Overt at Newsweek they have a column titled "My Turn", and for the January 14th issue it is occupied by an article by one Bonnie Eslinger: Yes To Love, No To Marriage. The subtitle: "I am committed to Jeff for life. I just don't need a piece of paper and a pretty white dress to prove it."
Not surprisingly, this has drawn a lot of dismayed (if not depressed) commentary, as well as some quite cogent observations on the seeming immaturity of the sentiments she expresses. Ironically, from a typical Anglican theology of marriage, she is but one step from marriage in writing the article; all she needs is for her "husband" to make the same commitments publicly.
There is little that one can add to the volume of words already written. She refuses to formalize her relationship, and therefore isn't committed enough. And she sees herself as having no obligation to society at large, for her "rejection" of marriage is in essence a refusal to guarantee to the rest of the world that she will make good on the commitments she says she has made. It is irresistibly tempting to predict the collapse of her commitments (and especially those of her husband, who after all offered to do the right thing) in the face of the difficulties marriages (or arrangements) inevitably face.
But let us go back to 1979, or thereabouts. Because of the vagaries of college scheduling, I ended up taking a session of summer school. It being a transient affair, we who chose to live in the dorms were cast together willy-nilly, and I ended up with this guy who every night brought in his girlfriend for coupling. I suppose it is a symptom of the impersonality of the whole affair that I haven't the slightest recollection of his name, and I'm not entirely sure I ever remembered it. But at any rate, we had something of a standing arrangement wherein I simply didn't come to the room in the evening before a certain hour. Nonetheless I did walk in on them a couple of times when their tryst-- well, "tryst" is way too civilized a word for it: when their copulation was not consummated sufficiently early.
This went on for several weeks, and then one day he announced to me that he planned to have his girlfriend in for the weekend, and that I needed to find somewhere else to sleep while they did this. This struck me as an unreasonable imposition, and when "no" wasn't sufficient, I was surprised to find that the Resident Director didn't share my opinion. I eventually bowed my head to the Spirit of the Age and found someone else who grudgingly let me move in with the for the week or so left in the session.
Thirty years on, it still epitomizes to me the surrealism of the weird mutation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with sexual urges placed on its own level below all else. Beds are for sex, not sleeping; walls and roofs are to keep staring eyes out, not the cold and rain. I wonder whether this fellow ever married his sex partner, and if they did wed, whether they are still married.
In that light, one sentence of Miss Eslinger's proclamation stands out. She is especially dismissive of the symbols of marriage, but then says all too tellingly, "If it's not a wedding, if there's no priest or piece of paper from the state, some people just don't give any weight to your commitment—despite high divorce rates that remind us that such formalities offer no guarantee the relationship will endure." Well, obviously they have even less obligation to play by Miss Eslinger's rules than she has to play by those that society sets forth; they could reasonably hold that Miss Eslinger is really obligated to play by society's rules, and that she will just have to live with the consequences of her defiance. But they could also say, "your love for your partner is limited, because you are unwilling to sacrifice your distaste for marriage as an institution in order to fulfill the commitment you claim to make." It's not paper or the priest or any of the trappings of a wedding that make the wedding, but the vows made before God and man to live in marriage. If one is not willing to make those vows, then others may assume that one's commitment isn't so permanent and so extensive. They will understand that one's commitment to the commitment isn't, well, committed.
Indeed, it is the fact that marriage is so sacred that it is written into societal structure. Society says, "put up, or shut up; make the vows and record them legally, or we will not take you seriously." And society is utterly correct. One's love, if perfected, consents to such bonds; their rejection is evidence of love's imperfection.