Communitarian Soul: Do Covenants have a shelf life?Written by Eric McGlade | | email@example.com
Commenting in Newsweek on the separation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver after twenty-five years of marriage, novelist and biographer Susan Cheever, wonders if marriage may have a shelf life. She writes, “Once upon a time men and women in their 50s and 60s didn’t have serious marital problems — this was primarily because they were dead.” She goes on to suggest that people living today get a “bonus 30” that is, thirty more years than people got a hundred years ago. Since modern technology and medical science has left us with a series of great discoveries, those thirty extra years are pretty good ones … so good, she suggests, we get a second adolescence. Furthermore, this second adolescence is better than the first since we have all the hard work of planning a career and raising a family behind us.
I suppose on the surface, she makes a lot of sense. That extra thirty years is bound to put more stress and strain on a relationship. The advances in medical science, as well as our culture’s willingness us to let us age gracefully does give us more productive and “playful’ years. I guess one could argue that institutions that were designed to serve a people who lived into their fifties and early sixties are ill equipped to serve them into their eighties and nineties. That is what the Republicans are essentially telling us about Social Security and Medicare … why not tell us the same about the institution of marriage?
For many, marriage is not just another relationship, it is a covenant. Covenants are more like promises than contracts. They not only attempt to describe the boundaries of the relationship, but the character or “soul” of the relationship. In the second act of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, George asks Maggie for a divorce. He has fallen for the younger and shapelier Sabina. Maggie refuses by saying, “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise … that promise made up for all your faults. The promise I gave you made up for mine … And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; it wasn’t our love, that protected them — it was that promise.” That promise is a covenant.
Of course marriage is one of many covenants that shape our lives. There is the covenant between a parent and a child, a citizen and the state, the individual and a “people.” For we religious types, there is a covenant between the creator and the created. The thing about covenants is that they are hard to dissolve. When one fails in a covenant, the default setting is not expulsion from or disintegration of the relationship, is it the work of healing and reconciliation. This work can be hard and unpleasant, but is undertaken because the whole idea behind a covenant is that we belong to something greater than ourselves and that something greater than ourselves belongs to us. In the end, we are more than the sum of our parts.
For those of us who have a covenantal view of relationships, all of this talk about a shelf life of twenty-five to thirty years is bewildering. One of the great joys of marriage is the gift of getting a whole lifetime to explore the wondrous depth and character of another human being. Now we are being told that there is not sufficient depth and character to keep us engaged much more than thirty years. Are we that shallow?
The saving grace in all of this is that Ms. Cheever’s essay was published before all the sordid details of Arnold’s on going affair with his housekeeper was released to the public. It turns out that this separation has less to do with the possible shelf life of the marriage covenant and more to do with Arnold’s personal narcissism and character. Some have even suggested he is a misogynist. Who knows but Arnold and I doubt he knows.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist pastor who works in Bowling Green, Ohio.