On Relationships Prior to Marriage
G. Stolyarov II
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXXVIII-- July 28, 2005
Recently, I was offered a question by a high school student curious as to what the Objectivist position on relationships prior to marriage would be. Indeed, the question is a valid one to explore from a filosofical standpoint, seeing as high school students have virtually no opportunities to marry, yet many of them frequently initiate relationships of a romantic nature. I have already written on the subject of marriage, explaining its nature, its necessity as an institution, and the fundamental expectations which are core to maintaining the stability and objectivity of this concept. This essay will concern romantic relationships not within the context of marriage, presumably ones undertaken by individuals who have not yet married, seeing as an extramarital relationship simultaneous with marriage is adultery, a practice which is both fundamentally dishonest on the part of the practitioner and a breach of the marriage agreement. Premarital romantic relationships do not bear the moral faults associated with adultery, but, as I shall emfatically reiterate, they are not the same as marriage. Thus, a rational yet by definition tentative premarital relationship ought to involve far stricter individually enforced limitations of conduct than a permanent, married one. It shall furthermore be presumed here that the relationship in question is one between individuals of opposite genders, as the alternative, in the author’s opinion, involves certain inherent errors of judgment, elsewhere discussed.
Ayn Rand described romantic love as a response to one’s highest values as embodied in a given individual. That is, love is a fundamentally selfish state of mind, which views another as necessary to the fulfillment of one’s deepest material, intellectual, and emotional aspirations (provided, of course, that the emotions are based on reason). In “A Rational Defense of Marriage,” I had provided a more precise definition of romantic love which identifies it as “the volitionally engendered, exclusive, and intense attraction between two individuals based on mutually beneficial material and intellectual/spiritual considerations.”
The importance of this definition is manifested in a multifaceted manner. The volitionally engendered nature of love implies that the attraction it entails is chosen by an individual on the basis of his values. A rational man might fall in love with an intelligent, industrious, and well-behaved woman because her identity reflects the attributes he prizes in individuals. He would never consider falling in love with, say, a prostitute, because the prostitute has both fysically and morally debased herself, and thereby has dramatically subtracted from her life any values that he might enjoy. Any premarital romantic relationship an individual enters is a conscious choice on his part, as are the emotions accompanying it. The origin of the emotions, and of any rational relationship, would be an affirmative action to the question, “Does this person represent the values I seek to cultivate?”
Exclusivity is another highly integral principle contained in true romantic love. There are numerous individuals in a rational man’s life who aid in and represent the attainment of his values, yet not all of them by far deserve to be the recipients of romantic affection. Most of them are friends and acquaintances, and some deserve love of a different sort, the love afforded to a relative who fulfills the expectations implied by such a designation, which also implies a strong sharing of values. There are degrees of values to be found in individuals, and romantic love is a response to values of the highest degree, implying that there exists a single individual who best embodies them. To divide the affections of romantic love among two or more individuals would entail devoting an insufficient amount of time and attention to each of them. It would imply that one will neither become adequately acquainted with the nature of the values each of his partners embodies, nor will one have optimal opportunities to benefit from these values.
Furthermore, the definition describes romantic love as an “intense” attraction, implying that, in correspondence with the profundity of the values exchanged in the relationship, the regard which two romantically involved individuals have for each other must be quite high indeed, higher than for any other individuals, and manifested in a particular manner: not coolly and with restraint, as among friends and colleagues, nor with filial reverence as among relatives, but rather with a passion and even a desire for the other individual, which is a matter to be shared between the two of them. The intensity of romance is the exclusive territory of the romantically involved, and, in order not to debase the relationship, this intensity ought to be kept private, not because it is shameful, but precisely because it is the opposite of shameful; it is sacred, and its sanctity is violated by the observation of bystanders who do not experience the profundity of the relationship in the manner of those involved in it. Others may, of course, know that the relationship exists, but what occurs during any particular one is, plainly, none of their business. They should respect the privacy of the details of a romantic relationship as they should honor the boundaries of a temple into which they may not trespass.
The aforementioned principles are true of all rationally grounded romantic relationships, be they within or prior to marriage. Premarital relationships, however, display several elements which render them distinct from married ones, and which, along with their rational applications, shall be illustrated in the passages to follow. Furthermore, while it is in good taste to avoid the details of any particular romantic relationship, filosofy can furnish generic prescriptions for what is or is not acceptable in a premarital one. The actual enforcement of the guidelines herein offered is a matter to be left solely to the individuals involved, and to be assured by their dedication to reason and morality. The reward for proper observance of the limitations of a premarital relationship is indeed great: it is a fully successful and happy relationship. The punishment is similarly extreme: it is the individual suffering that results from a betrayal of one’s partner and one’s own integrity in some significant manner. As a filosofer, I do not seek to coercively impose any particular lifestyle on anybody, but rather only to illustrate that a certain rational set of decisions will result in positive consequences as dictated by reality, not any external human authority. Similarly, a set of decisions which ignores the nature of a proper premarital relationship will result in negative consequences following from those decisions themselves.
In “A Rational Defense of Marriage,” I wrote:
“Consider this: by the distinct nature of all individuals, it must be that only a single person of the opposite gender can exist whose dispositional, intellectual, and material endowments are best compatible with one’s own, and, self-evidently, it is with that person that one is fittest to enter a domestic partnership of mutual reinforcement.”
The implication of the above statement is that, once an individual knows with reasonable certainty that he has found another who best represents his values, it is already rationally warranted to enter a state of marriage with her. The existence of a premarital romantic relationship that is rationally warranted would thus imply that the individual undertaking it has not yet ascertained beyond doubt that the individual with whom he is romantically engaged represents his highest values. He has evidence to suggest that this might be true, and he is interested in learning more about his romantic partner to develop this evidence into a conclusive proof. However, he has not yet attained the latter. That is, a premarital romantic relationship is inherently tentative; there is a hope that one’s partner best represents one’s values, and this hope is warranted by considerable empirical evidence. An individual’s observed general disposition, history, ideas, and accomplishments might all indicate that she is one’s ideal romantic partner, but a full compatibility is not yet established. Indeed, “A Rational Defense of Marriage” emfasizes that “the greatest key to optimal compatibility between two individuals is familiarity over time. This is the surest means of ascertaining what values the other individual has to offer and whether these values are worth pursuing.” Furthermore, only familiarity over time can facilitate the establishing of common values that the two romantic partners have created for themselves, and on which they may build their future.
But familiarity over time, as is evident, requires time to establish! When two people have not been acquainted sufficiently long, they cannot know for sure whether they are optimally compatible, and whether the commitment of marriage between them would be worthwhile. Indeed, the vast majority of failed marriages are such because they are rushed into, without due consideration given to the beforehand assurance of a functional harmony between the two individuals. A premarital relationship is a testing ground of sorts, wherein two people can become familiar as they spend more time in each other’s company, and thus fully consider each other’s nature, and how well the two would interact under a more permanent and lasting bond.
If the two individuals, as a result of their familiarity over time, determine themselves to be optimally compatible, then they ought to affirm this fact through marriage. Indeed, it would be foolish for them not to do this. However, there is no moral obligation to eventually marry entailed in a premarital relationship per se. Unlike marriage, for which the expectation of permanence is paramount (and divorce is to be treated as a device to be avoided unless it becomes absolutely certain that the marriage has failed in its intended purpose), it is possible to dissolve a premarital relationship without any betrayal of the principles on which it was founded. If irreconcilable differences arise between individuals in such a relationship, this does not necessarily imply that one of them has committed a moral wrong, but only that the two individuals are not optimally compatible and should seek romantic relationships with somebody else. Indeed, adopting a policy of greater scrutiny toward relationships in the premarital stage can avoid many of the pitfalls such relationships could encounter if they prematurely progress into marriage. A premarital relationship is analogous to a series of tests for a commercial drug undertaken by companies on the free market. The tests take time, but the consequences of finding an irreparable flaw in the drug before it is released to market will be far smaller than those of having it be discovered afterward and bringing legal problems and losses of consumer confidence upon the firm.
Conduct with Impermanent, Reversible Consequences
Since there is no obligation of permanence entailed in a premarital relationship, it should be treated differently from marriage. More precisely, since the relationship is not by nature permanent, its participants should rationally seek to avoid any actions which have permanent consequences that would not be undone by the mere severance of the relationship.
One action that has permanent consequences in every case is any intercourse of a carnal nature (hereafter to be referred to only as “intercourse”). On a practical level, the possibility of pregnancy as well as the transmission of venereal disease always exists, and contraception has never been able to fully prevent either. The occurrence of a pregnancy is an act entailing an immense responsibility on the part of the individuals who cause it to bring into life another human being and to ensure that this human being attains some means to transition to an autonomous, self-sustaining state, either through the direct care of the biological parents, or through transfer to somebody willing to provide that care. Only in a contractual relationship such as marriage are there sufficient guarantees of attention, resources, and guardianship to ensure that this parental obligation is properly fulfilled. In a premarital relationship, this responsibility cannot fully exist by definition, as the individuals have not spelled out their mutual obligations in an explicit contract, and there is thus always a means to avoid exercising parental obligation while remaining legally immune. Thus, any action that has the potential of bringing about such a situation needs to be avoided in a premarital relationship.
Furthermore, though the issue of venereal diseases becomes moot in a state of mutual monogamy as regards intercourse, there can be no presumption that such a state exists if intercourse is to be morally permissible in any premarital relationship. After all, there is no presumption of permanence in a premarital relationship, and if it is acceptable to have intercourse in a given relationship, it will also, by implication, have been acceptable for the same people to have had intercourse in any prior or subsequent relationships, whereby the entire premise of monogamy is destroyed. Any time a given individual has had intercourse with two or more people, the possibility of venereal disease transmission becomes real indeed. If there is a rational way to fully avoid these horrid diseases, it should be pursued unwaveringly. Indeed, there is an entirely failure-proof method of doing so: to have no intercourse until marriage and, when marrying, to select a partner who had similarly abstained. In marriage, pregnancy is a consequence that can be handled responsibly by those who choose to undertake it, and partners who have been monogamous their entire lives can avoid venereal diseases altogether.
But even more important is what intercourse stands for, and the irreconcilability of this with the conditions of a premarital relationship. According to Ayn Rand, intercourse is the fysical manifestation of one’s full recognition that one’s partner represents one’s highest values. That is, unless one is absolutely confident that optimal compatibility exists between him and his partner, having intercourse either overpays her for values it is not certain that she embodies, or debases the very significance of the act by applying it to situations where less than the highest possible values are exchanged. And, if optimal compatibility has already been affirmed, that is a rational justification for marriage, only then to be followed by the act of intercourse. Intercourse is an act that inherently necessitates a vast moral responsibility on the part of the individuals involved. If it is representative of one’s highest values, then it entails a moral obligation to treat one’s partner, in perpetuity, as the embodiment of those values. Those having intercourse should be ready to undertake such a responsibility of permanent commitment to one another, a responsibility which can only be fully affirmed and explicated through a marriage contract.
Thus, all rational premarital relationships will entail abstinence from carnal intercourse. Abstinence will be recognized by both partners as the responsible, respectful course of action, seeing as no individual who truly values his romantic partner would wish to bring upon her consequences that have not been explicitly agreed upon between them beforehand. That would be a betrayal of her trust and a signal of disloyalty to the integrity any romantic relationship requires. But simply because intercourse is ruled out, does not mean that a premarital romantic relationship cannot be extremely enjoyable and filled with mutually beneficial value trading. Quite the contrary, avoiding the harms of premarital intercourse would only enrich the relationship and render it far more of a positive influence on both parties than it would have otherwise been.
There are numerous harmless and mutually beneficial activities that a premarital relationship can involve. Shared conversation, travels, activities, gifts, and even mild fysical gestures without potential of inflicting irreversible consequences are all fully rational and proper. Of course, the fysical dimension of the relationship, in any case, ought to be kept private so as to neither impose it on others nor to allow others a glimpse into activities which are not meant for their observation. Given the presumption of privacy, the criteria for judging that any given action is proper between premarital romantic partners are mutual benefit, mutual harmlessness, and compatibility with the premise of the relationship’s tentativeness. Any action which has the possibility of bringing about disease, fysical damage, mental harm, or unexpected responsibility should be avoided.
In a closer investigation, it becomes clear that the proper limitations of premarital relationships extend beyond abstinence from intercourse itself. For example, the traditional view of kissing as an activity that should be practiced in marriage only, with “kissing the bride” as a gateway ritual to married life, has an immensely sound practical purpose behind it. While I do not necessarily adopt this position, it is a fully safe and substantiated one to hold, as there is a reason to exercise immense discretion in the practice of kissing. Mononucleosis is a viral disease transmitted, among other activities, by kissing and currently rampant among American youth. The disease has intense side effects, including several weeks of incapacity, severe fatigue, fevers, sore throat, and the possibility of a ruptured spleen. Though the symptoms of the illness recede with time, it is incurable; the virus remains in the body for life. Thus, mononucleosis is a permanent, irreversible consequence of kissing performed without due caution. While this threat alone should not be seen as a justification for categorically avoiding all premarital kissing, it is a reason to ascertain that such activities in a given relationship will not cause anyone to contract the disease. Any practice which two romantic partners will truly find enjoyable should not cause permanent illnesses to afflict them. It is hard to conceive of anybody enjoying several weeks at least of severe inhibition from the possibility to lead healthy, functional lives. Two partners who truly value each other will be fully honest about any possibility for disease transmission among them, and will shun all activities that would lead to it.
Evaluation of Prospects
Furthermore, a premarital relationship, though it is not of the same magnitude as marriage, still requires a full integrity in exercising it. It requires honest evaluation of one’s partner and impeccably rational standards of judgment. One ought neither enter nor leave romantic relationships out of sheer whim or the spur of the moment. Moreover, in choosing to enter such a relationship, one should at least recognize the existence of the possibility for establishing optimal compatibility with one’s partner. Since optimal compatibility requires familiarity over time, having too many premarital relationships in a too short a span of time is indicative of subverting the purpose of such relationships as a testing ground for optimal compatibility. The person who enters and leaves relationships as quickly as one would switch articles of clothing will not be sufficiently familiar with any of his partners to evaluate them in adequate depth. If there is no prospect for enhancing one’s knowledge of one’s partner nor for interacting with her in a profound and comprehensive manner, there is no purpose in beginning the relationship in the first place. A few days or even months of “fun” is certainly not a rational justification. After the “fun” will either come the lingering disappointment that the relationship has been dissolved for no good reason (even though it was also entered into for no good reason). Worse yet, there might emerge a bitter spite between the prior romantic partners for having simply used each other for temporary amusement, without either seeking or establishing a more meaningful connection. It is never rational nor benevolent to treat another person as an object to be discarded once it has fulfilled its purpose, and no fruitful relationship will ever emerge on such premises. True romance cannot be based on the desire for “fun” alone. It is by definition highly serious in its essence, even though there is no fault with engaging in many entertaining activities within the context of this seriousness.
A rational premarital relationship is only possible when both individuals have considerably evaluated the prospects of the relationship leading to a greater familiarity and harmony with one another. Even though they are not yet certain that they represent one another’s highest values, the very fact of their romantic interaction implies that the values they already share between them must be high nonetheless. It is possible to have a productive relationship as early as high school, provided that there remains the possibility of the relationship being maintained and fortified in the future. There is no inherent reason why optimal compatibility cannot eventually come out of such an interaction.
A premarital romantic relationship, when approached rationally, can be extremely beneficial to both parties involved and can serve as a healthy, productive, enjoyable test for optimal compatibility as well as a means for enhancing familiarity over time. Recognizing the proper limitations of a premarital relationship will only enhance it, as it will allow individuals to fully benefit from such a relationship’s positive aspects, while neither inflicting disease and miscellaneous harms upon each other, nor undertaking a greater responsibility than either party is capable of bearing under the framework of the relationship. Even a premarital relationship is a tremendous commitment and should not be taken lightly. Like any set of values prized far above the ordinary, the ones exchanged in such relationships should not be open to almost everybody. Rather, only a select few should ever be allowed to step into the sacred temple of one’s spirit and enjoy a level of value trading not to be found in mundane realms.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, the Autonomist, and The Liberal Institute. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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