At the age of fifteen, Evan, a working-class young man I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, found out his girlfriend was pregnant. He immediately thought about adoption. But then he watched his girlfriend’s belly grow and saw his baby’s sonogram, and one day his girlfriend called Evan “daddy.” That hit him. Here was a little human being that would call him daddy. He figured he better grow up and “do the right things.” They kept the baby.
Then they got married. Evan now says he only “did it out of obligation, because I thought it was the right thing to do; because that’s what was pumped into my head.” People told him, “you’re old enough to lay down with a woman, get her pregnant, you’re old enough to take responsibilities.” So in front of a few family and friends, Evan’s Aunt Margaret, a “hardcore Southern Baptist” preacher, married Evan and his wife. He was sixteen.
By the time he was twenty, they had three children. He and his wife stayed together for over a decade. But then, he said, “we grew apart.” As he put it, “I loved her, but I wuttn’t in love with her. So I left her.” He admits that he wasn’t a good husband: he cheated on her with other women, and when his wife went out of state for a visit, Evan moved in with another woman, and never went back to his wife.
He remarried, but within months he suspected his new wife was cheating (she denied it). Out of spite, Evan told her, “I’m gonna give you a dose of your own medicine.” He made it clear to his wife that he was flirting with other women. Eventually, he developed a strong attraction to Heather, the wife of one of his best friends. At the same time as he flirted with her, he got two women pregnant: his wife and another woman that he had temporarily moved in with.
Eventually, Evan and his second wife divorced; Heather and her husband divorced. Less than a year later, they ran into each other in traffic court, and when I interviewed Evan, they were engaged to be married.
Explaining his wandering ways, Evan says, “Truth is, the heart wants what it wants, David. You know, you can’t stop love; you can’t just block it off. Because when you do that, you’re gonna resent the person that you’ve been with for so long.”
‘The heart wants what it wants. . . . You can’t stop love; you can’t just block it off.’
But looking back, he doesn’t like the man he was. “What kind of person does that make me,” he asked, “to go sleep with another woman, and then two hours later, be laying in bed with my wife? Who in most cases, has no idea what you’re doing and where you’re at. They think you’re at the place you promised them that [you] would be.”
There were countless times, he said, that he told his wife he was going one place, and ended up in bed with another woman. He would try to be “moral” for a while, but then boom, he was in bed with another woman. The heart takes you where it wants to go, he said, but he also has a name for his cheating: lust.
“Lust is one of those things that can deter a fella from the love of his wife,” he said. “Because you know as well as I do, anything new with any new relationship, it is freakin’ fantastic. But you gotta understand, it’s not always gonna be like that. Human nature shows it. Statistics have shown that it doesn’t always stay that way.”
Evan is a Bible-believing Christian. He even attended Bible school for a stint. “Not that I’ve followed any of the commandments and not that I’ve followed any of that stuff,” he says. He talks highly of marriage, describing it as “very sacred.” He believes that unless you’re really miserable, you should stay married forever.
But just as the womanizing Don Draper in Mad Men is afflicted by the memory of his angry and adulterous father, Evan keeps flashing back to scenes from his own childhood. When Evan was four, his father told him he was leaving his mom—but that it had nothing to do with another woman. (In fact, there was another woman.) Evan still remembers the day—his dad hanging up the phone, packing his clothes, and dropping Evan off at the next-door neighbors’ house. “And he’s been gone for 31 years now.” Evan says he has always been independent, but still, “I depend on [my parents’] love and support. And my dad’s opinion really means a lot to me.”
Evan can’t shake the feeling that his life would be different if his parents had stayed together, and his dad involved in his life.
“I’ve been married and divorced twice by thirty-five years old,” he said. “I honestly don’t believe that this would have happened, and probably none of my kids would be here either, had I been that kid that went to school and graduated, and got the graduation car, and school functions, and got my first apartment.”
Children need a mom and dad, he said. If his parents had stayed together, he thinks he would be working at the same factory where his dad has worked for more than thirty years, with a good retirement plan and good pension. Instead, he was broke and overcoming drug addiction.
What is it about having married parents that would have been better for him?
“The family functions, the home dinners, the helping me with homework, the school functions,” he said, “the having things that normal children, normal middle-class American families instead of lower-class poverty families had. To know that my dad would have been at one of my baseball games, or to know that my mom would have been at one of my recitals, or stuff like that. That both my parents would have been sitting there watching me in the talent show, or both my parents would have been sitting there watching me in the school play. None of that happened then. And that takes a lot from a child. And you tend to show resentment.”
But then, just as quickly as he points to the legacy of his parents’ divorce, he points back to himself, and he recounts a moral drama:
And listen, here’s the deal—I mentioned this three times. I’m a very firm believer… when a child grows up and he gets to a certain age where he knows right from wrong—and that’s called the age of directives, okay? When a child is between the ages of twelve and thirteen, he knows the age of directives, he knows what’s right from wrong … and he knows that, “Okay, my dad lived like this. There is no way I’m living like this.” Don’t fall in your dad’s patterns because he was an asshole or because he was an insufficient, unresponsible son-of-a-bitch. You can’t fall back on that. You can’t blame the way your parents raised you the rest of your life; because when you get past of age of directives, you know what they did was wrong. So why would you follow the same path that they followed?
But following his parents’ path is precisely what Evan is doing. And on that path, at the intersection of the quest for stability and the pursuit of happiness, is an intense moral drama and tragic conflict, complicated by his own troubled relationship with his father and his parents’ divorce.
Unfortunately, Evan appears to assume that there is an intrinsic conflict between happiness and stability. As he says, if you’re unhappy, there’s not much use trying to work things out because if you try to make something work that’s not working, “things start hitting the shitter because you put this blockade up.” Your heart wants what it wants. The implication is that you either stay together and remain miserable, or you liberate yourself and look for happiness.
Evan appears to assume that there is an intrinsic conflict between happiness and stability.
But what about the third way of authentic reconciliation, in which a couple courageously tries to marry happiness and stability? Evan doesn’t talk about this option, perhaps because he has never witnessed it.
Sometimes there can be no reconciliation. It takes two to tango, and if one spouse makes up his or her mind that the marriage is over, or grossly violates the marriage promise, there is only so much the other spouse can do. But if our culture told a compelling story about the hope of reconciliation, more couples might see it as a realistic option and try to achieve it.
Instead, young people like Evan are trying to build trust and make love last with a philosophy that eventually betrays love and trust, and leaves them as slaves to their immediate desires.
“There’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘I do the things I do not wanna do,’ and it’s from Romans,” Evan said. “You ever heard it?”
“And I do the things that I hate,” he continued, “but I do them anyway. That is not me, that is a sin living in me. You understand?”
Yes, I told him, I understand. We are all mad men, in search of stability and happiness, struggling to surmount our own sins as well as the sins of our mothers and fathers, making decisions with the help of the predominant cultural storylines. In that search, young people deserve a better story about sex and love and happiness than “your heart takes you where it wants.”