It’s now time for Lewis to talk about marriage. Lewis has never been married himself, but he recognizes that, since he’s writing a book on Christianity and marriage is an important Christian act, it’s important to talk about marriage.
Lewis is up-front about the fact that he’s never been married—although later in life he would marry (and then become a widower) and write more about marriage from a Christian perspective.
Christ said that a married man and woman are “one flesh”— they become two parts of the same whole, in the same sense that a lock and key are two parts of the same machine. The union between a husband and wife is very different from mere sexual union, because marriage, according to Christianity, is a lifelong bond between two people. Some sects say that divorce is permissible, while others do not; however, all sects see divorce as something unnatural—a kind of “surgical operation.”
As before, Lewis acknowledges that different Christian sects have different ways of dealing with divorce—some (such as Roman Catholicism) forbid it altogether. However, Lewis emphasizes the common kinship between all Christians by noting that all Christian sects treat divorce as something unnatural.
The key aspect of a marriage is the promise that the husband and wife make to one another. In this sense, marriage exemplifies the virtue of justice: two people keep their word over a lifetime. Some people make the promise to remain married, but don’t really mean what they say. Some of them are lying to God, some are lying to themselves, but perhaps most are lying to the public—they want the respectability of marriage without any of the challenges.
Lewis returns to a discussion of the virtue of justice (which he briefly mentioned at the beginning of Book Three). Justice in marriage can be a difficult virtue for many people because it involves keeping a promise for an entire lifetime: there are times when it’s easy for people to keep their promises, and times when it becomes very difficult to do so.
Some people say that the only reason to get married, or to stay married, is being in love. But this simply isn’t true, Lewis says—there’s a lot more to marriage than love. Indeed, the point of marriage is that it compels people to stay together, even at times when they don’t love each other as much as usual. There are many good practical reasons for a couple to stay married even if they’re no longer in love: to take care of children, to protect the woman (who probably gave up a career to get married), etc.
There’s a massive difference between being in love and getting married. Getting married cannot be a purely romantic decision—it must also be practical. Thus, Lewis lists some of the practical reasons for people to get married—including his dated and rather sexist assumption about wives giving up careers.
Marriage exemplifies the difference between love and being in love. Being in love is a wonderful thing, and it makes people happy, kind, and brave. However, love isn’t the be-all, end-all of life—“there are many things below it but there are also things above it.” After people get married, they sometimes stop feeling the same passion for one another. But there is a quieter, less intense kind of love, which is arguably better and more beautiful than the experience of being “in love.” Life is full of experiences in which we start out with one intense feeling, which is gradually replaced with a quieter but equally marvelous feeling.
It’s characteristic of Lewis’s distrust for absolutism that he praises love, and yet insists that it’s not always a good thing in every situation or context. Even if being in love is wonderful, it can’t last forever—to be a mature, married adult, one must experience the thrill of being in love, but also the quieter feeling (and even act of will) of simply “loving” someone, independent of lust or passion.
One problem with love is that movies, books, and plays distort its meaning. Fiction has conditioned us to believe that falling in love is an utterly irresistible experience. The truth is that we have a lot of choice in the people with whom we fall in love; we can choose to give in to our emotions or not.
Lewis wants to correct people’s misconceptions about love—misconceptions that they’ve acquired from books and movies.
It’s an important question how strongly Christian politicians or voters should force their views of marriage on other people. Some people say that a good Christian will vote for laws that make it difficult for all people to get divorces. Lewis strongly disagrees. Not all people in England are Christians, and it’s unfair to force them to live in accordance with Christian law, even if he believes Christian law is morally right.
As in the previous chapters of Book Three, Lewis argues for a uniquely Christian worldview, and yet doesn’t argue that Christians should impose their worldview on other people. Christianity may be morally right, but Christians should focus on their own lives and relationships instead of forcing their beliefs on others who don’t want to accept them.
Another important question—why, in Christian tradition, is the man considered the “head” of the marriage? Lewis gives three answers: 1) Someone needs to be the head of a marriage, because in situations where the husband and wife disagree, someone needs to make the final judgment; 2) The head of the marriage should be the man, not the woman, because women, as far as Lewis can tell, are always ashamed when they’re put into positions of “headship,” and usually hate their husbands when they “rule” the marriage; 3) “Quite frankly,” men are better at ruling a marriage than women because they’re capable of being fairer with other people, whereas women are more heavily biased on behalf of their children.
Here Lewis argues that the man should be the “head” of a Christian family. This argument seems dated and overtly sexist, playing on the old stereotype that women are petty, overly emotional, and generally inferior to their logical, rational husbands. It’s worth keeping in mind that Lewis is far from a perfect moral teacher, and separating his valuable insights about religion from his more problematic views is part of the intellectual and moral challenge of reading Mere Christianity.