Cohabitation and the Definitely Maybe Relationship
The tension between autonomy and intimacy is most clearly evidenced in the trend toward cohabitation. Today, between 50 and 70 percent of American couples are cohabiting before or instead of marrying. Living together is now seen as the only mature way to begin an intimate relationship while preserving one’s personal integrity. This is the “definitely maybe” approach, whereby covenant is replaced with “wait and see” and “try before you buy.”
If intimate relationships were mortgages, we might call these sub-prime commitments. They are high-risk projects with little or no collateral security. Unfortunately, just like sub-prime mortgages, these relationships are designed to fail.
What is most startling about the trend of living together outside of marriage is that it is becoming increasingly popular, even though research shows overwhelmingly that cohabiting ultimately undermines relationships. Indeed, the evidence completely contradicts the popular belief that “testing” a relationship first is the best way to secure its future.
As a path to marriage, cohabitation is extremely unreliable, with only one in five cohabiting relationships ending in marriage, and these figures are getting worse over time. Even in those cases where living together does subsequently lead to marriage, cohabiting significantly increases the likelihood of an eventual divorce. Not surprisingly, serial cohabiters show radically higher rates of divorce in their subsequent marriages; women who cohabit multiple times before marrying divorce more than twice as frequently as those who live only with their future husband.
Crystallizing Each Other
Combustion is also the phase of peak idealization. In his great book On Love, Stendhal once described a salt mine near Salzburg, Austria. The miners would stick small, leafless branches down into the salt mines and leave them there for a time. When they would retrieve them, the branches would be covered with a shining layer of diamond-like crystals that shimmered in the light. Stendhal said that enchanted lovers crystallize each other in this way, their adoring eyes scattering diamonds on every virtue of the beloved.
Discipleship Should Fuel Fascination
Beholding beauty produces fascination, and fascination is the best way to transform a person. Consider a young man in love. Parents, professors, mentors, and friends can plead with a young man to change certain habits and embrace certain disciplines for years with little effect. However, when a young man is captured by the beauty of a young woman, suddenly everything changes. He becomes focused on his future. He eagerly embraces certain disciplines. His lifestyle radically shifts. His entire life takes on a new intentionality. In a moment, he makes changes his parents and mentors asked him to make for years. Fascination produces transformation.
Fascination also produces imitation. A young man in love suddenly becomes interested in things he never considered before. He begins attending new events and having new conversations. Fascination with a woman produces imitation in him because part of loving a person is enjoying what the person enjoys. His delight in her changes his appetites and his lifestyle. If love continues, he will willingly and joyfully make the ultimate sacrifice of marriage.
Marriage will require him to eliminate many options, cut off certain relationships, and reorient his entire lifestyle. He will not have the free time he used to. He will probably lose several friends. He will take on new responsibilities and lose his freedom. Why would a young man willingly and gladly surrender his liberty and take on a narrow life of commitment that will make permanent demands on his schedule, his money, and his strength? One word describes it: fascination.
Fascination is the key to willing and lasting sacrifice, and this is not limited to romance. When people take up a new hobby or activity, they respond in a similar way. They spend money intentionally. They find friends who share their interest. They spend hours investing into their new pastime. Others find their fascination odd, but they do not mind because their heart is captivated. The same thing happens when someone is engrossed in sports or any other thing.
This is the way the human heart is made, and it is the model for biblical discipleship. We “see” Someone who is beautiful. We become fascinated by Him. And then we joyfully and gladly reorient our lives to behold more of that Person and desire to be a part of His people.
A Lovely Disarray
There is a lovely disarray that comes with attraction. When you find yourself deeply attracted to someone, you gradually begin to lose your grip on the frames that order your life. Indeed, much of your life becomes blurred as that countenance comes into clearer focus. A relentless magnet draws all your thoughts toward it. Wherever you are, you find yourself thinking about the one who has become the horizon of your longing.
When you are together, time becomes unmercifully swift. It always ends too soon. No sooner have you parted than you are already imagining your next meeting, counting the hours. The magnetic draw of that presence renders you delightfully helpless. A stranger you never knew until recently has invaded your mind; every fibre of your being longs to be closer.
Insulting My Intelligence
Arnold “Red” Auerbach was one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. He won 9 championships as coach of the Boston Celtics and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1965 and NBA Executive Coach of the Year in 1980. One night while on the road with the Celtics, Auerbach ran into 3 of his players, each traveling with a beautiful woman in tow.
This was against team rules, and so one of the players, trying to get out of trouble, introduced one of the women as his “cousin.” Not wanting to cause a stir, Auerbach nodded without raising a fuss. But then the player decided to double-down on his deceit saying, “We were just on our way to church.” Sharing the story on a later occasion, Auerbach commented, ““I couldn’t take that. I fined him twenty-five dollars for insulting my intelligence.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Searching for a Sanctuary that Does Not Exist
One of the most influential myths nourished by the culture of authenticity is that we will be “saved” or made complete when we meet the right-shaped soul, that perfectly complementary person who can fulfill all of our needs and desires. Like Morpheus in The Matrix we find ourselves asking, Is he or she “the one”?
Within the church we have tended to supercharge this fantasy by spiritualizing it, so that “the one” becomes the single human being that God has fashioned into perfect compatibility with all of our needs and longings. God is just waiting for the perfect moment to release this person into our lives, along with an associated relational epiphany just to make sure we don’t miss the moment.
The problem is that we are likely to experience a keen sense of frustration and despair as this paragon fails to materialize. Some personality trait or quirk always mars our idealized image. Despite this reality, modern authenticity encourages us to search for Dante’s Beatrice: the perfect soul who can lead us into the beatific vision of the heavenly realm. This search…locks us into a quest for a sanctuary that does not exist. Rather than focusing on the potential relationships standing in front of us, we keep our eyes focused on the elusive possibilities on the road ahead.
The (Seeming) End of the Line
A few years ago Christian friends of ours, after several years of marriage, came to see Esther and me to explain that their relationship had reached an impasse and that they could see no alternative but to end it. After a downward spiral of conflict and loss of trust, they struggled to have a civil conversation with each other and had begun to form romantic attachments with other people. They were surprised when we said that they had simply reached a normal stage in every marriage, the stage where going on together seems impossible and unthinkable, where you wonder what you saw in each other in the first place.
This was a stage that we had reached early on in our own marriage and had repeated several times since. If happiness or emotional resonance had been our main interpretive dials for navigating our relationship, we would have split up many times. Over the following weeks, we worked through some practical ways in which our friends could turn around the destructive dynamics that had taken hold in their relationship and, in their place, foster trust, intimacy, and commitment to each other. Many years later, their marriage is on a solid footing, and they are thriving with a family.
The tragedy is that so many Christian marriages never recover from the same downward spiral. We in the church have not spoken and ministered effectively into our culture’s prioritization of authenticity above all else in matters of sexuality and relationships. When a marriage ceases to make us happy or the traveling becomes heavy going, we have no other master story to navigate us through the storm. So we take this as a sign that it simply “wasn’t meant to be”—that we are not among the lucky ones when it comes to marriage.
When Infinite Choices Become Destructive
During my years working in corporate finance in London, a friend and colleague used to have vivid and often comic dreams, which he would recount over lunch at the office. One of the most poignant involved him cycling through central London on his daily commute. As he stopped at a red light, the crosswalk became a parade of every woman in the city.
The premise, he explained to us, was that he could choose any one of four million women for a relationship. The bind, of course, was that having so many options made any choice impossible. Sadly, this dream summed up my friend’s real-life vision of relationships. Although he had been in a long-term relationship and was already a father, his imagination was captured by that parade of infinite choice. The idea that there might be someone “better” out there, perhaps just around the next corner, put an impossible strain on his relationship. It eventually crumbled.