A friend recently asked me in tears whether I believed there was any hope that her boyfriend of several years would ever marry her. She’d pointedly asked him the night before if there was “any chance” he might eventually decide to commit, buy a home together and create a family with her. His response was candid. He told her he was happy with her, even loved her, but saw no reason to marry. What would it add to their relationship? What would it do for either of them?
Painfully, it was as if she were quoting one of hundreds of interviews discussed by researcher Mark Regnerus in his book, "Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy." Describing one interviewee as representative of many, Regnerus noted, “Commitment — a pledge of monogamy, acts of self-sacrifice and investment in growing a relationship with one woman — seems unattractive to him and unnecessary.” My friend labeled her boyfriend, “commitment phobic,” a diagnosis that is almost ubiquitous in discussions of relationships among single people today. But Regnerus identified the issue differently. “Men, on average, are not afraid of commitment ... they just don’t need to.”
It will be difficult to rescue the desire for commitment in a culture where sexual access is so easy and permissible. For generations, Regnerus explains, “regardless of young men’s sexual wishes, marriage was considered the only intelligible way not simply to access sex, but to live your adult life.” So young men oriented their lives to becoming “marriageable,” and women “could and did count on seeing evidence of commitment before sex.”
But our cultural embrace of individualism has now made it difficult to accept “the ideal of self-denial” that might be implied by terms like commitment and sacrifice. Once heralded as a high virtue, today “sacrifice” is often feared to be a “personality defect” or “self-defeating behavior.” But that blinds us to a true understanding of the significant role of “sacrifice” in enabling the most meaningful and joyful dimensions of our lives.
Taken from the Latin terms “sacer,” and “facio,” the word sacrifice literally means “to make sacred.” Sacredness results when we choose to give something up for something else we believe to be more important. As such, sacrifice does not mean “loss,” especially not the loss of happiness. It means devotion — devotion to something beyond self-gratification and pleasure, the place where real love, with all of its joy and meaning, begins.
A husband and father recently described a critical decision point he faced in either losing his marriage or being honest about his pornography addiction. He had been given a remarkable gift in the kindness, love and devotion of his wife and children — the experience of real love and a vision of the joy he could know in the bonds of the most meaningful forms of human connection. In his words, he would have been “insane” to give that up for the counterfeit form of comfort and “connection” he had clung to in pornography even as it had caused tremendous pain and anguish. But he needed courage to face and overcome his addiction — courage made possible through a vision of the love that is possible only through devotion and “sacrifice.”
Anthropologist Merlin Myers’ extensive research led him to conclude that love is “the basal principle of human social relationships.” And love “in practice” is defined “as one’s willingness to sacrifice for another.” As explained by Howard and Kathleen Bahr, Myers was convinced that the experience of sacrificing for, and receiving the sacrifices of others, was “the essential glue of a moral society.” The moral development of children depends on their experience receiving the devotion and sacrifice of their parents for each other and for them. They build upon that devotion when they similarly choose to sacrifice and devote themselves to their spouses and children.
Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is “poorly adept at generating love,” or a moral society, for that matter. Abandoning norms of sexual behavior held for millennia has robbed men and women of the social structures essential to guide them toward the “sacrifice” and devotion that actually begets love.
If we hope to give the generations that follow a chance at experiencing the meaning of love, we must restore an understanding of the gift of sacrifice and devotion to something higher than themselves.