In my last post, I suggested that in order to rebuild a thriving marriage culture in working class America, we need to have more than a conversation about a living wage and economic stability—as important as that is. We also have to respond to the powerful (and erroneous) truth claims of expressive individualism.

What are those truth claims?

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and colleagues suggest that at the center of the expressive individualist’s universe is “the autonomous individual, presumed able to choose the roles he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it.” The expressive individualist takes his cues from the therapeutic attitude, which “begins with the self, rather than with a set of external obligations.” In this understanding of love and commitment, “feelings define love” and “permanent commitment can only come from having the proper clarity, honesty, and openness about one’s feelings.”

As it became apparent to my wife, Amber, and me from our interviews with working class young adults in Ohio, the expressive individualist philosophy crystallizes into nuggets of “wisdom” that are then passed on to and repeated by young people coming of age. Here are just a few of the nuggets we heard from our interviews.

  • Love just happens—and if it leaves, it probably means you shouldn’t be together.

“Love is effortless,” one divorced woman said. “I think if you have to work at it, then it’s not love.”

“Love is a force,” one cohabiting man put it. “It’s not something you have to work for.”

“You can’t help where your heart takes you,” said another cohabiting man. “If you like someone else, you like someone else.”

  • You’ve only got one life to live—so do what makes you feel happy.

As one cohabiting man put it, talking about how he would advise someone who is unhappy in marriage, “You have one life to live, life is short, and do what you feel is right.  Don’t waste your time on somethin’ you don’t want.”

“You got one life to live,” said another cohabiting man, “you got to live it the way you want to live it. What’s gonna make you happy is what it’s all about.” Summing up the torn feelings of many, he added “I think the people that get divorced and married and divorced and married are stupid, honestly. But I mean, if you’re unhappy, you got to make yourself happy.”

  • Doing what makes you feel happy usually makes everyone around you—including your children—happier in the end.

As one divorced woman said, “if I’m not happy, I can’t make anybody else happy, especially my children. You know, you have to make yourself happy first before you can even attempt to make anybody else happy.”

This set of beliefs gives rise to a certain script or narrative about how romantic life works. It starts with a spark so powerful that it sends the couple careening forever after into wedded bliss. Well, not quite. Because it is also almost universally believed that in marriage, honest and total communication about one’s feelings is important to maintaining wedded bliss. But during that process of communication, should my feelings become incompatible with your feelings, my happiness enter in conflict with your happiness—it’s sad, but people do grow apart. Even if you wish to hold on to something that’s not there, the thinking goes, you should divorce for the kids’ sake. Everyone will be happier.

‘Love is a force,’ one man put it. ‘It’s not something you have to work for.’

The problem with thinking about love and marriage in this way is its fatalism: When romantic feelings fade, the relationship or marriage is dead, and there’s nothing anyone can do to revive it. There’s no room for being a “citizen of marriage,” to use University of Minnesota marriage therapist Bill Doherty’s memorable phrase.

“Being a citizen of marriage,” suggests Doherty, “means taking responsibility to make things better and not just be passive, to value the marriage itself and not just your own interest in it, to struggle to make it better by naming problems and changing yourself first, to take the long view that values your history together as a couple over short-term pain and struggle, to accept the inevitable limitations and problems, to see how your marriage affects many other people in your world, and to hold onto the dream, never completely fulfilled, of a more perfect union.” Sustaining a relationship, a marriage, a family takes perseverance, in this account: it doesn’t come naturally, as the romantic script of expressive individualism leads people to believe.

Many young adults we interviewed find the process of following the romantic script of expressive individualism—becoming certain that another person will enable you to feel unceasingly happy for life—bewildering and exhausting. When I asked one cohabiting young man how he will know that he has found the right person for marriage, he responded, “I have no idea!” And the uncertainty the script produces is one of the reasons, I think, why young adults are postponing marriage.

“But wait a minute,” a critic might say. “This account blames young adults rather than the larger social and economic forces that are really responsible for the class and trust crisis.”

In fact, Bellah and colleagues, in their 1996 introduction to an updated edition of Habits of the Heart appear to make something like this criticism when they note and swiftly reject the idea that a decline in “family values” explains the emerging class divide that they observed in American life. While it’s unclear what they mean by “family values,” it’s probable that the attitudes—or values—that I identified among our interviewees would fall under the rubric of at least some people’s definition of “family values.” Our interviewees aspire to a lifelong, faithful marriage, and they dislike the idea of divorce. But when lifelong love and persistent feelings of unhappiness conflict, most people thought that divorce was better for everyone involved.

To identify expressive individualism as a culprit in America’s crisis is precisely to emphasize collective responsibility.

Perhaps it’s those kind of “family values” that Bellah and colleagues have in mind when they emphasize that the emerging class divide comes not from a failure of family values, but rather from “failures rooted in the structure of our economy and polity.” Calling attention to “the failings of individuals with inadequate family values,” they suggest, unhelpfully “increases the level of individual guilt, [and]…distracts attention from larger failures of collective responsibility.”

But to identify expressive individualist thinking about love and marriage as a culprit in America’s class and trust crisis is precisely to emphasize collective responsibility: it makes the common-sense observation that individuals make decisions based on the social scripts that they inherit. Just as in social and economic life no one is a rugged individualist, so in the moral life. We don’t make up morality on our own; our moral decisions are always informed by the moral scripts we inherit from family, friends, and culture.

It is a mistake to think that calling attention to how dominant moral philosophies helped to create contemporary social crises  is merely “blaming the individual”—because dominant moral philosophies are themselves social achievements. The young adult in small-town Ohio who says “love is effortless” didn’t make that up; we made that up. (And by “we,” I mean all of us together—society.)  In other words, President Obama got it right: “You didn’t build that!”

Many of today’s commentators about marriage and family recognize the shaping power of economic structures. Likewise, we ought to recognize the shaping power of the “moral structures” (or scripts) that young adults inherit.

And unless we as a society take collective responsibility for the messages about love and commitment and family that we transmit, we do a disservice to young adults. And especially to working class young adults, who are struggling with uncertainty and wondering how to sustain love and commitment and a stable family if it’s all contingent upon the (irrational) fate of all-powerful feeling.

They deserve a better message.