Wedding season is in full swing, especially here in Virginia-Is-For-Lovers land. Which means it’s time for flowers and sparklers and awkward toasts and hopefully less awkward dancing. It’s a joyful season but, as we all know, also a pressured one. Not only are our bodies on display but our relationships (or lack thereof). Plus, this is a time when we hear a whole lot about our shared ideals of capital-L Love, the always-and-forever rom-com kind–enough that many a couple walk away from these ceremonies feeling, well, a little less-than. Married or single, the drive home tends to be a tough ride. Or so they tell me.

I remember a few years ago fielding texts from a friend who was furious about one of the petitions in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage service. “Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed. Amen.” Part of his reaction had to do with the fact that he was single and felt excluded. Probably a larger part had to do with the fact that his parents had recently divorced after thirty years of marriage. Mainly, though, as someone who’s not exactly a churchgoer (far from it), he resented being lassoed into the spiritual dimension of the service, without his consent. Seems like what you sign up for when you accept the invitation, but who knows, maybe he was just having a bad day.

I happen to love that prayer, as it both anticipates and addresses the romantic self-consciousness that these events arouse, and some of us need all the help we can get. Cut to one of the better articles on marriage, this side of Alain de Botton, that I’ve ever read, the piece Heather Havrilesky penned back in March, asking “Is Marriage Obsolete?” We talk about it at some length on the new episode of The Mockingcast. A few choice portions:

My younger daughter often proclaims that she will never get married, no matter what. And why should she want to? As much as I prefer to believe that her father and I are setting a shining example of affectionate, radically open communication, the reality is that she’s had a lifelong, all-access pass to the tedious diplomacy of marital negotiations, the low-key squabbling, the mutual suspensions of disbelief, the subtle undermining, the ever-increasing co-dependence., It’s not surprising that all my daughter wants when she grows up is a tiny house, a subcompact car, and a mini Australian Shepherd.

And honestly, there are days when the prospect of growing old next to a mini Aussie doesn’t sound so bad… To be married is to have the words This is all your fault eternally poised on the tip of your tongue… Your challenge is to maintain your composure as the staggering deficits of the highly ineffectual human by your side come into sharper and sharper focus.

My daughter’s lack of interest in marriage is not exactly an anomaly: Forty-five percent of all Americans 18 and older are now single, and more than half of Americans surveyed said that getting married wasn’t an important part of becoming an adult, according to a 2017 Census Bureau report… Whereas marriage was once seen as a joint effort to achieve the good life, these days marriage looks more like a joint attempt to live your best lives — together and separately.

I realize that we’ve all been reading reports about the decline of marriage for years, that there’s a little bit of eye-rolling involved at this point. Certainly the wedding industry seems to only be growing (how about the article Ethan mentioned in the weekender about sponsored engagements?! Oy vey). But rarely are they accompanied by such a deft and hilarious understanding of the underlying factors. Meaning, just like with all forms of false advertising, the more marriage comes to be seen as a 50-50 merger of brands undertaken in the hopes of higher corporate performance, the more fallout and ensuing aversion we will see, #theseculosityofromance. Because marriage, at its best, is less a step up the ladder of adulthood than an arrangement of intimacy that will saw your ladder in half. Meaning, if all goes according to plan, you won’t be twice as tall together but twice as small. Or as our friend Matt Magill once said, a good marriage is a lifelong course in grave-digging. Sorry, Woody.

This doesn’t mean marriage isn’t often super fun and rich and gratifying–just that it operates according to the same dynamics as the spiritual life, where the way up is the way down. Here’s how Havrilesky puts it:

So why do I love this torturous state of affairs so much? The daily companionship, the shared household costs, and the tax breaks are not enough. Yet there’s something distinctly reassuring about breaking down, falling into disrepair, losing your charms, misplacing your keys, when you have an equally inept and irritating human tolerating it all, in spite of a million and one very good reasons to put on his walking boots and take his love to town.

Marriage can’t simply be about living your best lives in sync. Because some of the peak moments of a marriage are when you share in your anxieties, your fears, your longing, and even your horrors. That commitment, the one that can withstand and even revel in the darkest corridors of a life, grows and evolves and eventually transcends a contract or a ceremony the way an ocean overflows and subsumes a thimble of water.

By unearthing our most discouraged moments together without turning away, by screeching at the moon side by side, admitting “This is all our fault,” we don’t just reaffirm our love, we reaffirm our shared and separate ability to face the unknown from this point forward. That’s why sickness and death are key to marriage vows. Because there is nothing more divine than being able to say, out loud, “Today, I am really, truly at my worst,” knowing that it won’t make your spouse run for the hills. My husband has seen my worst before. We both know that our worst is likely to get worse from here. Somehow that feels like grace.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that just feels like grace! Indeed, it is the closest approximation to the real thing that most of us will encounter. Come to find out, while grace in relationships may not reliably produce ‘happiness’ or ‘excellence’ or whatever virtue the world has enshrined at present, that doesn’t mean it’s impotent. A fascinating new study from Barna, for example, found that, for all we give up for sake of intimacy (and toddlers!), “Married Couples & Parents See Fewer Barriers to Forgiving Others.” I’ll take it!

For someone to see us at our worst and not turn their face away, as per Walker Percy–what a beautiful and miraculous and liberating thing that is. Fortunately, you don’t have to be married, or married happily, to experience that. You just have to stick around for the rest of the liturgy.

“Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”

Amen to that and amen to this: