Most of us who are over thirty-five were raised on a certain morality regarding marriage, sex, and family. In brief, we were taught the ideal of one sexual and marriage partner for life. We didn't always live up to this ideal, but, if we didn't, we saw that failure as a certain falling away, a fracturing of the norm. Moreover, this was not just something that we felt was morally nonnegotiable; it was our romantic ethos and part of the very infrastructure of Western imagination. Not only did our churches teach this; our romantic novels glorified it.
Today that concept, that the ideal way to express sexual love is within a lifelong married commitment, is under siege. The challenge comes first of all from practical life, where more and more the norm is not sex inside of marriage and lifelong commitments, but sex outside of marriage, infidelity within marriage, divorce as normal, and various forms of temporarily living together in noninstitutionalized and nonsacramentalized ways. More significantly perhaps, this ideal is being challenged theoretically, both as a moral model and as a romantic ethos. An example of this is Revolution Within, by Gloria Steinem, in which she suggests that the old moral and romantic idea of marriage and the place of sex within it is both flawed and harmful. Among other things she argues that its basis is not morality or true romanticism, but an unfortunate historical accident which (she more than hints) religion helped bring about for its own fearful and patriarchal purposes.
We still think of love as "happily ever after." That was a myth even in the nineteenth century, when, as Margaret Mead pointed out, marriage worked better because people only lived to be fifty. (Charlotte Bronte [who idealized romantic love] herself died at thirty-nine of toxemia during her first pregnancy.) Though an average life span is now thirty years longer in many countries of the world, we haven't really accepted the idea of loving different people at different times, in different ways. It's possible to raise children with a loved partner and then move amicably on to a new stage of life, to love someone and yet live apart, to forge new relationships at every phase of life, even at the very end -- in short, to enjoy different kinds of love, in a way that doesn't hurt but only enriches. Love has such resiliency [here she quotes Alice Walker] that the new face I turn up to you no one else on earth has ever seen. (282-83)
Futurist Alvin Toffler and many other social analysts today suggest roughly the same thing.
What is to be said about this? Is the old moral and romantic idea of marriage, in the end, dysfunctional and repressive? Could Christianity morally sanction a whole different way of living out sexuality and marriage? Should our romantic imagination be radically restructured?
We have today, both practically and theoretically, an antithesis to our classical idea of sex and marriage. Steinem's expression simply articulates what millions of people today in fact believe and live. Are they right? My own belief (and I say this categorically) is that they are not, neither morally nor romantically. However, despite this their critique offers things that need to be integrated, as an antithesis, within the classical view of sex and marriage.
Where it is corrective morally is in its insistence that love and sexuality are complex, evolving, and almost infinitely resilient. Sometimes we didn't emphasize that sufficiently in the past, namely, that falling from the ideal of love leaves scars that are permanent, but not fatal, that love gives us more than one chance in this life, and that we are asked to deeply love more than one person, even within the ideal of monogamy, lifelong commitment, and sex only within marriage -- and not everyone who doesn't fit the norm or who has fallen from it is tainted, fallen, second best, or (like the rich young man) must go away sad. Romantically it also offers something positive, namely, not to put so much stock in the Romeo and Juliet ideal (one man and one woman, destined from all eternity to be salvation and wholeness to each other) so as to render real marriage an institution which can only chronically disappoint.
God writes straight with crooked lines. In the current antithesis to the traditional idea of sex and marriage there is a positive moral and romantic challenge.
ARE HEARTS INFINITELY STRETCHABLE?
The notion that the only proper way to fully express sexual love is within a lifelong marriage is today under siege, both as a moral and a romantic ideal. Not only is practical life challenging it, but many respected analysts are suggesting that the old ideas of sex only within marriage and marriage for a lifetime are historically and socially conditioned notions that life and evolution have now rendered obsolete.
Alvin Toffler, for example, remarks how some of the young people at Woodstock (over thirty years ago already) told him that they practiced free love there because "we'll never see any of these people again, so it's okay! It's not like our lives are irrevocably tied together. In a situation like this, sex is not something that follows a long process of relationship-building. It's a shortcut to deeper communication!" Toffler suggests that, given the high degree of mobility and transience within Western society today, perhaps what was true at Woodstock can now be true for the population at large. The former morality and mystique surrounding sex and marriage, he intimates, made more sense in a culture of little change. Gloria Steinem is suggesting roughly the same thing -- the old ideas of sex and marriage are, for most people today, obsolete. I have just suggested that this critique is not without its merits. Here, however, I want to examine its more negative underside.
Steinem, in her call for an end to the old absolutes regarding sex and marriage, submits that we can move on to a new paradigm within which sex can be given ideal expression outside marriage and within which people can move on to new partners as they move on to new phases in their lives. This, she suggests, can be done in a way that "doesn't hurt but only enriches." She illustrates this with her own story: Some years ago she met a man; they fell in love, became friends, then lovers, and then, after some years, both moved on to take on other lovers -- but, at the same time, were able to retain a deep and life-giving relationship with each other. She holds this up as a possible paradigm for what love, sex, and romance might be within a new order.
I am not one to dispute her experience, but I am one to claim that it is most atypical. What she describes rarely happens in such a way that it "doesn't hurt but only enriches." More often it leaves in its wake a broken heart, a broken life, bitterness, jealousy, emptiness, suicidal restlessness, and depression. The human heart and the human psyche are evolving and resilient, but they have limits regarding how much they can stretch and what they can healthily absorb. Feelings of fierce jealousy, bitter anger, and obsessive depression at losing a relationship are not just culturally conditioned responses. If they are then the great novelists and poets (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kundera, Lessing, Browning, among others) are both wrong and naive. Hearts don't break through lack of enlightenment. They break when the contours of love are violated, when something unbending within them is bent. Fractured relationships, irrespective of the personal maturity of those who suffer them, often cause precisely this kind of bending. "The heart has its reasons," Pascal suggests. Love and sex have their own inner dictates, many of which are a mystery to the understanding. There are aspects of love and sex that simply do not evolve and move on, save for the tearing out of some deep roots within the heart. To suggest that this is not true is to ignore human experience.
Entirely independent of religious considerations, though these might fruitfully be considered, one must be careful in throwing away the old links between sex and marriage and between marriage and lifelong commitment. The anger, bitterness, jealousy, depression, chaos, and not-so-quiet desperation that almost always surround the "evolution to new relationships" are not so much a sign that we need a new paradigm for understanding sex and love as they are the heart's protest.
The thesis that love and sex are infinitely adaptable, that they have no inherent boundaries that demand a certain exclusivity and fidelity in their most intimate expressions, might be an expression of faith in the evolutionary potential of humanity, but, in the end, it is mistaken, both in terms of morality and romance--and is, I submit, more naive than the naivete of traditional morality and romance that it seeks to enlighten. The heart has its reasons. It also has its limits. The old morality of sex and marriage, I believe, protected that insight.