Marriage in an Age of Rights

While flicking through our local community newspaper recently, I came across two ads which struck my attention. Both ads were for divorce services. One ad read simply: “Divorce ‘R’ Us: low cost divorce” and gave a phone number. The second ad began as follows: “Breakdown of your marriage. The breakdown of your marriage or your de facto relationship is a very painful and worrying experience. You want someone you can trust and who will take the time to listen. Most importantly, you want to know your rights.” The ad went on to talk about one’s legal rights in a divorce proceeding, and how to contact these solicitors.

Such ads were not seen 25 years ago. That is because a seismic shift has taken place in our culture over the last few decades. We have gone from a culture that emphasized duties and responsibilities to a culture which says: look out for number one, get out of life all that you can, demand your rights. In terms of family relationships, this means we have moved from a culture of marriage to a culture of divorce. As a result, we can now expect one in three marriages to end in divorce.

In an age where everyone demands his or her rights, and very few think in terms of responsibilities and community good, this is not surprising. Marriage, like any other commitment, will not long survive in an atmosphere of rights-talk. When notions of responsibility and working for the social good are replaced with rugged individualism and me-first-ism, no social contract can be expected to survive.

While there are things governments can do to make societies more marriage-friendly, at the end of the day, it is personal changes of heart that will be required. Governments cannot legislate away selfishness and egocentrism. Individual’s attitudes and belief systems will have to be altered. And this will not always be easy – nor welcomed.

Several years ago I was invited to speak at a conference put on by a single mothers’ association. I mentioned that while the ideal of the two-parent family should be affirmed, single mums also need a lot of help and support. I also shared how marriage is made more difficult in an age where rights take precedence over responsibilities, and that we need to encourage partners and spouses to live giving, forgiving and self-sacrificing lives.

Their reaction to my talk was not exactly enthusiastic. Most of the women there did not seem interested in hearing about forgiveness and self-sacrifice; they were more concerned about asserting their rights and affirming their independence. Many of these women undoubtedly had very real grounds for their anger, bitterness and unwillingness to forgive. It is easy when hurt to think in terms of rights as opposed to responsibilities. And it is not just women who are asserting rights while eschewing duties: much of the rhetoric of men’s groups is similarly focused on the assertion of one’s rights. In such an atmosphere of everyone demanding his or her own rights, is it any wonder that marriages are failing and divorce rates are spiraling, or that other social pathologies like road rage are surfacing? As the old proverb says, how can two people walk together unless they be in agreement?

Nonetheless, I believe that it is possible to reverse the divorce trend. I believe that by applying the timeless wisdom of Judeo-Christian principles, two people can walk together, and grow in love and intimacy. I believe there can be successful marriages and strong families. Such relationships may go against the grain of modern culture, but we need to affirm and reaffirm such ideals.

And such relationships will not be achieved without a lot of hard work. Anything worth pursuing in life takes time and effort. Anything of value does not come cheaply. But the effort is well worth it. The alternative is just not a goer.

The results of this massive cultural experiment in hedonism, selfishness and rights-talk are now in: it has been a monumental failure. Individuals are wounded, families are hurting, societies are fragmenting and hope is becoming ever more elusive. That is why the tried and tested principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage need to be once again proclaimed with conviction and clarity.

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