By Timothy George
It’s only a trickle, not yet a trend, but it is out there, and it has a name: sologamy. Sologamy is the marriage of someone to one’s own self—the his- or herness of it is not relevant, although it seems to be mostly women who are doing it. Apparently Linda Baker was the first person to marry herself back in December 1993. Others have followed suit, including Sara Sharpe, who wrote about her self-marriage in A Dress, A Ring, Promises to Self. And there’s Nadine Schweigert, a thirty-six-year-old-woman from Fargo, North Dakota, who was interviewed by Anderson Cooper after marrying herself in front of some forty of her closest friends. “I, Nadine,” she said to herself, “promise to enjoy inhabiting my own life and to relish a lifelong love affair with my beautiful self.” Jennifer Hoes is a Dutch woman who did the same thing in 2003. Her same-self marriage was the subject of a recent ten-minute documentary by Aeon Magazine.
What is going on here? In the Christian tradition, marriage has historically been understood as a lifelong, conjugal covenant between a man and a woman, a union of love that involves the giving of oneself to God and to others. Today the institution of marriage, which has flourished not only among Christians but across many religious traditions of the world, is being challenged from many angles and by many practices. Until quite recently, these were all regarded as inimical to human flourishing in society. Such practices include so-called same-sex marriage, polygamy, incest, polyamorous relationships of various kinds—and now sologamy.
In some ways same-self marriage is the logical outgrowth of what cultural critic Christopher Lasch described in his 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch, building on Sigmund Freud’s classic essay “On Narcissism” of 1916, applied the term to the sense of grandiosity and excessive self-love that seem to mark not only psychologically disordered individuals but post-sixties American society as a whole.
The Narcissus of Greek mythology was a handsome young man with whom all the beautiful girls fell in love. But Narcissus spurned their affections in favor of his own attractive self. While walking through the forest one day, he knelt to drink at a clear pool of water. He was so enthralled by his own image in the pool that he immediately fell in love with himself. He drowned grasping after his own reflection in the pool.
Each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,” wrote W. H. Auden in 1940. For Auden’s “cell” one could almost write “cell phone” today. The age of digital narcissism is ever expanding—selfies everywhere on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Tinder, Snapchat, Instagram, and LivesOn. LivesOn is intended to perpetuate the identity of the self even past the grave. “When your heart stops beating, just keep on tweeting.”
Lasch died twenty years ago at age sixty-one. He was not a religious believer, but he understood well how the values, beliefs, and practices of the larger culture would issue in “the narcissism epidemic,” to cite the title of a recent book. Narcissism is more than modern rugged individualism gone to seed. At its heart is a spiritual disorder, what Martin Luther (borrowing a phrase from Augustine) described as incurvatus in se, “twisted back into one’s self.”
In our own era, we have seen the evisceration of those communities that sustain us during the most trying and difficult of times. Chief among these is the family which Lasch once described as the “haven in a heartless world.” The Christian tradition holds an honored place for celibacy and singleness as a distinctive calling from God (including Protestants: Think of the Anglican pastors Charles Simeon and John Stott, and the Baptist missionary Lottie Moon). But celibacy is the opposite of sologamy, for it is based on interdependence and the radical service of love.
Lasch was prescient enough to foresee our present moment back in the seventies when he observed:
The best hope of emotional maturity, then, appears to lie in a recognition of our need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims. It lies in a recognition of others not as projections of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own.
More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not exist merely to satisfy our own desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to those goods. Psychoanalysis confirms the ancient religious insight that the only way to achieve happiness is to accept limitations in the spirit of gratitude and contrition instead of attempting to annul those limitations or bitterly resenting them.
Today in Rome, Pope Francis will launch an international colloquium called Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman. The speakers represent many nations and many religious traditions across the globe all coming together “to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between man and woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.” In an increasingly secular world in which the meaning of God is dismissed and the integrity of the human person is more and more up for grabs, it is important to be reminded that mutual giving and receiving, both complementarity and equality, are essential to human life as God intends it to be. Here is a beautiful video trailer describing the Humanum event, featuring the voice of Dr. Peter Kreeft.
Even in the charade of same-self marriage, there is something of a yearning for complementarity. For example, Nadine spoke of getting married to her “inner groom,” a decidedly gendered image. Jennifer insisted on all the accoutrements of a traditional marriage including dress, flowers, wedding attendant, a public ceremony, and registry in City Hall. All of these nuptial accessories are available for anyone who wants to invest a mere $300 in a new consumer product, Self-Wedding-In-A-Box.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was never married, nor did he ever try to marry himself. However, he was engaged to be married, and he thought deeply about the meaning of marriage. While he was in Tegel Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon on marriage for his niece Renate Schleicher and his dear friend Eberhard Bethge. His words still speak with power:
Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.
Published at First Things, 11.17.14
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.