In 1941, the writer J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, penned a touching letter to his son Michael on the subject of love and matrimony. In that letter, he disparaged the conception of ‘true love’ as ‘innocent’, of course, ‘yet irresponsible’.
What Tolkien chose to emphasise, instead, was the ‘social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity’. This, he believed, was the fundamental foundation of a happy marriage. What really mattered, he told his son, was ‘will and purpose’, not ‘exaggerated notions of “true love”’. This is perhaps an alien concept for many living in today’s society.
Tolkien anticipated a very modern malady, which is the pursuit of love ‘without any effort’, even into ‘the squalor of the divorce courts’. In other words, the pursuit of that ‘real soulmate’. Unfortunately, as Tolkien noted, a soulmate ‘too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along’. And ‘when the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake’.
It is worth considering, I think, whether the ideal of romantic love has doomed a significant number of marriages to dissatisfaction. And what role has the State played in facilitating this dissatisfaction? For the high divorce rates in Western countries is a matter that extends beyond the realm of the courts. Indeed, it may be that the welfare state, in particular, has radically redefined what we mean by ‘love’ in a modern society.
We only have to turn to the Book of Common Prayer to see how love, for our ancestors, was held to be largely synonymous with the soberest of all vows, the lifelong commitment of marriage – ‘for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’. The Anglican marriage service makes it very clear that a couple is to commit themselves, most of all, to what is principally a work ethic. Love and fidelity, based around the raising of a family, are taken to be one and the same. At the root of Christian love is virtue and the notion of self-sacrifice.
This traditional, though by no means outmoded, conception of marriage was essentially abolished in the late 1960s. The State undermined the ethic of marriage in the sense that it could now render the contract void for little or no real reason at all. In affecting this outcome, the State took it upon itself to facilitate, and even sponsor, in some cases, the individual in their search for their actual ‘soulmate’, as Tolkien observed. Out went fidelity, in came a case of better luck next time. And it is no small matter that women now instigate the majority of divorces.
One of the utilities of lifelong marriage was that it essentially encouraged a woman, faced with a number of potential suitors, to choose a man most able to fulfil the role of the husband set out in the marriage service. The woman’s family had a vital role to play too, in the past; a function founded on an ancient wisdom that a young woman was not necessarily an able judge of character when confronted with a cheeky chap with a glint in his eye.
The ease with which a divorce may now be obtained, however, has mitigated the need to choose wisely, since a bad decision is no longer catastrophic, at least not for the woman, for she can in some sense mend her mistake. This may also explain the emergence of the ‘friend-zone’, now infamous, which has entered into the common language. It should not surprise us that ‘nice guys finish last’ when divorce allows women to work their way through a succession of bad boys, or rather ‘the next sexually attractive person that comes along’, as Tolkien put it. This has nothing to do with inherent moral virtues.
‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ really means ‘a woman needs a nice man like a fish needs a bicycle’. The invention of the Pill, as well as the inclusion of women in the workforce, made for the rise of the so-called independent woman.
Lifelong marriage was the final hurdle to be overcome. And by the late 1990s the State had all but abolished the husband. This was largely achieved through a series of implementations and reforms originating in the 1970s, including the introduction of one parent benefit in 1976 and the removal of the child tax allowance in 1979 in favour of child benefit, paid directly to the mother; also affording an extra weekly payment to lone parent households. The establishment of independent taxation in the 1980s, and the later tax credit ‘reforms’ of the 1990s under New Labour, also served to undercut the father’s place in the family. Taken in conjunction with the 1969 Divorce Reform Act and the 1996 Family Law Act, as well as the rise of women-friendly divorce courts, the ramifications of this radical replacement were inevitable.
In 2015, 23 per cent of dependent children were living with a lone parent in the UK. The number of lone parents totalled nearly two million, of whom 90 per cent were women. This is not merely a result of divorce. It is rooted in state sponsorship of single motherhood as a whole. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the welfare state has subsidised, and in a sense encouraged, lone parent families by granting them privileges previously the reserve of two parent households. The extent to which the State has played a pivotal role in reshaping what we understand to be tantamount to love, by replacing the generous and steady husband with the benevolent State, cannot be overstated. Tolkien foresaw the likely result, but only in part.
A society that confuses love with lust will, as a matter of course, view fidelity as a barrier to immediate gratification. Such a society will also give up virtue. Samuel Johnson’s definition of the ‘shrew’ as a ‘peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman’ might well be applied to a certain type of feminist familiar to us today. Indeed, far from taming the shrew, it seems that feminism – socialism in a pair of expensive high heels – has adopted shrewishness as an outright ethic; an ethic that is far from being ethical.
The reason could not be simpler. If a woman, or indeed a man, is to attract and keep a marriage partner they must, quite naturally, be a pleasant person, of good character and good will, capable of compromise and empathy. The State, of course, does not require virtue. It only demands obedience.
Daniel Frampton is a historian and writer