In Life and Love, Nothing Happens Until a Decision Is Made
Our noncommittal culture will never appreciate what a gift it can be to make life-changing decisions
Karol Wojtyła, in Love and Responsibility, speaks of love as it relates to the man-woman relationship in three ways — love as attraction, as desire and as good will.
Love as attraction recognizes the physical, sexual good the other person is. Love as desire recognizes the broader emotional/psychological good the other person is. Love as good will recognizes the other as a person, for whom one wills the true good.
The first two “loves” are genuine but incomplete. A person cannot be reduced to his sexual or emotional compatibility, both because the other is greater than those parts and a focus on those parts really does not draw the lover out of himself. Only love as good will, love rooted in a decision for the other person and the other’s objective good, fully merits that name.
I review these facts in light of a new survey out of Great Britain. Marriage Foundation UK reports that one in three couples surveyed in their first 10 years of marriage admitted that, had they not married, they would not likely still be together. Granted that just under half admitted they believed they would be together whether they had married or not, that still leaves a third saying they wouldn’t be together and the balance (about 15-20%) saying they “didn’t know.”
It’s always hard to prove a negative (what didn’t happen) but Marriage Foundation UK offers some convincing reasons to support what the couples said. Some of them seem rather elementary, but we live in a world where even elementary facts are in vicious contention, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
The first convincing reason is decisions usually lead to follow-through. The second is decisions lead to bilateral commitment.
It’s more likely we will do something if we decide to do it. Their example is deciding to go out for a walk together on a holiday. Now remember: this is the Marriage Foundation UK, which means there is likely to be precipitation in the forecast. If we planned to take that walk, we’re more likely to do so even if — as BBC used to put it nicely — there are “occasional spritzers.” If we had no plans, the likelihood of that walk would significantly erode if, as one steps out the door, clouds were observed on the horizon.
“Occasional showers” here refers not just to literal but also metaphorical senses.
An all-too-friendly neglected classic film is Delbert Mann’s 1955 movie, “Marty,” about a 30-something Italian-American butcher from the Bronx who’s still single and still living with his mother. Everybody tells him he should get married and deep down he wants to, but between the notional idea of “getting married” and “going-out-and-finding-Clara-to-marry” are a couple of steps which, not taken, means there isn’t going to be a holiday walk or a wedding.
In the film’s closing scene, Marty and Angie and a few other male best friends are standing around at the local bar, asking “‘What do you wanna do?’ ‘I dunno. What do you wanna do?’ ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’” That’s when Marty breaks loose from his friends, announces all this “what do you wanna do?” is getting them nowhere, realizes that coasting on his family’s and friend’s ambivalences will get him nowhere, and runs to the phone booth to call Clara. Nothing happens until a decision is made.
Decisions entail bilateral commitments. Clara was waiting for Marty’s call for five or six hours. She might say “yes” or she might say “no.” (My guess is “yes”). But until he decides to ask and she decides how to answer, nothing is going to happen.
Cohabitants drift along on inertia — if one side pushes something, that party usually assumes silence as consent. But silence can be passive acquiescence, meaning neither side has decided on the same thing. That’s what the UK Foundation means by “asymmetry of commitment” — what we really think we are in remains an unspoken assumption. Such a project is likely to fall apart when the door’s opened and “spritzers” are felt.
In one sense, the UK study has rediscovered America: decisions count. But in a world that is indecisive, noncommittal and “keeps options open,” the life-changing nature of decision is underappreciated. Happily, God doesn’t devalue them: the whole of salvation history has unfolded on account of taking a decision seriously, and God even made us in such a way that no one else can will for me. I can be forced by compulsion, but nobody can substitute their I for mine when it comes to deciding something.
That’s why Catholic sacramental theology recognizes that marriage originates in a decision, an act of will: in mutually expressed consent to be married. That’s why those vows are not just empty rituals or family-placating traditions. Making a decision and expressing it publicly are energizing acts that actively empower what they create, not just allow things to drift along on fumes.
We haven’t even touched the question of how decisions, far from limiting my options, actually increase them by giving them permanence and direction, allowing future choices to be built on earlier foundations built on the rock of will versus the sand of desire or emotion.
A British foundation indicates that decisions to marry sustain and nurture marriage. We can learn a lot from elementary truths.