SOME MONTHS AGO we had a beautiful young woman from India (my husband is also from India) staying with us. At dinner, the conversation turned to the question of marriage versus simply living together. Smita, the Indian woman, maintained that marriage was nothing more than a convenience, a way to avoid the censure of society; that if two people were willing to commit their lives to each other, then marriage was an unnecessary formality, signifying nothing. To engage in the kind of discussion that followed is to risk sounding foolish. One talks of "marriage"as an institution and yet it is apparent that one is talking out of personal experience that cannot help but be narrow and unimposing compared to the subject itself. Having been married not very long myself, I realized how presumptuous it is to say almost anything (even at the dinner table, let alone in print) about marriage in general. But when will it become not presumptuous--after five years, ten, twenty, fifty? The more years pass, I also realize, the more changes in social and cultural conditions will separate me from those entering marriage then, and so perhaps my reflections would take on a presumptuousness of a different sort. In any case, the discussion that evening was so enlightening to me that I decided to risk my dignity and write down some of the thoughts that emerged.
Apart from anything else, marriage is simply a very practical institution. It is an institution which recognizes and makes allowances for human failings. Since constancy is a virtue that very few of us possess at all times, it is important that we see marriage as something beyond ourselves, The very nature of marriage insists that we see it so: when we marry, we create new life; we go beyond ourselves. We create responsibilities, the weight of which our marriages must be strong enough to bear. Marriage is one of those peculiar things (like God!) which makes immense demands of us while simultaneously giving us the strength to meet those demands. It is precisely because marriage is so difficult that we must see it as permanent. It is precisely because we are so likely to give it up that we must promise--at the outset, when everything is wonderful--that we are in it for life. (This is one reason, then, why the extreme prevalence of divorce is so troubling. It not only destroys the marriages of those individuals who choose to separate, but it erodes the concept of the permanence of marriage. It makes it that much easier for the next couple to give up.)
Simply living together, without "benefit of marriage" does not provide the security of knowing that this is forever. But if you need that security, our friend Smita says, then the relationship can't be that strong to begin with. Smita and I are both in our early twenties, still young enough to believe in the power of love to overcome all odds. And I do believe that. What I don't believe is that a wife and husband always love each other enough to stay married. There are times when love fails, and in those times, many people just take a deep breath and stay married because they are married. And when they come through to the other side, their marriages are stronger and more firmly rooted in love.
Smita grew up in India where divorce is practically unheard of--I grew up in an America where marriage is practically unheard of. She can perhaps afford to take marriage for granted. I can't. I have seen far too many of my friends--and even my parents' friends--divorce. I have taken care of too many children whose parents are separated. I have seen the scars that divorce inevitably leaves--the pain and near-despair in grownups; the bewilderment and insecurity in the children. I'm not saying that these couples didn't have problems; I'm sure they did. But no human relation is without problems. And if one enters into marriage, one should do it knowing fuil well that this is the case and that in spite of it, the marriage is forever. Living together does not carry with it the weight of a centuries-old tradition. The content of the relationship -- a woman and a man living together sexually--contains all the elements that are present in a marriage, but without its form. it is like taking on all that is difficult in a marriage without taking the helps that marriage can offer. Simply knowing that one is married, that one has promised--before God and the human community--that this is forever, puts a different light on the inevitable problems that one faces. One is more likely (given, of course, a belief in the permanence of marriage) to slog through, to get past whatever it is in the way, to stay together.