Everyone knows what marriage is. Give your best definition of marriage then set about looking into the matter more deeply and you will inevitably find your definition doesn't suffice. We all have an ideal framework we then seek to fill out with fact, history, example, and anecdote.
There are some generalizations one can make on the institution of marriage. Marriage has been around as long as written records exist. It can be defined as the joining of a man and woman into a basic family unit from which spring progeny. Of course, that definition beggars a challenge though it embodies the traditional definition embraced by most of the cultures of the world. In modern western society there has been considerable pressure to liberalize both the definition and practical application of what composes a marriage. The recent furor in the United States over same sex unions are an obvious example.
Marriage does not fit a standard mold as it is a construct of 2 unique individuals joining into an equally unique union. By definition each one is distinctly different from all others, though they may share a common societal framework.
In recent generations most people readily recall that they were part of a 'traditional' family consisting of one man married to one woman for one lifetime. Of course that didn't mean the family was always either a stable or a peaceful one. Society put immense pressure on couples to stay wed. Religion played a role, refusing to grant divorce unless certain criteria were evidenced. History is rife with examples of people who stayed married while pursuing a number of extramarital interests. The facade of the institution was maintained while the rooms within were barren.
While we can debate endlessly what marriage is, it may be equally important to define what marriage is not. While marriage in one sense is a ceremony where a couple are legally joined in the company of witnesses, it is surely more than just a ceremony. It is a relationship, enduring for good or ill until it is terminated by law or death, the result being roughly the same.
To many young couples marriage must seem like a destination. All the dating, betrothal, and planning for that great event lead up to a grand culmination, a virtual cascade of largesse and excess from which the couple must awaken into a rather anticlimactic tomorrow. It may help to view marriage as a step on a journey rather than a destination in its own right.
Some look at marriage as something that will bring them happiness. Once again, the expectation sews the seeds of the coming disillusionment. It is not reasonable to expect an imperfect individual to be the bringer of perfect happiness. Join that with the fact that both partners bring their imperfections into the mix and the stage is set for a very educational experience. In simple terms, no one can bring you happiness but they surely can bring you misery. Happiness is something you find within yourself. A suitable partner can augment that basic happiness, but no one can make someone determined to be miserable anything but more so.
The myth that marriage is a 50/50 proposition is built on shaky ground. The idea that you will give as much as the other person only works inasmuch as both are prepared to give everything. Of course many people hold back, will not allow themselves that total commitment, keep something of themselves tucked safely away. The shell of the marriage may continue while the substance within is weak.
People look for many things from marriage. Some marry for security, some for sex, some for status. The reasons for marriage vary widely both within a culture and from one culture to another. In western cultures many consider love as a primary reason to wed. In some others love is not a prerequisite, the parties perhaps never actually meeting until their nuptials. Love would certainly be a welcome 'icing on the cake', but it is not the prime motive.
Marriage, like most other human relationships, can be a volatile relationship. We enter into it hoping for the best possible outcome. We hope to find one of the most basic human desires fulfilled, the desire to find acceptance.
Given all of the high sounding scholarly crap above, here's the skinny. I've been married and I've been single. I've been married and I've been divorced. I've been married and lonely and I've been lonely all by myself. The times I remember best, the times I relish in my memory, the times I've been most alive have mostly occurred while I was married. The highest highs and the lowest lows have all been delivered to my spirit by the marriage express.
Everyone knows that half of the marriages in the US fail. Fine, great, but that means half of them succeed. The ones that succeed contain people who find a way to blossom in a sometimes desert society. Hey, every ad campaign tells you if you drink our beer, drive our car, wear our clothes you can get the hot chick or guy. Take a quick test. Name the last occasion you saw a movie or TV show that reinforced the institution of marriage. I can't name a single one. My bet is you can't either. Still, people marry and are given in marriage, just like the good book says. We as a species are either stupid beyond belief (a position near and dear to my crusty old heart), composed of a large percentage of incurable optimists, or totally and hopelessly composed of crazy-as-a-head-shot-cat insane individuals. I mean, by the simple test of looking around at your own family, friends, and others you are familiar with pick out the ones who have deliriously happy marriages. Ok, be reasonable, you say. Fair enough, then name the marriages which are really successful. Still coming up with a smallish number?
Yet marriage thrives despite evidence to the perils that it contains. There is something in it which hints at a potential to give us something of great value, something unavailable anywhere else. Maybe marriage appeals to that secret gambler within us, the one who believes that if he only can roll the dice he'll come up a winner. There are enough winners to keep people coming back to the table.