How We Lost The Plot – Elder Bruce C. Hafen

I have watched the universal marriage plot unravel over the last thirty years, as our society has experienced what some observers now call the “collapse of marriage.” Writer Maggie Gallagher believes this pattern is “destroying American society” by creating fatherless homes and increasing single-parent families and births outside wedlock. These conditions all damage children’s health, their psychological development, their social behavior, and their personal happiness. The ripple effects from so much personal harm then devastate the entire society. And yet, she notes, “we have refused to act, taking . . . bizarre comfort in the [new] belief that . . .marriage is ultimately a private matter, and therefore we can do nothing as a society to prevent its collapse.”

How did it come to this, that most people now see marriage—once widely perceived as the core structure of society—as “ultimately a private matter” that, being private, may now be beyond society’s ability to repair? Looking back, we can now see that changes in United States divorce laws and attitudes about marriage in the 1960s and 70s were really part of a much larger historical change that moved many Americans to care more about their self-interest than about the interest of their families and communities.

Some of those changes will be explored a bit further in Part III, but consider here a few headlines about five trends that have contributed to the confusion that almost unconsciously perplexes us today about modern marriage attitudes—individual rights, no-fault divorce, same-gender marriage, the interest of others in our marriages, and optimism and pessimism as defining attitudes.

Individual Rights and the “Liberation” Movements

The individual rights causes that date back to the 1960s began with a compelling need to eliminate racial discrimination, which had become a shameful blot on the nation’s conscience. This original civil rights movement was followed by an important women’s rights movement that eliminated much unfair gender-based discrimination. But before long, some extremist critics went far beyond these much-needed movements, using “rights” language to challenge many laws and customs that had long supported traditional family relationships.

For example, a noted advocate of individual rights said in 1978 that he feared any kind of “domination” by one person over another. So he argued that American law should liberate “the child—and the adult—from the shackles of . . . family” commitments. In that way, “individual rights” attitudes began to challenge one spouse’s right to keep a marriage together and parents’ right to raise children as they thought best, claiming that traditional family ties interfered with the individual’s right to be “free” from the demands or needs of other people, even in the family.  To these advocates, the right to be free was simply more important than the right to be together, because being expected to stay together seemed to them like bondage.

One illustration of how individual rights ideas influenced traditional family law was the famous 1973 abortion case, Roe v. Wade. There the Supreme Court removed the historic right of state legislatures to say when a woman could choose an elective abortion. Roe gave that choice to individual women, rejecting long-held beliefs in our culture about the rights of the unborn child and society’s right to define when life begins.

Building on such individualistic theories, some advocates of extremist radical feminism have more recently attacked the very concept of marriage, insisting that traditional ideas confine mothers and other women to stereotypes of subordination and oppression.

Some court and legislative decisions also began to give individual rights priority over traditionally structured families. These included cases granting parental rights to unwed fathers, or giving child custody and adoption rights to people who lived in unmarried cohabitation or homosexual relationships. These decisions helped develop the legal theories that would one day support the more extreme idea of gay marriage.

Until the 1970s and 80s, American courts would never have awarded child custody to parents living in such “alternative lifestyles,” unless the circumstances allowed no reasonable option. Nearly all of our judges and legislators had long believed that such custody awards were contrary to children’s interests—verified by “several decades of social science evidence which strongly indicates that children do best when raised by a mother and a father.”4 That’s why children born out of wedlock were considered “illegitimate,” and social agencies tried to place them in two-parent homes. But as a more permissive cultural climate accelerated the momentum of ever-expanding personal rights, more and more judges allowed claims of adult personal liberty to trump children’s interests.

When the liberation movements first started, I wondered if a children’s rights movement would follow the civil rights and women’s movements. Children had long enjoyed such “rights” as being entitled to a public education, parental protection, and protection against abuse. But soon the “kiddie libbers” began to urge children’s liberation from any kind of “discrimination” based only on their age—even if that discrimination was designed for children’s own (or society’s) protection, like age limits for driving a car, drinking alcohol, or voting.

For example, I recall explaining in 1972 to our politically alert seven-year-old son that he was too young to vote in the upcoming national election between Nixon and McGovern. He was quite indignant, pointing out, “Hey, I know a lot more about the issues than Grandma and Grandpa do!” He did feel discriminated against—though he has since changed his view about when young people should be old enough to vote.

Since those days, American laws about “liberating children” have changed only somewhat, but many adults still came to favor “leaving children alone,” often to the point of abandoning children to their “rights” to make their own lifestyle choices—everything from writing obscenities in the school newspaper to being sexually active. In 1989 the United Nations adopted a new Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the United States Senate still has not ratified, although most other nations have now accepted it. According to a UN document, this charter was designed “to protect children from the power of parents” and other adults in children’s decision-making about their own lives.

In a summary of how individualistic attitudes have changed American family law, professor Janet Dolgin says our society has now moved from an “outdated” world in which attitudes about women and children were “founded in a hierarchical ideology” to “an egalitarian ideology that presumes the autonomy of the individual in a world of contract.” Our laws thus increasingly recognizes a “right to be let alone,” even in a family. We will see more about this “world of contract” when we compare legalistic “contractual” attitudes toward marriage with more spiritually based “covenant” attitudes.

Professor Dolgin realizes that her new vision of family life leaves spouses and children “without a sense of ultimate responsibility within, and toward, any social group.”She also senses that the new spirit of individual freedom is unable to “anchor people in a social order that encourages responsible connection.”8 But in the world she describes, the priority of personal liberty remains, eroding our interdependence within families and leaving people unsure whether the natural bonds between spouses, parents, and children are valuable ties that bind or are sheer bondage.

No-Fault Divorce

I graduated from law school just before California passed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1968. That law tried to ease the pain of divorce, partly by creating new legal standards and partly by making divorce seem more acceptable. Then, like a fire raging out of control, this movement swept the country until it became easier to end a marriage in America than in any other nation—and the United States still has the world’s highest divorce rate.9 The wind that fanned that social prairie fire was individual rights theory.

Prior to 1968, someone who wanted a divorce had to prove in court that his or her spouse had engaged in real misconduct, such as abandoning the family, adultery, or aggravated mental cruelty. It wasn’t enough just to show that both spouses wanted to end the marriage, because marriage was not understood as simply a private agreement between two people. Rather, people saw marriage as a social institution that played the crucial role of rearing children and teaching all family members to obey unenforceable but vital moral and social obligations. When a truly “broken home” fell apart, society picked up the pieces and covered the costs. Theoretically, only a judge, who represented society’s—and children’s—interests, could determine if a troubled marriage met the standards for divorce. These traditional divorce laws created strong incentives for couples to stay together and work out their problems; however, the old laws did have limits. Some people felt hopelessly stuck in miserable marriages, which aroused public sympathy, especially when no young children were involved. Women caught in messy divorces were often disadvantaged by economic inequalities that left them dependent on their former husbands for financial support. Many divorcing couples fabricated claims of abandonment and adultery to satisfy strict legal standards. The search for “fault” also increased the bitterness in already bitter disputes.

Some family law scholars thought this untidy situation wasn’t so bad, because the old divorce laws were written strictly enough to keep the conservatives happy and enforced flexibly enough to keep the liberals happy. Nonetheless, California’s 1968 no-fault law tried to remedy the problems by removing any requirement to prove misconduct on the part of either spouse. It also added a new, no-fault basis for divorce—irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, regardless of who or what caused it.

In theory, family court judges still represented society’s interests in deciding whether a marriage was, in fact, shattered beyond repair. The new law never intended to let spouses end their relationship simply as a matter of personal choice. And it certainly never intended that one party alone could just announce a marital breakdown and walk away. In practice, however, no-fault judges soon found themselves simply unable or unwilling to impose their judgment about “marriage breakdown” against the will of the partners—or, eventually, even one partner—who had decided he or she wanted to get out of the marriage.

No-fault reform ultimately took on a life of its own. Blending in with the anti-authority mood of the 1960s, the movement gradually altered how society viewed the very nature of marriage. No-fault divorce was the first family law that no longer “looked at marriage . . . as an institution” that held parents and children together. Rather, the reformers came to view marriage as “an essentially private relationship between adults terminable at the will of either”10 and with no one feeling much responsibility for the way a “termination” would affect other people, especially children.

This interpretation led to a fundamental change in attitude, sending married people the signal that, because their marriage was not society’s business, no one had a right to expect the marriage partners to keep striving when their marriage ran into turbulence. It wasn’t long, then, until judges’ doubts about society’s right to enforce wedding vows gave some couples the false impression that those promises held no great social or moral value.

Same-Gender Marriage

In July 2003, the United States Supreme Court overturned a Texas law that made it a crime for unmarried homosexual people to have sexual relations.11 Five months later the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in a 4–3 vote, cited that precedent in concluding that the state could not constitutionally deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.12 As recently as fifteen years earlier, no American court or legislature—in fact, no country in the world—had ever been willing to take same-gender marriage so seriously.

With visible support from the Church in the early 1990s, the citizens of Hawaii, Alaska, and California all adopted public initiatives that explicitly opposed same-gender marriages. Eleven other states joined this list in November 2004. The legislatures of more than thirty other states have enacted similar legislation. Still, a few European countries and the state of Vermont have recently authorized same-gender “domestic partnerships” that confer many legal benefits of marriage. By 2005 only Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain allowed gay “marriage,” but a similar proposal was pending in Canada.

The current American tensions over same-gender marriage may not be resolved without amending the United States Constitution. On July 7, 2004, the First Presidency issued a statement that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favors a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman.”

The dramatic 2003 cases were but the latest steps in an evolution in judicial reasoning that had long been gaining momentum. As described further in chapter 24, the radical “personal autonomy” theory behind the gay marriage case logically extends the same individualistic legal concept that created no-fault divorce in the 1960s. When the law upholds the individual’s right to end a marriage, regardless of social consequences (as happened with no-fault divorce), that principle can also seem to uphold the individual’s right to start a marriage, regardless of social consequences (as with same-gender marriage). That is how today’s national debate on gay marriage is conceptually linked to no-fault divorce.

These ideas have clear implications for traditional marriage. When one believes that starting or ending a marriage is just a personal choice, one is less likely to think of one’s own marriage as a serious social or moral obligation. Without even realizing why they assume and expect what they do, some people therefore feel less committed to making their marriages work and more willing to walk away when they’re not getting what they want.

Same-gender marriage also alters society’s judgment about preserving the best home environment for raising children. Once a couple of the same gender is entitled to a legal marriage, a family court would have more difficulty denying them the right to raise children. Until now, we collectively believed that, whenever possible, children should be raised by both a father and mother. As recently as 2004, for example, a twelve-judge federal appeals court upheld the constitutionality of a 1977 Florida law that forbids homosexual parents from adopting a child. The law was based on the state legislature’s finding that children are better off in homes that have a mother and father.

This pattern made allowance for such obvious exceptions as the death of a parent or a divorce. But until recent years, our experienced-based beliefs about the best interests of children would never have allowed a single person to adopt a child, much less simply make a trip to a sperm bank. Swept along by the currents of individual liberation, however, many judges are now simply unwilling to make judgments about the best moral and developmental home atmosphere for children.

The Interests of Others in Our Marriage

The changes in recent decades have portrayed marriage as an individual adult choice, rather than as a crucial knot in the very fabric that holds society together. We have increasingly lost sight of how much every marriage, and every divorce, affects other people—especially children.

American writer Wendell Berry once described why relatives and friends come so gladly to wedding receptions. These happy gatherings have the feel of a community event—because that’s what they are: “Marriage [is] not just a bond between two people but a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors.” Therefore, Berry continues: “Lovers must not . . . live for themselves alone. . . . They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers . . . are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. . . . If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing. . . . It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.”

Picture the community silently saying to the new couple, “We need your marriage to succeed—for our sake!” And picture the new couple silently saying to the community, “We need your support to help us succeed—for our sake!”

Most people in the past understood Berry’s insight enough to know that shattered families would damage children and parents and thus destabilize society. That’s why G. K. Chesterton once remarked that we should “regard a system that produces many divorces as we do a system that drives men to drown or shoot themselves.”

The need to protect children from this kind of harm was traditionally the basis for the idea that marriage is a social institution, not just a private partnership—because “marriage brings into being an organization to serve interests beyond those of [the husband and wife]“such as those of “the children of that marriage, the extended family,” and society at large. “Marriage is the principal institution for raising children. . . . If it is undermined, children will suffer and are suffering. In the end, society and the state will be afflicted and are being afflicted.”

When divorce and illegitimacy rates began climbing in the 1970s, scholars argued about whether these trends would harm children. In more recent years, a flood of evidence has demonstrated the psychic and social harm of severe family disruption (see chapter 21). Primarily because of these findings, in 2000 a diverse group of leaders and scholars created a new, grass-roots “marriage movement.” President Bush’s 2003 initiative to strengthen marriage drew directly from this movement. Partly through their efforts, partly because of an increased age at first marriage,18 and partly because many of today’s “children of divorce” want a different life for their children from the life their parents gave them, today’s divorce rate has declined slightly from its historic high a decade ago. Even so, the current United States divorce rate would have been dismissed as impossible had it been predicted during the mid-1960s when Marie and I were married.

As the children of the divorce culture now look at their own marriage prospects, the family trauma many of them personally endured has shaken their confidence in traditional family assumptions. This “relationship revolution” has changed “the whole language and concept of marriage. Where 1950s couples spoke of sacrifice, loyalty, unconditional love and hard work in marriage, those values have [now] become unfashionable.” Today’s unmarried live-in couples are “here for a good time, not for a long time.” Yet, as psychologist Hugh McKay put it, this anti-mrriage revolution destroys the motivation to “hang on and work it out.” If marriage seems “too easy, and easy to get out of, maybe you never break through to a rock solid commitment.”

Optimism and Pessimism as Defining Attitudes

Ironically, many of today’s under-committed American couples still dream of “a big wedding,” symbolizing their longing for the certainty of permanent ties. Some families risk bankruptcy just to throw a massive wedding party, and many of these weddings are second and third marriages. Said one news story, “here comes the bride—again and again.”

This reference to big weddings and a longing for permanence introduces an odd paradox about today’s confusion: Just when their families have never seemed less lovable, many people today hunger for eternal family love. The public resonates to movies and books that develop the theme that love can outlast death.

For example, in the 1999 movie What Dreams May Come, a character played by Robin Williams dies in an accident and then joyously finds his family in a dazzlingly colorful “heaven” but only after going through a very ugly “hell” to save his wife.

The concluding scene of the popular musical Les Misérables reinforces a similar hope. In a moving depiction of life and love after death, Fantine returns in a white dress from beyond the veil to welcome the dying Jean Val Jean to her heavenly presence.

Mitch Albiom’s best-selling book The Five People You Meet in Heaven explores how death lets us find explanations for life’s mysteries from the people whose lives most deeply touched us in mortality—including, above all, our families.

Others have also documented this modern hunger for a heaven where people live forever with those they love. For instance, two scholars writing a history about the idea of heaven in Western society found that most Americans today believe not only in a life after death but that family life should continue beyond the grave. This popular belief persists, they said, even though churches other than the LDS Church offer little insight about the subject.

For Latter-day Saints, of course, the dream of an eternal family is a natural as breathing. A few years ago our six-year-old granddaughter was with her family as they drove by an LDS temple one evening. The temple grounds were beautifully lit, symbolically and actually chasing away the dark night. As the car stopped, she looked at the shining temple and said, “When I get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER . . . I’m going to get married in the temple.” Her dream makes us all want to stretch to be big enough for blessings so large.

At first it could seem contradictory that people today would yearn to take their family ties to heaven when so many of their own families are in disarray. In his book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah reported that many Americans have shifted their view of marriage from that of a relatively permanent social institution to a temporary source of personal fulfillment. So when marriage commitments intrude on people’s preferences and convenience, they tend to walk away. Yet, ironically and significantly, Bellah also found that most of the people he interviewed still cling, perhaps in a hopelessly dreamy sense, to the nostalgic notion of marriage based upon loving and permanent commitments as “the dominant American ideal.”23

Perhaps this modern “longing to belong” is not really in spite of today’s widespread family decay but because of the decay. Sometimes we don’t appreciate life’s sweetest gifts until we no longer have them or we seriously fear losing them. Nobody really wants to be lonely, but the lifestyles associated with today’s frenzied search for “individual freedom” often lead, unsurprisingly, to loneliness. And the search to transcend loneliness is a theme of modern life. Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said that the laughter of the world is just a lonely crowd trying to reassure itself.

Research on current American attitudes toward family life further illustrates the difference between what people accept and what they wish for. People today are more tolerant than previous generations about the lifestyle choices others make. Yet, in spite of this new tolerance, most people still don’t believe that everything they tolerate is a wise choice. One survey found that “while there were marked shifts toward permitting previously [socially prohibited] behavior, there were no significant shifts toward believing that remaining single, getting divorced, not having children, or reversing gender roles were positive goals to be achieved. . . . [T]he vast majority of Americans still value marriage, parenthood, and family life. . . . [W]hat has changed [is] an increased tolerance for behavior not previously accepted, but not an increase in the active embracement of such behavior.”

James Q. Wilson said of such data: “Half [of] us approve of other people’s daughters having children out of wedlock, but hardly any of us approve of that for our daughters.” In today’s “widening tension between tolerance and belief,” we “don’t wish to be ‘judgmental,’ unless [we are judging] something we care about, [like] the well-being of the people we cherish.”

Despite society’s increased tolerance for behavior once considered immoral, most people today—paradoxically—do still long deeply for permanent, loving marriages in their own lives. Yet despite those private hopes, the cultural changes of the last generation have also created a widespread pessimism about binding commitments. Such pessimism collides with the popular personal dream of family fulfillment, and that very pessimism is one of the biggest obstacles to fulfilling the dream.

In earlier years, most people worked hard to reach high ideals, such as stable marriage, even when they didn’t achieve their hopes “except at the high points of their lives.” And in those days, the ideals still served as “signposts pointing the way for man’s endless striving,“even in the presence of common human weaknesses.

Striving is a crucial word when the subject is marriage. Marriage, like religious faith, is no more satisfying than we are willing—striving—to make it. William James said: “Belief and doubt are living attitudes, and involve conduct on our part.” If you are climbing a mountain and must jump a chasm to survive, you must “have faith that you can successfully make [the leap. For if you do,] your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself . . . and you will hesitate so long that . . . all unstrung and trembling . . . you roll into the abyss. . . . Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall . . . perish. But believe, and again you shall be right. . . . You make one . . . of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust. [Thus] optimism and pessimism are definitions of the world, [and often we create the kind of world we live in because] our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.”

This principle applies to marriage with uncommon force. Whether we “strive” to make the marriage work may be the most important ingredient in whether it does work. As President Spencer W. Kimball taught, marriage is never easy:

“Happiness does not come by pressing a button. . . . It must be earned. . . .

“One comes to realize very soon after the marriage that the spouse has weaknesses not previously revealed or discovered. The virtues which were constantly magnified during courtship now grow relatively smaller, and the weaknesses that seemed so small and insignificant during courtship now grow to sizeable proportions. . . . The habits of years now show themselves. . . .

“Often there is an unwillingness to settle down and to assume the heavy responsibilities that immediately are there. . . .

“[Still,] while marriage is difficult, and discordant and frustrated marriages are common, yet real, lasting happiness is possible, and marriage can be more an exultant ecstasy than the human mind can conceive. This is within the reach of every couple, every person . . . if both are willing to pay the price.”

Because this is a true principle, the survivability, the happiness, even the “exultant ecstasy” that is possible in a marriage may depend—more than it depends on any other single thing—on whether spouses (and their family and community) expect their marriage to succeed.

Most ordinary people, despite their disappointments, are still willing to believe that marriage can, or at least ought to, work. But as the pessimistic strains of modern culture stir their doubts, more and more people are losing the confidence they need to make their dream possible by their conduct. Then their own doubts will confirm that they were right.

As a silver lining to these modern clouds of confusion, the changing attitudes of the last thirty years may at least help us appreciate the clarity and power of the gospel’s teachings about marriage more than we did when society supported our assumptions. In this world of bewildering lifestyles and compromised commitments, the gospel is our surest hope for gaining the perspective and the discipline we need to fill our heart’s longing for the fulness that marriage can provide.

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