Modern Attitudes Toward Marriage Lead to Loneliness

Two stories last week (one amusing and one sobering) provided material for (gloomy) reflection on love and marriage in the modern world.

The first came from Auckland, New Zealand, where heterosexual best friends Travis McIntosh and Matt McCormick celebrated their nuptials this last Friday. A radio station competition provided the motivation for their decision to wed. By tying the knot in an official ceremony, the two heterosexual men became eligible to win a trip to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. Many happy returns?

Unsurprisingly, LGBT activist groups were angered by a festivity that, to their minds, trivialized a hard-earned “right,” and mocked the homosexual community. This, however, did not appear to be the two friends’ intention. “We are not here to insult anyone,” said McIntosh to the New Zealand Herald. “We are here to do our own thing and travel our own path.It’s just seeing how far two good mates would go to win a trip to the Rugby World Cup.”

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The second story, from here in the US, was a report that, as of last month, more than 50 percent of American adults (over age 16) are now single. What percentage of American adults want to be married? Considerably more than 50 percent. But wishes, it turns out, are not weddings. We live in a world that claims to embrace romantic love as a good and even a “right,” and yet, ironically, less and less people are actually finding their way to love and happiness.

It is not good for man to be alone. And yet, more than ever before, we are alone. We’ve spent decades tearing down every obstacle we could imagine that might prevent people from coming together. Already married? No-fault divorce can take care of that. You and your sweetie are the same sex? Eh, that’s no big thing. Not up for serious commitment? Then try living together, or just hooking up, as a nice a-la-carte way to scratch that I-need-companionship itch.

What if your parents, pastors, neighbors, friends or therapist disapprove of your choices? Well, forbidden love is the sexiest kind, right? As screenwriters have long since discovered, few things thrill modern people like celebrating the romance of illicit love.

Increasingly though, it’s hard to have a forbidden romance, because people hardly dare to disapprove of anything anymore. Nobody likes to be cast as the judgmental one in a romance, and also, we all feel great sympathy for the lovelorn. Escaping that big, yawning abyss of loneliness can almost be a full-time occupation nowadays. When people see a chance at happiness, we’re inclined to say (with songwriter Sheryl Crow), “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

It’s hard to get our heads around the fact that when it comes to romance, the lack of obstacles might be the obstacle that prevents mature love from flowering.

Consider our happy couple from New Zealand. They don’t appear to see themselves as doing anything subversive or perverted. And truthfully, applying modern standards to their case, I’m inclined to agree. Why shouldn’t a man marry his best friend for the sake of winning a radio competition? Everyone seems to have enjoyed the wedding. Both men’s families were supportive. Most important of all, the couple was pursuing a real and recognizable goal: a shared trip to the Rugby World Cup. I don’t see what right LGBT groups have to be critical; what business is it of theirs what goes on (or doesn’t) in the bedroom?

Their legal union simply brings us to the logical conclusion of long-extended developments in our legal and social customs concerning marriage. LGBT activists were happy to help dismantle all the central pieces that distinguished marriage as a unique relationship. They’re now not in a position to complain when people view marriage as an utterly fluid relationship, which may be entered into for any reason whatsoever.

So, we have best buddies marrying in order to enter a radio contest. What we’re learning the hard way, of course, is that the socially constructed obstacles that we so gleefully destroyed really were not just the product of prejudice. In part, they were protections against rash choices and victimization. Young men and women sometimes have trouble seeing past a lovely face, but their parents and pastors are less easily deceived by skin-deep appeal. More importantly, we once guarded against vice and victimization through taboos on fornication, and the expectation that couples would secure social approbation through marriage before starting their life together. The virtuous and worthy generally don’t mind getting married, but the unserious and the predatory are fairly effectively deterred by the expectation that they stand up in public and make serious commitments before consummating their relationship. It turns out that frowning chaperones and irksome “waiting periods” served an actual, useful function.

None of these preliminaries, however, are quite as important as the one, central change in our perspective on romance: it no longer has a purpose. When romance is understood to be a gateway to family, to new life, and to the continuation of the human race through future generations, everyone appreciates that it matters. To the young, it’s exciting. To the old it’s probably more worrisome and headache-inducing, but when romance has this vitally important function, everyone ultimately has a stake in keeping it sweet. Undeniably, history is full of heartbreak, and the obligations of marriage and family can at times be heinously onerous. Still, it’s hard to see it as a triumph when we lift the burdens of love, only to find that a majority of people just end up alone.

What does this mean for America’s future? More loneliness, of course. Fewer children. Less long-term investment. Single, childless people are likelier to rent than to invest in property. They spend more of their income on their own interests and pleasures, and put less into savings and retirement accounts. They care less about the long-term effects of present policies on the common good, and more often fall prey to addiction, criminality and mental disease. Did I mention fewer children?

We must redouble our efforts to impress on the world the benefits of embracing a genuine culture of life. We must help our compatriots to understand this basic truth: when we begin to look beyond ourselves at some further horizon, that is when we will find that we are no longer alone.

 (Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)

  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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