Happy Valentine’s Day — the annual collision of soppy American sentimentality with vulgar mass-market commercialism that combines all the worst of the other big festivities of this time of year: The pressurized, prepackaged, pretending-to-have-a-good-time vibe of New Year’s Eve, the Girls Gone Wild ugliness of Mardi Gras, and the vulgar consumerism of the Super Bowl.
Exchange all the gross candy hearts you want, the divorce rate is still going to be 50 percent.
When they write the sexual history of the early 21st century, they’ll have a good laugh about us. At the precise moment in time when “what are your pronouns?” became a meaningful inquiry, when we were all obliged to pretend that Bruce Jenner is a woman and that the facts of life are infinitely malleable, when all the best people were insisting that the binary sexual condition of primates is a devious social construct, what was happening on the street level? All the cool kids in Brooklyn were running as fast as they could in the opposite direction, without ever being quite bold enough to admit that’s what they were doing: The fashionable young men grew enormous mountain-man beards, and all of the sophisticated young women took up knitting for about five minutes.
The word “lumbersexual” entered the popular lexicon.
While the best and brightest of the legal profession (such as they are) were duking it out in the Supreme Court over gay marriage, marriage as such had effectively ceased to exist for most outside of a small, educated, affluent, and overwhelmingly white elite, who may talk a good sexual-liberationist game but choose themselves to live like Ozzie and Harriet.
The numbers are disputed –– the numbers always are disputed — but somewhere between 40 percent and half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. When Cornell demographics researcher Sharon Sassler took up the question of nonmarital cohabitation some years ago, she was surprised when her survey subjects kept spontaneously bringing up their fears of future divorce. As she told Huffpo Divorce, a section of the Huffington Post that apparently exists:
We actually didn’t have a specific question about divorce. We were asking about what the benefits of cohabitating are relative to marriage. The fact that divorce spontaneously arose in such a large proportion of the responses was what was surprising, because we weren’t looking for it, and it kind of slapped us in the face. Also surprising was that, regardless of whether the cohabitators had personally experienced their parents’ divorce, they expressed concerns about divorce themselves.
Slapped in the face by reality. Happens to most of us, sooner or later.
Here’s some reality: The divorce figures aren’t the worst part of the story, or even close to it. For a growing share of the U.S. population, marriage is only an afterthought. About 40 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried mothers. (That is, oddly enough, a slight improvement over recent years.) Some 28 percent of American women with two or more children have those children by two or more fathers. (That’s 59 percent of African American mothers, 35 percent of Hispanic mothers, and 22 percent of white mothers.) In the dry assessment of the marital scholars: “Children from a previous union reduce parental union formation prospects, especially for mothers.”
The differences in life prospects between children brought up in married-parent households vs. those raised in the new ordinary chaos of American family life are pronounced, correlating with everything from income to felony convictions. In this age of “Do It for the Children” social posturing, the one thing we won’t do for the children is be decent parents, giving them the benefits of a stable, safe, nurturing home. A hashtag campaign is no substitute for that.
Of all the stupid and destructive products of 1960s-style liberation politics, the effective abolition of marriage (and hence of family, properly understood) will, in the end, turn out to be the worst. And spare me your banal self-justifications: “I divorced my child’s mother, but I’m a good father!” “I was never married to my child’s father, but I’m a good mother.” I’m sure you think you are.
Statistically speaking, your domestic situation is about as healthy for your children as would be your picking up a drug habit. (Yes, yes, I’m sure that you are the special-snowflake exception to the rule. One of these days, a three-legged horse might win the Kentucky Derby, too.) The numbers are the numbers.
Strange thing: Wildly different philosophical and religious orientations all point to the same central fact of human life. In Genesis, it’s “male and female he created them.” In Plato, we spend our lives seeking the lost half of ourselves from which we were separated by the gods. In good ol’ Darwinian terms, the getting of healthy offspring is the very purpose of life itself. We parted ways with the chimps a few eons ago, and somewhere along the way we developed habits and institutions that helped us to connect our libidos with one of our most useful and uniquely human traits: the ability to engage in long-term planning, even beyond our own lives.
And then, around 1964, we said: “To Hell with it, let’s just be chimps.”
And here we are.
The situation is desperately unhappy, of course. Economic realities have contributed to the effacement of traditional sex roles, of course: Male virtues such as physical strength, endurance, and courage are not especially important in finance or software development, and the sacrifices associated with motherhood are less attractive when compared with all of the other options on the table. But then, you open the pages of any gun magazine or see the covers of the fitness magazines at the newsstand, and you’ll notice that about half of American men of a certain age have cultivated a Chris Kyle beard, and a great many of them are wearing “tactical pants” to dinner at the Golden Corral. (“The windows of Army surplus stores constituted hymns to male powerlessness,” as William Gibson put it.) A man watching American Sniper must feel a twinge of envy:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
But I wonder what it was like to watch that film as a 21st-century American woman. Historically, men serving in the military have slightly lower rates of divorce than their civilian counterparts. Women serving in the military have much, much higher rates of divorce than their civilian counterparts. Social constructs? That’s a glib way of refusing to talk about reality. And the reality is that men and women are happier when they and their opposite numbers are given the opportunity to be what they are. You can do your damnedest to create an androgynous society, but little boys are still going to reach for the toy gun before they reach for Barbie.
But we must have our delusions, and so we’ll fret and spend to celebrate romantic love in a society in which the most popular books of purported poetry are half-literate verses from decrepit pop stars and the great recent publishing sensation among women was a work of Twilight-based pornographic fan-fic. Good luck with that.
That being said, if you’re looking for a last-minute Valentine’s Day gift, I suggest picking up the complete works of Michel Houellebecq. But you’ll want to find somewhere else to spend the night.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.