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Guest opinion: To thine own spouse be true — when marriage meets ‘expressive individualism’

The question isn’t whether emotions are important, but whether emotions are the primary definition of ourselves and the foundation for marriage.

“Everywhere marriage is becoming more optional and more fragile. Everywhere the once-predictable link between marriage and child rearing is fraying,” writes family scholar Stephanie Coontz.
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Editor’s note: This commentary by BYU professor W. Justin Dyer is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.

After surveying the recent changes in marriage, prominent family scholar Stephanie Coontz wrote: “Everywhere marriage is becoming more optional and more fragile. Everywhere the once-predictable link between marriage and child rearing is fraying. And everywhere relations between men and women are undergoing rapid and at times traumatic transformation. In fact … the relations between men and women have changed more in the past 30 years than they did in the previous 3,000.” The question is, What creates this fragility? What is changing?

Amid these innumerable changes, many family scholars across the political spectrum point to changes in how we think about commitments (in particular, what we should be committed to) as likely contributing more to the fragility of marriage than anything else. These changes are captured in the rise of “expressive individualism,” a belief system that, above all else, prioritizes being true to one’s internal feelings.

Within expressive individualism, the highest morality is to be true to one’s own sentiments, whatever they may be and wherever they may lead. Said another way, for the expressive individualist, following these feelings constitutes the ultimate commandment. From this point of view, the will of God is cast in individualistic terms. The argument goes: “If I feel to do something, God must want me to do it because God would want me to be true to what I feel.” God’s will, then, becomes defined as one’s own will.

What does this have to do with marriage? For the expressive individualist, being true to one’s spouse becomes secondary to being true to one’s self (the “self” primarily defined in emotional terms). In fact, it is seen as a greater sin to be untrue to yourself than untrue to your spouse. Marriage then becomes instrumental, something to be used to obtain emotional goals. Once the marriage no longer serves that purpose, the very foundation of the individualistic marriage has disappeared. The same goes for parenthood. What is best for a child becomes secondary to what is best for oneself. The individualist may even define what is best for themselves as what is best for the child, reasoning: “It’s better for my child to see me pursue happiness than for my child to see me be untrue to myself.”

But what is the alternative? What else but our emotions could constitute our sense of self? In Robert Bolt’s “A Man for all Seasons,” Sir. Thomas More locates a person’s self within their oaths: “When a man takes an oath … he’s holding his own self in his own hands.” In other words, it is not in our feelings we find ourselves, but in our commitments. The fact is, we don’t make commitments because we think our emotions will always stay the same. Rather, we make commitments because we know our emotions will likely change and the commitment keeps us connected with what we have decided should be part our true selves. I once heard it said that “character” is “the ability to carry out a worthy decision after the emotion of making that decision has passed.” This epitomizes being a man or woman for all seasons.

The trouble with basing our sense of self solely in emotions is that it gives little assurance about the future to ourselves or anyone else. But a sense of self rooted in commitments provides a secure base for us and others, calming insecurities. This may be why research has found individualistic marriages less stable and less happy than those based on commitment to more stable things like religion, family, the couple, etc.

Indeed, Johns Hopkins’ sociologist Andrew Cherlin suggests that one reason individualistic attitudes may make marriage less satisfying and stable is that it creates a heightened sensitivity to problems — is takes a good deal of mental energy to constantly monitor ourselves to determine whether the marriage is “satisfying enough” for each spouse, leaving the couple with a constant sense of anxiety and insecurity. Perhaps paradoxically, the expressive individualist’s continual seeking of the “right” emotions in marriage may actually lead away from experiencing the very emotions they seek.

To be sure, there are spouses who become so damaging to the other that the marriage needs to end. And, the increased focus on the individual and emotions in marriage has been good in many ways. When individual feelings are ignored, relationships languish. Being true to emotions is an important, instructive principle. However, it is not the only principle. A simple example is of someone who may say, “When I’m angry, I say what I think, even if it hurts people. But if I’m going to be true to myself, that’s what I need to do.” Yet this person likely has commitments they also need to be true to, such as being a kind and forgiving person. The emotion need not be suppressed, but can be expressed in ways that also adhere to other commitments. The person is then being true to their whole self, not in isolation but within a web of mutual commitments and responsibilities.

Thus, the question isn’t whether emotions are important, but whether emotions are the primary definition of ourselves and the foundation for marriage. Indeed, our feelings may even give us wrong information, like a child feeling fear in the night when they are perfectly safe at home. So too, some individuals may be willing to abandon family commitments for their “true self” when the deepest and truest love and identity may be most likely found in their own home and in being true to their commitments — commitments that form a more solid foundation for their sense of self.

W. Justin Dyer is a professor of family and religion at Brigham Young University and holds a Ph.D. in human and community development. His views are his own.