I’ve been involved in promoting and defending marriage for many years now, both on the public policy front, and by presenting marriage preparation days with my wife. So, when the press reports about marriage, I always take an interest. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen recently are stories about several negative trends about marriage. In one report, we learned that people are putting off marriage to later and later ages, and that in the prime age (25 to 34), there are now more unmarried persons than those in wedlock. In another report, we see the continued trend towards cohabitation, either in place of marriage or as a “trial run”.
To me, these and other developments come back to a significant, but often overlooked underlying attitude about human relations in general, and marriage in particular — the idea that it is all about me. That what matters is my personal satisfaction, my emotional growth and development, my career, my possessions, my hopes and dreams, and my comfort.
This kind of radical individualism permeates our modern American society, and it has deeply infected personal relationships. It is the direct opposite of what authentic marriage is all about, and it is the deadly enemy of marriage. When the attitudes of radical individualism infect a marriage, it is guaranteed that trouble will follow.
Marriage is absolutely not about me. It is about being a gift to my wife, and to my children. I can’t be a successful husband or father — or a person, for that matter — if all I care about is myself.
This has enormous significance for public policy and for marriage and families. Here are a few examples of how radical individualism hurts people in their relationships:
Child-free marriages by choice — A significant problem that we are seeing more and more often are marriages in which the spouses deliberately choose never to have children. Some of this comes from a strange misplaced attitude of environmentalism, but much of it stems from radical individualism — a desire not to have my life, my figure, my finances, my peace and quiet or my career interfered with or interrupted by children. It also finds an outlet in outright hostility towards children and towards those who bear them (for an example of this hostility, see if you can stomach this article).
Cohabitation — In many ways, this is the quintessential expression of individualism in relationships. Cohabitation is fundamentally an arrangement of convenience with no sense of permanency. There are many reasons that people cohabit — financial expediency, desire for a steady sexual partner, fear of commitment, lack of confidence in their ability to marry, and so on. But much of it really comes back to the notion that the relationship is all about me — whether I am fulfilled, whether this meets my needs, and what’s in it for me. The bottom line is that there is no gift of self to the other.
Those who choose to cohabit are not doing it out of malice, or out of a reckless indifference to what is good for them and others. But so many of them have unconsciously bought into a false attitude of radical individualism without even realizing it. The tragedy is that people who cohabit are actually harming their ability to commit to an authentic marriage — rates of divorce are higher among those who cohabit, and so are other negative outcomes for the couple and any children they may have. They also are leading others into a situation where they will come to harm.
So, what is the Church to do in response to this? As in all situations, our primary obligation is to tell the truth. There have been excellent statements by our bishops about the challenges facing modern marriage, but that’s not enough. This is the responsibility of all of us — we married people, and our clergy. We need to tell people, plainly and lovingly, that sexual activity outside of marriage, cohabitation, and choosing a childless marriage are not only against God’s will, but they are harmful to us and others. We need to help people liberate themselves from the attitude of radical individualism. This message can only work if we present it with love and humility, and never with condemnation. It must be taught primarily by the witness of our lives, more so than with our words.
Marriage and true happiness — and the meaning of life itself — is not all about me. That is a pearl of very great price, and we must make sure that everyone learns about it.