partners are individuals, with their own lives. It acknowledges the love—personal and familial—that each brings to the marriage, but recognizes that love can take many different forms. When a modern marriage accepts the dynastic purpose of marriage, it commits itself to perpetuating the family. How it does so is not and cannot be wholly predetermined. Tradition is often of little use when a couple faces a crisis that tradition suggests should end the marriage.

It’s like the difference between the Decalogue, with its moral absolutes, and the Buddhist precepts, which focus on state of mind and not causing harm. There are times in a marriage when for practical reasons the partners are almost totally dependent on each other. If the marriage vow has its reasons, they are these. Our responsibilities to offspring are similar, but we recognize that there’s a point when we have to let go.

A modern marriage is open ended about the means but less so about the ends. As the I Ching says, it seeks “an end that endures.” These ends can’t be foreseen in any detail, but they reflect a hope for the family that is like that of the gardener who considers not just the next season, but the future of the garden itself. There’s an element of cultivation to it. That this hope may be pointless in the grander scheme of things, life’s ephemeral nature, means little to families of cultivators. There’s an element of stewardship to them, a sense of connection to an enterprise that predates them, often by a considerable amount, and on this basis alone posits their future. I can trace part of my family by individual names back to 1620, and its previous history can be inferred to its arrival in Parma early in the previous century. Within my family history, my “dynasty,” are the individuals involved, the personal histories. Modern marriage accepts that individuals matter and looks for ways to enable them to live as fully as they can. The individual freedom that this implies carries risks, but modern marriage accepts that they’re worth taking.

The stretching out of life means that modern marriage has more incentive to do this than traditional marriage did. The freedom to live fully becomes more important as one grows older. The truism that “youth is wasted on the young” seems true in that there’s a ripening in human life. That ripeness pervades individual experience. Its actual potential is to enrich the marriage, but this is not always immediately apparent.

Tradition, Friedrich Hayek noted, is received wisdom or evolutionary lore. The way society is set up, its norms and laws, is not designed, he said, but handed down. Traditions evolve as part of unfolding life. As Thoreau pointed out, traditions have their limits. There are times when we have to disregard them. Slavery is tradition, too, and today, no one defends it.

A new tradition of family may need to be accompanied by new traditions of marriage and friendship. The dynastic purpose of marriage isn’t applicable to every type of family that considers itself to be one, but I would guess that cultivators can be found in all of them.


My fourth thesis is that marriage needs a new tradition that reflects its familial and dynastic aspects, its potentially long-lived nature, and its periods of vulnerability and dependence.

Marriages evolve and the couple gets older. In the childbearing years, the presence of dependent children makes the couple more dependent on each other. This dependence resurfaces if one or the other partner becomes seriously ill. Any new tradition should acknowledge this. I would revise the marriage vow to say, marriage is a commitment to treat as family the issue and estate of the partners, however acquired, and to treat one’s partner as family, whatever else may happen. There are instances—I’ve seen them in my own extended family—of long-divorced couples reuniting around an illness, because the sick person is a parent of the children and often has no one else.

The mutual obligations of the partners in a marriage evolve over time. As two individuals, what they owe each other versus what they owe themselves changes. A new tradition of marriage accepts and works with this. It doesn’t say what to do, but acknowledges that something may need to be done.

The nature and timing of marriage’s evolution is up in the air. One partner may object. The new tradition of marriage says fine, but don’t point to tradition to back you up. You knew going in that this might happen when you reach a point when mutual dependence is no longer an issue. Instead of seeing of it as an affront, see it as a time of growth.

Marriage, as an “honorable estate,” has legal meanings and involves the couple in a legal process to undo its status and redefine its obligations. Among my hopes in proposing a new tradition of marriage is to prompt discussion of this legal context. Just as the old tradition seems out of sync with the realities of modern life, the legal framework of marriage feels rooted in another era.

If there’s a pattern to the evolution of marriage, it coincides with the evolution of self, the slow or precipitous shedding of narcissism and possessiveness in favor of being, with its greater willingness to accept others as they are and allow life to unfold. Being as I understand it isn’t passivity or fatalism. You still plan and daily life still has its discipline and élan. What’s different is that you recognize life’s contingent and ephemeral nature, valuing others for who they are, but not as yours. This takes an act of will. Sometimes this shift can feel like your skin is being pulled off, yet it is the necessary step. Being is the only way to live with life as it really is.

A new tradition of marriage accepts life on its own terms. It accepts the partner as an individual, part of something larger, a family, to which we both belong. That identity is indelible, but this says nothing about this other belonging to us. “Until death,” as the old tradition has it, is about a path we each take up. How we walk it is up to each of us. A new tradition of marriage accepts the partner as an individual whose life unfolds independently from ours.

As this implies, a new tradition of marriage needs to be open and capacious. The old tradition left this unstated, leaving it to each couple to negotiate the openness and deal with their marriage’s evolution. The new tradition is more forthright about its possible trajectories, willing to see it as a union of individuals who necessarily grow and change. It acknowledges what arises from the union, the sense or reality of family, and anticipates its importance.


My fifth thesis is that friendship reasserts itself as a fundamental human relationship, on a par with marriage and potentially its complement.

The factors that lead us to marry are many and varied, so it is difficult to generalize. In my own experience, the attraction between the marriage partners obscures their differences. They then spend considerable time dealing with this. Someone in my family once told me that the first four years of marriage or its domestic prelude, sharing a household and a daily existence, are spent sorting this out.

My sense is that beneath that sorting out are deeper differences that can’t be fully sorted. For the marriage to continue there has to be an accommodation. Beyond this is whatever the marriage partners cannot or will not provide each other. Part of the ripening of a marriage is often the desire for a fuller life. Individuality asserts itself, and with it comes the impulse to transcend the marriage or, in effect, to enlarge it.

Part of the initial sorting out early in a marriage is the sorting out of friends. Their claims and their relative compatibility with both partners are examined. Some friends survive this vetting and others don’t. Friendships made in later life may revive the past or arise anew, but they again reflect truly individual preferences.

Friendship grows in importance because it is part of the territory the individual is exploring and extending, the territory of the self. The friends one makes there may be exclusive to it or they may come to relate to the marriage, too. This cannot be predicted in advance. What is possible to say is that the marriage can be enriched by friendship and vice versa. For this to happen, the territory of individuality has to be respected.

The other partner may envy or regret a friendship, because it speaks to differences between the married couple. One cannot be what one is not. Yet friendship makes a different point: we are who we are. This applies to the marriage, too.

Friendship is not a familial tie, although it may become one. The friend of one or the other partner may become the friend of the couple and the family, or may simply be the particular friend of one of the partners, potentially accepted and respected as such, but not part of the larger circle. Each couple, each family, and each friendship has to work this out for itself.

What makes friendship a core human relationship is its tie to our individuality. Friendships arise because self-fulfillment is part of our makeup. As we get older, this aspect of our humanity comes forward and friends often figure. At this stage in life, a friendship can be profound. Among friendship, marriage, and family, the love and closeness we feel differs in each case, but friendship, lacking dynastic ambitions, is the least encumbered. Friends may end up sharing certain things, like a correspondence, and may even live together, but there’s still a difference. The heart of friendship, to me, is the willingness of the friends to take each other straight up.


My sixth thesis is that each one is her or his own person, not the property of any other. Vows cannot transcend this basic fact.

Individuality is fundamental, which is why to be works better in the long run than to have. We don’t actually possess even our selves, these ephemeral would-be vessels of our possible souls, but we can be more assuredly than we can have. That’s the Buddha’s take, but this is also the territory of François, duc de La Rochefoucauld, what the French call amour-propre. Love between two individuals dances around their singularity, which is to say their self-love and self-regard.

Individuals are not unchanging monoliths. As their lives unfold, their interests, desires, tastes, pursuits, and natures evolve. So does their use of time. It’s not just their appearances that change; they are literally not the same from point to point. Yet viewed within, there’s a kind of thread of identity that makes each one feel she or he has a self, is the same individual all along. We are and we are not, which is to say that we are best understood as having an inherent uncertainty, like particles of light. Try to possess this other and there’s nothing there beyond the moment. This can be maddening, especially to those who see life in a binary black and white. To extend the analogy to Newtonian and quantum physics, the old tradition of marriage is rooted in the former, simplifying existence by holding to an ordered universe in which a binary view of things is of a piece. This mode of life works up to a point. It ceases to work is when it runs up against the realities described above—when it becomes obvious that its narrow descriptive power and limited repertoire of responses are unequal to our actual human condition. The old tradition of marriage declaims its absolutes and the partners deal with the nuances of their specific situations.

A new tradition of marriage acknowledges the quantum nature of life. It sees life’s basic relationships taking place between individuals. While they have responsibilities to each other and to their issue, if any, they are still individuals. A new tradition brings the nuances of life to the forefront, acknowledging that the real history of women and men, their intimate history, is vastly richer than the absolutes of the old tradition posit.

Most of all, a new tradition makes modest claims, not sweeping ones. It recognizes that many of the problems we face in life are wicked, as Horst Rittel called them: they can be resolved, but the solutions are ad hoc and provisional. One could say that the solutions to wicked problems are bound by time and context. A new tradition accepts this. It seeks a better understanding of how life works. It’s more interested in narratives, in individual histories, than in absolutes.

All of this points to the need to set aside whatever properly belongs to the past. The grudges that we hold, the slights and betrayals that we count against others, are our baggage, artifacts of memory. They can become objects of identity, but this puts the brakes on our own unfolding. We owe it ourselves, our individuality, to acknowledge this and set these burdens down. We owe to the present an ability to be present within it, to be open to what unfolds and able to respond with immediacy. To live otherwise is to be prejudiced, and experience suggests that prejudices are seldom warranted.


My seventh thesis is that friendship is the core of all successful human relationships.

I could argue that affection is the core of all successful relationships. Yet I want to bring friendship to the fore, especially as other parts of this essay have emphasized marriage and family.

La Rochefoucauld exemplifies how with love and affection friendship can overcome the obstacles that plague close relationships. Late in life, unhappy and disillusioned, he met a woman, Madame de la Fayette, who truly befriended him and placed this friendship ahead of other considerations. Said to be successful with women, he was by then disfigured and outmaneuvered, his ambitions thwarted. But the mind is the true engine of our feelings, to which the tongue and pen give expression. Left with only this essence, he found a friend who truly loved him for it.

Consider again Vanessa Bell. Married to Clive Bell, she grew to resent his familiarity with other women. Falling in love with Roger Fry, she tried out what could have been a second marriage and household, but gave it up, returning to the households she and Clive Bell originally shared. Their marriage kept going. Meanwhile, she fell in love with Duncan Grant. Her physical relationship with him, which Grant found singular enough to record, produced a daughter, Angelica Bell. Once she was pregnant, or soon after, Grant told her that this aspect of things had to stop. Despite the unhappiness this caused her, their relationship continued. They lived together and painted together. Their closeness seems only to have grown stronger.

Angelica Bell wrote a memoir that describes her ambivalent relationships with her parents. Gradually she came to understand that Grant was her biological father, although Clive Bell had always stood in. Ten years after writing her memoir, she wrote a new foreword acknowledging that her retrospective quarrels with them were expunged, that she saw them in a different light. And even in the first edition, she pointed to her daughters as compensation enough for the unhappiness she suffered.

I recount these episodes in one extended family to note how, as the I Ching says, affection underlies all close human relationships. Marriage, family, and friendship alike are either grounded in affection or risk becoming a sea of unhappiness. In asserting this, I recognize that I’m projecting my own nature, which is more affectionate than not.

In an interview in the Paris Review, the poet Frederick Seidel said that you reach a point in life where you’re unwilling not to be yourself. You write what you write and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. I agree with this, but feel it has to be tempered when one is together with others. I’ve observed that some people take pleasure in constant strife. “This is sex for them,” I sometimes think. I’m not speaking here of the flashes of anger that are inherent to close human interaction, but of a chronic penchant for behavior that quells affection.

As we get older, the loosening of the mortal coil allows us a greater openness to others, a clearer sense of who they are beneath their foibles and grievances. It’s as if we can feel their hearts beating, sense the humanity that connects us. We no longer think of them as ours, as part of our circle or orbit, revolving around us. As this happens, friendships take on a different hue. We’re grateful just to be with a friend when it happens. How it was, how it might be—memories and speculations may well up, but they no longer gnaw at us. We’re finally on better terms with our past and more willing to let life surprise us with its possibilities. It’s at this point that friendship takes center stage.

Friendships take many forms. I’m not arguing that one form or another will enable closeness to blossom, but that closeness is independent of the form a friendship takes. And while affection is necessary to a friendship, its closeness really depends on mutual acceptance. This is the lesson of La Rochefoucauld and his friend Madame de la Fayette, and of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.


My eighth thesis is that friendship is mutually accepting or it’s not a true friendship.

The Soto Zen essayist Kocho Uchimaya makes the point that there are limits to how well we can know another. His spiritual ancestor Eihei Dogen makes another salient point about our mutability: that we are better understood as a spectrum of behaviors, unpredictable and beyond our conscious control, however much we will it to be otherwise. Enlightenment is a transient awareness, Dogen asserts, that can’t be privileged over other states of being. This is why he placed so much emphasis on “Just sit!” To sit is to find the ground again, by whatever means.

“The ground” is a useful metaphor, pointing to the moment when we let go of whatever carried us away and place ourselves again in the unfolding life that in reality we’ve been indivisibly part of all along. Place is not quite right, since everything is in flux, but it will do. Usually, we are somewhere when we find our ground again. It becomes our vantage point, the shore from which we venture on, sometimes together and sometimes on our own. Although we cannot know the ground or the path of others, these metaphorical words are helpful to describe what we share with them, which is to be present in a world that, although we see it and respond to it individually, unfolds for all of us.

True friendship is rare, in my experience. Like light, it’s one thing at one moment, something else at another. The quantum nature of life governs it, so we have to accept that it isn’t wholly bound by time or space. A true friend is often in our thoughts, but our encounters reflect our individuality. We accept each other’s individuality because we value it in ourselves. We leave it to the other to shape her or his life. We accept each other’s nature, however much we may want to change aspects of it.

This in itself is bucking the tide. We live in an era when perfectibility is on a lot of lips. There’s a lot of complaining, too, since life doesn’t really work that way. Self-cultivation shouldn’t aim at perfection, but at sustaining and enlivening one’s existence. True friends accept that this is one point of their friendship. There’s an inherent element of playfulness to it.

We humans are a mix of animal spirits and various higher callings. What Dogen saw, his insistence that it all shades together, is what true friends accept of each other; they do their level best to live at the higher end, but they know it doesn’t always happen. They may have to go off and lick their wounds in consequence, but they know the other suffers, too. Find the ground again: this is what true friends ask of each other. That’s what their mutual acceptance means.

John Parman is a writer and editor, based in Berkeley, California.

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