Marriage versus just living together

Acknowledging life in the context of community

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. 
 

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.

CONSTANCY, OF COURSE, IS NOT limited to those couples who've formally married. Many of my friends are living together. They have made serious commitments to each other, they have children and, for all practical purposes, they might as well be married. Indeed, several of them have relationships that I consider to be closer to the ideal of marriage than most of the married couples I know. But that, l think, is more a function of the kind of people they are, and not of the form of their living arrangements. They are extraordinary people who would probably make a success of any relationship. 

Even so, there is, it seems to me, something missing. I wouldn’t presume to judge what goes on between two people who have committed themselves to each other--in whatever form they have chosen. I can only look at their relationship as it is perceived by the rest of the human community. It is here, i think, that the strongest argument for marriage as opposed to living together can be made.

 
Let us assume two couples: One married, one living together. Both have promised a lifetime commitment, both have children, both are trying to live with each other as lovingly, gently, and non-violently as they can. What is the difference? The difference, as Ravi and i pieced it together that night with Smita, is this: one is a community building act from the very beginning and the other is not. 

To marry, to celebrate a love and a commitment publicly, in the presence of family and friends, is to say that the meaning of one's life can only be found in the context of a community. It is to acknowledge one's part in the human family, to recognize that one' s life is more than one's own, that one's actions affect more than oneself. It is to proclaim that marriage is more than a private affair between one woman and one man. 
To live together seems to me to imply that the central relationship of one's life is nobody's business but one's own. To live together is a decision reached privately and put into motion alone. There is no community blessing or celebration of the decision.

And what the community does not bless, it does not feel responsible for. Couples who are living together often find themselves quite alone when problems arise in their relationships. Their community may quite properly feel that such problems are none of its business. It was not asked for advice, or even congratulations, at the outset; why should it feel any responsibility now that things are going badly? On the other hand, a community which is asked to witness and bless the beginning of a marriage is far more likely to feel a sense of responsibility to the couple as their marriage grows and develops. 1 grant that most couples who do actually marry do not ask this of their community. Indeed, most couples think of the people at their wedding simply as guests who have to be fed, and not as participants in a community celebration. More on that in a bit. 
The need for privacy, for individualism, looms extraordinarily large in American culture. We have been brought up to believe that it is a sign of weakness to admit that we need others. We have made a virtue of going it alone. Our ideal family is composed of a mother, a father, and one or two children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all kept at a safe distance, and even neighbors are required, by zoning laws, to be at least an acre away. That this should be reflected in young peoples' choosing to live together, an essentially private choice, is not surprising. What is perhaps surprising is the extent to which most marriages are also quite private affairs, all the while purporting to be community events.
 

MOST WEDDINGS say very little about the two individuals marrying -- or about the community witnessing the union. Most weddings say something about the amount of money the participants have to throw about. They say something about fashion. They say something about respect for authority, in the form of the State, which issues the license, for a fee. 

Most wedding ceremonies take place on an altar -- so far from the guests who, theoretically, are there to witness the union of these two, that no one but the priest can hear the vows they exchange. 
Most weddings are the occasion for bitter arguments: over relatives one cannot abide but invite anyway, seating arrangements at the reception, who pays for what, how many guests each family is allowed .... It goes on and on until many couples wish they had just decided to live together and skip all the hassle. 

What is most telling, though, is the fact that so many weddings do not welcome children. Indeed, many outright discourage them. The phrase "No children,'please" can be found frequently on wedding invitations and hard are the judgments passed on parents who dare to bring them anyway. Children, the hope and the future of any community, are an interruption, a noisy distraction, an additional and unnecessary expense -- they take away from what is really important. And what is really important, apparently, is that two grownups want to live together, but before they can, they have to get married. This alienation of the community from the wedding ceremony, this lack of identification with the bride and groom -- who seem more like actors playing pre-arranged roles than two people expressing their love for each other -- serves to depersonalize the celebration. There is a boring sameness to weddings -- one goes because one has to, because it is expected. The community is not asked to take part, and it does not. And the wedding sets the tone for the community's role in the marriage itself. The message is clear: It should limit its involvement to making appearances at the appropriate times, giving gifts on the appropriate occasions. Nothing more. 

But marriage is a community event. It expresses, in its ideal form, a belief in the goodness of community, a belief in the beauty of two people who love each other coming together to live in communion, a belief in the wonder of human life, a belief so strong that it expresses itself in the creation of new human life.

When Ravi and I married, we wanted a community celebration, one involving as many of our friends and families as possible. We wanted our wedding to reflect our religious (Catholic/Hindu) and cultural backgrounds, as well as our social and political concerns; we wanted our wedding to be a celebration of our love, naturally, but also for the community who had come to share our joy. 

And it was. What a diversity of talents went into that day -- from the wedding invitations and programs we designed, , Ravi's side in Hindi and mine in English, to the wedding clothes made by Ravi's cousin and the wedding cake made by my father and a close friend. Ravi's mother performed the Hindu wedding ceremony; two priest friends witnessed the Catholic ceremony. Ravi and I wrote our own vows and selected the readings (from the Hindu and Christian scriptures) that friends and relatives read at the ceremony. Two nuns who had taught me in high school provided their oceanside convent for the day. The vegetarian banquet (both Indian and American foods) was entirely prepared by friends who arrived a few days early to cook.., and best of all were the children everywhere, behaving exactly as children should behave, especially at a wedding. 
It seemed to us then, and it seems even more so now, that our wedding was a symbol of the way we want to live our lives: surrounded by family and friends; giving and receiving the gifts of time, laughter, advice, and help; sharing food, work, prayer, and celebration; creating a world where children are free and full of joy. 

But marriage is a community event. It expresses, in its ideal form, a belief in the goodness of community, a belief in the beauty of two people who love each other coming together to live in communion, a belief in the wonder of human life, a belief so strong that it expresses itself in the creation of new human life.

if two people who say they want to marry do not believe this, then perhaps they should not marry. If they want to "join America" -- to live in the suburbs with themselves and their 1.7 genetically screened children, exactly one acre from the nearest neighbor -- then perhaps what they want is not marriage but just to live with each other. 

If they want to be part of the human community, to start building the kingdom of God here on earth, then marriage is probably what they are seeking. And if it is, then the wedding itself, which is the beginning of marriage, should be an expression of their belief in community.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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