Accept Self or Learn from Criticism?

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After watching a gut-wrenching television drama that vividly portrayed a beautiful young mother’s self-destruction by her addiction to alcohol, my husband and I discussed how every human being has inherent flaws that will, if not held in check, necessarily limit the full achievement of that individual’s potential.

Literature, particularly Shakespeare, is full of dramatic examples that illustrate this upsetting fact of life. Macbeth quickly comes to mind, along with Hamlet. See tomorrow’s headlines for the latest example. The daily news reveals a deluge of lives and families destroyed by our greed, anger, envy, insecurity, pride, self-deception, self-indulgence, procrastination, fear – any of these can scuttle an otherwise promising life or relationship.

In previous eras, the presence of a “besetting sin” might spur humility, but today, for every voice telling us to shape up and deal with our faults, there are multitudes urging us to assert ourselves, to strengthen our self-acceptance, to bolster our self-esteem.

One of the greatest potential benefits of marriage is that it serves as a reality check. Another benefit is that the desire for a spouse’s love and affection can be strong motivation for us to act on our better impulses. Couples who learn from each other become stronger and more effective individuals. An added benefit is that such relationships get stronger, too.

But of course, not all couples listen to and learn from each other.

A willingness to curb our impulses and propensities that irritate and offend hinges upon a mindset very much at odds with the prevailing values of today’s radical individualism, which aggressively asserts, “I gotta be me” or worse still, “If it feels good, do it!” Mix together pride, self-indulgence and a philosophy that says “All ways are equally good,” and you will get people who are not open to learning from each other or setting aside their own interests to meet the other person’s needs. Such a combination of “me/mine” attitudes and values makes compromising in the direction of the “good” or “superior” very, very difficult.

Without fixed moral standards to which both people are accountable and which define what is good and desirable, a couple really has no basis for optimism about growing and improving. Why say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” when right and wrong are merely matters of personal opinion and taste? Under these conditions, how can a couple have hope for a better future? Why work on the relationship in the face of attitudes that promise a fixed, static state that grates on your sensibilities and impinges on your own needs and prerogatives? Why continue when there is no benefit in working together, in compromising to find a “better” idea, plan, or approach?

And so individuals who have a postmodern mindset give up on the current relationship and hope that the next time around things will happen to be better.

Better relationships, however, don’t just happen; they are built.

Today, “no-fault divorce” is producing one divorce in every two new marriages. The genius of marriage – its power to take two persons and make them into a unit that is stronger than the sum of its parts – depends upon the growth that is possible only when both individuals move beyond self-centered self-indulgence and become mutually accountable. Then they can jointly pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. But this only operates effectively if they both understand that they are flawed and in humility appreciate their need of each other’s insights, correction, and encouragement.

Not believing in objective truth and not recognizing any authority other than their own feelings, postmodernists are in no position to be constructively critical when a spouse needs correcting. Nor are they willing to be accountable; consequently they remain in an arrested state of adolescence that shows itself in their fierce reaction to any constraint on their autonomy, epitomized by the sad claim, “You have no right to tell me what to do.” Forever immature, they have nothing to give them the confidence to let down their defenses and see the “goodness” or “rightness” of a spouse’s assessment, correction or evaluation. Their insecurity and anger weaken their ability to build an effective marital partnership by holding one another accountable.

How the angels must weep as they watch the disasters we kindle when we disavow any and all boundaries and ignore the parameters that will guide us safely to blissful enjoyment of the magic and mystery of marriage.

Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s think tank, The Beverly LaHaye Institute.

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