My brother confessed to his friend Hugh sweaty palms over the prospect of marriage: "I'm not sure I could live with her on a desert island." Hugh replied, "Guess what, you're not going to live with her on a desert island." That was 1979 and Marc and Aline were married and have one of the best marriages I know.
Such married-couple households are finally in a minority, according to the 2006 American Community Survey published by the Census Bureau. The panic this news may produce in Christian circles tends to a knee-jerk redoubling of our efforts to make marriage tighter, more intimate. More intimate is a good thing, but more exclusive may not be, writes Stephanie Coontz in an op-ed piece for The New York Times.
Coontz says "it has only been in the last century that Americans have put all their emotional eggs in the basket of coupled love." What's the problem, you ask? The problem is the unintended collateral damage that "we have also neglected our other relationships, placing too many burdens on a fragile institution and making social life poorer in the process."
If Coontz's contention strikes you as evangelical heresy, the strains of warning about excessive freight on the marriage relationship do find echoes among the brethren. Francis Schaeffer wrote in 1971 in True Spirituality: "No love affair between a man and a woman has ever been great enough to hang everything on. It will crumble away under your feet. And as the edges begin to break away the relationship is destroyed."
Likewise, a lament for the underappreciation of non-marital friendships is sounded by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves: "Very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all. . . . To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves. . . . The modern world, in comparison, ignores it."
The correlative demise of friendship and unrealistic exaltation of marriage as the source of emotional sustenance is traced by both Coontz and Lewis in complementary lines. Coontz hypothesizes as follows: "By the early 20th century . . . the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage . . . it's the expansion of the post-industrial economy that seems to be driving us back to a new dependence on marriage . . . work has devoured time once spent cultivating friendships."
Lewis, not contradicting but filling in gaps from a decidedly gender-specific interest, offers his own hypothesis. In almost reminiscing tones about a social matrix gone the way of Oldowan tools in the West, he writes: "Long before history began we men have got together apart from the women and done things. We had to. . . . We not only had to do the things, we had to talk about them. We had to plan the hunt and the battle. When they were over we had to hold a post mortem and draw conclusions for future use. We liked this even better."
He continues: "Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day's walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk. . . . Life-natural life-has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?"
From the sublime to the less sublime, and tipping the hat to the fairer gender, the cult holiday movie White Christmas features Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen setting straight their boyfriends (and each other) in song about their limitations: "Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister. And Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man."
The book of Hebrews' recipe for spiritual health is to not forsake congregating together, and to "exhort one another every day" (Hebrews 3:13), implying a larger company than a duo. Speaking personally, I have had a marriage and I have had friendships. What I have found is that, even for the sake of the marriage, it is best not to live with a spouse on a desert island.