In last week's post about "sleeping together", I wrote about taking my high school girlfriend for a weekend away at my family's place in the country. I mentioned how excited she and I were to get the chance to spend the whole night together in the same bed. I wrote:
Though according to family protocol, the "luggage stays in separate rooms", I was able to sneak into her room and we could fall asleep together.
It's been nearly twenty-two years, but I can still remember my reaction when I first heard my late and beloved grandmother (the matriarch of the family and the final arbiter of what was Good and Right) use the phrase: "The luggage must stay in separate rooms." It's a line we in the family often repeat today. When my wife and I were visiting the Ranch for a big family weekend last month, one of my college-aged cousins had his girlfriend up for a visit. They were each put in different rooms, just as my high-school girlfriend and I had been all those years ago. But once again, it was made explicitly clear that this was not a prohibition on either sexual activity or spending the night together. It was merely a nod to social convention, but an important one.
I've been involved with many people and many different families. (I've not only been married four times, I've had four different sets of in-laws.) I've had ample opportunity in these marriages and other relationships to see the various views families take on sleeping arrangements for unmarried couples. Basically, I've noticed most families fall into one of three categories -- and I've experienced all three many a time.
1. The most conservative families make sure that the two halves of an unmarried couple not only get put in separate rooms, they make it clear that they are to stay in those rooms all night. For these traditionalists, pre-marital sex (at least in the family home) is absolutely unacceptable. I married into one of those families once. It was very frustrating.
2. The liberal families cheerfully put even teenage unmarried couples in the same room overnight. Shortly before I turned 18, I was able to go away with my girlfriend's family for the weekend to their cabin on the Russian River. My girlfriend (a high school junior) and I were put in the same room with one double bed. No one batted an eyelash. It was deliciously exciting, but a bit bizarre.
3. Then there's the OKOP way: put the two young people in separate rooms, but ignore any nocturnal traffic. "Don't ask, don't tell, don't patrol the hallways, and make sure your little loving noises don't wake anyone else!" One of the criticisms often leveled at WASPs of my background is that we are more concerned with the appearance of things than their substance. We care more for propriety than for morality. And I suppose, to some small degree, that's a fair charge.
But honestly, I like the "luggage in separate rooms" policy best. I'm deeply ambivalent, even when I'm at my most fervently evangelical, about the mandate to remain chaste until marriage. At the same time, I think that marriage (or domestic partnership) is worthy of special recognition -- and one way in which my family conveys that recognition is by not only allowing the couple to share a bed, but allowing their bags to be publicly placed in the same room. In my family, we don't police the sexual decisions of unmarried older teens or young adults. What's done behind closed doors, whether by 17 year-olds or 27 year-olds, is none of our business. ("Our Kind of People" don't ask nosy questions.) But we also want to send a message that there is something unique and special about marriage and enduring commitment. Hence, the third option of "separate rooms for the suitcases if not for their owners" seems best.