Marriage is waning in popularity these days: More people are getting married in their 40s or older, or choosing not to marry at all. Two out of five millennials view marriage as an outdated institution, according to a 2023 poll

Perhaps that’s why talking about marriage, sharing stories of thriving marriages and defending the institution more broadly, can feel countercultural today. It’s as if the cynical attitudes toward marriage have shaped the language around it. Similar to speaking out about your religious beliefs, admitting that you enjoy being married can feel controversial and odd.

But recently marriage has been percolating in the public conversation in a more hopeful light. Brad Wilcox’s new book “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization” examines the social science behind marriage, which reveals that married couples are happier, accumulate more wealth and lead more meaningful lives than single people. Another insightful take — “On Marriage” by Devorah Baum, a literature professor at University of Southampton in England — offers a more philosophical approach as Baum explores the potential for personal growth and a sense of aliveness and joy within marriage.

For Baum, marriage holds under-examined possibilities for self-realization and transformation. “There is no doubt there are a lot of problems with this institution historically, currently, but it has a lot of radical and interesting possibilities that it has always had,” said Baum at a recent Zoom event with Interintellect, an online salon that explores timely ideas.

Baum is a married mother of two and the author the of “Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone)” and “The Jewish Joke.” In 2016, she partnered with her husband, filmmaker Josh Appignanesi, on the documentary “The New Man,” a peek into their domestic life as they become parents.

“On Marriage” is not a self-help guide with tips for better marriage, but a thoughtful meditation on the potential of marriage that draws on plots, ideas and scenes from literature, philosophy and film, from English novelist Jane Austen to Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico to American writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron. In the book, Baum recasts elements of marriage that are often viewed as weaknesses, such as dependence and disagreement, as opportunities for enjoyment and growth.

Are married people happier?

Marriage begins with a conversation, and that conversation will likely lead to a quarrel, Baum said. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “You marry to continue the conversation,” she said.

Baum cites novelist and poet Ford Madox Ford and a similar sentiment expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Conversation is a “means of continuance,” she writes, a glue that holds the society and its communities together.

“As such, any threat to marriage as an institution risks a descent into a Babel-like confusion of tongues. When marriage is in crisis, the world itself is in crisis, because no one any longer can be held to their word,” she writes. 

Talking with others about marriage — a “polite” but “risky” topic, Baum writes — can bring us to a greater closeness by unveiling the deeper parts of our experience we may be resistant to sharing: “our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our wounds, our desires,” she writes. “By binding the social group, talk about marriage could always exceed politesse to become what’s really binding.” 

I asked Baum what marriage can teach us about living with differences. “People have this idea that you marry in order to have sameness, but that isn’t true,” she said. You marry difference — someone who will change.

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To live happily with differences, Baum suggests a less serious, almost childlike approach, infused with a sense of humor. “In order to enjoy differences, in order to make living with somebody and their differences not just a viable thing, but a pleasurable thing and a kind of lesson in how we might enjoy it, examine it in the world. We have to understand that it has to be a comedy — we have to have a sense of humor,” she said. “We have to feel that words, positions are slippery, that we are never really who we say we are. That we’re constantly being shown the ways in which we can be wrong.” To notice that this is the pleasure and not the problem is the task at hand, she said.

Contrary to the famous generalization about happy and unhappy families by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Baum is intrigued by happy families, partly because we hear about them less. 

“I suppose my little suspicion actually is that we all know that secretly behind closed doors of supposedly happily married homes are some very miserable people living there. That secret has gotten out,” she said. “But I don’t know if anybody knows that behind a lot of those married homes, there are happy people living there.” 

Is a marriage revival at hand?

While asking people why they got married, Baum said people would shy away from directly answering the question. They would say they got married because they wanted to have children or have stability — love didn’t come up. And it’s not because they did not love their spouse, she speculates. It’s as if the people were resisting admitting that love was the basis of their relationship, and they were protecting their privacy from an outsider.

“I think that (people think) it’s very shameful if you are happily married because the world is so miserable and this institution is loaded with terrible injustice and inequality, and it keeps a lot of people out,” she said. 

Indeed, people are grappling with how the ancient institution can adapt to modern life and values. Carl Caton, president of the faith-based San Antonio Marriage Initiative, told me that when he broaches the subject of marriage, people think he’s “aligned with a group that wants to take us back to patriarchy.”

“I don’t want the marriage of the 1960s — marriage wasn’t that great in the ‘60s,” Caton told me. “What we need to do is to create a better future for marriage.” 

And there are signs that the conversation around marriage — and the negative views on it by some — is shifting. Caton believes we may be on the precipice of a kind of “marriage renaissance.”

“I talk to marriage leaders around the country, and people tell me …  something’s moving, something is happening with marriage,” he told me. “I think there’s evidence of that, that there could be a renaissance in marriage emerging.” 

Baum suggests that marriage could be much more than an institution — a mindset of an ongoing openness to life and other people. “(Marriage) is a kind of approach to life — it has to do with saying ‘yes’ to things, taking risks, leaps of faith and the idea of conjugating yourself to others in various ways,” she said. “I think it’s an attitude, a way of doing life that understands one’s need for others that is prepared to be not independent, but dependent — to let one’s dependence be not something to deny, but to embrace.”