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Covenants and Choices

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It's not often a respected political columnist runs a column titled as if it's one of those stupid Facebook "tests".
But there's David Brooks in this week's New York Times, asking "What Romantic Regime Are You In?"

The "regime of fate" is presented as Russian. In Russia, we learn, love is seen as a "madness". Sociologist Julia Lerner characterizes the Russian idea of love as “a destiny, a moral act and a value; it is irresistible, it requires sacrifice and implies suffering and pain.”

(Aside: this rings true to me. Russia's benighted attitude towards domestic violence -- the "good" husband is expected to beat his wife every now and again, and a "good" wife endures her share of beatings--probably springs from this fatalistic view of love.)

America, by contrast, is under "the regime of choice". There, both men and women assess each other constantly: does she check all the right boxes? does he have any red flags waving? In a regime of choice, you're not just encouraged but almost demanded to choose again, which might explain why the marriage rate is plummeting and "most children born to women under thirty are born out of wedlock".

We are told the best option is between the extremes: a "regime of covenants". I do like the turn of phrase here:

The Regime of Covenants acknowledges the fact that we don’t really choose our most important attachments the way you choose a toaster. In the flux of life you meet some breathtakingly amazing people, usually in the swirl of complex circumstances. There is a sense of being blown around by currents more astounding than you can predict and control. Mostly you’re bumblingly trying to figure out the right response to the moments you’re in. 
When you are drawn together and make a pledge with a person, the swirl doesn’t end; it’s just that you’ll ride it together. In the Regime of Covenants, making the right one-time selection is less important than the ongoing action to serve the relationship.

I'm emphatically with Brooks almost to the end of this. While noting that, given an open enough heart, it's possible to fall in love with (almost) anyone, love can also bushwack you. The two greatest loves of my life came out of a job interview and an almost random friend request on Facebook and I didn't see either of them coming; once they were in front of me they were inevitable. And yeah, there's been a bit of bumbling after the tumbling. (It's been, at times, humbling).
For sure you ride the swirl together. Yep, I'm in total agreement wi--
making the right one-time selection is less important than the ongoing action to serve the relationship

(cough)

Okay, yeah, this is how we're taught to think. And it does make a strong surface sense. If you want to stay together long term, the relationship must have primacy over individual needs, right? You put your marriage first?

Well, not quite. And by not quite, I mean, not at all.

Actually, if you want to ensure happiness in a relationship, you put the other person first. So long as the other person does the same and puts you first, the relationship will most likely endure. The instant one of you stops doing that, your relationship is doomed. It will turn toxic in a hurry as needs go unmet and resentments rise.

What's the difference? Ask any old-school Catholic wife who has been abused by her husband. She's doing what she thinks of as "being a good Catholic", putting her marriage first. Divorce, she knows, is a sin. She married for LIFE. Without parole.

That's an extreme. of course, but plenty of people suffer through emotionally dead relationships, without respect, appreciation, or even basic decency, "for the sake of the relationship". Whom, exactly, does that serve? Neither party, and certainly not any children. So how can that possibly be held as an ideal?

"For better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health". Indeed. Notice those vows are made to each other, not to some symbol of the marriage.

Does that mean you discard your marriage at the first sign of trouble? Of course it doesn't. At the first sign of trouble, you open your mouths and use your words. Respectfully. I believe in solving the little problems before they become big ones. And if you don't bother to communicate those little problems, and neither does your partner, then they will become big ones for sure.

That said: people do grow and change and...diverge, sometimes. When your basic life goals are no longer in alignment, again, whom does it serve to act as a drag on each other? Neither of you, nor your kids.

I made a covenant in my wedding ceremony to Eva. They weren't my vows, and I'd write them EVER so slightly differently today, but they concluded:

with these words
and all the words of my heart
I marry you
and I bind my life to yours.

What would I change, you ask? I'd omit two words: "and all". My heart has many words for many people, and so does Eva's, and we both knew that of each other going in, even if Eva didn't quite see it in herself right away. And of course, heart-words don't invalidate other heart words. Both of us have learned a different heart language, replete with its own love poetry.

My covenant was to Eva and hers was to me. Over sixteen years later, we are no less mindful of it, even as the prospect of other covenants looms.

I have said several times here that I view marriage as an act of continuing choice. The same is true of any level of relationship, really. But the choice has got to be mutual and ideally it ought to be self-serving as well as other-serving. If it's a choice made solely to keep the relationship going...to whom are you a slave? Each other? Societal approval? Your concept of a deity?

I get even more antsy when I read that in a regime of covenants, couples have overthrown the proud ego and learned to be utterly dependent on the other.

God, I hope not.

Eva has helped me to become more INdependent, such that if she were to, perish the thought, drop dead tomorrow....I just might be able to function once grief has lessened its grip. I couldn't have done that when I met her, because I wasn't. I was eating nothing but junk, my idea of a "budget" was how much money do I have? that much and I lacked numerous life skills. For my part, well, I had nothing to teach Eva about self-reliance, but I think she's grown too. She's learned how to relax a little, and that it's possible to love and be loved more than she thought.

Supposedly you can only succeed in marriage "if you've set up a framework in which exit is not an easy option." That too sounds rather like a prison, doesn't it?

I do like that "people in a covenant "try to love the other in a way that brings out their loveliness. They hope that through this service they’ll become a slightly less selfish version of themselves". Well, um, yeah. When you put it that way, I have a covenant with every friend and love in my life.

And that, too, was my choice.

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