Thursday, March 8, 2012

On marriage and mortgages (Part I)

After a few weeks back in the mortgage game, I’m reminded of why it’s better for couples not only to be married but to stay married.

Doctor Hilary Towers and Mike McManus provide a very strong argument for creating a counter-revolution against the culture of cohabitation and easy divorce. Especially haunting is their quote of Michael Reagan, who writes in his book Twice Adopted:

Divorce is where two adults take everything that matters to a child – the child’s home, family, security, and sense of being loved and protected – and they smash it all up, leave it in ruins on the floor, then walk out and leave the child to clean up the mess.

The center of the sexual relationship is the creation and rearing of children; because they require time and stability to come to maturity, they need a home environment not just of love but of commitment to love over the long term. For as we have forgotten but are being reminded, love does not “work” or last of its own accord; it requires effort, communication and self-sacrifice from both parties.

Living together without the commitment to stay together for the long run simply doesn’t work. Marriages preceded by cohabitation tend to split up in greater numbers than marriages that aren’t; second, third and fourth marriages have worse track records the higher the numbers go.

But it’s not just that non-traditional relationships don’t succeed as well as do traditional marriages in establishing that stable environment for childrearing. As Reagan so tellingly illustrates, it’s also that divorces are often nasty, ugly events, legal processes whose outcomes are often unjust and absurd, and whose effects can be felt years after the decree is issued. And nothing drives that point home like trying to refinance or modify a thirty-year mortgage on one income.

Let’s say that, after seven or eight years of burying their feelings for one another in bowling leagues and Loyal Order of Water Buffalo meetings, Fred and Barney finally come out and run away together to Hollyrock to open a successful latté stand. The eminently sensible Betty closes her joint accounts, sells Barney’s and her house and moves to a less expensive section of Bedrock. But Wilma decides she wants to raise little Pebbles in her house, which the magic of no-fault divorce has just seen awarded to her.

The problem is, now that Fred’s income is no longer available, Bedrock National Bank is unwilling to refinance the principal balance on Wilma’s income alone. And many of the documents required by the government backed Home Affordable Modification Program need to be signed by Fred … who just isn’t cooperating (and often won’t even return Wilma’s ever-more frantic and irate phone calls).

Then one day, Fred and Barney are trying to get into a condo near the beach, only to find that Fred’s credit score has taken a huge nose-dive. What happened?

For one thing, neither he nor Wilma closed their joint Bedrock National VISA card; Fred just cut his card up and assumed that took care of the matter. But Wilma kept hers, and as she continued to struggle financially she ended up putting more and more necessities on the monthly bill.

Second, Fred's name is still on the mortgage.  Now that Wilma has had trouble meeting both the mortgage and credit card payments, the defaults have reached back to trouble his life.  That Fred is no longer married to Wilma can't keep her eventual bankruptcy filing from poisoning his credit history.

Didn’t the divorce decree award the house and joint accounts to Wilma? Why are these things affecting Fred now?

Bedrock National was not a party to the marriage, so it wasn’t a party to the divorce. The divorce decree changed Wilma’s legal relationship to Fred vis-à-vis the State, but it changed neither of their relationships to the bank. Nor is this scenario far-fetched; I have talked with people who have been divorced for more than twenty years but whose credit scores were wrecked because their ex-spouse included in a Chapter 11 filing a joint credit card account that was never closed.

The usual mortgage term is thirty years. What business does a couple have committing to three decades of payments on a house when they won’t commit to living with each other in it for even a decade of that time? How can they contemplate spending money, time and effort into maintaining and even improving the house that they won't spend maintaining and improving the communal life that makes it a home?

And this again you do.  You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand.  You ask, “Why does he not?”  Because the LORD was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life?  And what does he desire?  Godly offspring.  So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth.  “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD the God of Israel ….  “So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Mal 2:13-16).

In fact, in the Catholic lexicon, love isn't an emotion but an action: love isn't something you feel but rather something you do.  A man begins to love not when he starts to think about Her constantly but when he starts to order his life around Her well-being — in love, I become second in importance to You.

There are much better reasons for married couples to stay together than for the sake of the mortgage and the joint credit cards.  But there are also better reasons for people to get married than because they get fuzzy-headed and weak-kneed when they come into the other person's presence.  Which is to say that that warm, fuzzy feeling is a good emotion, and that love is a necessary ingredient for a long-lasting marriage, but it isn't a sufficient cause for marriage ... or even sharing a six-month lease on a studio apartment.

To be continued ...