‘Relationship’ Culture Grooms Americans for Divorce

News: Commentary
by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  December 18, 2022   

Why your girlfriend of 6 years is a big problem

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An image of divorce

Nobody likes divorce, even in a morally licentious society. So for a nation to accept divorce, it takes practice. In our time, this practice comes in the form of the long-term premarital romance — what's come to be known as the "relationship." If we're to save the family and, consequently, the nation, we must see to it that the relationship culture of our age meets with a swift and irreversible demise.

The norms surrounding marriage are invaluable to every society. They are determinative of the strength and vitality of the family, which is the foundation of civilization itself. It makes sense, then, that people throughout the ages have seen divorce as anywhere from painful to impossible. Mankind intuitively understands that divorce represents the death of an entity, of a one-flesh union, and with death comes pain. 

So it's vexing that after half a century of skyrocketing divorce rates, Americans insist on continuing a premarital ritual that conditions people for divorce and, ultimately, misery.

Linguistic Manipulation

The evolution of the word "relationship" represents a problematic social trend. In fact, the errors implied by the modern connotation of this seemingly innocuous word threaten the very existence of marriage. 

Should there be any temptation to dismiss the foregoing as mere alarmism or exaggeration, be reminded that the Blessed Virgin, in anticipation of the looming sexual revolution, revealed to Sr. Lúcia of Fatima that Satan's decisive battle will be against marriage and the family. Note well that part of the Devil's strategy has always been to redefine terminology to support lies that are destructive to humanity (see, e.g., John 8:44). The twisting of the word "relationship" is a prime example of this.

She's In a 'Relationship'

Merriam-Webster defines "relationship" as "the state of being related or interrelated." Properly speaking then, we have relationships with our doctors, with convenience store cashiers, with our cars, etc. So the modern tendency for people to boast of their romances, "I'm in a relationship," is a narrow post-1970s squint at the term. Regardless, the "relationship" is a social construct that's come to be seen as marriage-lite in the eyes of many. 

The 'in a relationship' status is now ubiquitous.

In previous generations, you were either married or single, with no gray area in between. Today, "in a relationship" is the pervasive social status throughout social media. Being "single" no longer means being an unmarried person, as it always used to; rather, it suggests not having a girlfriend or boyfriend. This language shift suggests our civilization has an enormous problem, socially and morally.

Young people in a "relationship"

The "in a relationship" status is now ubiquitous; but what does it actually mean? Some of its magnetism may lie in its subjectivity, in the idea that each couple gets to decide its own parameters. At a minimum, the status indicates a temporary "union" of people (of any sex or "gender"), based on emotional or physical attraction. And speaking broadly, there's no objective end to relationships and no explicit trajectory toward marriage. 

Even if one partner hopes for marriage, it's not to be assumed that the relationship has nuptials as a telos. In fact, "relationships'' end when one party is ready to move on — when feelings for the other have cooled or interest in another person arises. This is because "relationships'' include no real commitment: The partners pledge nothing to each other, to God or to the community.

Nevertheless, "relationships" are like mini-marriages in the sense that they include some of the benefits of marriage, but without its obligations. "Relationships" invariably involve sentiment, and almost always include sex. They're objectively utilitarian — a mutual consent to be used and to use.

Intimacy Without Commitment

Even though the contemporary world can't fathom that abuse can exist alongside adult consent, reason tells us that "relationships" are inherently abusive. Without the unconditional public commitment to fidelity and permanence that love demands, sexual coupling is effectively a form of prostitution — fornication exchanged for secondary goods of marriage, such as security, status, affection and affirmation.

"Relationships" involve no real commitment

There's nothing in the four corners of the "relationship" paradigm that renders it illicit for a person to dump his significant other on a whim or to pursue someone new, even if the couple happens to be cohabitating. In "relationships," each person is legally and formally a free agent, although it may not always feel that way.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls these dysfunctional couplings "free unions." And it goes on to roundly condemn them:

In a so-called free union, a man and a woman refuse to give juridical and public form to a liaison involving sexual intimacy. The expression "free union" is fallacious: what can "union" mean when the partners make no commitment to one another, each exhibiting a lack of trust in the other, in himself, or in the future? (¶2390)

Paragraph 2400 of the Catechism clarifies that the rise of free unions is no trivial matter, but instead undercuts marriage itself: "Adultery, divorce, polygamy, and free union are grave offenses against the dignity of marriage."

Note that the quasi-unions of "free" relationships subvert not only the dignity of marriage in general, but also the dignity of the future marriages of the parties involved. The disordered coupling prevents each partner from giving himself totally, uniquely and exclusively to his future spouse — a cherished aspiration for those not warped by the sexual revolution.

Many today point to the menacing divorce rate as a sort of justification for the popularity of free-unions. Not a few also harbor a general fear of permanent commitment. Still, these circumstances hardly greenlight society to smile on a wicked practice, one that dishonors the sacrality of marriage and amounts to little more than the use of one person by another.

Confusion Amidst Scandalous Silence

Most people living today have been formed in the "relationship" culture. Even with a 50% divorce rate, many seem to have an unduly rosy view of these quasi-unions, believing "relationships" to be a moral alternative to the hook-up culture. This prompts a reasonable (but jolting) question: Is it really better to use someone for a longer period of time than to use them quickly before moving on? Does either situation, in the end, contribute to the well-being of the individuals or their future marriages (which statistics show will probably be with other persons)? For those who adequately understand the special and unique character of the spousal union, the answer is clear.

Most Catholics don't understand the meaning of love, and it's created a mess.

Father Brian O'Brien from the diocese of Tulsa laments, "I go into [marriage prep] assuming, until I talk to them, that the couple is probably living together, and I assume that they are sexually active." This is tragic. The scandal in the Church for the past half century is that while the official Magisterium has been clear and consistent, a deafening silence has emanated from the pulpits of priests and bishops — when courageous moral leadership has been desperately needed. Many souls have drowned in the deluge as a result. 

What Is Love?

Most Catholics don't understand the meaning of love, and it's created a mess. The void left from dismal catechesis and lack of Catholic philosophical teaching on the human person allowed godless modern philosophy and the world's upside-down notion of love to prevail.

Marriage is total self-donation

Nothing rivals the Gospel passion narratives for illustrating true love. Christ the Groom gives His life for His bride, the Church. And St. Paul cites this as the model for the marital relationship (Ephesians 5:21–35). 

In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, analyzes human nature and love at the philosophical level. Sexual love, he explains, is ordered to the union of persons. It cannot take the form of mere use (of each other), even if both parties consent to and enjoy the perversion. Sexual intercourse, according to the pontiff, is rightly called the marital act because marriage is its only rational and moral environment. The total self-donation of one person to the other leaves no room for infidelity or divorce, Wojtyla argues. 

The future pope also takes time to distinguish between utilitarian and "personalistic" ethics. He warns that because people are made in the image and likeness of God, they must be treated differently — with greater dignity — than all other objects. We are made to use things and love persons. Sin often confounds this idea. 

Breakdown of the Family

Wojtyla recognizes two forms of love bearing different names in biblical Greek: eros, an attraction or "need" type of love; and agape, a selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love. While eros is physical and emotional desire, i.e., sensuality and sentiment, agape is an act of the will, a freely chosen commitment to the other's good. Neatly put, eros says, "I love you because of," while agape says, "I love you in spite of."

Much ink has been spilled on the procreative aspect of sexual love.

Wojtyla makes it clear that passions and desires must be subjugated to reason. If eros is not harnessed as a stepping stone to agape, but instead becomes an end in itself, a relationship will descend into selfishness and abuse. On the other hand, if eros develops into agape, it becomes a genuine personalistic love.

The Effects of Becoming One-Flesh 

Popes Paul VI and John Paul II stressed the double significance of sexual love, the unitive and the procreative, which must never be ruptured (Humanae Vitae, §12). Much ink has been spilled throughout Church history on the procreative aspect of sexual love, but comparatively little has been on the unitive. It should go without saying, however, that two persons becoming one flesh in bodily union has profound repercussions. 

Some like to believe Scripture uses the term "one-flesh" exclusively for marriage, but this is not so. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, St. Paul warns his Christian brothers against becoming "one-flesh" with prostitutes; for doing so grafts them onto the body of Christ.

In short, after two persons become one flesh, they cannot simply become two again. To make it simple, chastity speakers often use the analogy of tape and paper to illustrate the impact of one-flesh unions. The tape sticks to the paper. But once it's ripped off, the tape loses some of its ability to stick and the paper loses some of its ability to be stuck to. In fact, some of the paper remains stuck to the tape. The more this phenomenon of uniting and ripping apart occurs, the less each element can bond. The same principle applies to people and "relationships."

The Science of Sex

Science seems to confirm that the serial monogamy of "relationships" undermines the dignity of marriage. A 2016 study revealed women who had no sex partners before marriage had the lowest divorce rates, and those who had 10 or more partners in their lifetime had the highest.

Studies have confirmed that bonding hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin are activated with sexual union, as are other mood-altering chemicals that configure one partner to the other. Inconclusive studies in microchimerism and telegony are also fascinating. If the foreseeable results wouldn't pose a threat to the Left's sexuality narrative, it's a virtual certainty that more studies would be conducted that would demonstrate the indelible effects of the one-flesh union.

How Did We Get Here?

This "relationship" era did not appear in a vacuum. Rather, our post-Christian age has gradually taken to mimicking the bleak pre-gospel times wherein divorce was commonplace and commitment to "for better or for worse" permanence was deemed impossible.

Our post-Christian age has gradually taken to mimicking the bleak pre-gospel times.

Many people who came to America from the "old country" were from cultures that favored arranged marriages. But eventually, courting — spending time with each other for the sole purpose of discerning marriage — became the norm. 

Our Lady of Fatima

Later, modesty would come under blistering attack. This is why Our Lady of Fatima prophesied to Jacinta in 1920, "Certain fashions will be introduced that will offend Our Lord very much. ... Woe to women lacking in modesty. ... More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason." At the same time, the automobile became widespread. And courtship evolved into "dating." All of this drastically changed male–female relations.

As the world headed into the 1950s and 1960s with two great wars behind it, three new inventions would challenge the moral integrity of young Americans: 1) the aforementioned automobile, 2) the contraceptive pill, and 3) the television.

During the post–World War II era, when many Americans moved to the suburbs, the automobile came into prominence. For young people, ready access to cars meant dating with privacy, for the first time in history. Unsurprisingly, dating became more intimate, and "making out" at a drive-in or parking area became a rite of passage for many. Even today, controlled studies indicate young adults (those aged 17–24) who have cars are considerably more prone to sexual encounters (and at an earlier age) than the general populace.

The later invention and popularization of the birth control pill decoupled sex from procreation and, ultimately, from marriage. Contraception helped to eliminate from the collective psyche three healthy fears that served, from time immemorial, as natural deterrents to illicit sex: fear of God, fear of pregnancy, and fear of social stigma. So the pill thereby normalized fornication, which, in turn, created a national appetite for legal abortion as a back-up form of "contraception." The pill and abortion, working in tandem to sterilize the sexual act, laid the foundation for the intimate premarital "relationship."

Television also operated to hasten the decay of America's moral fabric — specifically, the culture surrounding marriage and family life. Although it began as a commendable and exciting conduit of information and entertainment, TV was quickly repurposed as a propaganda tool for the spreading of feminism, hedonism and sexual ideology.

What's the Solution?

There is no easy solution to reclaiming sexual sanity and the dignity of marriage. The Church must recommit to assertively spreading the truth about love and marriage as it was "from the beginning," before sin distorted it. This is something Pope St. John Paul II spent his entire pontificate doing

It's not insignificant that arranged marriages have the lowest divorce rate.

It's not insignificant that arranged marriages have the lowest divorce rate. This is a nod to the superiority of agape to eros. If we continue to choose our own spouses based on affective love, this must translate to agape love. Agape, recall, integrates eros for the good of the communion of persons, who, as family, reflect the Trinitarian God Who is Love itself (1 John 4:8).

So premarital romances may start with attraction, but must facilitate the sober assessment of a couple's religious, moral and intellectual compatibility for marriage.


The "relationship" culture, now in its sixth decade, conditions people for divorce. The social construct mimics marriage by creating a marital-like bond but without the commitment of wills. It often shatters and hardens hearts, while debasing the dignity of marriage. For the good of individuals, the family and society, it must end.

Earthly marriage isn't for everyone.

One final thought. Earthly marriage isn't for everyone. God commands us to love Him and neighbor. He doesn't command us to marry. The most important thing in life is to be right with God, through Christ, the eternal Bridegroom. This is the only relationship that really matters.

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