Thursday, December 05, 2002

Shacking up, creative fidelity, and Gabriel Marcel

More and more people today are cohabitating before getting married. Often it is seen as an ordinary step: the couple moves in together and sets up housekeeping long before the actual wedding takes place. It seems quite reasonable, since after all "You wouldn't buy a car without taking it for a test-drive, would you?" Why not live together? Why not taste the milk before buying the cow? It only makes sense to find out if you are suited to each other before you make vows.

But there is a problem. Marriage is supposed to be a life-long commitment. It is a promise that we make in before God to love our spouse not just on the wedding day, but into the future. Marcel gives an example: what if in a moment of need you promised a homebound friend that you would visit him every week, but you find that this duty has become uncomfortable for you. You resent going, and if the friend knew you resented it, he would release you from the promise. You promised him in a moment of emotion, but now the emotion has passed. By what right does the promise remain? "Isn't it strictly more honest to live by paying on delivery--to imitate in short those valetudinarians whom we are all acquainted with, who never accept an invitation categorically and who say: I can't promise anything, I'll come if it's possible, don't count on me. . . ?" (CF 160) How can you in good conscience make a promise and bind your future emotional states? If this is the case, is a wedding vow even truthful? How can you promise to be true, to love and honor (obedience is easier) until death parts you? How can a promise I made in 2000 be binding on me in 2002? I am a different person, aren't I?

Marcel has an answer, based in the very nature of a promise. If you promise, you don't make a prediction about your future attitudes, you make a decision to shape your future attitudes in a certain way. By making the marriage vow, you are saying "I will not allow myself to cease loving and honoring this person, and in fact I will make every effort to increase my love." You take responsibility for your future. Thus such a promise is creative, or to use Marcel's term, is creative fidelity; the promise creates you as you will be. It is necessary to have faith to make this sort of promise, since, after all, you might be mistaken about the person you marry--perhaps she isn't as wonderful as you thought. But since the promise is made to the spouse, but before God, we have some assurance: "in the act in which I commit myself, I at the same time extend an infinite credit to Him to whom I did so; Hope means nothing more than this." (167) God guarantees the loan, so to speak.

A promise of fidelity must be creative, it must change the person who makes the promise. Without having power over your future states, a promise is meaningless. So what about cohabitation? Here I let Marcel speak:

"In short, how can I test the initial assurance which somehow is the ground of my fidelity? But this appears to lead to a vicious circle. In principle, to commit myself I must first know myself; the fact is, however, that I really know myself only when I have committed myself. That dilatory attitude which involves sparing myself of any trouble, keeping myself aloof (and thereby inwardly dissipating myself), is incompatible with any self-knowledge worthy of the name. Nothing is more puerile than the efforts made by some individuals to resolve the problem by compromise: I allude in this respect to the idea of a pre-marital trial whereby the future spouses begin by surrendering themselves to an experience which commits them to nothing, but which is supposed to enlighten them about themselves; it is all too clear that such an experiment is immediately nullified by the very conditions under which it is performed." (CF 163)

Such pre-marital trials cannot be successful in showing how the married couple will be for the very reason that it is a trial, not a marriage. Marcel's insight seems to be sustained by statistics that show those who cohabitate before marriage are much more likely to have a failed marriage.

(The quotes are taken from Creative Fidelity by Gabriel Marcel, published by Farrar, Straus, and Company.)

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