Thursday, December 27, 2012

Promise keeping


A friend recently forwarded me an article in The Atlantic, "How I Learned to Stop Criticizing and Be Nice to My Husband" (December 17, 2012) Written by a self-professed evangelical Christian and author of The Respect Dare, Nina Roesner, the article surprised me and then prompted some musings about relationships.

Roesner surprised me because she did not hew – at least in the article –to a conventional evangelical Christian line about wives obeying their husbands. Instead, she emphasized mutuality: husbands and wives should respect and love one another. While I would insist on broadening her understanding of marriage to include same sex couples, her emphasis on mutual love and respect is basic.

When Roesner's marriage hit the rocks, rather than abandoning her partner, she did something unusual in the twenty-first century: she took a hard look at herself and her behaviors. She concluded that she and her husband shared many goals and values; she also recognized that when she criticized her husband, she often did so unfairly and in a way that communicated disrespect rather than her true feelings. All couples could learn (or have current behaviors reinforced) from this insightful, relatively short article.

Concurrently, I was reading some of philosopher's John Rawl's thoughts on promise keeping.

"… what would one say of someone who, when asked why he broke his promise, replied simply that breaking it was best on the whole? Assuming his reply is sincere, and that his belief was reasonable (i.e., one need not consider the possibility that he was mistaken), I think that one would question whether or not he knows what it means to say 'I promise' (in the appropriate circumstances). It would be said of someone who used this excuse without further explanation that he didn't understand what defenses the practice, which defines a promise, allows to him. If a child were to use this excuse one would correct him; for it is part of the way one is taught the concept of a promise to be corrected if one uses this excuse. The point of having the practice would be lost if the practice did allow this excuse." (John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," Philosophical Review LXIV, No. 1 (1955), 3-32 quoted in Paul W. Taylor, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing, 1967), p. 285)

Divorce rates, although down slightly from the late twentieth century, remain hear historic highs. Social scientists are accumulating a vast amount of data that shows parental divorce is generally bad for children. Among other things, most children in single parent families have a lower standard of living and more emotional difficulties. Most of the time, a stepparent is at best a poor substitute for a biological parent. The children who survived the Newtown massacre, and other children who have had to cope with significant suffering or evil, obviously need both parents.

Having counseled hundreds of couples who were considering divorce, I found that the most common difficulty was that one or the other partner had decided that the grass was greener elsewhere, whether as a single or in a different intimate relationship. Therapists and clergy, whose experiences match my observations, often describe marriage today as serial monogamy.

Two caveats are essential. First, divorce is sometimes morally right. No person should have to live in a condition of mental or physical abuse, fearful for personal safety or the safety of his or her children. Similarly, abandonment morally justifies divorce. Second, divorce is not the unpardonable sin (only one is mentioned in the Bible, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – whatever that is, it is assuredly not divorce). Stigmatizing the divorced, forcing the divorced to play a hypocritical game such as the Roman Catholics do with their annulment process, or otherwise failing to embrace fully, wholeheartedly, and graciously the divorced is morally reprehensible.

That said, couples who marry need to take marriage more seriously. Marriage is a serious promise. Moderns take promises too lightly, e.g., few people seem to honor their word as their bond, but prefer to have everything in writing with pages of fine print to cover every contingency.

Rawls is right: a child who offered the excuse that she or he did not feel like keeping a promise should expect adults to reject that excuse. Yet people who opt out of marriage often do so for little reason. Roesner's resuscitation of her marriage required years of effort. Her husband eventually noticed that she had changed, and began to change his own behavior.

Keeping a marriage promise is a duty, not a hedonistic act.

·         "The point of having rules derives from the fact that similar cases tend to recur and that one can decide cases more quickly if one records past decisions in the form of rules…

·         "The decisions made on particular cases are logically prior to rules. Since rules gain their point from the need to apply the utilitarian principle to many similar cases, it follows that a particular case (or several cases similar to it) may exist whether or not there is a rule covering that case…

·         "Each person is in principle always entitled to reconsider the correctness of a rule and to question whether or not it is proper to follow it in a particular case. As rules are guides and aids, one may ask whether in past decisions there might not have been a mistake in applying the utilitarian principle to get the rule in question, and wonder whether or not it is best in this case…" (John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," Philosophical Review LXIV, No. 1 (1955), 3-32 quoted in Paul W. Taylor, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing, 1967), p. 286)

Tragically, marriage is becoming less prevalent among the poor and middle class. When exiting a marriage (i.e., divorce) is so easy and people opt to exit when a marriage no longer seems fulfilling or pleasing, people begin to wonder why bother getting married? Why make a promise that has little likelihood of being fulfilled?

Reading Rawls after reading Roesner's article changed my thinking about marriage. I've never thought about leaving my partner and always presumed that in a good marriage people stay together from choice not any sense of duty. In retrospect, I think my marriage is more special than I had realized. Most couples experience seasons in which separation, or even divorce, appears more attractive than remaining in the relationship. We collectively will benefit if we help couples honor their promises to stay with one another in good times and bad, health and sickness, wealthy and poverty – keeping mind the two caveats above.

Matthew's gospel records that the Holy Family, after Jesus' birth, fled Bethlehem for Egypt to avoid Herod's slaughter of the innocent children. Imagine the immense stress Mary and Joseph felt. Not only did they have a new child, but also Jesus was born out of wedlock and then the presumably impoverished threesome had to flee for their lives to an alien land in which they probably knew nobody. I wonder how many times Joseph felt like throwing in the towel and abandoning Mary and her (not his!) baby. Of course, in that patriarchal society, Mary had no choice but no stay with Joseph. And before one romanticizes the characters too much, Christians have always maintained that Mary and Joseph were just humans, without even a hint of extraordinary divinity. We would do well to reclaim the Holy Family, not in its gender composition but in its commitment to one another, as a model for our families.

2 comments:

Ted said...

In the last thirty or so years, the community has not only approved of divorce; but in some cases requested it. Our schools have elevated our egos and self esteem so people don’t have to work together or learn to give and take. We have gone away from penalties or shunning to “understanding” other’s problems. In earlier days having children out of wedlock could have resulted in shotgun weddings or the couple got married and made it work. Not today. There is too much “entitlement” to care about our mistakes.
Divorce would not be so bad if children were not involved. We all make mistakes and divorce may be the better option instead of continued abuse by either or both parties.
Until there is a penalty for people’s actions other than the state, parents, family, or grandparents raising their children, there is no solution and the kids probably grow up with the same attitude. No amount of therapy, education, or hand-holding will solve this problem.
Another issue where prayer will not solve the problem.

George Clifford said...

Ted, Of course, the efficacy of prayer depends upon one's definition of prayer and understanding of its dynamics. A word in God's ear may have amazing effects that defy rational explanation. Prayer may also change the person for whom one prays and often changes the one who is praying, subjects about which I have written before. Most importantly, one of the most vital expressions of prayer is love in action, which can change promise keeping directly. I remain optimistic: I think people can become better promise keepers without the necessity of negative social pressures.