m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

O C T O B E R  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

THESE realities hardly come as news to the Kasses. They are far from viewing the past through rose-colored glasses -- or the present through ash-tinted lenses. They know that the majority of men and women still marry, "though," they insist, "later, less frequently, more hesitantly, and by and large, less successfully." They fully appreciate that attaining the ideal -- falling in love, marrying happily, and journeying together through a lifetime "wing to wing and oar to oar" -- has always been a blessing reserved for a few. They are well aware -- indeed, they emphasize -- that although marriage is an ancient institution, the notion that it should be based on love, a meeting of hearts and minds, is of relatively recent vintage and perhaps imposes on marriage, which answers to a variety of social, political, and religious needs, more weight than it can bear. Still, the Kasses contend, we are witnessing something new. What distinguishes contemporary experience, they fear, is not that we expect too much from marriage but that we expect too little -- not our despair over the impossibility of attaining perfection in marriage but the growing incredulity with which we view the ideal as both enriching love and furnishing the cornerstone of a well-lived life.

Consider the Kasses' enumeration of the challenges that social life today poses to hope for the achievement of love in a lasting marriage. It is worth quoting at length, because of its stunning juxtaposition of the Kasses' precise, morality-tinged descriptions with the skeptical voices of their perceptive students.

... the sexual revolution, made possible especially by effective female contraception ("Why court a woman for marriage when she may be sexually enjoyed, and regularly, without it?" "Why wait for marriage, now that there is no risk of getting myself pregnant?"); the ideology of feminism and the changing educational and occupational status of women ("Why look for a husband, or have children, when I can have a personally more satisfying career?" "Why should I take on the burden of supporting her when she can support herself?"); the destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity, and abortion ("Do I really need a husband in order to have children?" "Why should she practice chastity or I be sexually responsible when abortion exists to deal with any accidents?"); the general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters, promoted by the commercialization of sex and the sexualization of commerce, and exemplified most vividly in the ubiquitous and voyeuristic presentation of sexual activity in movies and on television ("Why should I dress or act modestly?" "Why should we have any scruples or feel reverence about giving our bodies?"); widespread morally neutral sex education in schools ("Why think about romance and devotion, if the whole story is pleasure and safety?" "Why see sex as positively related to having children, if the whole story is preventing or getting rid of the consequences?"); the explosive increase in the numbers of young people whose parents have been divorced ("Why trust anyone but myself?" "Who can honestly promise lasting love?") or who are born out of wedlock ("Who needs marriage?" "What's wrong with single parenthood?"); great increases in geographic mobility, with a resulting loosening of ties to place and extended family of origin ("Why think of settling down?" "What do I care about what my family thinks about my 'relationships'?"); and, harder to describe precisely, a popular culture that celebrates youth and independence not as a transient stage en route to adulthood but as "the time of our lives," imitable at all ages ("Why take on the burdens of adulthood, when we can continue to enjoy ourselves without responsibilities?"), and an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks of us no devotion to family, God, or country, encouraging us simply to soak up the pleasures of the present ("If it feels good, why not 'Just do it'?").

A treacherous obstacle course by any standard.

TO be sure, the Kasses' presentation of their students' perspective is not as balanced as it might be. In fact, a backlash of sorts can be discerned on campuses today, as college women observe and absorb the ambiguous experiences of women in their thirties and forties, who have discovered that the opening of opportunities in the workplace did not, as the fatuous slogan promised, enable women to have it all. Moreover, most mothers (and fathers, too) do not choose single parenthood but have it thrust upon them. Also, recent years have witnessed the much-ballyhooed publication of books by women in their twenties and thirties in praise of modesty in dress and conduct and in defense of the joys of motherhood and the dignity of stay-at-home wives. And so on. But more striking than this or that quibble with the Kasses' characterization of contemporary circumstances is the sympathy they display for their students' plight. Doubts about loving, courtship, and marriage, their analysis pointedly indicates, are legitimate -- all too legitimate -- inferences from our lived experience.

Why did experience turn against courtship, incriminate love, and accuse marriage? The Kasses do not, as skeptical readers will be wont to suspect, blame the sixties, everybody's favorite turning point. They dig deeper and reach a more disconcerting conclusion: The fundamental source of our doubts about and dissatisfaction with courtship and marriage is both further away and much closer to home. It is moral and political but lies beyond partisan differences, consisting of truths that we barely think about because we hold them to be self-evident. We are estranged from love and the institutions that preserve it, the Kasses suggest, by the very principles on which our politics is based -- by the gradual working out, more in our souls than in our laws, of the spirit of freedom and equality.

This spirit imparts distinctive lessons about the moral life and inclines us to adopt particular systems to govern our associations with others. Among these are lessons of impermanence and systems of separateness. The more we grow to love our freedom and embrace it as our defining feature, the more we learn to view ourselves as under no overarching or enduring authority, connected to no community that commands our permanent allegiance, bound by no promise, principle, or duty that is not retractable or revisable as the spirit moves -- after all, who is looking? Inasmuch as we suppose that the freedom we love is shared equally by all, we are inclined to see others as like us in the morally relevant ways, moved by the same desires, governed by the same impulses, similarly willful. We collaborate in the construction of systems, psychological and social, that reaffirm the separateness our essential independence dictates. It is not that we cease to associate but that we conceive of every association, even the most intimate and impassioned, as ultimately instrumental and effectively subject to renegotiation or cancellation at a moment's notice.

The lessons of impermanence and the systems of separateness intertwine, constantly complementing and reinforcing each other, quickening and emboldening familiar human proclivities. They encourage us to distrust others, because we attribute to others the same attachment to the freedom to do as one pleases that we discern in ourselves. They impel us to suppose that others are withholding themselves from us, because, to safeguard our independence, we routinely withhold a part of ourselves from them. They goad us to suspect that friends and lovers are secretly devising schemes for a fast getaway, because we are carefully and covertly formulating such contingency plans all along.

Moreover, the lessons of impermanence and the systems of separateness are fortified by the fruits of our freedom: economic progress and scientific advance. The siren song of supply and demand persistently murmurs, "Out with the old and in with the new," "All the world is a market," "Everything has a price." Revolutions in medicine and technology -- from the birth-control pill to in vitro fertilization to cloning -- enlarge our freedom by providing powerful tools for controlling our bodies and manipulating biological processes, and at the same time menace it by inexorably insinuating that men and women are fit objects for control and manipulation, limited only by cost and know-how. Of course, individual freedom, along with the economic progress and scientific development it has unleashed, must be counted among the great glories of the modern world. This does not make it a sign of ingratitude (in fact, it may be an obligation arising from our freedom) to inquire, What price glory?

Despite being subtle guides to the anti-romantic tendencies generated by our love of freedom, the Kasses barely notice (though this is of the essence) that it feeds our pronounced romantic tendencies as well. Freedom drives us to prize our uniqueness, for how can we be really free if our feelings and actions conform to patterns followed by others? And if we are unique, is there more than one other who can understand and cherish us and whom we can understand and cherish in return? Perhaps we place extravagant hope in the redemptive power of romantic love because, after our urge toward freedom has overwhelmed the old sources of transcendence, only the union of two in one -- in which each lover, in embracing the beloved, becomes a sturdier, more bountiful individual -- remains to offer those intimations of eternity toward which the human heart seems ceaselessly drawn.

At the same time, the romantic in us exacerbates confusion about courtship and marriage. If our anti-romantic tendencies persuade us to expect too little from marriage, our romantic tendencies seduce us into expecting too much. Simultaneously romantics and anti-romantics, we yearn for the perfect union but conduct our love lives in a manner that renders us increasingly ill prepared to attain it. For us, serial monogamy has displaced courting. This is regarded as progress, on the grounds that you can't know what you haven't tried, and practice makes perfect. But the routine justifications miss the meaning for the heart. By the time we contemplate marriage, we bring not only ourselves to the altar but also the ghosts of lovers past, lurking rivals and well-rehearsed reservations, secret places and forbidden chambers. We accumulate a world of intimate sorrows and joys, and the very attempt to share these can widen the chasms that divide us.

Yet when has marriage not been embattled? When have lovers not labored to preserve their love in the face of the world's temptations and travails? When has courtship not been a fraught and complex affair? Never -- at least not in recorded history or according to the testimony of our literature. Did not Abraham expose Sarah to danger and dishonor during their wanderings in the desert? Did not Aphrodite cuckold her lame husband, Hephaestus, by lying with Ares, the god of war? Did not Shakespeare and Jane Austen, master portrayers of the intricacies of romance and courtship, shy away from depicting the flourishing of love in a lasting marriage? Yes, yes, and yes. But let us not get carried away: although acquaintance with the shoals on which love and marriage have foundered in the past provides perspective and affords a certain comfort, it gives no grounds for complacency concerning the perils of today.

Times change. Old barriers crumble and new ones arise. But the mysteries of the human heart -- the raging passions and tender pathos, the waywardness and loyalty, the fragility and resilience -- endure.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University Law School and is the author of Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1999).

Illustrations by Dominick Rapone.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Wooed by Freedom? - 00.10 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 4; page 128-133.