Sunday, June 16, 2024

For love alone?

I've been looking recently at ideas within the culture that undermine marriage. One of them is the notion that a husband must "make" his wife happy and if he doesn't that this then justifies divorce (see here). Another idea that is common on social media, and equally destructive, is a variant of the old notion of "free love". It's the belief that women once entered into marriage not for love but for material security. Now society has progressed to the point that women no longer need men for their material well-being. Therefore, they can marry for more "elevated" reasons, i.e., for love alone.

I'll explain why this idea has undermined marriage further on. Here is how the idea is commonly put:

Note the assumption here. The claim is that women did not in past times believe that marriage was about love, but that it was entered into for material purposes alone. There is a more hostile and radical version of this theory, i.e. that in past times women were brutally subjugated and treated like chattels by men, but now women can finally enter into a more elevated vision of marriage as equals:

There is an ugliness to this idea. It wipes out all of the sacrifices men have made for women throughout history, and also degrades the role that women played throughout history as wives and mothers. 

As it happens, it is difficult to summarise the marital practices of the past because they varied according to time, place and social class. However, even amongst the European nobility, in which marriages arranged for pragmatic dynastic reasons were the norm, it is still false to suggest that young people did not want affection and concord within marriage. The historian Judith Hurwich writes that by the mid-sixteenth century:

....children did have a larger role in choosing their spouses...and children had the right to veto. The potential for affection was acknowledged as a relevant consideration even in the aristocracy...interest and emotion were not necessarily opposed to each other and family interests and personal preferences formed what Marshall calls an intricate "mesh of interests and motivations" in the selection of marriage partners...(Noble Strategies, p.129)

I won't dwell on this, because the problem is not really the mistaken notion that marriage was only ever about material interests without any consideration for affection. The problem is the idea that you can base a marriage on "love" alone, i.e. that love alone is a sufficient foundation for a culture of marriage.

This is a problem, first, because of the understanding of what marital love is. There are types of love that do not endure and therefore cannot ground lifelong commitments. For instance, some people associate the heady, romantic phase of falling in love with love itself. When this phase is over, they move on and end up practising something like serial monogamy - which itself cannot last because the human psyche can only endure a certain number of attachments and break ups. 

There is a type of love, namely caritas love, that is more enduring. This is a love that is settled in the will and that wills the good of the other person. I have in the past attempted to explain this type of love to women on social media by using the example of the love that parents have for their children. Our loving commitment to our children is not based on a fleeting feeling, but endures even in times of stress and difficulty. But the women are inclined to scoff at the comparison between this kind of caritas love for their children, and the love they might have for a spouse.

However, even if marital love were understood the right way, it would still not be a strong enough foundation for a culture of marriage. For instance, the lack of distinct roles for men and women harms marriage, because it becomes more difficult to practise a "gift exchange" model of marriage, in which men and women contribute different things for each other they cannot provide for themselves. What you often hear instead is women saying "I can do this for myself, so it doesn't mean much to me if a man does it, he has to find other ways to add value". The ordinary masculine things a man does no longer count for as much; there is less gratitude, and less sense of things being gifted and so more dissatisfaction and greater tension within relationships. Equality understood as sameness (i.e. gender role convergence) doesn't end up purifying or elevating relationships.

A serious level of religious belief within a culture also helps marriage. If we commit to our marriage as part of our commitment to God, then there will be a deeper, inward motivation to hold firm to our vows. Sir Thomas Overbury recognised this in his poem "A Wife" written some time before 1613:

By good I would have holy understood,
So God she cannot love, but also me,
The law requires our words and deeds be good,
Religion even the thoughts doth sanctifie
It will also help the cause of marriage if there exists, within the culture, a notion of a common good. If it is understood that we express our own higher nature through the offices of being a husband or wife, then my own good rests on the larger good of the family I belong to. Marriage cannot survive in a culture that is based around a principle of purely individual self-interest, nor goods that are pursued at an individual level alone. There will be, inevitably, a decline in trust in societies that cannot see beyond individual self-interest, and this too will degrade rather than elevate relationships between the sexes.

Some dialling down of promiscuity in youth also helps with marriage. This is true for both sexes, but it is particularly significant with young women, who can most easily garner many different sexual partners. If women have sexual experiences with high status men as young women, it can be difficult for them to avoid a sense that they are settling with the man they do eventually secure commitment from. Again, this does not lead to a pure type of love, beyond material concerns, but to the phenomenon of women marrying men they are not deeply attracted to but who they believe will be stable provisioners.

More generally, a culture needs a normative commitment to the institution of marriage itself. By this, I mean a recognition that the health of the institution is important and should generally be upheld by members of a community. This might include a recognition that stable family life is important for the well-being of children; that it provides an important source of support for individuals; that it provides companionship in old age; and that it provides future generations for the ongoing life of a community. In this context it makes sense that the mores of a society are supportive of those who work hard to uphold family life and that there is some degree of disapproval for those who act selfishly to undermine it. 

So, to return to the original question, is it really the case in the most advanced, wealthy nations that relationships have become more elevated and pure as a matter of human progress? It is surely the opposite. There is a higher level of conflict between the sexes, higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and lower fertility rates. In popular culture, there is a coarser and cruder treatment of relationships that is often focused on hook ups and break ups rather than on elevated love. The narrative is not working the way that it is supposed to and needs to be challenged.