America’s Addiction to Pleasure Harms Marriage and Family

Every once in a while a little ditty from an old Robert Palmer song begins rumbling though my head: "...might as well face it you’re addicted to love".

As an attorney who has dabbled in family law, and a former prosecutor, it often strikes me that this ditty doesn’t apply to a substantial chunk of people in the U.S. In fact, America as a nation doesn’t seem all that enamored with the idea of love anymore -- at least not the highest form of love, that which sustains marriage and families.

For those who might think otherwise, I’d suggest they look at the latest numbers regarding marriage and family. Both institutions remain in serious decline: The percentage of married households in the U.S. has now dipped to an all-time low. (2010 was the first year in our history that fewer than half of all households were married households.)  And the rate of newly formed marriages has hovered near its all-time low for several years. America doesn’t seem to care much for children anymore, either. Our birth rate has also hovered near an all-time low for several years. Four out of every ten of those record-low births are out-of-wedlock -- and one in three children grows up in a household without a father.

No, Americans are not addicted to love. If anything, too many of us are addicted to pleasure. And here’s the problem. We can’t have it both ways. Granted, many factors have contributed to the decline of marriage and family in the U.S, but one underlying factor is frequently overlooked: America’s obsession with pleasurable indulgence. Marriage and family will inevitably decline in a society of too many self-absorbed pleasure junkies, which is basically what we’ve become.

The selfless, sacrificial love that’s necessary to sustain marriage and families involves doing the difficult -- whether one feels like it or not: foregoing one’s self-interest for others; compromising with others; and putting children's interests ahead of one’s own. But pleasure junkies have conditioned themselves to do the opposite. They’re accustomed to doing the easy things (e.g. overeating, overspending, smoking, viewing pornography), and focusing on themselves, rather than doing difficult things for others or for a greater common good.

Pleasure, of course, is not intrinsically bad or evil. In fact, it’s an important aspect of a balanced life. But here’s the problem: indulgence in pleasure has become the central focus of life, even an addiction, for far too many of us. America’s entertainment and advertising industries have spent billions of dollars making pleasure into a god. And too many have opted to worship at that altar.

Examples abound. Just look at what -- and how much -- Americans eat and drink. Too many of us can’t seem to stop eating salty, fatty, and sugary foods. Our stomach says Stop, I’m full, but we say, Shut up, I want to keep experiencing pleasure. So we keep eating and overeating and putting on weight. Eventually, our desire for physical activity fades because it becomes too difficult. 

The same holds for drinking habits. Americans love super-sized sodas and juice drinks loaded with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and addictive sugar substitutes. So we make sure they’re everywhere: at fast food and chain restaurants, at sporting events, in vending machines at school, and in shopping establishments.

It’s no wonder we’ve developed an obesity epidemic. Today, over one third of American adults are considered to be obese -- more than double the number of 45 years ago. Our national genetics haven’t changed; our eating and drinking habits have.

We don’t fare much better in the area of personal spending and debt, either. Too many Americans have grown soft and self-indulgent when it comes to materialism and personal finances. We love to buy stuff. It’s pleasurable: jewelry, clothes, electronics, shoes, weekend getaways, tickets to sporting events, a big tab at a nice restaurant, a trip abroad.

Too many buy and buy, and run up debt. Many with good incomes can’t afford a down payment on a house or put money into a retirement account. Others borrow from friends or relatives, lacking a sense of peace about their current or future finances.

America’s personal bottom lines have become rather unseemly. Consumer debt (non-real estate) has more than tripled in the past 50 years. Today, a quarter of Americans have more money in credit card debt than they have in available savings to pay off that debt.

Unfortunately, our overindulgence in pleasure doesn’t stop at eating, drinking, and spending. Millions are battling substance abuse and/or alcoholism. Millions more struggle with smoking, gambling, hard and soft-core pornography, video games, prescription drugs, and other addictive products and behaviors.

Many people fail to connect the dots between our addiction to pleasure on the one hand, and the decline of American marriage and family on the other. But the connection is real. Commonsense tells us so. Before the No Pain, No Gain mantra seized the world of personal fitness, my folks used to counsel me with a similar adage: Little Effort, Little Results. The phrase was commonplace during my teen and young adulthood years, and it wasn't restricted to my school or work life. It applied to my personal life as well.

When it came to marriage and family, my parents thankfully didn’t preach much; instead they taught by example. I watched them do the difficult things necessary to make their marriage work. They spent a good chunk of time communicating, often spending time at night listening to each other’s concerns, ideas, or hopes. One or both might not have felt like listening, but it was important enough to the other -- so they routinely sacrificed TV time, reading time, hobby time, and relaxation to talk and listen.

When there were points of disagreement (there often were), each was willing to compromise to some degree for the other -- even though neither of them felt like compromising (about spending habits, weekend plans, projects around the house, family gatherings, etc.).

They made similar sacrifices for me and my siblings. Good parents know that raising children requires tremendous self-giving and sacrifice. There’s less sleep, flexibility, time, money, and energy to do just about everything a couple wants to do for themselves.

Indulgence in pleasure takes very little willpower. A lack of willpower to do what’s difficult, and focus on self, are hardly the habits one can afford to bring into long-term relationships, particularly marriage and family relations. Like eating a good diet, exercise, or saving money -- marriage and family involve persistent effort and sacrifice. Nowadays, large numbers of Americans seem ill-prepared to undergo this sacrifice and effort. We’ve slouched into a society of too many self-indulgent individualists, concerned primarily with our own hedonism and pleasure.

Many if not most of America’s ongoing ills can be tied to the decline of marriage and family: poverty, dependency, welfare, crime -- insolvency of Social Security and Medicare due to low birth rates. If Americans continue their attachment to doing the easy things for themselves, and don’t reclaim the mantle of effort and sacrifice for others in relationships, then marriage and family will continue to weaken, and that once great civilization, America, will continue to weaken along with them.

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