Guest commentary: Dad, he’s already a man
“Man up and marry her” was the title of a recent column in these pages by my father, the regular columnist, Glenn K. Beaton. It could have been advice for any of the 16.2 million persons currently cohabiting in this country, but I took it personally. You see, my boyfriend, Michael, and I are two of them.
Dad argued that in “playing it safe,” cohabiting couples lack an essential ingredient of true, lasting love — namely risk. He also points out that couples who cohabitate prior to or instead of marriage are statistically more likely than married couples to break up. And the evidence is compelling on the surface: The majority of cohabiting, unmarried couples split within five years, and those who do marry are more likely to divorce.
Dad presented this same argument a year ago to deter me from moving in with Michael. The statistics, together with Dad’s promise that a “real man” would sweep me off my feet with matching rings — not matching keys to a basement apartment with tube TVs — convinced me that I shouldn’t move in with Michael. So skillful was his argument (and his parenting), that he even had me believing that it was I, not he, who’d made the decision.
But because youthful convictions often are short-lived, particularly those imparted by parents, Michael and I now share a roof. Is this love? It felt to us and, I think, appeared to others not at all like “playing it safe” but rather like a brave and maybe brash leap into the unknown. To us, it seemed plenty risky.
Living with Michael, I have learned that risk without faith is not a predictor of romantic success, statistics without one’s own soul and smarts are stupid, and even well-intended advice is to be taken with a grain of salt (read: we are not our parents!).
Just as it’s possible to see Harvard’s admission statistics and conclude that nobody should apply, Dad and others use cohabitation evidence to prescribe that no one should live together before marrying. Their conclusion is overdrawn for the following reasons:
• Pro-marriagers assume that unsuccessful, live-in relationships would have become successful, quality marriages if they’d married first. But surely the initial order of affairs has little impact on the day-by-day of a marriage ten or fifty years down the road.
• They assume that the still-married couples who didn’t live together first are happier than the cohabiters who split. But calamitous marriages often remain legally intact. These couples are not happy nor are they the romantic risk-takers characterized in “Man up and marry her.”
• Pro-marriagers similarly assume that the quality of intact marriages between those who cohabited first and those who didn’t is equal. But what if, after painstaking preparation and dedication, the couples who both lived together first and stayed married are happiest of all?
• They imply that risk — the kind Dad likens to “going all in” at the poker table of marriage — is only experienced by couples who marry before cohabiting. But all romantic relationships entail risk, as any individual who moves in with her partner wanting a family but without a marriage proposal will attest.
Thus, statistics in this case are a poor guide for actual people. But we knew this even before the above breakdown, because if we staunchly subscribed to the statistics, no one would marry anyway; with 50 percent of American marriages ending in divorce, irrespective of prior cohabitation, marriage has become far chancier than poker: It’s a coin toss.
Dad and I agree: Romance is when, against all odds, we leap for the love of our life. Yet I contend that letting evidence dictate one’s actions is not only foolish because assumptions about the data are often misguided, but also because it is counter to love itself. From Romeo and Juliet to Han Solo and Princess Leia, true love has never been rational. Instead of over-analyzing vacillating spreadsheets, we can study any great romance and see that it consists of faith, hope and love.
Nearing the eight-month mark, Michael’s and my cohabiting-case study is only a fraction through the research phase. He’s changed — his mossy hair went military, he shaves daily, the bulldog laugh wrinkles around his eyes are starting to look like wisdom. Each morning he wakes me by getting back in bed, pushing me from the edge so he can climb in. I elbow him in the face like a flailing baby bat, but he persists. I know he’s taking care of me. As he gets ready for work, eyes trained to his shirt buttons, he looks like, though I can’t see well from the side, a man.
Caroline Beaton is a writer living in Vancouver, B.C., with her boyfriend, a man.