I had just started high school at the beginning of the Seventies when Erich Segal’s best-selling tearjerker Love Story and its theater-filling movie version were released to harrow the souls of the romantic. Segal had set out to write an elemental love story in a contemporary setting, so it featured a rich guy/poor girl, WASP/ethnic Italian, Protestant/Catholic match-up that endured through parental opposition, hard times, and finally, of course, a fatal disease that took down the heroine, Jenny, known for her signature response to her spouse’s apology after their first big marital fight: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (Yes, I know that this is precisely the reverse of everyone else’s experience of love, but it touched the hearts of many youthful, mostly female spectators.) Central to the tragic arc of the plot was the couple’s marriage in the teeth of that parental opposition.
Despite the movie’s sentimentalism, Love Story’s protagonists were following the classical romantic paradigm in their willingness, privately and publicly, to pledge their undying love for one another, even in star-crossed circumstances. Even in 1970, when the movie aired, the second, public part of that pledging of hearts, marriage, was just beginning a decline in popularity. However, the decrease in marriage rates affected social classes unevenly: Today, young, educated professionals are still more likely than others to marry and indeed form stable marriages, though they marry at an older age. But the fall in marriage rates among blue collar workers and those even further down the ladder has been staggering to observe over the past 45 years.
Many of the factors associated with lower marriage rates, deferred marrying, and marital instability have long been known, though there may be debates about which factors are causes and which are results, or the extent to which they amplify each other’s effects in undermining the institution of marriage. In addition to the spread of educational and employment opportunities for women; the accelerating desertion from traditional sexual morality (and, perhaps even more important, from belief in such sexual morality); the adoption of the belief that marriage’s chief purpose is the pursuit of each spouse’s individual happiness; the financial stresses in blue-collar communities as manufacturing was outsourced and technology exploded; and, among the lower class, the experience of historic levels of imprisonment over the last 50 years—in addition to all these and other possible depressors of marriage rates was the advent of new and effective birth control methods, developed and deployed just as the first wave of Baby Boomers began to reach sexual maturity.
The Human Life Review’s “founding” human life issue was defense of the unborn following the nation-wide legalization of abortion in 1973. But the movement to make abortion legal was itself the child of the contraceptive era: Once people had been promised sex shorn of the complication of conception (the natural end and purpose of our reproductive organs, after all, but quite often not the most desirable end for the copulating couple), they required a backup to ensure the emancipated culture’s pinky-swear promise of sex safe from children.
All that is the moral landscape most of us alive today either encountered as teens and young adults or were born into, and the increasingly rapid revolution of ideas and practices related to sex, marriage, and gender has perhaps blinded us to the seismic impact of the contraceptive revolution on heterosexual marriage. However, the shock to anyone time travelling from almost any past human society—whether primitive or advanced, whether European or Asian or African or Polynesian—would be intense.
But I wish to focus here not so much on the weakening, distortion, rebranding, or re-invention of marriage, but on why the pledging of lifelong love, both privately and in public ceremonies, is no longer the near-universal response of young couples to falling in love. This, too, marks a radical departure from the past: However normative arranged marriages may have been in other eras, romantic love pledged to last till death or after popped up repeatedly in ballads, sagas—and real life.
Way back in the early twentieth century, divorce, contraceptive programs, and other familiar examples of social progressivism had already begun their march into their future and our present, but the average young person’s hopes and dreams for his or her own personal future were as yet only lightly affected. G. K. Chesterton answered the attack of his era’s progressives on the enslavement of marriage ties by noting how young lovers seek to bind themselves by word and will to the beloved, from Valentine’s Day cards to passionate avowals under moonlight.
Less so today, when, despite emotional involvement and even the intention of attempting some kind of future together, large numbers of couples may not dare to imagine or promise a lifelong, permanent union. Especially in the less frequently marrying blue collar and lower classes, sexual partners can share children and choose to describe themselves as engaged for years without any particular sense of urgency; those engagements can eventually dissolve and relationships can then be reconfigured without the hassle of divorce and remarriage.
Contrast this hyper-cautious, slow-motion inching toward the altar with, say, the stampede of fast-tracked weddings in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, as young men quickly funneled into the armed forces sought to marry their sweethearts before departure for war zones. Sure, many of those marriages did not even outlast the war, but they testified to the historically natural and healthy human desire of lovers to unite themselves and their futures by way of vows of fidelity, even and perhaps especially in uncertain and precarious circumstances.
Many factors today militate against these once-common expressions of lifelong devotion. The separation of sexual relations from procreation, social and economic strains, the psychologically crippling effect of growing up in broken or single parent families, all can dissuade couples from conceiving of their relationship as a true union in the joint undertaking of child-rearing and mutual loving support throughout a lifetime.
This relegation of the once-standard trajectory of romantic love to history or to fairy tale status is not universal, of course. Many couples still plight their troths in private and in public, welcome children into the world, and, in the course of a common life begun with a vow flung into an unknowable future, successfully pursue their two-in-one-flesh endeavor to life’s finish line. But the surrounding culture, with its various financial incentives and disincentives, its preoccupation with individual self-fulfillment and communal group-think, its distrust and depreciation of the family’s moat of independence, its low valuation of child-rearing and its mixed messages about whether reproducing the species is really such a good idea—hampers and hinders those attempting true marital unions.
All couples at times chafe against close and long-term contact with the obstinately other. Not a few couples contemplate separation during crises or sloughs of despond. Many spouses are detached from marital union against their will by the desertion of their partner. And so, to some extent, it has always been. But it has taken our own sorry time to raise up so many young, relatively happy, and avowedly “in love” couples who more or less anxiously or doubtfully dance around the idea of forever, resistant to offering their lives unreservedly to one another and to the family that could emerge from their love. Now, that is something to be sorry for, as the dying heroine of Love Story would likely agree.