Hedonistic America and Marriage

In reading this article on CNN, I was struck by how our culture has completely forgotten what marriage and love are. In the article, one couple is interviewed where, though married, they live in separate homes. The reason is the father claims the kids don’t need a new mother and the wife claims that living separately helps the marriage and allows each partner to maintain their respective space. In reading the comments by CNN readers, most focus on the happiness of individuals within marriages, some going so far to say that if it makes you happy, then do it.

The idea of placing one’s happiness, so long as it brings no harm to others (but even here, we see a gray area), as the central theme to one’s morality has become quite popular in America. The above example is perfect; the obligation of husband to wife and of wife to husband, the obligation to be self-sacrificial, to be selfless, and to become one is viewed as immoral by the masses because such obligations supposedly prevent happiness. When happiness is prevented and said happiness wouldn’t necessarily bring harm to any other individual, our culture looks at the prevention and views it as wrong.

When this is applied to marriage, what we have are two individuals who come together in a legal sense, but who remain two individual. Though minimal sacrifices are made, each individual seeks to continue on in his or her independence and individuality. The idea that one can have a successful marriage that ends centers on the idea that happiness is humanity’s ultimate ethical end. Under the view that happiness is central, a marriage can be successful as long as both parties are happy. Once both parties have decided that the marriage makes them unhappy, they can peacefully obtain their divorce and be on their ways. Thus, the marriage was “successful” because both were happy for a time and amicably divorced.

The fact is, however, that hedonism has no place in marriage. Though one might be “happy,” such happiness is minuscule and ultimately worthless when compared to self-sacrificial love. The ultimate way to show love for another human is to sacrifice (within reason) for that human. A parent shows love for a child by putting the child’s needs ahead of the parent’s needs. A brother shows love for his sister by thinking of her needs before committing an action. And a husband shows his love for his wife by thinking if his actions help, hinder, or hurt her before he engages in such actions. When he realizes that his actions are ultimately selfish and not selfless and then chooses not to partake in those actions, he has shown love for his wife, more so than any diamond necklace or ring ever could.

Marriage is a struggle. It is not a state of perpetual happiness. Though I am not married, I grew up watching my own parents struggle in marriage and I watch many of my current friends struggle in marriage. To quote from G.K. Chesterton, “The success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon.” There are times and periods in marriages where everything is blissful, but then reality sets in. At that point, the marriage becomes a struggle, where some days you simply don’t even want to see or think about the person you’re married to.

To quote from Chesterton again, “If Americans can be divorced for ‘incompatibility of temper’ I cannot conceive why they are not al divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.” The ideal within marriage is that when one is unhappy, one will force one’s self to be happy. This may not sound fun, but it is the reality of the ideal. When a husband is unhappy, he must find something within the marriage that makes him happy. If the unhappiness persists, then he should talk to his wife and to a trusted pastor or male confidant (who is wise) in order to see if his unhappiness is being caused by his own selfish desires. No matter what, though, he should fight and fight and fight again to protect his marriage and to save it. The moment he is unhappy isn’t the moment he should consider abandoning his wife; rather, the moment he is unhappy is the moment he can truly begin to prove how much he loves his wife.

Some might object and say, “The ideal doesn’t work for over 50% of Americans! If it doesn’t work, it must be wrong!” This is where pragmatism, the evil step-sister to American Hedonism, begins to show it’s ugly face. If something doesn’t work, then according to pragmatism, that something must be wrong. I would argue, however, that it’s not that the ideal has fail the people, but rather the people have failed to reach the ideal. It’s not that 50% tried the ideal and it failed, but that 50% failed because they never obtained the ideal.

For instance, over half of all Americans are overweight. There is an ideal weight for a person’s body type and over half are above that ideal weight. They have failed to obtain the ideal. Does this mean that the ideal weight is wrong? Of course not! We know that the ideal weight increases health benefits, allows for a healthier life, and shows that the person is taking care of himself. Just because over half of the country has failed to obtain the ideal doesn’t mean the ideal is wrong. In fact, 99% could fail, but the failure rate would only indicate a problem in the society and with the individuals, but it would say nothing about the ideal.

Within marriage, the ideal is self-sacrificial love. It’s the idea of loving the other when such love is hard and inconvenient. For the man, it’s the idea that instead of having poker night or watching the big game, they would instead stay at home and watch a “chick flick” with their wife or let her talk about her worries and cry over her fears. For the woman, self-sacrificial love is the idea of letting her husband go do “guy things” (so long as these things aren’t immoral) on a Saturday afternoon instead of making him feel guilty for doing such things. But even the above examples are almost superficial when compared to the deeper concepts of love. To be selfless in love means you put the other person’s needs ahead of your own. This means that no matter how successful you are in your career, if you place it above your family or above your spouse, you are being selfish rather than selfless. To be in love and in a marriage means to sacrifice everything, and if everything is not being sacrificed, then true love does not exist.