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Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
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“Marriage is dead.” Surprised, I looked up from my lunch in response to my acquaintance’s bald statement. “As an institution,” he quickly added.
Swallowing the forkful of salad I had been chewing, I asked, “How so?”
“I think folks realize that for two people who truly love each other, a piece of government paper is worthless. Besides, you know that half of all marriages end in divorce anyway.” He had been going on for some time about the joys of living with his girlfriend and went on to explain how much in love they were and that they were in that somehow magical zone known as a “committed relationship.”
That conversation stayed with me for quite some time. I lost track of them for a few years before meeting again in the aisles of a local Wal-Mart. They were now married, happily so, and I asked them how they were doing. He admitted “it was an adjustment.” Curious, I asked, “How is being married different from living together?”
She replied, “Before we were just roommates. Now, we belong to each other.”
Marriage and divorce statistics are something of a hodge-podge. Some studies state that as much as 67% of marriages end up in divorce. Others peg that number much lower, around 40%. The reasons for these failed unions have been a frequent topic of discussion in venues ranging from the Ivy Tower to the backyard fence. As a minister, I have some limited experience talking with young folks looking to spend their lives together. Through those conversations, I have come to a few conclusions myself.
Love is perhaps the one thing in the shared human experience most impossible to define. We know how it feels; we know what it looks like; but even on the strength of hundreds of years of poems, sonnets, and songs, and billions of humans’ experiences, we still can’t verbalize exactly what it is. Those who are single may commit a sizeable portion of waking hours in pursuit of that nebulous and indefinable ideal.
Part of the philosophy driving the 60’s counter-culture movement involved the rejection of traditional rules and structures, especially those concerning human pair bonding. Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.” In a sense, it went along with the era. We had disposable cans and disposable diapers, why not disposable people? The whole concept of “love” changed, moving from a state of the heart to a hormonal response. Concurrently, divorce became far more common, surging to record highs in the 70’s and 80’s. But things have changed. According to the latest data set available, divorce is now at the lowest rate since those halcyon days of Sergeant Pepper.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how relationships have changed. At one time, people started with an acquaintance. Over time, they explored and discovered common interests and shared ideals. As mutual trust became established, a friendship developed, growing in depth and intensity over time. At some point, there was a subtle shift, and friendship became something far deeper. Fate asserted itself, and commitments were made, a wedding took place, and on that night, all the elements that had been building were consummated in a physical act of complete intimacy and trust. What has changed is that physical component is now often introduced in the beginning of a relationship, rather than at the end. The danger in the inversion of those events lies in the temporary intensity of a physical relationship. Lust is a powerful influence. It can obscure truth and distort feelings. It is also short-lived. While love may be impossible to define, it does have component parts: Friendship, respect, shared interests, common goals and desires, patience, trust, and the ability to forgive. Lust has none of those, merely existing long enough for the novelty to wear off. For two people who are truly in love, there is no higher priority than each other. These elements are important, because any old married couple will tell you that there will be those times when sex gets a bit stale. When that happens, couples really need all those other components present while they work together to reinvigorate their intimacy.
Going slow also provides time for both parties to really get to know one another. What one might initially see as touching devotion may actually be revealed to be an obsessive desire to control and manipulate. Spirit and passion might also be revealed over time to be a quick temper and the tendency towards acts of physical violence. That youthful joie de vivre that some women find so attractive and exciting might be revealed as chronic immaturity; a boy who has no interest in being a man.
Over time, I’ve developed the opinion that some people get married simply because they’re having great sex. When they get bored, they divorce because there’s nothing else to the relationship. There are others who are so terrified of living alone, they will give themselves up to the first possibility that comes along, regardless of the consequences. Women who thus refuse to leave abusive boyfriends become victims twice. Once by him, and again by the bondage of their own fears.
The decision to cohabitate manifests itself in the unspoken choice that each partner has to pull up stakes and move on without working to salvage the relationship. What is lost is growth. Commitment forces us to grow up; to deal with and eliminate the childish habits of irresponsibility and narcissism; moving us to think outside our personal box by placing the needs of someone else above our own. By approaching relationships carefully, establishing the important things first before giving in to the frantic demands of lust, something lasting can be built.
There are also legal implications. If your live-in is injured or becomes ill and decisions have to be made about medical treatments, up to and including sugery, you will quickly find out that you have no standing. Treatment may be delayed while the hospital desperately searches for a blood relative to give authorization. And if your roommate should not survive, unless a will exists specifically spelling out your rights, you will be left with nothing. The entire estate, house, money, cars, etc., will pass to the nearest blood relative. And if that person turns out to be someone who "didn't approve" of you...
These complications become even more convoluted if you've had children together. Some of these issues can be alleviated with Powers of Attorney, both medical and general, partnership agreements, wills, etc. But most co-habitants don't bother with those because...well...they're just living together. And if they should break up, it's too much of a hassle to go back and nullify those documents.
How can you know what kind of relationship you have? Try going celibate for two months.
Yes, that’s exactly what I said.
If after two months your relationship is still alive and well, then it is based on solid fundamentals. On the other hand, if you end up spending your evenings in long, brittle silences, or one of you suddenly finds reasons to be away, then maybe it's time to face the cold reality that perhaps sex is all you ever had.
Yes, it’s a harsh test. It’s also a demanding one. But if you’re really interested in knowing for sure that what you have together is good for the long haul, it’s worth the effort to find out now.
It’s the adult thing to do.
Oh, and by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day!