Backstory. (Rewritten) I have been in correspondence with an old friend. It is unlikely, but possible she will read this, which is difficult, as there are hard things that I say here. I think a very hard thing is true. I have the recognition I should be as kind as possible about that, and am at least a little ashamed that I am not well able to. Or rather, my experience is that when I try to I achieve neither goal: I do not make my point clearly and I irritate the other person anyway.
I do better live. (So if you are reading, maybe this is not you, but only a fancy of mine based on your situation. And I am surprised you actually did come over.)
She has been in a relationship but unmarried for 30 years. I will not give her reason for not marrying, as it takes away from the general discussion. Also, she may have just been giving an automatic or light answer anyway and should not be held to the words. From my POV, while she started as very straitlaced and conventional - my dictionary illustration of "puritan girl" over the years - she has made her living and her social life in a culture that slowly makes people into what it wants. (That could be said of any culture and I am perhaps fortunate living in two cultures, so that I am always in practice not going along with the crowd.) Her current culture does not much value marriage or traditional morality. It in fact has many members who make it a point to disparage traditional morality. Few are religious. It feels on the inside that one is making the choices and growing or learning more, but this is an illusion. The culture eventually won, and made her into its handmaid.
I don't get much upset at people's conduct as by their thinking. We have many reasons for doing things, always with mixed motives. I may have misread her motives, and be wildly wrong on this situation. There is a great deal of information I am missing, and some of it might flip the situation entirely. I might have it backwards. This is why I move it to the general situation, even though I will start from this example. What I will claim is that the unfortunate change in her is at minimum a change in some other person that encountering this situation set me thinking about.
So in that sense she is still following the conventional morality, just a new one, in a new group. I think I expected a little more fight in her, but it is many years, and we all become like our surroundings. I may be more concerned because it is a whole culture whose members do not see themselves,and eventually not even want to see themselves. I could almost fancy that the culture itself is an aware thing and does see the changes it brings on its children, and delights in it.
Why you fool, it's the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything. ―
Also, whether she or he is imposing the decision not to marry on the other- not harshly but quietly over time, making her/himself the center of all - is not visible to me. She or he may just think it is their right to have their way and the other wants to please. It does often happen that one mostly exercises the right to have their way and the other goes along. They seldom apprehend this. None of my business, really, either. Fortunately the general questions intrigue me more anyway.
I will not be attempting to convince her that marriage is the correct thing to do, largely because we will not be in much contact. Though even if we were I might not say anything further.
But it does put before me, what would I say to a secular person to convince them that this decision is quietly but very deeply, even profoundly wrong? The practical argument that it provides a more stable place for children does not apply in this case. That should figure in to the general discussion, but not all individual discussions. That marriage provides some greater assurance of commitment to the partner is a bit tricky. While this is true and much to be desired, many people may feel that they are giving and receiving "enough" assurance as things stand and balance that against other factors, such as having had a bad marriage previously and being gun-shy. If we love them, we may pray that they are not among those who later find to their horror that they have miscalculated.
Relatedly, many people will point to their own good relationship and contrast it to the many bad marriages and ask in all sincerity why anyone would think it made any difference? There is abundant evidence that it does as a simply practical matter, but people who have already decided they are just fine and no one should dare question them are unlikely to be convinced by any practical evidence. We all make excuses to ourselves exactly as powerful as need be, as if we were playing chess against ourselves. Intelligent people will make very good excuses, and those with great experience with moral questions will devise the most remarkable excuses for justifying what they want to do.
It's a good point to do a refresher on the concept of overlapping Gaussian distributions - what we call the Bell Curve - because we have used it often over the years. In this diagram, consider the x-axis to be the quality of relationship, with those on the far right have the most satisfying. The two curves are those who are unmarried on the left and those who are married on the right. There is indeed an area right in the middle where some of the unmarried have better relationships than the married. It may even be that the two curves are closer together. But use this for illustration. It is fair to note that some unmarried relationships are superior to married ones in at least some ways, often the only ways that people care about on a day-to-day basis.
The people who have been both married and unmarried tend strongly to say that the former is superior. The majority of the time they will even say that when the marriage is over and was bad. After divorce, most still prefer to marry again. Though not all, and among the relationships where there is no marriage, it is common that one had a previous bad experience that still haunts.
For a Christian, marriage is not merely a symbol but an echo and reenactment of the union of Christ and the Church. That may prove in the end to be the only durable reason to marry. When all things pass away, that will remain. But this can mean nothing to the nonbeliever. It is opaque, and not likely a fruitful possibility for persuading. It might have some power for believers who have kidded themselves into thinking their avoidance of marriage is no big deal. I don't know. I have never used the point in discussion.
But I have other reasons, and I'll move to that in Part II.