Marriage in a self-absorbed age

I find most of our public moral controversies perplexing.  The verbiage and the passion spent over same-sex marriage and abortion, for example, have been Niagara-like in sound and fury, not to say volume, yet these are second-level issues.  Proportionately few among us contemplate marrying into our own sex or aborting a child.

On the other hand, most of us get married, and on the consequences of that act ride our chances for lifelong sharing, raising children in a family atmosphere, and attaining some measure of happiness:  in brief, for the good life.  Marriage is of supreme moral importance to every society, as a matter of public health as well as private satisfaction, yet we Americans treat it like a taboo subject, to be avoided in polite company.  Allow me to speculate on the reasons why.

It’s become the fashion, almost an iron law in the mainstream media, to speak of institutions like marriage as hostages to impersonal forces, over which the individual has no control.  Obviously, if that is the case, it makes no sense to worry about an effect; a good social engineer will find the levers that move the great causal forces to direct positive change.

The WaPo recently carried a story that began thusly:  “Tough child support laws may dissuade men from becoming unwed fathers, as states with the most stringent laws and strict enforcement have as much as 20 percent fewer out-of-wedlock births, a new study shows.”  The positive effect, I should add, was acknowledged to be unintended, but the tone of the opening statement was otherwise typical.  First, blind forces are at work.  Second, a “study” becomes our gospel, and truth is revealed.  Third, the methodology of the study remains vague and, as reported, shows gaps so immense that an entire wedding procession could march through them.

Lastly, the social scientists involved gaze in wonder at the thunderingly obvious:  “‘Decisions about sexual intercourse and marriage involve two people,’ said study co-author Irwin Garfinkel, a Columbia University professor and one of the nation’s top experts on child support.”  One wonders how many “studies” it took for Irwin Garfinkel, expert, to make this magnificent discovery.

I have no doubt that, human nature being what it is, the community can build incentives or disincentives for any kind of behavior, marriage included.  But, historically, such  incentives have been aimed at individuals, at men and women, rather than at sociological levers.  The difference is as vast as that between morality and mechanics.

For many thinkers, the forces that shape our destiny are beyond human leverage of any sort, whether individual or communal.  The mature attitude is to accept whatever happens in good grace, since there’s nothing else to do.  This is the resistance is futile school of thought, which teaches that marriage as traditionally conceived is collapsing, and only Taliban-like repression can reverse what has become a multiplicity of personal choices.

Stephanie Coontz seems to be the MSM’s designated hitter for this point of view.  Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State College and is research director of something called the Council on Contemporary Families, clearly means well, and aims to reassure when she informs us, in a WaPo piece some weeks ago, that we are powerless to affect the changes that have troubled the institution of marriage since 1970:  “We may personally like or dislike these changes. We may wish to keep some and get rid of others. But there is a certain inevitability to almost all of them.”  In case we missed the point, she adds that in our “climate of choice,” we have no choice but to yield to the spirit of the times:

Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by re-institutionalizing marriage. In today’s climate of choice, many people’s choices do not involve marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.

Coontz has a new, equally well-meaning piece in the online Chronicle of Higher Education.  She believes marriage is, by and large, a good thing – and has only good things to say about her own marriage, though not her parents’ – but, in the end, those vast hidden forces are at work, and resistance is futile.

Promoting good marriages is a worthwhile goal, and we can help many marriages work better than they currently do. In today’s changing world, one-size-fits-all advice books and glib formulas for marital success are of little value. But sociologists and psychologists have found a few general principles that seem to help most kinds of modern marriage flourish.

Marriage as an institution must rest on some “few general principles,” like Newtonian mechanics, one supposes or, even better, Einsteinian relativity.  Yet even sociologists and psychologists have failed to find such principles – what hope is left for mere untutored mortals?

Coontz is a veritable fountain of questionable assertions of fact, but she’s on to something when she focuses on the instability generated by the need for love in marriage – a pretty late and still geographically limited development.  To base a lifelong partnership on a fleeting emotion was always an impossibility:  the word “love” between spouses has a different emotional content at 50 than it did at 20.

But in Coontz’s world, which lacks all general principles regarding marriage, the need for love is naturally self-directed, and the success of marriage depends on self-satisfaction.  Hence, the multiplicity of “choices,” each wholly contingent and subjective in character, and so detached from any scale of values beyond private desire.

Coontz remarks that, in her research, she has read many diaries written by women centuries ago.  “I have been struck,” she writes, “by how often entries focused not on the joy of marriages but on wives’ struggle to accept their lot.”  This is a remarkable admission.  In Coontz’s world, one is struck by the struggle of human beings to accept an imperfect reality.  We will settle for nothing less than joy.

She goes on to wonder what she’d write if she kept a diary, as did those women of old:

My diary would record a lot more active delight in my daily married life than most journals of the past and a lot less talk about “resigning myself to my lot.” Yet as a modern woman, I live with an undercurrent of anxiety that is absent from the diaries of earlier days. I know that if my husband and I stop negotiating, if too much time passes without any joy, or if a conflict drags on too long, neither of us has to stay with the other.

We Americans have ceased to treat marriage as a moral subject, worthy of debate, because we fear the ridicule and contempt of sophisticates – of sociologists and psychologists, Einsteins of the human condition.  They tell us that marriage as an institution is beyond the community’s control.  They insist that marriage as an individual decision should be guided by purely contingent, powerfully subjective desires, such as the craving for joy and passionate love.

If these propositions are true, what’s to debate?  In the first case, marriage is what philosophers call an epiphenomenon:  reality lies elsewhere.  In the second, marriage is a question of satisfying, rather than transcending, oneself:  of consumerism rather than morality.

How many of us actually believe such notions is a question for another day.


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