How much do we really value romance when such little attention is given to the infrastructure on which all good relationships are founded?
Children have a priceless way of making telling mistakes. Here are two made in school work. The first said of St. Paul: ‘he preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage’. The second went one further. It said: ‘most religions teach us to have only one spouse. This is called monotony’. In spite of media headlines, marriage continues to thrive in this country. Most marriages last for life and because people are living longer this means marriages are flourishing for forty, fifty, even sixty years and beyond. This might bring to mind Woody Allen’s quip: ‘my parents stayed together for forty years but that was out of spite’, but there are many couples happily ageing together. There is a developing science of happiness today which aims to quantify good feelings and one of the main indicators of happiness is being married.
As we mark Valentine’s Day we should do so with cheerfulness for the heady gift of romance, that wonderful feeling of falling in love which has inspired some of the most sublime as well as the most egregious poetry in history. But we should do so with a selfless grasp of the implications of this day. You’ll be familiar with how fiction’s Bridget Jones is condemning of what she called smug marrieds. These are the people who know they have landed a catch and can’t resist some knockabout fun at the expense of people who are less fortunate – even if some women found it hard to be sorry for Bridget Jones when she was being chased on screen by both Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. She has a point. A marriage goes wrong when a couple can only think about themselves.
More and more today people are complaining, without self-awareness, about other social groups. Single people complain that married couples are excluding; married couples criticise single people for being self-absorbed; parent moan that those who choose not to have children are selfish and the latter suggest that people only have children because they need someone to love them. Meanwhile, widowed people wonder why they are no longer as welcome at social functions as they once were. It’s all evidence of a loss of trust among us.
Every social category has strengths to bring to their community. There is much talk about Christian family values but we should be sure to dissect what this means. If by family values we are speaking of looking after our family to the exclusion of others and sometimes at their expense then these values are selfish. How meaningful is it if I push my child ahead of another child with an equal claim on life’s resources? Genuinely Christian family values develop an outward focus where the family recognises the blessings they have received and seek to put the strength so gained to good use in the community. A strong family is a resource for others, not a reason for pulling up the drawbridge on the neighbourhood around it.
Families are fundamental because they provide security and emotional nurturing for children, a safe place from which to make sense of the world. They enable children to broaden their horizons bit by bit, always giving them a space to return to where they will be accepted unconditionally. They are the main place in which children learn values in life, distinctions between right and wrong and priorities one over another. Children who receive love from their parents are likely both to give and be capable of receiving love as adults. Families compel us to take responsibilities for one another. It may be one spouse for another, a parent for a child, a brother for a sister or a child for an ageing parent. In these relationships we obtain support and learn about obligation, enabling us to be active citizens.
Yet there are many pressures on relationships today. Here are just three: the cult of self-fulfilment; the long hours culture and the loss of the extended family.
The cult of self-fulfilment is a very modern creed. Of course we should look after our appearance and have the freedom to make what we can of our lives but when the instinct to cater for ourselves becomes more a preference than a need, we place a strain on our relationships, forcing others to look after their own needs because we have less time for them. In this way selfishness and resentment is introduced into the balance.
The long hours culture, despite repeated media articles celebrating flexible working arrangements, remains a peril for those in work. On average, parents were away from home for fourteen hours longer a week in 2001 than they were in 1971. That is a seismic shift in national life. Relate has said that one of the biggest new causes of marriage breakdown is the long working hours culture. Relationships are founded on the ability to communicate. Homes where the main means of relating are by hastily written text message or a post-it note on the fridge are at risk of losing intimacy. This threat also shows that the break-up of a marriage can have as much to do with the wider social context in which it is located as the negligence of the couple concerned.
The third pressure on relationships is the slow disappearance of the extended family as a feature of a child’s upbringing. By placing a premium on flexible capital and labour markets we slowly dismantle local communities as capital goes in search of cheaper labour and labour goes in search of work. The mobile society is cheered publicly but the outcome is that people move away from close proximity to their parents to find jobs, have children themselves and then find the immediate support networks aren’t there anymore.
The wonder of romantic love is how it can blossom in the unlikeliest of ways and intoxicate us with its seductive promise. But how much do we really honour Valentine’s Day if we give such little attention to the wider infrastructure of support on which all good relationships are founded?
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