Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dear Mariella

A 34-year-old woman is moving to China to join her boyfriend, but her mother's not happy, as they're not married. Mariella Frostrup says a ring isn't the only consideration

 Mariella Frostrup

The dilemma My boyfriend of two years took a job in China this past September and we are planning that I move there to join him this summer. We're both near 35, have never married and have no kids. The problem is with my parents, my mother in particular. She's very upset with the idea, and the fact that we're not even engaged makes it so much worse in her eyes, despite me being a responsible adult. She says he can't commit and I say she's just old-fashioned. Am I being naive?

Mariella replies You're being naive, she's being old-fashioned and neither of you is in the wrong. I'm no dedicated advocate of marriage. Experience tells me that couples thrive or divide whether or not they get bureaucracy involved or make vows in front of an audience. That said, the recent wedding of two friends, old enough and experienced enough to know better, has renewed my faith in the potential of such unions. It's not about religion, nor is it about contracts. Living together can be just as meaningful, but when two independent adults boldly pledge their commitment to each other it's an act of bravado that can shape itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No relationship is perfect and all of us go through periods of stress, strain and downright animosity. During such dismal interludes, when sacrifices, old wounds, perceived injustices and broken promises fester, choosing to stay together is an act of faith rather than a rational decision. With the help of friends, family and memories of more romantic moments, we overcome the trials and tribulations of daily life to maintain our belief in a greater coupling than the bickering adversaries we've temporarily become. What will you fall back on during hard times when you're halfway across the world and relying on technology to keep you connected to your normal support network? I hope you've lined up a good job yourself, or have contacts there and future plans. If not I'm bemused as to the lure of throwing yourself into this move.

Marriage is like an insurance policy: it doesn't always pay up but when the unexpected occurs it gives you something tangible to fight for. It may not iron out our fallibilities or a lover's quirks, it doesn't make our partners perfect or ourselves better, and nor does it always live up to its contractual obligations, but it does throw down a challenge that all but the most apathetic or irresponsible respond to.

Your partner is asking you to move continents, to make your home amid strangers, to absent yourself from those you love and others you rely on because he's got a new job. It hardly seems a well-balanced arrangement. Relationships that endure tend to operate like old-fashioned scales. They may swing about, but in order to fulfil their purpose both sides need to wind up equally balanced. With this move you lose your ballast and, like your mum, I think you need something in its place. It doesn't have to be a ring – but I'd certainly want more of a commitment than the invitation. Two years together may seem enough of an emotional investment, but trust me: you are by no means deeply entrenched.

Much could change in the dynamics of your partnership when you relocate. It may well turn out to be the best adventure you ever set out on, but if not you need to make sure heartbreak won't be the least of your worries. He has nothing to lose, but you have everything to lose except him. You are a 34-year-old woman and, without speeding off piste here, you know that at this juncture there are further considerations to be taken into account. In your 20s the freedom to globetrot is a given, but in your mid 30s you don't have that same luxury without sacrifice.

I'd be looking for recognition that you two are in this for the long-haul. If not you must be sanguine about the fact that you are embarking on a risky, albeit exciting adventure, the outcome of which is wholly uncertain. You can't blame your boyfriend for asking you, but you need to consider the repercussions for yourself. Marriage was conjured up to mitigate against the vagaries of the human heart, to remind us when things aren't going our way that we have promises to uphold which override our baser instincts. I've yet to encounter a plausible replacement. Your mum may not be cutting edge in her desires for you, but she's definitely not naive. Between your disparate positions lies the path forward.

Mariella Frostrup


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