An elderly couple relaxes on a porch swing. Having traveled the decades together, they are now effortlessly and inextricably connected.
Perhaps the most challenging, and the most rewarding, dimension of intimacy is that of actually merging lives with another: integrating the routines of the days, integrating families and friends, integrating home and habits. One's identity becomes intertwined with another's, not in a transient way, but permanently and steadily, through the hours, days, weeks, and years. The selflessness of other forms of sharing are transient excursions into communion. However intense the sexual encounter, the emotional bond, or the open engagement of minds, they tend to stand out as peak moments against an otherwise neutral terrain. But to merge lives with another is not just to share the drama, but to share the stage as well.
However much love may be present between people, merging lives is seldom an easy proposition. We become aware of each other's annoying habits, unreasonable needs, interfering attachments, and just plain quirkiness. It is no longer possible to show only one's best side to one's lover; the lover gets a 360-degree view, for better or for worse. Recalcitrant pragmatic problems can arise and threaten to destroy a relationship: finances, chores, living arrangements, child care.
Traditionally, the institution of heterosexual marriage has been our only model for the union of lives. But the reality is much broader than that neat category. Besides gay and lesbian couples who commit to sharing their lives with each other (sadly without the recognition or support of society's institutions), there are countless other ways in which lives are merged: friends who share an apartment, parent and child together, close siblings...alternative living arrangements abound. In other times, and in other cultures, where the intense isolation of the nuclear family is less normative than it is in our own society, extended families and microcommunities are commonplace, and the merging of lives an almost automatic way to live.
Alas, with each generation we seem to lose more of the habits and sensibilities that allow us to live in harmony with our loved ones. In this ego-driven world, we have lost sight of courtesy, companionship, compromise, and a dozen other virtues of communal living. We tend to neglect the household as a mere backdrop for our personal agendas, failing to value the home and its routines as ends in themselves.
But, if we somehow relearn those skills, somehow manage to weave ourselves into a single life-fabric with our loved ones, we reap the richest reward of all -- to live as connected human beings, bound into the story of humanity with every meal shared, every morning ritual, every sweep of the floor, and every awkward impasse. And living that way, we emerge with our loved ones, after the decades have flowed by, knowing that we belong.