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The work of Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Mahattan Institue and a contributing editor to City Journal, deserves close attention. No one I know of today is as keen a student of contemporary trends as they apply to love and marriage. She has a book coming out on Tuesday entitled Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys, and she has written a teaser touching on its main themes – which I hope to discuss tomorrow or the next day.
Today, however, I want to introduce her thinking by looking back at a piece she wrote for The Wall Street Journal last year, in which she drew on that book’s predecessor Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. The piece I have in mind was entitled Losing Confidence in Marriage.
In it, Hymowitz alludes to the infidelities of John Edwards, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford and cites articles and posts in which Sandra Tsing Loh and Kerry Howley have expressed a certain skepticism about the future of marriage.
Part of what Hymowitz wants to point out is that in some parts of the American population marriage is less fleeting today than it was thirty years ago. “In actuality,” she points out, “the divorce rate for college-educated women has been declining since 1980,” and “out-of-wedlock childbearing among the educated class remains rare.” Moreover, the typical divorce takes place relatively soon after the marriage takes place. “The risk of break-up goes up after one year of marriage and peaks at 4 ½ years.” If something like 40% of children are born out of wedlock, it is because marriage has collapsed among those who did not attend college. It is the nexus between class and conduct that we should attend to.
This is troubling, but it makes sense to me. It fits what I saw around me when I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It fits what I see around me here in Hillsdale, Michigan. But there is one claim that she makes in her article that seems wrong to me.
Hymowitz is sensible. She links marriage with the bearing and rearing of children; she does not call it matrimony (which derives from a Latin term meaning “the condition of motherhood”), but that is what she has in mind. She describes it as “a human invention designed to create order and some semblance of permanence out of natural chaos in order to rear the next generation,” and she says that the skeptics are on to something when they argue “that long-term, monogamous unions are at odds with nature.”
I am not sure, however, that in saying this she does full justice to nature’s complexity. We human beings are a restless lot. That much I will grant. We possess nomadic instincts, and we tend to stray. But we also long for rest – which explains why, as she puts it, “the marrying classes still want love with a capital L.” This longing seems to me to be as natural as and perhaps even more natural than the inclination to wander. Order is an achievement, but it may, nonetheless, be more natural than chaos.
I am also surprised at this claim. “Kids tend to decrease marital satisfaction, social scientists tell us. It starts with the first child and goes downhill from there.” Children, she claims, “suck up all the oxygen that used to be spent, um, communicating,” and “marital happiness increases once the kids are gone.”
There is no doubt something to this. When I go off to Europe or the Middle East, as I am on occasion wont to do, I wish that I could take my wife, and she would love to go. But this would be prohibitively expensive were we to take our brood of four with us, and we would spend the bulk of our time ministering to them. Yet I cannot say that their presence decreases marital satisfaction. Within my experience, it gives it substance.
Marriage is a special form of friendship, and Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics is our finest moral guidebook, says that there are three kinds of philia – friendship based on pleasure, friendship based on utility, and friendship based on virtue.
The first of these is easy to describe: it is the sort of friendship that unites children in play, and it lasts as long as they are capable of having fun together – which is to say, it is fragile and fleeting. Friendship of utility is similar. It unites business partners, who have cordial relations as long as they are both profiting from the tie. It dissolves in the absence of utility. Friendships based on virtue tend to be more robust. They are grounded on the presence of a common good – something for which each of the friends readily and happily makes sacrifices.
Some friendships are pure. They are based on pleasure or on utility, and that is that. Most are mixed. Pleasure and utility are by no means incompatible, and friendships of virtue are nearly always pleasant and useful as well.
For most people most of the time, the supreme friendship of virtue is marriage. It has an association with intense pleasure. The partners in marriage are of use to one another. But the main thing that unites them in the long run is neither pleasure nor convenience; it is a common project. They both love their children; they spend endless hours deliberating together (not negotiating) concerning their well-being; they readily sacrifice that which they find pleasant and that which they find useful for the good of their offspring; and they do not much lament the sacrifices they make.
I do not mean to say that there can be no other common good in a marriage. Some couples write books together; farm couples farm together; missionary couples collaborate in evangelization; and there are pastimes of a noble character that can also serve as a substitute for progeny. But for most married people most of the time, children are the common good – a source of anxiety and a source of joy. If kids really decrease marital satisfaction, why are childless marriages more apt to end in divorce than marriages that bear fruit?
I sometimes tease my students, who tend to be a fairly strait-laced lot, by suggesting that when I think about sex I always think about Hillsdale College. When they look at me as if I have finally taken leave of my senses, I ask them, “How many children does Professor X possess?” And I add, “There is something to be said for life in a little town far from the madding crowd blessed with long winters and an abundance of nothing to do.” The truth is that with four children I would be considered a bit of a freak on almost any other campus in the United States. Here – where colleagues of mine have thirteen, eight, six children – I with a mere four am considered a piker. And yet nowhere in my perambulations throughout the world have I encountered in one place so many blissfully happy couples.