I posted much of the…

I posted much of the following on Jessie's blog, where she'd been talking about how climbing has become a tremendous and unexpected passion for her. Which somehow led me to thinking about why I would have a hard time dating someone who claimed to be naturally and completely monogamous. The kind of person who says that once they fall in love, they couldn't possibly fall in love with someone else. (I have met many people who have made that claim.) I just have a hard time believing they can be sure of that. Because sometimes, a passion just hits you out of nowhere, one that you could never have seen coming.

Certainly you can choose not to follow a potential passion, not to make room for it in your life. In fact, if I were to attempt monogamy, I think I might well retreat to Austenian standards of decorum -- never being alone with a potentially interesting person, for example. Never discussing certain topics. Putting structures in place to support the conscious choice I had made, to be with one person, and one person alone. (Actually, I would apply the same argument to celibacy, if for some reason, probably spiritual, I felt strongly called to make that attempt. Or to polyfidelity.)

I can see the value in dedicating oneself wholly.

But that said -- I don't know if it would always work. I'm not sure if all the effort in the world will necessarily be enough to save you, should the stars align against your choice. You could refrain from action, given sufficient willpower, but could you refrain from a broken heart? The world is wide, and it feels almost arrogant to me, to say that you know what it (and you) are capable of.

I'm not saying never make a commitment. I think it's great that people commit to grad school, to jobs, to parenting, to romantic partnerships. But with most things, even if you make a commitment, there are clear outs. People drop out of grad school, they leave jobs. Children, I'll grant; I expect a pretty serious level of commitment from people who decide to be parents -- but clearly, a lot of people are willing to walk out on that too. Which often infuriates me, but that's a separate issue.

I think I see romantic partnerships differently because I wouldn't want the commitment if my partner no longer wanted to be in it. I'm fine with marriage as a statement of serious intent (this is my plan, and I will work seriously to follow it, even when it becomes hard), but the idea of marriage as a promise bothers me.

If Kevin came to me and said that he knew we'd planned to be together 'til we died, but his heart just wasn't in it anymore -- that he had tried his best to still want to be with me, but someone or something was leading him elsewhere, and that he would stay if I wanted him to, because he had promised that we'd be together forever -- it would be incredibly upsetting, of course. But I would hope that I'd also tell him to go, without recriminations. That's my ideal, anyway, personally; I don't know if I could actually live up to it.

How sad, to have someone stay with you, only because they once said they would. How could you live with that?

I think part of what's hard about this idea is the thought that your beloved is leaving you for someone else -- does it change things if it's not a person, but something else? A calling, of some kind? To religion, or a political cause, or a professional passion?

There's a structure in Hindu philosophy -- the four stages of life are student, householder, retiree, renunciate. I find it fascinating that that culture has as a default the idea that there is something after partnership -- that in the end stage of life, you are supposed to leave partner and home, leave the world of material objects, go to a temple or into the woods, and seek a more spiritual path. (Please do correct me if I'm misunderstanding or misrepresenting this.)

I don't have much spirituality in me, and I can't help thinking that it would be very hard on a partner if you made that choice to renounce when they weren't ready for it. But I can see the logic of it too, and the appeal of going out, alone, into the wilderness at the end of life, to see if you can discover something beyond these earthly things...

4 thoughts on “I posted much of the…”

  1. I think there can be a difference between your partner leaving you for another person rather than a calling. Mainly that there’s nothing you could have done to change the latter, but people can easily fall into the mindset that if they’d done better, their love wouldn’t have needed to look elsewhere. I know that’s not how you would view it, because you accept that the passion for another can come along without looking for it, but those ideals of monogamy often don’t leave room for that.

    I’ve always rather liked the idea of the multiple partner theory – one for when you’re young and having fun, one for raising a family with, and one for retiring with. At this stage I’m planning on staying with mine til the end, but I could see how once the kids are gone, lives can go in very different directions.

  2. One of your finest entries. Not that house, and babies arent of interest but its good to see you waxing into philosophy again.

    When marriage for life was established in Western culture, the average marriage only lasted about 15 years before being terminated by the death of a partner. Also, nobody expected sexual fidelity by men and with many men traveling for years at a time on business, nobody sensible expected fidelity from women.

    In our time, there are many things that will end a marriage or long term relationship: Career requirements that call for separation, new loves, growth in different directions, etc. In your case, I am sure that you understand how rare it is for two academics to find appointments in the same city, let alone the same University.

    In our case, my life partner and I have been together for more than 50 years but we have never tried to be all things to each other. We have each had a relatively modest number of lovers including one that we shared for a decade. We have many mutual friends and also friends that the other cannot spend time with without being bored or irritated.
    I have never stopped being the student, I am now also the householder, I dont expect to be the retiree, and renunciation is not in my nature.

    That said, while adults may drift apart, if there are children there is also obligation. There is no greater sin that to abandon responsibility for a child.

    Arianes comment reminds me of something that I read years ago. I would attribute it if I could; I think it was a footnote in a book by somebody like Bertrand Russell or maybe Alan Watts but I have no recollection who was being referenced. The concept was that each person should have 3 long-term partners:

    • At 15 they would partner with someone of 30 who would be their mentor, support them through their education, career development, etc.
    • At 30 they would separate from this partner and connect with someone of 15 reversing their role.
    • At 45, they would separate again and partner with another person of 45 for mutual support in their declining years.

    With all of love,

    C. J. Czelling

  3. Mary Anne, I want to thank you for posting this! Especially this part: but the idea of marriage as a promise bothers me.

    Thank you for saying something–all of it–I could not articulate myself, thank you for putting it out there, against the majority, and for allowing me to not feel alone.

  4. What you say here rings true; but as is so often the case, the opposite of a deep truth is also a deep truth. I’m very much about marriage as a promise; though less of a promise to your partner, than a promise to myself: a structure for creating my own long-term happiness in the face of a natural tendency for the pursuit of short-term happiness to destroy it.

    Put it this way: someone who, on their wedding day, says “I promise never to fall in love with anyone else” is a fool. But someone who says “I commit to this marriage as my life’s great project, and it will take more than little things like falling in love with other people, or temporarily falling out of love with you, to derail it”, is daring, perhaps, but not a fool.

    Great projects, of course, may fail; someone embarking on a great project who thinks they can guarantee success is also foolish. But great commitments are not about guarantees; they are about playing large and with one’s whole heart.

    Now maybe we are saying the same thing here, because you say you are fine with marriage as a “statement of serious intent”: “this is my plan, and I will work seriously to follow it, even when it becomes hard.” But what then is a promise? One does not after all say “I promise to be made of atoms”, or “I promise never to go faster than the speed of light” — things, that is, which one can guarantee. One only bothers ever promising about things where there is a chance one will fail. So I guess we are just talking about levels of promises: marriage on the level of one’s commitment to the grad school in which one enrolls, versus marriage on the level of one’s commitment to one’s children.

    I may be quibbling about language here, but the examples you use seem to confuse the issue. “Naturally and completely monogamous” — that seems about as relevant as saying “I’m sure this will be a good restaurant, I hear the cook has a naturally good sense of smell.” “You could refrain from action, given sufficient willpower, but could you refrain from a broken heart?” — again: in the context of long-term monogamous marriage, that is like saying “people say they are willing to play rugby, but do they realize that rugby might involve falling down?”

    Or, Kevin comes to you and says he has “tried his best to still want to be with me” — but has failed, and so wants to know if he can go, without recriminations. Recriminations seem a bit like a straw man here. I expect of myself that I would be a great person to ask for a divorce of; supportive, loving, reasonable, practical, and fair. Recriminations would surely be a waste of time. But by shifting the focus from the person who is deciding whether to adhere to a commitment, to the person who is deciding whether to be an asshole about the other person deciding to end the commitment, we have rather changed the topic. The question isn’t whether you should stay in a relationship because someone else is holding you to a promise — indeed framing it that way seems kind of explicitly passive aggressive. The question is your own relationship to your promise.

    Let’s say that you’re halfway up Everest, and your climbing partner says, “you know, I’ve decided I really want to go down. But I did promise, so you know, I’m willing to keep going if you insist.” I think it’s pretty obvious that if this is in fact an accurate, fair-minded and fully conscious and honest portrayal of their state, you’d have to be insane to demand that they climb Everest just for you. The only circumstance under which you would say “You’re damn right you promised! Now shoulder that backpack!” is if, in fact, you know them well enough to know that this is a patch of fear and low blood sugar which they will be grateful for having been pushed through — which, again, is a separate issue.

    The relevant question, though, is not whether you would force someone to climb Everest who wanted out. The relevant question is what does it take to climb Everest, and is it advisable for anyone, ever, to commit to getting to the top, or should people in general just start walking in the general direction of the summit and see how it goes?

    There’s a much larger discussion to be had here about our own attitudes to our own emotions and desires. I think traditionally (by which I mean, under patriarchy/capitalism/kyrarchy/the way we do things around here), we are offered two ways of looking at the relation of reason and passion. One way — culturally prized in males, and we can also call it the Enlightenment view — is that reason is the way to truth, and emotions are irrelevant distractions, pesky things that should be manfully suppressed. The other — often seen as desirable in females, and we could call it the Romantic view — is that emotion, passion, reveals the truth of things, following one’s desires is the true goal of life, and reason at best a tool to this end and at worst a cold misleading lie.

    Both of these views see emotion and reason as opposite poles at best; but in fact I think — drawing both on feminist theory and cognitive science here — that they are no such thing. We cannot reason well if we elide what we feel, if we pretend about our emotions, if we suppress them. But nor should
    we regard emotions as glimpses of unmediated heavenly truth.

    We feel lots of things which are not good signposts to happiness. Racism has trained us to be afraid of brown people, sexism to find assertive women bitchy and emotionally demonstrative men weak; consumerism has trained us to run after dollars and iPods and big houses and candy bars. We are full of addictions, superstitions, misunderstandings, and destructive patterns intentionally installed by the world we live in for motives of profit and domination. We read romance novels and find ourselves picking fights about the dishes.

    It does not do any good to pretend we do not feel these things, to stamp them down and operate rigidly as if they weren’t there. But at the same time, knowing this should make us very suspicious that “what we want” is really what we want.

    If we treat passions as if they are simply mysterious emanations which arrive in our lives without warning and to which we must submit, we ignore the fact that if we know ourselves, we actually know a lot about where our passions come from, how they develop, how we nurture or starve them, release them or hoard them.

    For me, often the purpose of a commitment is to formulate goals when I can think best, to support myself in moments of lesser lucidity — moments when I am upset, confused, overloaded with new information, reactive.

    I know perfectly well, for instance, that I will not always feel like writing. Most of the time I do not feel like writing at all, in fact. This is very predictable. I fall out of love with writing all the time. I may know what writing is to me, I may know in the bottom of my heart how much I care about it, but on any given day this seems like an unconvincing reason to get my butt in the chair.

    Having a commitment — to writing, to marriage — is a way of imposing an order on myself which goes beyond what I feel like; and thus a way of choosing my ultimate happiness over the local maximum of the satiation of immediate desire.

    This is, I think, about marriage, not monogamy; I don’t imagine it would be very different if I were any of various gradations of poly, or celibately married. (Perhaps monogamy makes the issues starker and clearer, by introducing an easy behavioral metric, sex — but I’m not sure how much that matters). And I think it’s perfectly fine for other people to have different levels of commitment in marriage — to think of it as try-it-and-see, or fixed-term-with-renewal-option, or whatever. YMMV and one must always optimize for local conditions.

    It’s just that in my specific case, knowing what I know, the risk that I have misjudged my potential happiness in a life with Esther is, I think, very low (we were together 7 years before we married, 13 years ago; that is enough time for data collection), and the risk, on the other hand, that I would mislead myself about this in a moment of confusion, or an acute infatuation, or in the wake of a very severe conflict, or in a year of depression — is a great deal higher.

    I officiated at a wedding ceremony a few years ago, and the welcome and sermon incorporate some of my thinking on the topic: http://benjaminrosenbaum.com/wedding/jessica_and_levi.html

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