The concept of marriage is undergoing radical change. Geographical distance
matters less than ever for couples in love while the desire to maintain
independence in a relationship grows stronger.
At 1 a.m., a time when people become
mellow, a flow of stories comes into
the booth where I host a counseling
segment on a late night FM radio show.
Through the intimate conversations with
listeners since last spring, I have realized
that some issues on love and relationships
represent a new modus vivendi of our time,
when people are connected around the
clock through social networking media.
The Idea of Distance in Love
In the past, we parted with old friends
upon graduation, which meant joining a
new community and a new set of relationships.
Today, however, there is no need to
be separated from anyone just because of
geographical distance. This is true even
for broken up couples — the social media
algorithm does not let us alone.
Some friends tell me that they have
seen their exes on the list of friends on
Facebook or KakaoTalk. One friend told
me how she felt bad for days after finding
that her ex-boyfriend's girlfriend was recommended
as a possible friend on Facebook.
Feeling like a stalker (unintentional,
of course), she looked into the woman’s
account and found out that they were soon
to be married (news that she really didn't
want to hear).
An increase in long-distance relationships
is another new trend. Stories of couples
living far apart — in Tokyo and Seoul,
for instance — are often delivered to my
radio booth. There are also many couples in
love with one of them going abroad to study or spend a working holiday. Living apart in Tokyo and
Seoul is better than most cases, since there is no time difference. But what about couples living
in London and Seoul? In Seoul and São Paolo? These days, long-distance relationships are not
limited to unmarried couples. I know a married couple with the husband living in Seoul and the
wife in Pohang, and another with the wife in California and the husband in New York.
One of my friends in Seoul had a boyfriend living in Amsterdam. One day, she went to meet
him there and stayed for three months. As her visa expiration date neared, she had to return
to Seoul. At the airport, her boyfriend thought of a way to be with her longer and suggested the
“fiancé visa,” a legal device preventing the deportation of partners with different nationalities.
Today, almost 50 percent of couples are said to decide against marriage in Europe, where the
distinction between marriage and cohabitation has become blurred.
What about Koreans? The prolonged economic recession in this country has led many younger
people to give up three major things in life: employment, dating, and marriage — hence the
term sampo sedae, meaning “triple resignation generation.” Presuming no change in the current institution of marriage, more couples will give it up because it
will do almost nothing to make their lives better, at least in economic
terms. Who would be willing to marry if marriage means living
under the burden of bank loans? Love is not the sole issue in a marriage
since it is affected by an array of social policies including real
estate and finances.
The friend who stayed in Amsterdam longer than she planned
eventually broke up with her boyfriend. Another friend who traveled
between Seoul and Busan also ended her relationship. A friend
who was in a relationship with a man in New York and coping with
a 14-hour time difference told me: “Keeping up this long-distance
relationship for two years, I’ve realized one thing. The only way to
make such a relationship work is to cheat!”
This friend, a psychiatrist, was firm in her opinion. She said having
an affair was the only solution to get over the sexless bouts that
such a situation imposes on a couple. She added that the greatest
virtue required of today’s long-distance couples was a proper
amount of indifference — not trying to know too much about their
A New Type of Union
The German novelist Erich Kastner said, “Geography spells the
ruination of love.” Almost every country in the world has sayings to
the effect of “out of sight, out of mind.” Then, you might want to ask
this question: “How much distance can love tolerate?”
In the first week of the New Year, the topic for my radio show was
again long-distance relationships. The two lovers, who were not
even separated yet, were terrified by the temporal and geographical
distance that would lie between them. They wished to marry, but
wondered if that would be possible, predicting failure in advance.
I want to ask them, “Does the completion of love have to be marriage?
Does marriage mean being together all the time?” Marriage
in our time should be different from the past as the conditions of
life have changed. In an interview with U.S.-based Korean journalist
Ann Hee-kyung, Zygmunt Bauman made an interesting statement:
“Have I mentioned the French novelist Michel Houellebecq? He
is a very wise man who wrote about dystopia. His book ‘The Possibility
of an Island’ depicts a sinister picture of what awaits us, as
opposed to utopia. It tells us what we will end up with if we go on
with the current tendencies. As far as love is concerned, many couples
will be half committed to their relationships, not due to geographical
distance but because we all want to share intimacy while
remaining autonomous. What you hear a lot in American films is, 'I
need a space of my own.' This is a plea for others to stay away, to let
us alone. This is an ideology of our time.”
According to Bauman, “dependence” is considered a shameful
condition today. It means, in extension, that the marriage vows
pledging to depend on each other in good times and in bad, whether
rich or poor, are becoming an anachronism. In our time, we lay such
emphasis on autonomy.
Now, love responds from places different from before. We want
to stay connected for 24 hours a day, but one's physical presence is
in a kind of fortress of one's own. Connected only online, we maintain
a solitary existence. We want to stay connected because we feel
lonely, but we also want to be free to go anywhere. The problem is
that stability is incompatible with freedom. Stable freedom is an
oxymoron. No freedom is without risks, and stability needs a community.
For these reasons, a new type of union called “semi-cohabitation”
is spreading. Many of my internet friends keep up their relationships
by having their separate places and living either apart
or together whenever the need arises. A couple in Jeju Island live
apart, the husband in Hyeopje and the wife in Pyoseon, working
separately on weekdays and meeting on the weekend. Of course,
they call or see each other when it’s necessary.
They say that this is
the golden mean, achieved in their 12th year of marriage. A proper
amount of freedom and a proper degree of stability serve as a stimulant
for their relationship. The couple has figured out the optimal
distance that keeps the fire of their love burning.
“Graduation from marriage” is a recent coinage that originated in Japan. A concept different from divorce, it involves couples remaining married but living independently
without interfering with each other in how they live their lives. Graduation from marriage
stresses a life much more independent than semi-cohabitation.
Most of us get married knowing hardly anything about the institution. It's like falling in love without ever
being taught about love. In fact, what we know about love are mostly myths bordering on superstition.
A Room of My Own
Most of us get married knowing hardly anything about the institution. It’s like falling in love
without ever being taught about love. In fact, what we know about love are mostly myths bordering
on superstition. Love at first sight. Love that comes effortlessly. Love in a magical moment
when everything is so natural that you know with your whole being that this person is the one.
These are illusions created by movies, novels, and television dramas.
If we explore what constitutes “lasting love” with half the interest that we celebrate “budding
love,” we will experience love in quite a different way. The same is true for marriage. Perhaps,
this issue has been most profoundly addressed by the writer Alain de Botton. In his essay “On
Marrying the Wrong Person” posted on the website entitled the “Book of Life,” he describes in
detail how a normal man or woman turns into an impatient and inconsiderate ignoramus:
“On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen
— and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for
fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling
us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over
life — and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re
aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity
to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us
cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of
the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one
is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with. With such a poor level of
understanding of our characters, no wonder we aren’t in any position to
know who we should be looking out for.”
De Botton makes a bold claim that a standard question on any early
date should be “And how are you mad?” I couldn't agree more! Asked to
define marriage, I could think of more than 30 definitions, but the one
that immediately comes to mind is this: Marriage means failing every
moment, knowing all too well in advance that you will do so. This may
sound like an overstatement, but it’s not. That said, the most realistic
advice that I can give is this: Marriage is actually a choice of whether or
not to endure pain. In marriage, your partner will probably inflict on you
a kind of pain that you never imagined. Therefore, the decision to get married
is tantamount to determining if the person you’re marrying is worth the
effort of enduring the pain. Nobody can avoid getting hurt in life. Even so, we
should at least have the power to choose the person who will be inflicting the
pain. That way, you will feel less unhappy. After all, the most honest statement
that I can make about marriage is that tolerating one another will sometimes
be much more difficult if you are not truly in love.
To marry, or not to marry? This may be one of the most hackneyed relationship
questions, along with “To have children, or not to have children?” and “Can
men and women be just friends?” However, what I have learned from my 15
plus years of marriage is that life is not about straddling two choices while making
none. Any choice is inherently exclusive and cruel since it means bearing the
consequences of picking one thing over another. Additionally, it’s clear that anyone
who’s good at living alone will be good at living with someone else. Surely,
it's not only writers who need a room of their own.