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An Unconstrained Society

As a kid, I remember feeling constraint, “a state of being checked, restricted or compelled to avoid or perform some action” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Constraint is experienced as a force that limits and directs what choices and options we have to act. I knew, almost without conscious thought, that there were expectations of what I could do and what I could not do; what was good and what was not good. And then, during America's cultural revolution in the sixties and seventies all hell broke loose. Two landmark legal decisions weakened and undermined constraint in our society. One is no fault divorce beginning with Ronald Reagan's 1969 signing of California's law and the 1973 Supreme Court's ruling to legalize abortion. Both of these decisions made it easier, lessened constraint, on what we individually, unilaterally could do. We had the “right” to make decisions that was in the best interest of me, not us. These decisions helped elevate individual choice and freedom over community good. The effect has been disastrous on our society contributing to much of the social dysfunction we are experiencing today. I believe this has significantly contributed and is continuing to contribute to our loss of freedom.

Consider this comment by Bradford Wilcox, director of the Marriage Project ( “Prior to the late 1960s, Americans were more likely to look at marriage and family through the prisms of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. A successful, happy home was one in which intimacy was an important good, but by no means the only one in view. A decent job, a well-maintained home, mutual spousal aid, child-rearing, and shared religious faith were seen almost universally as the goods that marriage and family life were intended to advance.
But the psychological revolution's focus on individual fulfillment and personal growth changed all that. Increasingly, marriage was seen as a vehicle for a self-oriented ethic of romance, intimacy, and fulfillment. In this new psychological approach to married life, one's primary obligation was not to one's family but to one's self; hence, marital success was defined not by successfully meeting obligations to one's spouse and children but by a strong sense of subjective happiness in marriage — usually to be found in and through an intense, emotional relationship with one's spouse. The 1970s marked the period when, for many Americans, a more institutional model of marriage gave way to the "soul-mate model" of marriage.
Of course, the soul-mate model was much more likely to lead couples to divorce court than was the earlier institutional model of marriage. Now, those who felt they were in unfulfilling marriages also felt obligated to divorce in order to honor the newly widespread ethic of expressive individualism.”
Removing constraint on self expression with “an ethic of expressive individualism” is inherently destructive, it tears down and tears apart rather than builds up and connects. Or consider the “soul mate model of marriage” that places personal fulfillment over “duty, obligation, and sacrifice” for the good of the marriage and family. The effects a generation of divorce and breakdown in the family has had on our economic, physical, psychological, and social well being is well documented as every statistical examination of these factors indicate a significant loss in measures of well being. When we are losing ground on such measures, we are losing freedom because our choices become limited.

Even though divorce rates are dropping among the better educated and economically advantaged, the recent case of Mark Sanford and his wife Jenny (her recently released book about her response to his infidelity is Staying True) might be a prime example of the “soul mate model of marriage”. He is alleged to have said to his wife Jenny when discussing reconciling their marriage: “You expect me to give up my soul mate?” He also apparently refused to include a promise to marital fidelity in their wedding vows. Jenny's response? “In retrospect, I suppose I might have seen this as a sign that Mark was not fully committed to the time, though, I thought his honesty was brave and sweet.”

Wow. Both of these obviously bright, talented, and socially successful people have an incredibly skewed perspective on what love is. It is apparent that Jenny Sanford was attempting to live out the “duty, obligation, sacrifice” version of marriage while her husband clearly, and “honestly” was not. It is easy to do a “you've got to be kidding me” response to this but given our cultural milieu of what constitutes a good relationship it is not so surprising. There really is very little legal and societal constraint that compels us in the direction of what is good for all of us; our children, our families, our spouses, and paradoxically our selves. We are a mess when it comes to loving and caring for one another in a way that produces successful human beings. A good place to begin is understanding what is good and appropriate constraint on our desires so that we might be able to be there for each other.

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