RESPECT FOR STARTER RELATIONSHIPS
While living together was not unheard of in the 1960s and 1970s, it usually quickly led to marriage. Today, the majority of couples live together for at least a year before they marry — and many break up and try again with someone else. These passionate collaborations provide joy and basic training for people in their late teens and 20s who face the developmental task of breaking away from their families of origin and recovering from both its neuroses and its addicting security.
Current acceptance of these often temporary “living together” arrangements is a helpful trend. We may need to move toward a true “no fault/no guilt” divorce for young couples without children in what one writer called “starter marriages.”
The marriage ceremony tries to secure two basic social purposes with one ritual: the need to publicly acknowledge a joining together of a couple, and the need to secure the future of any children issued from the union. However, given the 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages, it might be useful to separate the two parts of the ritual. At the very least couples — married or not — need to “pause” before accepting responsibility for creating or adopting a child. A solemnly committed public vow to collectively rear and support the child — even if the couple themselves split up — could help set a moral, legal, and ceremonial commitment to a child.
Sanctifying childrearing could reach beyond the dyad and engage godparents, relatives and friends in a commitment to the child, and encourage sharing of childrearing arrangements. Rituals to sanctify and define the social role of stepparenting are also sorely needed.
Many of us live 80 or 90 years these days, and although lifelong mating remains an unquestioned ideal for many, it may be inappropriate for a people who find themselves changing drastically at different stages of their lives.
One of the forces that keeps us locked in obsolete and unproductive relationships is the knowledge that breaking up is usually highly painful for at least one member of the dyad. Is there a way to do it that is not soul-destroying?
Some people consider the divorce rituals, now performed by progressive ministers and rabbis, as a way to commemorate the passage, forgive each other for the pain, and acknowledge the good years. Staying in touch (and even forming an extended family) with ex-lovers and ex-spouses is an underground trend. One woman in her 40s, found her boyfriend’s continued connections with old lovers an impressive trait. “It means his life is all of a piece.”
Some of today’s elderly people are quietly practicing alternative relationships that can serve as a model. Once past the issues of reproduction, sexual jealousy, and achievement needs, equality between the sexes becomes easier to practice. Elderly couples, platonic or not, move in together, and people in retirement communities often form neighborly circles of mutual support.
Commune models — from the past and the few that survive today — deserve a new evaluation in the light of our need for circles of friendship and support that supplement or replace the couple. The idea of old age communes is raised frequently when middle-aged women gather and think ahead, meeting at what Kay Mills called the “porch of the old feminist home.”