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  • Like it or not, most people understand their own lives in moral terms. So we can't avoid talking about character. Tweet This
  • Many couples lack a robust moral vocabulary that can help them persevere through periods of difficulty. Tweet This

About five years into marriage, Chris’s wife, Laura, told him she was cheating on him with a neighbor across the street. She was honest with Chris about the affair, and after a few months, she recommitted herself to their marriage. Chris forgave her, and even invited the man with whom she was having sex to church with them.

But a few years later, Laura started cheating on Chris again, with the same man. This time, though, she hid her affair from him, and it wasn’t until much later that she revealed it to him. Even before she confessed, though, Chris and Laura both started coming to the same realization: they weren’t happy together. They had been trying to have a child for years, and they kept trying, even as they knew that their marriage would probably end. When I interviewed Chris, the couple was expecting their first child, in the process of adopting a second child they had taken in as foster parents—and expecting to file for divorce.

Amazingly, Chris didn’t seem angry about Laura’s affair. He explained, “One thing I’ve always told my wife (and this is even when were dating), if someone else comes along and they are really what you want, I would rather—instead of going behind my back and having an affair on me—I would rather you just be upfront and tell me ‘Look, this is where my heart is and this is where I wanna go.’ And I would step aside. I wouldn’t try to stop that from happening. Because I don’t believe in staying with somebody if they’re making you miserable.”

In fact, during the course of their marriage, Chris had experienced the “temptation” to leave Laura for other women. As he explains, “There was one girl in particular that I was—I don’t know what I was feeling but I prayed and I said, ‘God, I know this isn’t the way that you want it to go, so if you want me to pursue this relationship with her, give me a feeling or something.’ And the feeling I got when I prayed is that God was not wanting me to do that.”

But if, I asked, you got the feeling that God was telling you to leave your wife for the woman, you would have seen that as a possibility?

“Yeah, and I would’ve reacted on it,” he said. “And I would’ve told my wife right off the bat what was going on.”

In Chris’s view, Scripture says that God is “not a huge fan of divorce,” but at the same time, you have to “seek God’s wisdom” as best as you can. And, he says, “I think you gotta go where your heart lies.”

‘You have to make yourself happy first before you can even attempt to make anybody else happy.’

For Chris, staying in a miserable marriage is more than an abstract possibility. His own parents had stayed married through almost two decades of misery because, he believes, they wanted to stay together for their children. But their child-centered strategy backfired on everyone, he says.  He remembers, as a teenager, just wishing that his parents—who fought so much that the cops had been called—would divorce. That’s why he agrees with something that his next girlfriend and future wife, Tammy, told me months later: “If I’m not happy, I can’t make anybody else happy, especially my children. You have to make yourself happy first before you can even attempt to make anybody else happy.”

Chris’s now ex-wife, Laura, in an interview with my wife and co-interviewer, Amber, expressed the same sentiments. “Everybody’s okay with [the divorce],” she said, “because we both agree that it’s not worth staying together when we’re gonna be miserable and have unhappy kids. I’d rather have happy kids from a broken home than unhappy kids from a home where parents fight all the time trying to stay together.” In short, she sees her divorce as a child-centered strategy: “I just want my kids to be happy and that’s all everybody else wants, too. And that’s what’s more important than anything, than me or him.”

Chris and Laura described fighting over household chores, and differing values: for instance, Chris became very involved at church, while Laura mostly didn’t attend. And over the course of years, their arguments took a toll on both of them. Both of them also think that they got married too young: she was 18, and he was 21. They told no one except their immediate families about their impending divorce. Chris wasn’t interested in seeking counseling, he explains, because he was “tired of trying.” Laura agreed, explaining that “it’s not worth it to me to waste someone else’s time because I’m done. It’s not gonna make me fall back in love.”

Though Laura emphasized that she thought divorce would be better for their kids, she also saw her own persistent unhappiness as cause enough for divorce.

“It doesn’t have to be some big reason to not want to be with somebody anymore,” she said. “Sometimes you just don’t. You’re just not connected to that person anymore. So, yeah, if not being with that person’s gonna make her happy, then she should be happy. Two unhappy people living together are never gonna make each other happy if they’re the cause of each other’s unhappiness.”

It all seems to pivot on how Laura thinks about love and being in love. Being in love, she said, is “the happy, full feeling.  You’re heart’s full and you’re happy and well, you can’t quit smiling and all that mushy stuff.”

She added, “I’m not in love with Chris, but he’s still the father of my children and I love him for being the father of my children.”

‘We’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.’

There are many forces conspiring to make it harder for the working-class couples Amber and I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project to stay happily married. One of them is the story about love and happiness that Chris and Laura describe. In that story, love is fixed, rather than dynamic: you are in love, and you fall out of love. If you fall out of love, it means that you will be perpetually unhappy—and thus make everyone else around you unhappy. It follows that divorce is the most sensible solution. What is missing is a robust moral vocabulary that can help struggling couples through inevitable periods of unhappiness, and enable them to experience the joy and satisfaction that come from persevering at something worthwhile.

In his new book, The Road to Character, David Brooks tries to help us recover that moral vocabulary. Through his profiles of people who achieved character through tenacious “self-combat”—people like Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Eliot—he urges us to look again at the tradition of “moral realism.” This tradition, he says, emphasizes that we are sinners made of “crooked timber,” capable of great good, but deeply flawed. What unites his “exemplars” is the idea that “the inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is the central drama of life.”

But with the flowering of “moral romanticism,” he notes, we no longer believe that you achieve the good life through self-combat; you achieve the good life through “self-liberation and self-expression.” As he says, “Greater emphasis is put on personal feelings as a guide to what is right and wrong.” It’s not that people today are more selfish than people in the past, says Brooks, “but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.”

The older tradition of “moral realism” furnishes us with a way of seeing the world that justifies persevering through difficulty for some greater good. In this view of things, Brooks says, people with character “are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” People looking to build character appreciate that “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.”

Brooks isn’t arguing for moral masochism. The people he profiles have different answers as to whether you should always accept suffering, or move on. Moreover, he notes that the cultural move toward greater self-expression was especially good for women and minorities. But, he argues, in forgetting about moral realism, we are losing our capacity to “travel the long road to character.”

Character is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps affair.

Some people are wary of talking about character out of a concern that it “blames the individual,” and ignores structural forces (like deindustrialization) that are mostly outside the control of ordinary people. But that’s a false dichotomy. Character is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps affair; we learn it through “moral structures,” or what Brooks calls a “moral ecology.” As Brooks says, unless your name is Aristotle, you won’t be creating your own moral ecology; it’s a social achievement. We all learn about the moral ecology somewhere. For instance, when Amber asked Laura how she learned her views about love, she pointed to chick flicks. “Dirty Dancing is my favorite movie of all time,” she said. Just as we have a collective responsibility to steward the physical environment, so we have a collective responsibility to steward the moral ecology.

I am, however, sympathetic to the concern that talking about morality can sometimes become a matter of “blaming a class”: insinuating that poor people are less moral than rich people. I suspect, instead, that many of us are better protected from the consequences of our own bad choices by the “air bags” associated with privilege, as Robert Putnam notes in Our Kids. To take one example, if a college student from an affluent family abuses drugs, his parents might pay for him to enter a rehabilitation program (and hire him a good lawyer!), whereas drug abuse is a fast track to prison or homelessness for the less privileged.

Still, we cannot ignore morality and character; whether we like it or not, that is the way that most people understand their own lives. For instance, even though his wife had cheated on him, Chris felt the need to examine his own actions before ending his marriage: he says that he came to peace with divorce after praying earnestly to God, and looking at himself in the mirror and asking if he had done everything he could to save his marriage. Moreover, Laura told Amber that, in retrospect, nothing justified her affair.

Chris eventually married again, to a woman with whom he was extremely happy at the time of our last interview. Laura was in a new relationship, but was unsure where it might lead. It’s impossible to know if they could have reconciled. But should they ever confront a crisis in their new relationships, they deserve a better rule for discernment than “you gotta go where your heart lies.”