The wildest idea of the 18th century was that humans could form their own government and rule as equals.
The craziest idea of the 19th century was that romantic love was more important than social responsibility.
In the 20th Century, the two ideas collided.
Both ideas assumed there was virtue in self interest. The American Revolution was based on a belief that citizens could shape their personal destiny, and form a society where they could all pursue the happiness of their choice. The Romantic Revolution sprang from the assumption that the human spirit could only be fulfilled by allowing people to live true to their passions.
For most of our history, Americans adopted only part of the Romantic manifesto, ignoring its more self-centered aspects. Love led to marriage, which was a lifelong commitment. (American society disapproved strongly of divorced adults and single parents, and was not to supportive of single adults, either.) The stability of marriage, and the lack of romantic experimentation, produced a strong, if not contented, society centered on family life.
A common code of morality — which was often promoted more than it was practiced — helped give the young, disjointed nation a sense of unity. But ultimately, Americans wanted the right to define morals for themselves and their families. Their desire for romantic fulfillment eventually parted with the need to contribute to the common good.
According to Arthur Schlesinger, America’s moral code collided with personal ideas of romance and fulfillment in the early 20th century. In his “Informal History of Love U.S.A.” he observes,
“How shocking at the time were the first intimations of sexual liberation just before the First World War; how innocent they seem in retrospect! War itself hastened the disappearance of the old inhibitions, bringing back from France a new generation determined to live life to the full. The success of the feminist movement increased the pressure against the double standard. The psychology Sigmund Freud gave the role of sex in life a fresh legitimacy.… And, as the new psychology and the new leisure encouraged romantic love, so the new technology simplified life for romantic lovers. The automobile offered lovers mobility and privacy at just the time that contraceptives, now cheap and available, offered them security. Advertising and popular songs incessantly celebrated the cult of sex. Above all, the invention of the movies gave romantic love its troubadours and its temples of worship.”
It was inevitable that American society would redefine its morals. The old Victorian model was invasive, unproductive, and — in time — hypocritical.
However, the redefining moral seemed to go on continually. America couldn’t seem to settle on a new code for romantic and sexual norms. By 1966, when Schlesinger was writing this Post article, lasting love, and marriage was definitely in trouble.
“…the Age of Love has hardly turned out to be an age of fulfillment. If sexual repression failed to produce happiness in the 19th century, sexual liberation appears to have done little better in the 20th. More than that, while repression at least preserved the family, if at times by main force, the pursuit of happiness through love is now evidently weakening the family structure itself. Divorce, of course, is an expression of the determination to make romance legal at any cost: so, if one marriage fails, another must be promptly started; and the steady increase in divorce in these years — the rate trebled from 1900 to 1960 — suggest how the pursuit of love is paradoxically leading to the breakdown of marriage. Freedom, instead of resolving the dilemmas of love, is only heightening anxiety.”
Mr. Schlesinger might have thought divorce a license for continual romance in 1966. It would be interesting to know what he thought four years later when he divorced his wife of 30 years.
According to Elizabeth Gilbert, an enlightened society that allows people to choose their own partner will eventually have to give them the right to separate from that partner. In her recent book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, she shares “the single most interesting fact I’ve learned about the entire history of marriage: Everywhere, in every single society, all across the world, all across time, whenever a conservative culture of arranged marriage is replaced by an expressive culture of people choosing their own partners based on love, divorce rates will immediately skyrocket. You can set your clock to it.”
In the same 1966 issue in which Schlesinger’s article appeared, the Post published results of a Roper survey about marriage. It begins with the now-familiar lament about America’s vanishing morals.
“There is a widely held conviction, almost an unquestioning assumption, that the moral quality of life in this country is changing for the worse. Fully half of us believe that the amount of closeness and love in the average American family has declined since we were children, and very few think that it has improved. Even young men and women just arrived at adulthood sense a loss of grace in family life in the few years since they were children. And more than two thirds of us, young and old, are convinced that sexual moral standards in America are worse than they were a generation ago—part of the same pervasive impression of old and good values fading away.”
And yet, “when Americans are asked to answer questions about their own conduct and views, and those of the people they know best, a quite different picture emerges of the state of love, marriage and morality in the United States.” According to one statistic, “Today’s Americans generally feel that they are more happily married than their parents were.”
Since 1966, the divorce rate has continued to climb. Marriage is declining, partly because couples are deliberating more before committing (43 percent of American adults now define themselves as ‘single’), and are marrying later. They are also postponing marriages until the economy improves, just as couples did in the 1930s.
The odds against lifelong love and marriage are high, but a majority of couples think they are doing better than the previous generation. A CBS News Poll from last month reported that 55 percent of the Americans they surveyed thought their marriages were better than their parents.