The journey to the moral-free environment started with the hippies of the 60s. It removed heavy social shackles from the personalities of millions of people. It gave us freedom from the mindless class ordering of the 50s and from absurd restraints on dress and appearance. By legitimising a wider range of lifestyles it gave people more self-respect.
Yuppies in the 80s were individual to the point of selfishness, loud, brash and materialistic. But perhaps this movement, too, was about establishing freedoms – freedom to put “me” first and freedom from a mandatory social conscience. Charity and concern did not become burnt-out relics, but people did acquire the freedom to express these human qualities by choice rather than as a social norm. The yuppie movement was also a festival of financial self-expression – the freedom of the common man to enjoy Nuits St George without being able to pronounce its name correctly.
Feminism shattered imposed female duty and opened up opportunities outside the family.
Christianity, as practised by the churches, has been found largely wanting as a source of beneficial moral intelligence. The monarchy has also turned out to be wanting: the family role model for the nation fell apart in front of our eyes. The police, as upholders of civil order, have lost respect with the uncovering of corruption, their incorporation as a paramilitary arm of government in the 80s, and the Lawrence report.
Most forms of dictated morality have been junked. Of course, some good has been lost on the way, but we do now have a clear run at building a new morality unfettered by the past.
We have a growing knowledge of the sometimes awful truth about the hermetically sealed nuclear family. The quality of family life for many children is such that surprising numbers are choosing not to have families.
This is not a criticism of our parents or grandparents who often faced tough economic imperatives, social struggle and universal emotional ignorance. Despite that, much family happiness and joy was, and is, around. The family could be heroic.
But now, individuals and families are wrestling to establish new frameworks for fulfilling personal lives. This is scary and exciting, uncertain and ambitious.
How do we run successful long-term relationships? Is one life-long committed adult relationship the best outcome or, with lives ever longer, is serial monogamy better?
What is a “marriage” in an emotional and spiritual sense? How do we provide for successful child rearing? Which family-form works better? How can the most complex family-form of all – stepfamilies – work successfully? What are children’s rights? How much at ease are we with sex and sexuality as individuals and as a society? What are the causes and consequences of homosexuality?
Is “having-it-all” – marriage, career, money, and children – closer to having-nothing well? Where are men going – as fathers, as domestic decision-makers, as symbols of strength, as lovers? Do women want to be entirely where feminism has allowed them to go?
How can we immunise ourselves, our relationships and our children from the incessant pressures of mass consumerism, global fashion and mass entertainment? As we find answers to these questions, so a new understanding of relationship and family life will emerge.
“Marriage is right, cohabitation is bad, divorce is damaging”. Such statements are flourished as “told-you-so” solutions. In practice, they confuse and set back the process of self-discovery: “the children of divorce are more likely to experience adverse outcomes”. But is the cause the divorce or the early years of rearing within the marriage the most significant ones in psychological terms?
Few people get divorced on a whim. Faced with the emotional, financial and locational turmoil at the time of divorce, how does the message “on average you and your children will be better off if you stay married” get heard? “Marriage is best” is a statement that turns off its target group – the unmarried.
If we put aside the black and white thinking which still tends to dominate public debate, we can see why real people are struggling to find some light.
Extra-relationship affairs are and never have been a simple case of right and wrong. It seems that, at various times, we all want the comfort, security and commitment of a permanent relationship and the novelty, excitement and challenge of a new relationship. In the real world, an affair can kick-start a tired marriage back into life. How do we resolve these dilemmas?
Simplistic conclusions from on high are not answers. Government and others can feed the formation of the new moral frameworks but cannot define them. Don’t seek to tell people how to live their lives, particularly if you are a politician or a newspaper. A new morality will be all the more powerful for being self-learnt. We have to hope that it is not stolen by those who have a need to exercise control over others.