There is a proposal in Washington to set aside $100 million to support single mothers on welfare who want to get married. This novel idea is a sign that some of our politicians are coming to understand that the state of our national union depends greatly on the state of our domestic unions – on the health of the marriage institution in America.
Divorce rates remain very high by historical standards, and the children of the first generation of easy divorce are well into their own adult lives. Beyond all the statistics and anecdotal accounts of this vast subject, what are the key dynamics that are leading to health or sickness for the institution of marriage? Where are we going wrong? And how can we get back on track?
The central question is whether we have allowed a culture to develop that disables people for the challenges of marriage. Social emphasis on selfishness and self-centeredness, and the achievement-oriented ethic of our business world, all encourage us to put family in second place. Marriage often represents the transition from such a world of selfishness to a world of giving. Family life is the normal context in which we can learn that a life filled with thinking about others instead of ourselves is the sure road to the most fulfilling joys and satisfactions.
But instead of preparing young people to learn this lesson, often we actually seem to be preparing them more for divorce than for marriage. Largely ignorant of the mysteries of giving, too many people enter marriage with high expectations of direct personal satisfaction, and then find themselves inevitably disappointed and tempted to cut their losses.
The problem begins long before the wedding day. Our culture of easy promiscuity encourages so many young people to approach their personal sexual decisions without any reference to marriage. Starting from the sexual perspective means that pleasure figures most dominantly in the beginning of a relationship.
But neither the right reasons for marriage – nor the deepest joys of married life – are to be found by simply following the path of pleasure. Openness to the fundamental joys of heart, conscience and virtue is impeded by a starting point of pleasure and sex. It is difficult indeed to fashion a strong marriage out of a relationship that began in excitement over pleasure to be received, rather than in anticipation of the opportunity to serve and love another.
Having approached the sexual decision without reference to marriage, is it a surprise that many of those who have viewed marriage as a kind of optional addition to a sexual relationship will view children as an optional addition to marriage? And will a marriage that only considers children as contributing to the pleasure of the parents ever really teach the lessons that come from striving to make others happy?
At every stage – the divorce of sex from marriage, and of marriage from children – the initial preoccupation with self paves the way for an unpleasant surprise when the inescapable needs of the other finally present themselves. And the most dangerous moment comes when the young spouse or parent first realizes that these relationships do not provide immediate pleasure, but rather the prospect of years of dutiful labor for another.
Are we preparing young people to recognize – in these first moments of sacrifice, and in the times of difficulty and exhaustion that may fill the years to follow – that they are laying the foundation of permanent happiness not only for those they serve, but for themselves as well? Until we do, we are not preparing them for marriage or children, and the dismaying rate at which discouraged young spouses and parents turn away from their commitments will continue.
An unexpected flavor can lead us to spit out something which, if we had expected it, we would have savored with the highest regard. So it is with the moral satisfactions that lie hidden in the duties and commitments of family life. The education of our young people must aim, above all, at teaching them to expect and desire the precious savor that, paradoxically, only a life of selfless love can promise.
Our culture of self-gratification prepares young people to taste instead for the wrong things in marriage – to taste for sexual pleasure and romantic gratification, and not the solid joys of the spirit and of the heart that can come first from the marriage relationship, and then from the children which are its principal purpose and fulfillment.
The state of our domestic unions is indeed troubled. Let us deign to remember the wisdom of our grandparents, and to have the confidence again to teach our young people to love without counting the cost. We can yet revive that school of the person, the family. With it we will revive all the happiness that so many of our lost brethren seek with desperate energy.