The XX Factor

Love? Or Codependency?

Hanna , I agree that Elizabeth Weil’s piece about putting her perfectly serviceable marriage through the therapy wringer was an interesting read, and it sure does tell us a lot about the modern companionate marriage. But for me, it worked mainly as a reminder of why I want to avoid the whole institution of marriage, even as I envy the goodies that it provides those who make the leap. (Insurance, respect from outsiders, the assurance that someone likes you enough to marry you.) Putting that much hard work into a relationship troubles me; can’t any part of our lives be an escape from the relentless pressure to work hard and achieve some kind of outsider-defined perfection?

Call me a romantic, but I see romantic love as an opportunity to create something idiosyncratic, and the institution of marriage enforces conformity. That Weil struggled with the idea of what a “good” marriage is indicates this. God forbid it be something as simple as making you happy. Requirements like having the right amount of intimacy, the proper sex life, and the blissful acceptance of all parts of a person probably do kill plenty of marriages that would be perfectly happy if the participants in them had more realistic expectations.

Weil captures this problem perfectly when she addresses the onerous requirement of monogamy. Now, being an unmarried heathen, I tend to think of monogamy as we unmarried heathens practice it: You can’t have sex with other people or even make out with them. But Weil points out that the marriage vows can be read as defining it widely:

We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan - must my love for Dan - always come first?

And because of this need to “forsake all others”, Weil’s relationship with her mother-the closeness of it-becomes an issue. But should it have been? Why is there such an expectation that the person you share your bed and body with also be the source of all important emotional support? No wonder so many people have trouble distinguishing intimacy from codependency. And no wonder so many people cheat! The all-consuming American companionate marriage seems stifling, and the temptation to escape to where sex and intimacy don’t come with a side dish of emotional vampirism looms large in our imagination.

I won’t go cliché and suggest that a little mystery should be employed to keep sex hot. But honestly, being a little less than married can be a very good way to hold a relationship together. We seek out the companionship of others precisely because we become bored with ourselves; therefore, it seems like it’s simply easier to have a relationship with someone who hasn’t subsumed their individuality to a marriage. This “forsaking all others” business seems like the first path on the step of losing the very thing that made you enticing to your loved one in the first place, which is your own unique identity.