Polina Aronson spent her first 16 years in Russia. There, people tend to regard love as a sort of divine madness that descends from the heavens.
Love is regarded, as sociologist Julia Lerner put it, as “a destiny, a moral act and a value; it is irresistible, it requires sacrifice and implies suffering and pain.”
Russians measure one another by how well they are able to bear the upheaval love brings, sometimes to an absurd degree.
But when she was in high school, Aronson moved to America, and stumbled across an issue of Seventeen magazine. She was astounded. In America she noticed that people tended ask: Does a partner fulfill your needs? Do you feel comfortable asserting your rights in the relationship? Does your partner check the right boxes?
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Aronson concluded that she had moved from the Russian Regime of Fate to the American Regime of Choice.
“The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options,” she writes in Aeon magazine. “It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest.”
The Regime of Choice encourages a certain worldly pragmatism. It nurtures emotionally cool, semi-isolated individuals. If the Russian model is too reckless, the American model involves too much calculation and gamesmanship.
“The greatest problem with the Regime of Choice stems from its misconception of maturity as absolute self-sufficiency,” Aronson writes. “Attachment is infantilized. The desire for recognition is rendered as ‘neediness.’ Intimacy must never challenge ‘personal boundaries.’ ”
Indeed, a lot of our social fragmentation grows out of the detached, utilitarian individualism that this regime embodies.
The dating market becomes a true market, where people carefully appraise each other, looking for red flags. The emphasis is on the prudential choice, selecting the right person who satisfies your desires. But somehow as people pragmatically “select” each other, marriage as an institution has gone into crisis. Marriage rates have plummeted at every age level. Most children born to women under 30 are born outside wedlock. The choice mindset seems to be self-defeating.
Even those of us who have had humbling experiences in this realm can look at those who seem to have this lifelong thing figured out and see a different set of attitudes and presuppositions, which you might call a Regime of Covenants. A covenant is not a choice, but a life-altering promise and all the binding the promise entails.
The Regime of Covenants acknowledges the fact that we don’t really choose our most important attachments the way you choose a toaster. In the flux of life you meet some breathtakingly amazing people, usually in the swirl of complex circumstances. There is a sense of being blown around by currents more astounding than you can predict and control. Mostly you’re bumblingly trying to figure out the right response to the moments you’re in.
When you are drawn together and make a pledge with a person, the swirl doesn’t end; it’s just that you’ll ride it together. In the Regime of Covenants, making the right one-time selection is less important than the ongoing action to serve the relationship.
The Covenant people tend to have a “we” consciousness. The good of the relationship itself comes first and the needs of the partner are second and the individual needs are third. The covenant only works if each partner, as best as possible, puts the other’s needs above his or her own, with the understanding that the other will reciprocate.
The underlying truth of a Covenantal Regime is that you have to close off choice if you want to get to the promised land. The people one sees in long, successful marriages have walked the stations of vulnerability. They’ve overthrown the proud ego and learned to be utterly dependent on the other. They’ve faced the ways they are difficult to be with and tried to address them. They’ve gone through all the normal episodes of confession, apology, defensiveness, forgiveness and loving the other most when there’s nothing lovely about them.
You only do all this if you’ve set up a framework in which exit is not an easy option, in which you’re assured the other person’s love is not going away, and in which the only way to survive the crises is to go deeper into the relationship itself.
The final feature of a covenant is that the relationship is not just about itself; it serves some larger purpose. The obvious one in many cases is raising children. But the deeper one is transformation. People in such a covenant try to love the other in a way that brings out their loveliness. They hope that through this service they’ll become a slightly less selfish version of themselves.
The Covenant Regime is based on the idea that our current formula is a conspiracy to make people unhappy. Love is realistically a stronger force than self-interest. Detached calculation in such matters is self-strangulating. The deepest joy sneaks in the back door when you are surrendering to some sacred promise.
David Brooks writes for The New York Times.