Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Living Together

I am old-fashioned enough to still be surprised at the matter-of-fact way couples allow it to be known that they are living together without benefit of clergy. It now seems to be the conventional wisdom that couples live together for months or even years before getting married, if they ever do. A young man at work has been living with his girlfriend for four years. He has even gone on cruises with his parents and her; apparently the parents see nothing amiss in this relationship. This is all related matter of factly over the lunch table.

The idea seems to be that you should get to know each other in a living-together arrangement before getting married. That way, the thinking goes, there won't be surprises when (if) you eventually do get married. Supposedly this will put the marriage on a firmer basis. The statistics say otherwise.

So does common sense and, frankly, simple decency. I thank God that I had the sense not to go down this path when I was 23 and foolish in many ways - but not that way. Instead I married the woman I loved - without ever having lived with her - and have stayed married for 29 years.

Jan. 3, 1987

I instinctively sensed at the time that to ask her to live with me would be disrespectful. It was to ask her to upset the basic arrangements of her life - where she lived and how, the independence of her own apartment - and restructure her life according to mine, presumably for some extended period of time. It meant a raft of simple things like letting everyone know the new telephone number at which you can be reached, and changing your mailing address. There was an "overhead" investment that would act to discourage her from ending the arrangements should she so desire; not to mention the embarrassment of admitting failure after, say, two years of living with someone.

Yet with no commitment from me that this fundamental restructuring would lead anywhere. This is to put the woman you supposedly love at a disadvantage. It is to take her out for a test drive like she is a used car.  To really love someone is to wish the best for her, and to presume to take several of the best years of someone's life, years when she is young and single and looking for the right man, as exclusively your own yet with the explicit proviso that you may discard her at any time - how can a man do this to the woman he loves?

It doesn't matter if she "agrees" with it. Simply because someone shows no respect for himself or herself does not give one license to disrespect him or her as well. At bottom, such a relationship is one that mimics the appearance of genuine self-giving marriage, but is at heart really a relationship of two people using each other rather than giving themselves to each other. That is the whole point of avoiding marriage, isn't it? I'll see how you work for me for a time and decide then if it's been worth it.

And then, if such a couple finally does get married, the character of their relationship has already been formed. They have been living together for all appearances as man and wife. Now that they really are man and wife, will their relationship suddenly change from the one of mutual use it has been, to the mutual self-giving of genuine marriage? I doubt it very much. In fact, I suspect they would have difficulty even conceiving the self-giving involved in genuine marriage. Instead, while the formality of marriage would add more "overhead" to the relationship in the sense of making it more difficult to break up, it wouldn't change the fundamental possibility of that breakup, which has been foundational in their relationship since the beginning.

Consider also that everyone shows the best sides of themselves when getting to know someone. From the first instance of meeting, we try to put our best face forward and hide our less attractive aspects. As we get to know someone, we gradually reveal more of ourselves, including those less attractive elements, doing so to the degree that we believe we can trust the one to whom we are revealing it.  Now the whole point of living with someone without marriage is to hold open the option of leaving them at any time; in other words, it puts a lack of trust at the center of the relationship. In such circumstances, people will hide those unattractive elements. And I'm sure they can do so for years at a time.

In other words, you can live with someone for a long time without truly knowing her should she choose not to reveal herself. The point of the living together arrangements, however, is a sort of truth in advertising: I insist on knowing exactly what I'm buying before I do so in marriage. Imagine a man's perplexity after five years of living with someone, that after a year of marriage he's discovering sides of his wife's personality he never dreamed were there. She thinks, of course, that now that they are married she has the level of trust necessary to finally reveal herself completely. For his part, he may feel he's been taken advantage of: I was supposed to find out all this beforehand, and she held it back from me, so she's gone back on our arrangement.

Of course, demanding that someone reveal her deepest self to you in an arrangement constructed so that you can examine that self and decide if you like it or not, and then decide whether or not to discard her, is deeply disrespectful. Again, it doesn't matter if both parties are doing it to each other. Mutual disrespect is a very poor form of equality and certainly no basis for marriage.

The fact is that genuine marriage involves tremendous risk; that is one of the things that makes it so exciting. Real marriage is an adventure that involves much deeper risk than rock climbing or skydiving. You don't really know your marriage partner until you have been married for a time and they have fully revealed themselves. And both of you know this going in; to some degree, you are marrying a stranger.

What sense, then, does the marriage vow make? How can you promise yourself to a person you don't really know, and won't really know perhaps for years? The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel addressed this question in his book Creative Fidelity. The title neatly summarizes his answer: In marriage, the partners create the conditions under which they remain faithful. What they are vowing themselves to is not just a person, but a mutual journey of discovery and self-creation, where the partners discover each other and themselves, changing and growing in the process. I am not the man I was when I married at age 23; and I am not the man I would have been had I not married or even married someone other than Tricia. She has been a dynamic element of my self-creation over the last 29 years, and I of hers.

That sounds very abstract, but it is extremely concrete in practice. It means being able to confront and discuss aspects of your partner's personality that you find difficult and, perhaps, even impossible to live with over the long term. Will they do what is necessary to develop that aspect of themselves for the sake of the marriage? And of course it runs the other way as well: I discover things about myself through her that I had not noticed, but are unpleasant for her. Am I willing to work on those things for the sake of her happiness, or will I demand that she take me as I am? Not all things can be changed. The ongoing negotiation and development, in the context of love, is the substance of marriage.

This dynamic process of growth is stunted if the partners have gone into marriage after a trial period of living together; for they have already sent each other the message that they reserve the right to bail out if they find they don't like what they see, instead of sending the message that they are committed to the process of change and growth no matter what.

The result is not a more secure marriage, but a marriage in which the trust necessary for the deepest communication will be difficult to find.


Unknown said...

This should be read by couples in pre-cana. Great post.

David T. said...

Glad you liked it!

EdT said...

dave- must reading for my daughters, aka your nieces.