Mar 14 2011

Retaining a romantic morality

Years ago a man around 35, in his second marriage with a son by the second spouse, advised me that whether it be marriage, living together or simply dating, a man should always be emotionally and financially prepared for that relationship to end within his next two weeks. Most people I know don’t calculate their romantic endeavors with quite that much icy practicality, but I understood where he was coming from.
 
Much work has been done on the recent morphing of American marriage––work relevant to Christians of all creeds and even readable to a curious yahoo like yours truly.[1]That work shows how modern marriage operates, along with offering solutions which seek to improve the lives of couples and children––surely no one doubts this discussion would be complete without acknowledging the essential centrality of children to traditional marriage––but I am sorry to say these studies and solutions, at best, apply only sporadically to the day-to-day lives of today’s chronically single, straight adult males.
 
The species of men I’m talking about are commonly known—Kay Hymowitz sketched an icon of him several years ago in her infamous “Child-man” article for City Journal: porn, parties, pot, Peter Pan—whatever the details, he is essentially a man not good enough for the modern American woman. But by what methods can such men cure themselves? This is not a question Hymowitz nor others, particularly Jen Doll’s recent piece in the Village Voice, seem interested in asking. They seem more interested in asking why women still sexually succumb to such low-grade men—a perfectly legitimate question––but as a single man approaching thirty, I am more interested in how to become attainable to these modern American women while retaining some sense of romantic morality.
 
I think it all boils down to a single issue: the idea of permanence has been separated from all concepts of marriage (as well as courtship, dating). We’ve all read or heard about how marriage used to be, and we know all the ways in which it is not like that now. Whatever the cause(s), no sober observer can deny that permanence has been severed from marriage in the most default sense of day-to-day living for American single men, whether Christian or heathen, whether divorced or never married. We can eulogize for what has passed while hoping for its return, but for the moment the status quo must be faced.
 
When we turn toward the current state of matrimony, how does a less-than-optimal male notembrace political indifference toward either strengthening or eradicating traditional concepts of marriage? When durability is no longer an expected feature of dating, cohabitating, marrying, remarrying, what incentive can evoke him to revive and preserve the traditions he has lost? Is it wrong to recognize today’s hordes of single men with less-than-stellar incomes need additional motives to consent to marriage beyond biological desire?

Advocates often tout the economic benefits of marriage as the best incentive for eligible singles to alter their status. While I lack the competence to question the statistics of experts, I can’t help but believe this particular sale’s pitch is like saying anyone who enjoys looking up at the sky ought to prefer airplanes to seagulls simply because all aircraft fly faster than marine fowl. While seagulls will never evolve into airplanes, the idea of assuming allunmarried non-alpha males will mature and become marriageable, and thereby be financially stable for their spouses, permits a range of fallacies to creep in unnoticed. Yes, marriage genuinely allows a couple to soar high in the atmosphere of economics, but when measured by the decade, any observer can tell you that today’s airplanes, seagulls, and marriages seldom stay airborne for prolonged periods.
 
Outliers such as beta-men are rightly footnoted and thereby rapidly forgotten in the reports of sociologists, though necessary questions remain to be asked. I’m sure we’ve all known a few single men who wanted to play Jack Nicholson but were stuck––indeed typecast––in the role of Jack Lemon. But by what methods are they or their potential partners to resist bowing before the idol of hypergamy (i.e., the idea of “marrying up”) pitched by our media? Do some men remain unmarriageable because they are beta-males or do they stay beta because they are unmarriageable? And what of those who suffer from involuntary abstinence? As a specimen, and not a sociologist, I can only suspect these answers involve something more than an admixture of snakes, snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.
 
Where does the confused, Christian turn? Emerson once wrote, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument,” and in the past my Protestant background turned me toward Scripture. Yes, wisdom resides in Joseph’s flight from Potiphar’s wife. Yes, a foreboding negation of spiritual inheritance lurks beneath the story of Onan. Yes, as Abraham found out with Hagar––and in a more grotesque sense did Lot discover with his daughters––so too do we find demonstrated how the practical, pragmatic path may not be the right way to Yahweh. Yes, we remember marriage and permanence were once inseparable notions via Hosea: he’s stuck with that hussy Gomer whether he likes it or not––and though the imagery of a thorn in one’s side still stirs my spirit, more than a few of today’s single men remain stuck in the dire straits of Job and Ecclesiastes, stumbling to discover how to turn the page and confront the divine satisfaction waiting within the Song of Solomon.
 
I am more than familiar with the phrases: “man up”, “quit whining”, that “while marriage might be a merger, it certainly ain’t no acquisition”, and how the great counselor Clint Eastwood once barked to “adapt, overcome, improvise.” Surely overcoming the status quo of American marriage, as well as the state of its courtship, is not an impossible task––even for a beta-male––but for many, that task lacks teachers.

 [1]Notable advocates, writers, scholars whose work is accessible to Christian laymen and women include: Maggie Gallagher, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Andrew Cherlin, Gary Cross, Jennifer Roback Morse, W. Bryan Wilcox, Kay Hymowitz and Mark Regnerus.