The Arithmetic of Marriage

Marriage is a social institution and a cultural practice that brings together two individuals–traditionally a man and a woman–and somehow joins them. This phenomenon of joining two human beings results in a wide variety of interesting effects and consequences. I propose to examine one aspect of these effects and consequences by asking the following question:  What do we get when we put one and one together?  The question may sound absurd or childish, for it would seem that all of us–certainly those capable of reading this essay — already know what 1+1 is.

Or do we?

It turns out that when it comes to the arithmetic of marriage, the simple equation “one plus one” ceases to be simple and grows into an increasingly widening network of complex problems and issues. All it takes is some alertness and sustained reflection.

Generally speaking, 1+1 can have three different answers. I am sure many more solutions to this equation are possible, but up until now I have been able to see only three possibilities.

First, we may say that 1+1 equals 1. This would be true if each of the two individuals joined through matrimony would dissolve their individual uniqueness, each merging into the other. According to this view, the man and the woman were originally two separate beings, each with a unique and separate set of qualities, tendencies, ambitions, feelings, ideas, and so on. When they came together, and became joined in marriage, they ceased to be two and become transmuted into a single unit or entity. No differences should remain between them, no disagreements. Popular media reinforces this image of the two merging or melting into one through such hybrid neologisms as “brangelina.” (Let’s ignore for the moment the actual marital status of this particular couple.) This matrimonial merger is certainly true in the legal sense, for the financial assets of the man and the woman do become one for most legal purposes . . . thereby allowing joint filing of income tax. Such a merger of assets raises some fascinating problems in divorce proceedings. For some people, however, the merger between two individuals brought about by means of marriage is not just legal or financial but it is also mental, emotional, and spiritual. Marriage, according to this viewpoint, is not only a joining force; it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a unifying force that turns a duality into a veritable unity.

Second, we may say that 1+1 equals 2. This would be true if each of the two individuals joined through matrimony would maintain their individual uniqueness, refusing or resisting their merger into a single unit or entity. According to this view, every human being — whether or male or female — is a unique configuration of qualities, tendencies, ambitions, feelings, ideas, and so on . . . and has every right, and even obligation, to remain so. Marriage may bring them together for companionship and for the fulfillment of other common purposes, but it does not overcome their inherent individuality nor erase their mutual differences and disagreements. Marital union is relative, not absolute; it is limited in the sense that its purpose is to help meet certain needs in a mutually compatible way. Marriage is not a tool for imposing uniformity in the place of natural diversity. From this viewpoint, the first solution would appear unjust and oppressive, not to mention severely restrictive to the full flowering of human potential.  Whenever two individuals become a single unit for all practical purposes, it is more than likely that something vital has been lost by each of them. If two individuals always agree, then it is fair to say that one of them is doing all or most of the thinking and decision making. This is because the merging together of two different individuals cannot be an equal opportunity situation, for the weaker partner would inevitably be absorbed into the stronger partner. Consequently, the ideal state of marital life is a maintenance of each side’s inherent, natural differences.

Third, we may say that 1+1 equals 3. This would be true if each of the two individuals joined through matrimony would not only maintain their respective uniqueness and individuality but also use their differences to create something new. This is also known as synergy . . . management of differences and disagreements in non-combative but creative ways so that the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts. Through synergy, two individuals can create what neither of them can create on his/her own, and what is also better (or more) than the sum of what each of them can create when working alone. According to this viewpoint, no two individuals are identical, and if a couple is made up of a man and a woman then the differences between them are even more pronounced in some ways. Such differences are the very stuff of creation; they are not to be denied, ignored, or minimized. The trick is not to pretend that differences do not exist, or even to simply maintain them as such; the trick is to bring the differences together in a way that serves life.

It seems that the question posed by 1+1 is not as simple as it is made out to be. There are at least three solutions, possibly more. None of these solutions is inherent in the problem; it is a judgment waiting to be made. Whichever solution you choose, know that you are choosing it . . . and that it is you who is making the choice.


  1. Essentially there are multiple solutions; it just depends on how we look at the picture and how long we want to continue with a particular solution to an equation.

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