When we get into our seventies and eighties we begin to get a different perspective on lots of things. Morality is one of those.
Girls dating in the 1950’s didn’t plan on having sex with boyfriends until married to them. Of course, there was some negotiating room on just how close we would come. And if we went to college, often we didn’t get to go to the same one as our high school boyfriend, so playing the field in college was fairly common. Being popular was considered a perfectly ethical goal in our lives. Unfortunately, a good looking girl with personality often stole and broke the hearts of quite a few boys, boys that were not necessarily high, or even on, the girl’s personal list of marriage possibilities. There was, in fact, a fine line between playing the field and collecting scalps. There comes a time when at least some of us little old ladies begin to question whether we can actually claim the moral high ground compared to girls and women of today.
Once married, our generation of women seldom initiated a divorce. Not only was divorce scandalous, it was seldom practical. Women couldn’t make enough money to support themselves above the poverty level, never-the-less raise children in a safe and healthy environment. Even if a husband was wealthy, the legal system was totally male. And most religions forbade remarriage, closing the door on making a better marriage. Children were trapped along with their mothers in horribly abusive situations. Having to stay in marriages that were destructive to all concerned now seems far more immoral than divorce.
So, wherefore art thou, morality?
We seem to be in an era where traditional (though often dubious) morality has been officially abandoned, but no one appears to have come up with a new way of preventing chaos, protecting children, and nurturing commitment relationships. The most obvious thing is that no size fits all.
Not everyone is cut out for marriage and many should definitely not be parents. But most people definitely seem to need sex. I think the basis of sex being wrong outside commitment relationships is that the reality is, One: It increases the incidence of unwanted children and disastrous marriages. Two: Using people simply for our own pleasure or out of loneliness is not only wrong, it can destroy other people emotionally. Three: The danger of sexually transmitted diseases that can damage people for life is very real. The rules for morality were created to protect us and to increase our chances of living in peace as societies. But my observation has been that the rich have always considered themselves above laws and the poor don’t have much in the way of pleasure except sex. So, I think even in the supposedly moral fifties, it was pretty much only the middle class trying to follow the rules. And I’m pretty sure even then, it was more the women than men. My thought used to be to teach our children, One: If you don’t want it on the front page of the local paper, don’t do it. Two: If you don’t want the same thing done to you or your children, don’t do it. And Three: If everyone doing it would make the world a worse place to live in, don’t do it. Sadly, I have come to realize, One: When hormones kick in consciousness of future consequences disappears. Two: Many people have no sense of responsibility for society. And Three: When people holding society’s most prestigious positions of public responsibility or having hero status through sports or entertainment are daily on the front pages for sexual irresponsibility, no one cares about that anymore either. I also see that we seem to have missed the fact that there is a morality for sex within marriage. I have become aware that along with the pleasure, men need sex to feel good about themselves, but women need to feel good about themselves to really enjoy sex. In fact, an important part of foreplay for women includes affirmation, tenderness, and other things that make us feel cherished as a whole person, not just a momentary pleasure or release from stress. But when the stresses of survival take their toll on men, they seek what is for them the ultimate in acceptance and affirmation, physical sex. You can see pretty obviously where problems begin in marriage. For millennia, religion, as the arbiter of morals has been run by men. The predominant attitude was that a wife must meet her husbands need for sex, in some religions, even if it meant losing her life through too many or dangerous pregnancies. Women were considered pretty much dispensable. And men were considered either unable to control their sexual urges or unable to put another person’s life before their desire. In present times women are beginning to be considered equally important in the scheme of things and the physical act of sex is being recognized as only one part of intimacy in relationship. In marriage a lot of things can handicap intimacy. Financial problems, pregnancy, children, career ambitions, exhaustion, health issues, and even unmet needs from our past all sap our physical and emotional energies. But perhaps the least recognized, but most serious challenge is disillusionment. Every relationship, but particularly marriage, will eventually bring disillusionment. Nobody is perfect. Nobody can meet all of another person’s needs. Nobody can keep up an image 24/7. Nobody is the total answer to anyone’s problems, wounds, desires, needs, dreams, and illusions about humanity and life. But often we come into marriage with that exact unconscious delusion. Add to that our lack of awareness about both our own imperfections and our own and our partner’s unrealistic expectations and it’s just a matter of time before disappointment rears its ugly head as resentment and criticism or a roving eye. I am not making excuses for infidelity or abuse. Those are killers of relationships and murderers of the other person’s sense of value. But so is constant criticism from the one person that knows you best. Watching men and women under the stress of a public spotlight and a nation’s expectations fall into those traps over and over with so much to lose, makes it obvious that both lack of self-awareness and no realistic understanding of the limits of any relationship to meet all our needs are a crucial part of the pattern of most marriage failures. Reading biographies of famous marriages such as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, raised my awareness of how difficult it is for an intelligent strong minded wife to be supportive without it being experienced as demoralizing criticism, particularly when a public figure is the target of constant criticism. And now we are possibly going to witness a woman president being second guessed by a husband who has been president already. The challenges to marriage relationships have increased exponentially in my lifetime. Though affected by childhood experiences, personality differences are inborn. These differences can literally make us deaf to each other’s language of love. We do unto others as we would like them to do unto us, because we assume that will please them as it does us. Unfortunately, that is frequently not true. Surprisingly, I’ve recognized that Jesus made that transition from “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to “love one another as I have loved you.” That’s a whole other ballgame. He gave his life for us. I think that for us it translates into becoming other focused, willing to make sacrifices rather than make demands. Both people in a relationship seeing this as the ground rules for love will create a lot of room for negotiation and will ensure that both partners experience being truly loved.
But as unaware as most of us are of the differences between our needs and our prospective partner’s guarantees trouble. A friend of mine, who divorced a former football star,told me that she just couldn’t measure up to those stands full of cheering crowds to meet her husband’s need for affirmation. Another friend, who was just naturally able to see and accept reality, including the reality of her own and even her spouse’s different way of being in the world, married an idealistic personality. Idealistic personalities see everything as improvable, so automatically attempt to improve both themselves and their spouse. Another tremendous challenge is the chasm of difference for those who respond to their world with logic and those who respond from their feeling values.As one husband pointed out to his wife, there is just no logical reason to get a kitten unless you have mice. Another wife confessed to going into shock when her flower sending, poetry writing, compliment giving fiancée never did any of the above from the moment the wedding ceremony was over. It seems her husband is a problem solver. A very good one obviously, since he figured out what he needed to do to win her. But once the problem was solved, he saw no need to continue the behaviors. Of course even couples with similar personalities have difficulties. Some are totally unaware that they are both so competitive that even the smallest thing becomes a debate they need to win. Writers and artists are often so sensitive that showing their work to a problem solver/critic spouse is like having surgery without an anesthetic. Often those of us that tend to live in the future, imagining even every negative possibility, may be attracted to personality types that live in the present moment. They can respond calmly to a crises without becoming overloaded by negative possibilities. But that same person will often make ‘in the moment’ choices without considering the possible consequences for the person they love or even for themselves. These are just a few examples of the challenges we face, when we seek relationships that will not only be stable and long lasting enough to provide what children need to become loving adults, but are secure and nurturing for the adult partners. Both self-awareness and the ability to understand people different from us are vital needs for good relationships. We educate for careers, but not for relationships. Yet relationships are the foundation stones of society. And sustaining society was actually the whole point of having guidelines for morality in relationships to begin with. With human progress and development comes the need not just for laws, but also for understanding. There is a difference in how you keep a one year old from sticking a fork in an electrical outlet and how you teach an adult to work with electrical tools. Humanity needs better understanding and not only acceptance of the diversity in our shared humanity, but appreciation for all the different gifts for the good of all of our relationships. Unless we, as both a society and as individuals, seek greater understanding to overcome the problems in creating and sustaining healthy relationships, society itself will continue to disintegrate. With understanding, we have a better chance of knowing when and why we may need to put the other person’s needs before our own. And that is the heart and core of loving. This, then, is both the new and old morality.
We didn’t end up with ten commandments in order to please God or win heaven. We need them because most of us are generally simply oblivious. We go for the pleasure right in front of us in that moment without stopping to think about the consequences for us and others down the road.
It’s not about being judged or labeled or punished, it’s about love. The basic ten are a gift from God because God loves us enough to try to help us not screw up our lives and others’ beyond repair. Even though God knows how blind we are and forgives us, when we make poor choices we eventually have to face and live with the crippling and often even heartbreaking consequences.
Life is not a test, a contest, or a game we play for prizes.
The rules are about relationships. The basic ten are about how to avoid killing relationships so they have a chance to grow. They are the minimum survival guidelines.
The goal is learning to love enough to have deep, lasting, nurturing, transforming joyous relationships.
The first relationship is with God for the simple reason that grace is unconditional love and God is pretty much the only place you can count on that no matter what stupid thing you do.
I’ve reached an age where I can look back and see the harm even mildly selfish choices have caused not only others, but myself. Because when we continue in a pattern of choosing immediate gratification as we become adults with responsibilities to and for others, it becomes an addiction with painful consequences for both ourselves and them.
Addiction to avoiding discomfort or pain plays out in extremely diverse ways, even in socially approved things that aren’t recognized as addictions. When our marriage relationship starts to take work or involves delayed gratification, some of us simply become workaholics. That way we avoid what makes us uncomfortable and feel virtuous while doing it. Most don’t recognize this as being an addiction, a pattern of escape with consequences similar to using alcohol, infidelity, or running away.
Take another look at the Big Ten. Take another look at your daily choices. Are they healthy for you and for your relationships? Are they about learning to truly love, whatever it takes? Or are they about running from the challenge to do the not always pleasurable daily nitty-gritty it takes to grow up and learn to love.