Rights, Obligations, “Honoring the Struggle,” “Remembering the Reward”

04.19.2013, 10:26 AM

I found the conversation with Larry Mead and David Blankenhorn last night at the Center for Public Conversation extremely helpful in terms of how to talk about strengthening marriage. (The video should be up in the next few days.) Larry talked about how for so long, academics and politicians emphasized the rights of poor people, and social barriers to their thriving. However, while completely acknowledging that these are important, he also emphasizes that poor people, like everyone else, have obligations as citizens to fulfill. In order to have rights, you have to be a participant in society.

Then he started talking about rights and obligations in terms of marriage. He suggested that our society should be more insistent about upholding marriage as a common obligation. (I would specify here that it should be an obligation for those who aspire to lifelong love, and to have a family.  We must honor those people who wish to remain single, or to take on a vow of celibacy. Marriage is not the only ticket to the good life.)

But, Larry insisted, we can’t just uphold marriage as a common obligation–we can’t just have high standards. We have to help people to fulfill the obligation, to live up to the standard. This, he suggested, means ”honoring the struggle” that comes with marriage: the struggle of two selfish human being trying to love each other for life. Sometimes, he noted, a marriage is effectively destroyed before death does them part. For that reason, not all couples will, or should, remain together.

But, marriage is a struggle, and he suggested, we as a society need to be more candid about that struggle. He suggested that in the not-so-distant past, we did have a strong marriage culture that upheld the obligations of marriage–but that did a poor job of honoring the struggle of marriage. Just as a teacher sets high standards for his students ,and then seeks to help them meet those high standards, so we as a society need high standards for marriage, and we need to help people to meet those standards. (I’m not sure what that looks like–but the idea sounds promising.) We need to be open as a society about the difficulties of marriage. Larry suggested that we need biographies of married couples that show the struggle and the reward. I would add that we also  need movies that show this.

Finally, Larry said, in addition to honoring the struggle of marriage, it’s important to “remember the reward” of marriage, ”the pearl of great price”: enduring love–and I would add, an enduring family. This, Larry suggested, is “the good news about marriage”: it really is possible for love to endure. And, again, I would add, it really is possible for a family to remain intact and endure as a touchstone down through the generations as a rock of love and stability.

As Larry noted, the good fruit that comes from marriage is not magical. You don’t automatically get it as a result of getting married. Marriage is not magic. Marriage is a “school of love,” to use a favorite phrase of Catholic theologians.

But in order to get the fruit, you have to participate in marriage.

I would add that participating in marriage also requires confidence; confidence in the character of the other person, and confidence that, if two people of good will and character give it a shot, love can endure.

This confidence is what many poor and working class people, for good reason, lack. There is a low stock of trust capital. Helping people to fulfill the obligation of marriage will require helping young adults to rebuild trust in each other, and in marriage as a capable guide to enduring love, and to an enduring family.

Thanks, David and Larry, for a thought-provoking conversation.


3 Responses to “Rights, Obligations, “Honoring the Struggle,” “Remembering the Reward””

  1. Teresa says:

    David L., I’m in agreement with much of what you’ve said here, reprising Doctor Mead. I part ways only in this: it’s look like we’re shying away from an important ingredient, requisites to marriage. We need to be persons of character to enter into marriage. Each individual should bring some strength of character to this institution for it to work. Strength of character, virtue honed prior to marriage; either through work, education, independent living, military service, owning a business, running a small farm. Commitment that shows one has met common obligation prior to marriage should be a priority.

    Each spouse in marriage, should have some good fruit prior to the marriage for marriage to be a success. Two dysfunctional persons entering into marriage, hoping that somehow it’ll work when nothing they’ve done prior to marriage has worked, is a setup for disaster. Most marriages won’t survive when only one person is bringing character assets, and the other has little.

    In my opinion, we have a large percentage of our population that is ill-equipped to marry. If we don’t manage the front-end of marriage, the pre-req’s; nothing will work. “Do what you always did, get what you always got.”

    Is there actually a ‘right to marriage’, when clearly a train-wreck is about to happen?

  2. Mont D. Law says:

    (Larry suggested that we need biographies of married couples that show the struggle and the reward. I would add that we also need movies that show this.)

    Like the population you’re dealing with reads books about anything. Or watches movies about the struggles of marriage.

    (Is there actually a ‘right to marriage’, when clearly a train-wreck is about to happen?)

    Yes. You have the right to get married to a convicted serial killer and have his children. Tex Watson has 4 concieved while in jail. Linda Wolfe holds the marriage record – she has 23 ex-husbands and is free to shoot for 30.

    (If we don’t manage the front-end of marriage, the pre-req’s; nothing will work.)

    And how exactly is that going to solve anything? Particularly since the real concern is children born without the benifit of marriage. Making it harder to marry just means fewer people will bother.

    (Each individual should bring some strength of character to this institution for it to work.)

    And how is enforcing that going to work exactly? And even if you find a constitutional way to enforce it, unless you chemically sterilize everyone how is that going to reduce the number of children as opposed to marriages?

  3. Diane M says:

    I have been wondering about this. How do you talk about the struggles of marriage without being too discouraging?

    How do you really support people when they are in the middle of the struggle?

    How do you help people when our culture is extremely private and non-communitarian – we rarely talk about our relationships?

    And a thought – perhaps when talking about the struggles of marriage, we should point out that relationships in general are a struggle and that the honeymoon never lasts?