Weddings: Korean Ways to Tie the Knot SPECIAL FEATURE 4 The Future of Marriage

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 partners.

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.

Baek Young-ok Novelist
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