A clear alternative: The UU relationship

Applying Unitarian Universalism's Seven Principles to our romantic relationships.


Spirited protest greeted the Southern Baptist Convention last summer [1998] when it decreed that married women must “submit graciously” to their husbands. Liberal religious leaders, including many Unitarian Universalists, condemned the mandate as regressive and mean-spirited. But do we offer a clear alternative? If male supremacy is a lousy model for a relationship—and it is!—then what, one might ask, is a better prescription?

It’s not an easy question for Unitarian Universalists. We have no single authority, no set of commandments that proclaim the rules of relationship for us. If we had to describe what a “UU relationship” looked like, most of us would find ourselves at a loss.

But surprisingly, a UU guide for relationships is right in front of us—published in our hymnals, recited at our conventions, proclaimed proudly in many of our congregations. It’s the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, the closest thing to a creed in our association. The product of generations of theological and ethical wrangling, the Principles offer a bedrock statement of our rights, responsibilities, and vision for the world. With some gentle massaging, they also offer a poetic framework for the passion and struggle that are part of any healthy relationship.

So what does a UU relationship look like?

Pretty much like any other relationship—at least on the surface, says Rev. Ken Collier, longtime minister of the UU Church of Palo Alto, California. Collier says UU couples “are not particularly unique” in our relationship struggles. Like most others, we wrestle over money, sex, housework, and parenting. Unlike members of some other religious groups, however, UUs commit to waging these battles with what Collier calls “reverential respect.” Grounded in the UU Principles, this kind of relationship doesn’t give either partner the role of dominator. Rather, each partner has an equal voice. As Collier, author of Our Seven Principles in Story and Verse, says, “When it comes to relationships, the fundamental difference between us and the conservatives is our emphasis on equality rather than hierarchy.”

Of course, this model doesn’t mean that one partner can’t take the lead in planning a vacation or choosing the new bedroom linen. But it does mean both partners must feel free to express their needs, desires, and limitations and that both partners must respect each other and negotiate fairly if one wants the other to change.

Consider how this works in the following situation. Home from work one day, a husband tells his wife he’s been offered a job transfer to another city. If he’s a socially conservative Southern Baptist, he’ll discuss the matter with her, and perhaps pray about it, as well. Then he can make a final decision.

Not so with the UU man. His religious principles challenge him not only to weigh his partner’s views but to reconcile them with his own. A UU woman in a relationship is called upon to be equally open. This may require many hours of hard conversation. And it may take the couple down paths they didn’t plan to navigate. Staying with our example, if the husband is a lawyer and the wife a teacher, he may argue that since he’s earning more money, his career should come first. If he’s being guided by the UU Principles, however, he’ll be open if she retorts that it’s unfair to set her career back simply because society underpays people in jobs, like hers, that are traditionally held by women.

Early in our own 16-year relationship, we faced a similar question about career choices. At the time, we had no children, and we were both ambitious. We wanted to leave our current jobs but didn’t know how to decide which of our careers should come first. We grappled for weeks before reaching this agreement: We would both apply for jobs in places where we both were willing to live. Whoever got the first good offer would take the job; the other partner would follow, help settle us in, and then look for work. The deal clincher? We agreed that the follower in this move would be the leader in the next move, thus evening the score.

As it’s turned out, we’ve been switching back and forth ever since. We’ve made a change about every six years. Ironically, however, as we’ve moved into middle age, both of us have expressed increasing interest in being the follower. That’s because the follower gets the chance to take some time off, pursuing dreams and personal interests that are not centered around making money.

But the important point is that neither of us is expected to abdicate our personal ambitions. As the Rev. Ed Frost, minister of the UU Congregation of Atlanta, observes: “The Baptists are saying they believe in equality, but if push comes to shove, one person—the man—is more equal than the other. (UUs) take the position of equity, absolute equity.”

This concept of equity is deeply embedded in the Seven UU Principles. The word itself shows up in the second Principle, which urges Unitarian Universalists toward “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” This is a clear call to fair and open relationships. So is the Fifth Principle, which challenges us to “use the democratic process” in all aspects of our lives. Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, which takes “one man, one vote” literally, UU couples take democracy to mean that each partner in the relationship has an equal say in the couple’s life.

But no principle tells UUs more about how to run a relationship than the First UU Principle, which declares “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The Rev. Marilyn Sewell, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, says this principle is a “primary guide to right relationship.” Writing in With Purpose and Principle, a new book edited by Frost, Sewell argues that the inherent-worth language calls us to respect our partners enough “to never objectify and control them.” That means no deviousness. No abuse. No affronts to the soul.

Frost says he recently called on the First Principle when counseling a UU couple. He asked: Does one person make most of the decisions? If so, has this decision-making approach been agreed upon by both partners? Is one partner assumed to be less competent or intelligent than the other? Frost explains: “What I’m looking at is how each person’s actions may inadvertently deny the inherent worth of the other.”

Looked at in another way, of course, the UU celebration of the individual may seem to be anti-relationship. (After all, doesn’t being in a couple mean giving up some individuality? Don’t partners in a relationship often have to compromise, rejecting the “I” in favor of “we”?) Indeed, the UU Principles remind us that partners are individual people first, maintaining an individual person’s basic rights and responsibilities even after entering a covenant of relationship.

But taken in the proper spirit, this view need not harm a relationship. In our own marriage, we honor each other’s individuality with something we call “My Night Out,” one evening a week when each of us is free to pursue hobbies, friendships, and other personal interests. We might go to a movie, hang out in a bookstore, or write in a journal at a coffee shop. The idea is to continue to explore ourselves as individuals, even while maintaining a committed relationship. Far from splitting us apart, this helps us stay exciting to ourselves and each other.

Still, there’s at least some evidence that the UU emphasis on individualism can undermine a long-term relationship. Marilyn Sewell, of the Portland, Oregon, congregation, remembers the mid-1970s, when she first began attending a UU church. She had fled her previous church—a Southern Baptist congregation, as it happens—in part because she felt invisible after a divorce from her doctor-husband, she says. Once she was no longer part of a couple, her fellow congregants seemed less interested in her.

At the UU church, the atmosphere was different but still problematic. Rather than devaluing single people, Sewell recalls, the UU congregation showed little respect for the sanctity of relationships. In an atmosphere of “radical individualism,” she says, she was pursued by men who only later revealed that they were married. “There was a tendency to focus on ‘What’s in it for me?’” Sewell recalls of those times. “Individual fulfillment was more important than connectedness.”

Palo Alto’s Ken Collier remembers that era, too. He says UU behavior in the 1970s often reflected the larger culture. “The kind of [partner] swapping that went on damaged us at a deep level, so we changed,” he says. People realized sex without relationship is a desecration to something that can be holy and sacred. Monogamy . . . is an expression of our deepest commitment.”

Not every UU would agree. While there is broad consensus, even among UUs, that having multiple partners makes for formidable challenges to a committed relationship, there remains room within the Principles for those who have chosen such a path. The Fourth UU Principle urges us toward “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and that includes the search for meaning in our love relationships. It is this principle that most directly affirms gay, lesbian, and other “nontraditional” relationships among consenting adults.

Nonetheless, UUs’ discomfort about the casual sex that took place in the 1970s inspired a debate over the doctrine of individualism within our movement. Driven mostly by feminists and environmentalists, this conversation resulted, by the mid-1980s, in the Seventh UU Principle, which affirms the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This new tenet “truly framed the Principles as a whole,” says Frost, reminding us that, while we’re free to act as we choose, our actions affect everyone and everything around us.

Frost believes the Seventh Principle also offers a model for relationships. For one thing, it suggests an alternative to the Southern Baptists’ gracious submission: interdependence. Interdependence, Frost says, means that each partner supports and nurtures the other’s full human development. This differs from dependence, in which one partner is too weak to stand alone; from independence, in which the two partners deny their need for one another; and from codependence, in which each partner feeds the other’s weaknesses.

In our relationship, we practice interdependence every Sunday night, when we sit down together for a “Seven-Day Forecast,” an hour in which we plan the details of our lives for the week ahead. This ensures that we not only divide equally the responsibilities of child-care, house-cleaning and grocery shopping but also that we set aside time for ourselves, each other, and our family.

Frost even thinks the Seventh Principle calls UUs to seek out relationships with others. Relationships help us grow, he explains, adding, “We’re more creative in interaction than on our own.” And he means “any relationship, not necessarily a love relationship,” he says.

While Frost focuses on the Seventh Principle’s call to enter into relationships, Collier emphasizes the principle’s implications for ending them. A generation ago, many couples would separate when any significant trouble arose between the partners. Networks of friends and families, including children, were torn apart. Though casual divorce is rarer today, Collier says, he thinks the Seventh Principle calls us “to do more work in recognizing the sacredness” of marriages and other unions. Paradoxically, Frost says, it’s by working to save the relationship in troubled times that couples build the trust and skills that help them make it for the long haul.

Of course, some couples choose to split for good reasons, but even in those cases, the Seventh Principle offers guidance. At one of the living-in-relationship workshops we have been holding at UU churches, a woman from the church described her divorce. To minimize the adverse affect on their children, she and her ex-husband spent a year preparing for the split, reading numerous books on “civil divorce,” attending a divorce workshop, and going to a mediator instead of a judge to settle their division of property. Now they live just a few blocks from one another, share custody equally, and even spend some holidays together as a family. By thus honoring the Seventh Principle, they’ve reduced the harm to their children and others in their web.

Does the Seventh Principle make other calls on people in a UU relationship? Only that we reach out to each other. Unfortunately, since the 1970s, the number of relationship support groups in our congregations has dwindled, couples’ retreats are rare, and some ministers have shied away from offering clear, practical guidance from the pulpit. Frost, Collier, and Sewell agree it’s time for Unitarian Universalism to give more support to couples. “Relationship is the primary microcosm of the interdependent web,” Collier says. “We should give it more energy.”

Whatever its past or current shortcomings when it comes to supporting good relationships, Unitarian Universalism does offer an alternative to gracious submission. The next time someone comes asking for it, we can point them to our Seven Principles. We can speak of inherent worth, equity, compassion, and the democratic process. We can go on about the interdependent web and the injunction to accept each other.

Or we can give them the two-word summary: unmitigated mutuality.

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