A lot changes in a generation.
Thirty years ago, the idea of a man and a woman living together out of wedlock was generally considered immoral. Today, that seems to have changed: It’s common for men and women to live together out of wedlock. In fact, many people these days refuse to marry someone they haven’t first lived with.
In my experience, this works well. I lived with a woman for two years, and in that time, we discovered we were never meant to be together, much less married. There was no divorce, no child custody issues, and we both walked away a little wiser.
The experience made me more hesitant when my current girlfriend, Dove, proposed the idea of moving in together. I gave the issue more thought than my first live-in relationship, and decided that she and I had a much more healthy attitude toward living together. I was convinced it was a good idea, so we found a great place and made the final decision to cohabit. We were confident in our decision and told our friends, who all expressed their happiness.
Yet, their congratulations were not without concerned questions about our decision. Were we that serious? Aren’t we moving a little too fast? Does this mean we’re thinking about getting married? Was she pregnant?
Because of such gossip-worthy speculation, I was almost afraid to disappoint them with the real reason for our moving in together: It made good sense. Cohabitation solved many problems for the two of us. She had recently graduated, but was still living with her mother and couldn’t afford most two-bedroom apartments. I was living in the suburbs, wanted to move deeper into the city and also couldn’t afford two bedrooms.
We were both going to be working full time and taking classes part time and wanted to be able to spend more time with each other. Therefore, the only logical, reasonable thing to do is to live together.
It bothered me that some of our friends expressed more concern than happiness for us. It showed me that cohabitation is still viewed as negative by some. It may no longer be considered immoral, but I know some of them believe living together suggests some kind of dysfunction. They believe that two people live together because they are either afraid to be alone, insecure or getting married in a hurry because someone is pregnant.
Now, I can’t speak for Dove, but I had an upset stomach the other morning. Although I think that has more to do with what I ate the previous night.
Living with someone doesn’t have to lead to marriage. This thought doesn’t often occur to people, and that’s perhaps why my friends were so concerned. They believe that if Dove and I are moving in together, we must be getting married, and in this country there’s a 50/50 chance we’ll get divorced.
I couldn’t agree more. The institution of marriage is suffering from all kinds of crises, the most notable being the identity crisis. More and more, marriage is becoming associated with disaster rather than happiness — or anything positive, for that matter.
Idealistically, we identify a marriage as a union between two people who love each other. But, since when has love had anything to do with marriage? For much of history, it has been an event arranged by the parents or someone other than the bride and groom. The union of two people served either a financial, political or religious purpose. The married couple were total strangers to each other and told they would grow to love each other. A marriage wasn’t a labor of love, it was just labor. It was a job.
Today, we believe that has all changed, and people now get married for love. Our modern system of marriage and courtship is better than the old because we are more free to make decisions ourselves, and we no longer marry strangers.
My mother would refute that last assertion. As a wise, liberated woman of the ’60s, she, too, believed arranged marriages were a flawed form of matrimony. Then, in 1976, when I was 3, my family moved to a remote fishing village in Taiwan, where some of the older generation still believed in arranged marriages.
It was there my mother saw a great wisdom behind these unions. “They know they are marrying a complete stranger,” she once told me. “So, they work hard to get along in the marriage from day one. In America, we think we’re marrying someone we know, when, in fact, we’re still marrying a complete stranger.”
However, my mother would argue, people today don’t have to work hard at marriage. They can just get divorced and be done with it. At the same time, people can get married even more easily. Because it is so simple to both create and end a marriage, I’ve often wondered what the point is, other than a nice tax break.
Is marriage as necessary to modern life as a job, food, shelter and clothing? If two people love each other, should they get married, or is it a dead, meaningless ceremony we now use as an excuse to drink a lot and dance badly?
I really don’t know what it means to be married these days. Despite that, I believe I will be married some day. My reasons would be more for tradition than any sense of true devotion or love.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve decided to live with Dove without any matrimonial pretenses. I need to explore what we are and what it means to be a couple in this post-modern age. I have to find my own definition of union before I am comfortable holding any type of ceremony in honor of it.
Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.