“Men just don’t want to commit.”
It’s a charge that seems to come up fairly often when we ponder the sexual immorality and illegitimate children around us, and it is probably true. As I’ve written before, sexually barbaric men tend to be polygamous, and the men who stand accused could very well want to avoid a relationship in which their partners are permitted use the legal system to punish them for unfaithfulness. If you want to sin and keep your options open, you probably want to do so as safely as you can.
However, the error that is routinely made when people point this out is an attempt to portray women as morally superior. Why are there fatherless children? Why are families breaking down? It’s because bad men don’t want to commit to good women who are doing the best they can.
This conclusion of moral superiority is exploded when we look at the other end of commitment. It’s well-known that about half of marriages end in divorce. What’s less well-known is that (depending on which study you look at) between 2/3 and 4/5 of divorces are unilaterally inflicted on husbands by their wives. This is popularly called “no-fault” divorce. Apparently, women are not so keen on commitment as is generally believed. In light of such facts, the usual explanation for our predicament—that women want commitment but men don’t—looks terribly implausible. A better explanation is needed—one that fits all the facts.
It may be that women want their boyfriends to marry them, but at the end of the day, it would seem that marriage isn’t actually a commitment for many women. It is simply a way of securing commitment from their partner through the legal system. After all, legal marriages can be dissolved at any time and for any reason (or no reason at all). Men certainly can do this, but in reality they do not do this nearly so often as women. This is probably because the family courts that preside over the dissolution routinely take away a man’s children, property, and a portion of future income in order to give them to his ex-wife. By getting married, a man is making a legally enforced commitment of his future. A woman is not—regardless of what she intends at the time. We may then conclude that while a woman who wants her boyfriend to marry her is indeed seeking a commitment, she may very well be just as stingy about offering one as her boyfriend is.
Men and women are both utterly sinful, and this is what sinners do—we seek to gain as much advantage as we can from our neighbors without offering anything in return. Sinful men seek things like sex, companionship, and faithfulness from women, and if they can secure that from women without exclusively committing to them, they will do so. Sinful women also seek things like sex, companionship, as well as material support, and if they can secure that from men without committing to them, they will do so. Such is the nature of selfishness.
This is one reason why Christians get so little traction when teaching sexual morality to the next generation. Instead of teaching the virtue of chastity, we’ve spent the past few decades teaching the far shallower concept of “no sex outside of marriage.” While this is absolutely a Biblical teaching, the word “marriage” means something radically different in a society in which serial monogamy (i.e. successive polygamy) is the norm. A relationship in which the vows aren’t taken seriously because of the giant “break in the event of unhappiness” label on it still isn’t chaste even if people call it marriage.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote (well before our current woes of people wanting to force others to pretend homosexual relationships are marriages) that even in the same nation, secular and Christian society should have two different definitions of marriage and sets of rules concerning it. The advantage being that people would know what they are promising to their partner and what their partner is promising to them. Lewis also points out that if marriage is not understood as a permanent commitment, it’s better to stay unmarried and fornicate than to degrade real marriage by playing make-believe and using it to acquire property and social status. Of course, it’s far better to neither fornicate nor play make-believe.
I do not know if Lewis’ recommendation of parallel marriages is the best path or not. However, I do know that if Christians want to uphold their charge of teaching the whole counsel of God, we need to give up the illusion that women are basically good and men are basically bad when it comes to sexual morality. We’re all basically bad. We also need to teach chastity rather than abstinence. But whether secular or Christian, a society that wants to be chaste would be wise to make marriage less of a one-sided commitment.