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The Real Problem with Modern Marriage: Are People Willing to Go “All In” Anymore?



Rachel Lu - published on 10/14/14

Or are we negotiating "benefits"?

As the Synod on the Family continues, Catholics around the world find themselves asking: what might help to stabilize the family? Are there better ways to clarify the real meaning of marriage and sex, in a world that views these primarily as conduits to personal satisfaction?

The problems are familiar enough by now. We live in a world in which family breakdown is more the norm than the exception. Divorce and illegitimacy are widespread. Despite that, birthrates are falling, as more and more people find themselves alone. New suggestions for how to “update” the traditional family model are springing up like weeds on every side. It’s no wonder young adults today are thoroughly confused about marriage and family formation.

Much of the debate has focused on the relative merits of “pastoral” approaches, as the Holy Father stresses his desire to reach out to wayward Catholics. Others have suggested that the language the Church uses for discussing marriage and sex may be unnecessarily alienating, and may seem to modern Catholics like a remnant of another universe.

No one can reasonably doubt the imperative to evangelize lapsed Catholics. In a world that is deeply confused about marriage, we will need to be energetic and innovative in our efforts to spread the truth. By all means, let’s look for better ways to articulate the Church’s teaching on marriage, as well as new venues in which to broadcast it. It’s also good to emphasize the importance of having compassion on those who have lost the path, realizing how easily that can happen in a world that openly disparages conjugal marriage.

At the same time, it’s important not to blur the line between forgiveness and making excuses. Christ’s teachings on marriage have always been hard. They are especially hard now, given how starkly countercultural Catholicism has become. But the Church has a responsibility to articulate the truth in every age, especially when others have taken such pains to bury it.

Perpetuating confusion in the name of mercy will always have consequences. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Catholic teachings on marriage are precious to us just because they’re traditional. They are precious because they enable us to order our lives appropriately, in keeping with our own good and the good of the people we love. As St. John Paul II argued at length in his book  “Love and Responsibility,” sexual ethics is fundamentally the study of how to love responsibly. When people fail to embrace these truths about sex and marriage, they end up hurting others, often to their own shame and horror. Protecting the innocent from injury is always central to the mission of the Church, and that mission is highly relevant to the Synod’s present deliberations.

It is possible that modifying certain words and phrases may help the Church’s ministers to preach the truth more effectively. Still, it seems to me that the fundamental problem with modern marriage is not linguistic, nor can it be fixed with a few verbal tweaks. The problem is that people aren’t willing to go “all in” anymore when they fall in love. They’re forever looking for ways to hedge their bets, or to “negotiate” their romantic relationships in ways that are more personally advantageous. This entire paradigm is simply poisonous to love.

In discussing marriage with my students, I am always discouraged by the number willing to agree that people should not stay in marriages that leave them feeling unhappy or unfulfilled. Young people, in my experience, have enormous trouble defining marriage, but they can explain in great detail what they hope to gain from it. Marriage, to them, is an opportunity to negotiate a “customized package” of goods and benefits, with the understanding that they must contribute something to the arrangement, but that it should ultimately work to their own greater good. To many young people today, the loosening of traditional marital mores seems to open an alluring freedom. Marriage can be whatever they want it to be. It can be adjusted as necessary to further their self-actualization. The possibilities are endless, and they no longer have to worry about being “trapped” in a family structure that they find oppressive or burdensome.

One problem with this approach is that it ignores fundamental truths about human nature, which have long been encoded into traditional mores concerning marriage and sex. But there is another, even more serious problem with this model. By turning marriage into a negotiation of terms and benefits, it denies us the opportunity to make a true gift of self. The tacit assumption of our modern relationship paradigm is that, even in marriage, spouses are still fundamentally in it for themselves. This is a deeply sad and violently dehumanizing fact of modern life, and until we can expose and address it, nothing will stem the tide of human misery that has flowed from our disordered relationships.

Catholic marriage is hard for modern people for the same reasons it has always been hard: because total self-gift is difficult for sinners. We are fallen and weak, and we perpetually look for ways to make the road easier. One way is by imposing on people we love. There are a thousand ways to exploit our spouses or sexual partners, precisely because their attachment to us is so deep. We should not underestimate the strength of this temptation, which afflicts most all of us in subtle or unsubtle ways. Even when we actively desire to be faithful and loving, most of us need a lot of help and guidance to overcome those selfish impulses. For people who have not even accepted that spouses ought to give themselves completely to one another, it will be difficult indeed to avoid the destructive cycles of mutual exploitation that have consumed so many marriages.

Looking over the bleak landscape of modern family life, is there any disorder that cannot be traced back in some way to this effort to skew our relationships to our personal advantage? There is cohabitation, wherein we put our loved ones on trial before deciding whether to offer them our fidelity. There are prenuptial agreements, which enable young couples to start their life’s journey together with a negotiation as to how they will protect themselves individually, if and when it all ends in betrayal. Contraceptives enable spouses to tell one another, “I want you to have all of me, except my fertility.” And more and more often, we see marriages undermined by pornography, or by external relationships (such as “back burner” spousal options) that speak to an unwillingness to fully honor our marital commitments.

I pray that the Synod will, with God’s grace, find effective ways to expose and remedy these problems. But we should recognize from the start that this road cannot be easy. The problems that we face are not fundamentally about miscommunication. They are moral and spiritual. Until we are ready to go “all in” for the people we love, hurt and betrayal will continue to be the primary theme of modern family life.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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