Good Housekeeping Marriage Book, The

Dr. Ellsworth Huntington


Ought I To Marry?

"Ought I to marry?" is not a simple question. Its answer is full of a thousand complications. For the great majority of people it is one of the three most important questions that are ever answered or left unanswered in a whole lifetime. The other two are "What is my main purpose in life?" and "What is to be my occupation?" They are old questions, but "Ought I to marry?" is new. In the old days everyone was married as a matter of course. Perhaps in the future the main question will be, "Am I fit to be married?"

"Ought I to marry?" is really three questions in one. First, "Have I a right to marry?" Second, "Is it wise for me to marry?" Third, "Is it my duty to marry?"

You say, perhaps, that these questions are your own business and nobody else's, but you are wrong. They are somebody else's business, and the somebodies else are a good deal more numerous than you think. The first somebody is the man or girl whom you want to marry. Will it be good for him or her to marry you? The next somebodies are the children whom you and your mate may have. They have a right to be born with a good inheritance, to be reared in good health, and to be well trained in a happy home. Your children's children, too, will have a right to bless you or curse you, according to your way of answering the question, "Ought I to marry?"

But even your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are not all the somebodies who are vitally concerned with your answer. Hundreds of people will be helped or hindered by your home, by the kind of person you become under its influence, and by the kind of children who go out from it. You and "he," or you and "she," are certainly the ones most immediately concerned in the question "Ought I to marry?" but your children's stake in the matter is even greater than yours.

Now for the three questions which are implied when you ask, "Ought I to marry?" First, "Have I a right to marry?" Every young person should ask this question. Fitness includes several aspects, among which the first is physical. The most inexcusable unfitness is venereal disease. There is no meaner crime than for a young man to acquire venereal disease by reason of weakness of will, and then pass it on to an innocent girl and perhaps to unborn children. Physicians say that in spite of so-called modern prophylaxis and supposed cures, syphilis is still alarmingly common, and other venereal diseases are rampant. A person having any of these diseases has absolutely no right to marry. Even if he is pronounced cured, he ought not to marry until a physician pronounces him cured beyond danger of recurrence.

For this reason the strictest premarital examination by a competent physician should be required. Marriage should be contracted only after such a physician has given both man and woman a clean bill of health. This is desirable as a means not only of creating a public opinion which will express itself in laws, but of giving both parties a feeling of security. No matter how completely they may trust each other, it is well to have a physician verify the trust.

Another reason for a complete physical examination before marriage is to determine whether it is possible for both parties to have children. Sometimes expert medical advice and treatment make all the difference between a childless home and one that has the happiness of a well-rounded family. In every marriage children should be an essential feature—the most essential feature in the long run. In many countries sterility is sufficient grounds for divorce. In an ideal civilization probably no marriage would be permitted between a person who appears to be sterile and one who appears normal. The sterile would marry the sterile, and the fertile the fertile. Even in our civilization what right has anyone to doom his partner to a childless marriage? The overwhelming majority of people want children. Only the highly exceptional and pitiable woman is without this desire. The normal man feels it almost as strongly as the woman when once the little hand of his own child clasps his finger. Of course unforeseen conditions may unexpectedly make one partner to a marriage sterile, but that is another matter and by no means prevents a happy marriage. In certain cases, too, it may be allowable for a fertile partner to marry one who is known to be sterile. That should never happen, however, without the fullest knowledge on the part of both, and without full time to think the matter over quietly and in complete freedom from the emotional strain caused by the loved one's frequent presence.

Many childless marriages are rendered not only happy but very useful to society by the adoption of children. It should always be remembered that from the standpoint not only of family life but of old age and of society in general, children are the most important result of marriage.

The worst forms of unfitness for marriage are hereditary, but some hereditary defects are mild, some terrible. There is much doubt as to whether many defects are hereditary or are the result of unfavorable conditions during pregnancy and early infancy. Far too much emphasis is placed upon external and easily visible defects in comparison with internal ones which cannot be so readily detected. Such minor hereditary defects as hare lip or misshaped fingers do not necessarily indicate unfitness for marriage. They are far less dangerous than hereditary susceptibility to diseases such as diabetes or weakness of the heart, which lead to unhappy marriages by reason of frequent illness or early death. A hereditary tendency toward short-sightedness or defective teeth, on the contrary, may permit the longest and happiest of marriages. All inherited defects are regrettable, but practically no one is free from them in some minor form.

The sensible attitude toward minor hereditary defects is to balance their real importance against both the good and the bad qualities shown not only by the individual but by his brothers, sisters, parents, and other relatives. Conscientious sufferers from visible defects of any kind are apt to overestimate their importance. Moreover, many supposedly hereditary defects may equally well be the result of an unfavorable environment like that which caused similar defects in the parents. Under ideal conditions they might never appear at all. In such matters, too, the best course is to consult a good physician. Often, perhaps usually, the best thing is merely to avoid marriage with a person showing defects like one's own, and then strive to give your children so good an environment that only the best in them will have a chance to develop. Fortunately the vast majority of people inherit a fairly good assemblage of traits which balance in such a way as to produce normal human beings.

One type of deficiency, however, renders people genuinely unfit for marriage. It takes various forms. One form, easily recognized, is what is commonly called "mental deficiency." By this we mean not merely the kind of mind found in idiots and imbeciles, but that which appears in morons and other "high grade" mental weaklings. Such mental weakness, or feeble-mindedness, is especially dangerous to society because it often afflicts people who are physically strong and attractive, and who are eager to marry. When such persons marry, they exercise little self-control and are likely to have large families. In this respect they are unlike mental defectives of lower types, who rarely have many children and whose children are likely to die young. "High grade" mental defectives tend to marry one another. The result is bad in two ways. First, if the mental deficiency of one or both parents is hereditary, as is often the case, children with defective mental capacity are sure to be born, and will in turn produce other defectives. Second, even if the defects of the parents are due to accident or disease, the children are almost sure to be badly brought up.

The chief type of mental weakness is emotional in nature. Here is a young fellow who as a boy was always a cry-baby and mamma's darling. He is afraid to stand up for himself, afraid of athletics, afraid of girls; and, because of all this, he is lonely, morose, and secretive. Here is a girl of great ability and charm but subject to fits of deep depression. Another young man loses his temper very easily and cherishes resentment for a long time over trivial matters. The girl whom he is interested in is extremely self-conscious and thinks that she is being purposely slighted unless she is the center of everything. Others, both boys and girls, are excessively irritable, very suspicious, inordinately selfish, hysterical, vainglorious, or in other ways show lack of self-control and emotional stability. Later in life such conditions may lead to intense misery. Nevertheless traits of this sort are often combined with very fine qualities in other respects. This renders it extremely hard to decide whether such persons are fit for marriage.

It is extremely difficult to determine whether emotional instability, selfishness, and other undesirable traits are due to heredity or environment. At this point we enter a field of great difficulty because a trait may be inborn, but not hereditary. A child may be born with serious handicaps because some ailment due to unfavorable environment prevented its mother from nourishing it properly before it was born. Such weakness is not truly hereditary. It will not appear in later generations unless the mothers of those generations also suffer from environmental conditions similar to those which prevented the first mother from nourishing her child. It often happens that such conditions are repeated from generation to generation. If this happens very early in the pre-natal life of the child, the results are very likely to be misinterpreted as hereditary.

In the last few decades the study of heredity has been so fascinating and fruitful that biologists have given comparatively little attention to early environmental influences. Recent work, however, suggests that such influences are far from negligible. My own studies of season of birth illustrate the matter. They suggest that the effect of physical environment upon the health of the parents before a child is conceived has an important effect upon the child's future health and achievement.

Only a hint of the chain of evidence leading to this conclusion is here possible. Many investigations of deaths, fatigue, work, and disease, as well as numerous carefully controlled laboratory experiments, indicate that people feel most comfortable and vigorous, and have the best health, when the average temperature for night and day together is about 63°. Nothing is more pleasant than a day of this optimum kind in May or June. At midday the thermometer rises to 70° more or less; at night it falls low enough so that people sleep soundly and restfully.

A study of season of birth in many countries indicates that children who are conceived when optimum weather of this kind arrives in the spring have stronger constitutions and greater powers of application than do those conceived at any other season. Evidence of constitutional vigor is found in length of life. In four large groups of Americans and in one of Italians it has been found that those born in March, and therefore conceived in June at the time of optimum weather, live longer than those born at other seasons. Among 39,000 people who were born in the eastern United States and who lived beyond the age of two years I found that on an average those born in March lived 3.8 years longer than those born from July to September.

Other evidence, into which we cannot go, suggests that man, like other animals, inherits a definite seasonal cycle of reproduction. As the temperature rises toward the optimum in the spring the functions of the body change in such a way that not only is there a pronounced feeling of well-being, but the children conceived at that time have more than the average vigor, and hence correspondingly long life.

The evidence that these children have greater powers of application, or at least that some of them do, lies in the birthdays of eminent people in countries as diverse as India, Spain, Russia, England, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. In all these countries the percentage of eminent people conceived when the optimum weather prevails rises much higher than does the corresponding percentage among ordinary people. Moreover, the greater the degree of eminence, the more marked is the contrast with people as a whole.

The reason for this condition must be that the vigor which gives to many people long life gives to highly gifted people a sort of power of steady application and hard work—an emotional stability—which enables them to use their faculties to the best advantage. Thus they achieve fame in greater measure than do equally well-endowed persons with less vigor. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that children conceived at one season of the year inherit any better minds than do their brothers and sisters conceived at other seasons. There is equally little reason to believe that the average inheritance of mental ability declines as the period of conception approaches midwinter, the low point in the seasonal cycle of reproduction. On the other hand, length of life furnishes evidence that physical vigor varies according to the degree to which the mothers at least, at the time of a child's conception, have been under the influence of environmental conditions which assist the germ cells in developing into vigorous babies. Many studies of eminent people show that they are uncommonly long-lived. When deaths in war and by accident are omitted, the average length of life of 11,000 people in the British Dictionary of National Biography was 71 years. Eminence and the kind of constitutional vigor that leads to long life go together.

This brings us back to the problem of fitness for marriage. If the effect of the weather on the vigor of parents can have such an influence on health, longevity and achievement, such conditions as diet and mode of life may produce similar effects. This possibility adds still greater interest to the two-edged bearing of what we have just been saying upon the problem of fitness for marriage. In the first place it appears that an unexpected number of weaknesses which are sometimes considered hereditary are environmental. Nevertheless, they are also inborn and cannot easily be eradicated by education. Therefore the chance that ordinary normal people carry a dangerous heredity is reduced, but the responsibility of parents to see that their children are properly born is increased. In the second place, it becomes more evident than ever that fitness for marriage implies intelligent willingness and persistence in acting upon the discoveries of science in whatever way may be best for the unborn child. We have long insisted upon the right environment for the expectant mother during pregnancy. The new discoveries suggest that we must insist equally upon the right environment and manner of life before pregnancy begins.

This brings up a very interesting question upon which biologists are not agreed. Does what has just been said about the period before pregnancy apply to the father as well as the mother? Many biologists doubt whether we have any proof that environmental influence can weaken the sperm cells of the male in such a way that the offspring are thereby weakened. Other biologists, such as Professor Pearl, of Johns Hopkins University, and Professor C. A. Mills, of Cincinnati, have made some interesting experiments which lead them to believe that sperm cells weakened by environmental conditions may affect the vitality of the developing offspring. In short, at the present time there is no agreement among competent scientific men that the health and mode of life of the father, as well as of the mother, influence the physical well-being of the developing child, and thereby affect its emotional stability and other qualities. Until this question is scientifically settled it is obvious that the men best fitted for marriage and parenthood are those who act in such a way that they cannot harm their children no matter which view is correct.

Let us return once more to the problem of deciding how far the mental and social characteristics of ourselves and of the persons we are interested in are due to inheritance and how far to pre-natal and postnatal environment. In the present state of knowledge no exact decision is possible. Nevertheless, in some families an undesirable trait is exhibited by a parent, brothers or sisters, and perhaps by more distant relatives. In such cases, it is probably inherited, or at least due to an inherited deficiency or tendency of some sort, and there is a chance that it may be handed down to the next generation. On the other hand, many persons who suffer from some form of emotional instability come from families in which the parents and near relatives appear normal in this respect. In such cases it is probable that the trait is not hereditary, but due to some influence in pre-natal life or childhood. Until the sciences of human genetics and eugenics have made more progress, the safest way to judge in such matters is by the qualities of a family as a whole.

Whether you have any doubt about this or not, a thorough examination by a good physician who is also a psychiatrist and a man of fine character will be a great help. The physician must frame his judgments for the good not only of the individual who consults him, but of the prospective partner, and of the children who may be born to such a couple. Even the best physician is often unable to decide whether a given defect is hereditary. He can merely frame an opinion based on the whole family. Young people find it hard to believe that they marry into families, but they do. As the old Jewish saying puts it, "It is not good to marry a maid who is the only good maid in her family." The responsibility that thus rests on physicians is tremendous. That of the young people who wish to be married is also great, but very different. Theirs is to submit themselves fully and frankly to the physician's examination and advice. He may decide that it is safe to marry a person of stable temperament, but not one who is nervously unstable.

It must always be remembered that even if the physician has given you a clean bill of health, you are still unfit for marriage unless you are willing to go more than halfway in adjusting your life to "his" or "hers." Lovers generally feel sure that they can do this, but have you proved it in your treatment of parents, brothers, sisters, and friends? If you are free from transmissible disease and innate defects, and if you are capable of having children, it is still unwise for you to marry unless you display good evidence of the qualities which make a happy home and insure the right training of children. Darwin once said that the trouble with mankind is not lack of ability, but failure to use the abilities that we possess. Even if it is not wise for you to marry now, perhaps you can take yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself fit.

If you are fit, the next question is, "Is it wise for me to marry?" For the vast majority of people the answer is emphatically "Yes" both for your own sake and that of society as a whole. For most people the married state is happier and more useful than the unmarried state. Biologically the two sexes are meant to live together. Long experience has proved that the only permanently happy way of living together is as husband and wife. If the marriage is of the right kind, both the man and the woman become happier, healthier, more adaptable, more interested in the community, and, in many cases, better workers. Marriage is unquestionably one of the best schools and one of the best health resorts. It often has a wonderful effect in steadying people's nerves, provided the partner is wise as well as loving.

The probability that any given marriage is wise is greatly increased where the two young people have reasonably similar ideals and habits and are sufficiently intelligent so that each can enjoy the interests of the other. It is increased still more when both the man and the woman realize that marriage is a comparatively hollow affair unless entered into with the purpose of having a family. Few experiences have greater value than the sacrifices which parents must make if they are to create a real home. The making of such a home brings out the best that is in people. Hence from the purely personal standpoint marriage is a priceless advantage.

There is a social as well as a personal side to marriage. The unstable conditions of the present century have made some people believe that the family is a thing of the past, but this is a mistake. The family life of the future will be different from that of the past, but the finest traits in it will still be the same. Loyalty of each to all and all to each is one of the greatest assets in this tumultuous, changing world. In times of distress, whether it is financial or mental, the most pitiable person is the one without family ties. A family of children may be a handicap at such times, but often it is the very thing that keeps people from failure. Moreover, in adversity and old age a family group of loyal brothers and sisters, even if each has several children, gets along much better than does the man or woman who fends only for himself. It pays to be married and to be married into a large family.

Let us turn back again to the question of whether family life is going to die out. In the old days of unrestricted families children just came because it couldn't be helped. Today, regardless of race or religion, intelligent people limit their families. Abundant statistics make it clear that the size of families has dropped greatly among all except two groups. One is a large group of less intelligent, isolated, shiftless, or incompetent people, among whom families of eight to fifteen children may still be found. The other is a small group of intelligent, high-minded, well-established, well-to-do families with many relatives and with a very assured position. Their children usually number from four to eight. Most of us belong to a huge intervening group in which the average number of children, including those who die young, is less than three, instead of seven, as was the case a century or two ago. This great middle group is the one that will determine what kind of people live in this country in the future.

Well, then, from what part of this middle group will most of the children of the future be derived? A little arithmetic will help us. Suppose we have two sets of parents, numbering a thousand each and having children old enough to be married. In one set each pair of parents has two children; in the other five. The children of each set behave like their parents in this respect. In both sets 15 percent of the children die before reaching the age of marriage, and 10 percent of those who grow up fail to marry. These are normal percentages. Among those who marry, however, 20 percent of the two-child group, and only 10 percent of the other set, fail to have children. How many parents will there be in each group at the end of three generations? If we make no allowance for the fact that more boys than girls are born, there would be 136 parents in the two-child group a century hence, and they would have 136 children. On the other hand, there would be 8744 parents and 21,860 children in the five-child group. Over a hundred and sixty times as many!

Now that we have done the arithmetic, what does it mean? Of course in actual life the two-child and the five-child groups will intermarry. And even if each marries its own kind, the number of children will fluctuate. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence of three great tendencies. First, certain kinds of families tend to be small or large as the case may be. Second, each kind tends to marry into its own kind more often than into the other. And finally, people who grew up in large families generally like large families and want to have them. Hence the result of the present limitation of families must be to make large families and family life in general more popular in the future than at present.

This is the way it works in the great middle group to which most of us belong. Families of four to six children are found mainly among people who love children and are willing to make sacrifices in order to provide homes for them. So as long as our present limitation of families continues, the children of each successive generation will tend in larger and larger numbers to be the descendants of people who believe in family life and are willing to make sacrifices for it. A few of them are disappointed because their children do not turn out well, but the great majority feel well rewarded. Ask parents of three or more children how they feel about it. Nine out of ten will say that nothing in their lives has been worth more than their children. So long as people of that kind have children, and those of the other kind fail to have children, family life will not die out. It will become more and more the great center of society. It will change, but the change will be growth, not decay.

Now for the third question, "Is it my duty to marry?" Future generations may say that the better your physique, the greater your beauty and strength, the finer your mind, the more lovable your temperament, and the more highly you are endowed by nature and training, the more certainly it is your duty to marry and have a family. At present, however, the answer to "Is it my duty to marry?" is very much like the answer to a question which you might ask if you were a guest at a delightful summer resort. "Is it my duty to go swimming, play tennis, go yachting, and have a good time?" Assuming that you are physically fit, it certainly is your duty if your presence will cause your hosts and the rest to enjoy themselves. But why ask such a silly question? You will do all those things just because you want to. You would be an awful fool to pass up the chance of having all sorts of fun when everything is just right for it. And you would be an awful fool to give up marriage if the conditions for that were equally favorable.

Of course there is a very important personal element in all this. Some minor crudity in him or her, some ideal diverse from yours, some unfortunate habit or tendency, may be more than you can adjust yourself to. You alone can decide that. All that we can do here is point out what the marriages and families of thoughtful, conscientious people mean to the world.

The essence of the whole matter, as has been said a thousand times, is the extremely rapid fall of the birthrate, especially among intelligent, farsighted, industrious, progressive people whose ideals of family life are high. The majority of the young people who read this article probably belong to this class. Therefore you represent a type of family whose loss or diminution is a very serious matter. Unless your type of family averages more than three children, the country suffers two great losses. It suffers these losses because under the present conditions it takes more than three children per family on an average to provide two who become parents and thus replace their father and mother. So unless your grandparents have at least ten grandchildren, your family stock is dying out, and the country is suffering two great losses. One loss is your good biological inheritance. This does not mean that you are anything wonderful. It simply means that you belong to a group which on the whole inherits more than the average capacity. Therefore, unless you have more than three children, the biological inheritance of America will be lowered.

The second great loss is cultural. It is all very well to talk about sending every competent boy and girl to college, and giving every one the fullest chance to develop, but this does not solve the problem. No other institution comes anywhere near the home as a place in which to establish the ideals and habits that determine whether our lives shall be a mere flash in the pan or a fire that warms and cheers. The finer things of life wither and die if there are not enough children in the families of people who know how to make real homes. If you came from such a home, and especially if your relatives also have such homes, you can make one yourself. Few things are more needed in America today than just such homes.

Ought I to marry? I wish that every reader could answer in the affirmative.

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