Please Don't Read This Poem at Your Wedding

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I’m starting to think that it’s required by law that people read Khalil Gibran’s poem On Marriage at their weddings. I recently saw a wedding message board in which almost all of the women planned to include it in their nuptials, and I’ve heard it recited at most of the out-of-church weddings I’ve attended. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s an excerpt:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. [...]

And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Before I go on, let me say that I’m not knocking weddings at which this poem was read—as someone who walked down the aisle in a dark purple dress in a rented theater, and had a seven-minute ceremony that was overshadowed by a 14-hour reception, I’m the last person to appoint myself as the wedding police. I simply want to get out there something that needs to be said: This poem is very beautiful. But it’s really bad advice. I mean, add a few step-by-step numbers, and it works as an instructional manual:

How to Have a Difficult Marriage

1. Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
2. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
3. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
4. Stand together yet not too near together.

Though it was published in 1923, it’s an eloquent articulation of our modern culture’s new understand of marriage. In this view, the individual is more important than the family unit. Marriage is seen as a path to self-fulfillment for each spouse, where protecting yourself trumps self-sacrificial love, and personal autonomy trumps all.

I suspect that this poem has grown in popularity in recent decades because it resonates with people who where children in the 70s and 80s, which had some of the highest divorce rates ever. There is a distinct sense of bet-hedging in this poem: Don’t lose yourself. Don’t give too much. Guard yourself and your possessions. Keep a clear boundary between yourself and your spouse. Otherwise you might get hurt.

It reminds me of a heartbreaking article that was out in the Wall Street Journal last month, where Susan Gregory Thomas talked about the tragedy of Generation X divorces. So many of these couples whose marriages ended tried so hard to make it work, since they had come from broken homes themselves. Their approach was reasonable enough: Make sure you marry someone you like, make sure you work well as roommates, and it should be fine. It was the Khalil Gibran ideal: Two people who love each other doing their own thing under the same roof; each person careful not to give too much of him or herself, not too much intermingling of property. I can see how this seems like it would work. But usually it doesn’t.

Though divorce rates among this generation are looking better than in previous decades, I would suggest that it is in spite of this new “lifelong roommates” view of marriage, not because of it. It is a rare couple that makes it to their 25th anniversary with each person worrying about whether he or she is giving too much to the other. It is through marriage that we have the opportunity to experience the joy that comes with self-giving, and the powerful love that is generated when two people care for one another more than they care for themselves. It isn’t easy, but it’s the only option for a healthy, happy marriage that lasts.

So, if you want to have a great marriage, skip On Marriage as a reading at your wedding, and use it as a reverse how-to guide: Stand close together, eat from the same loaf, drink from the same cup, and, with God at the center, make an unbreakable bond of love.