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Self-love and the subversion of the family

Carl R. Trueman | The divorce lifestyle wreaks havoc on society’s weakest members


Adele sings at the Grammy Awards in 2017. Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Self-love and the subversion of the family

There can be few things that indicate what a society thinks about the purpose of being human more eloquently than its views on marriage. A recent case in point is a guest essay in the New York Times: “Divorce Can Be An Act of Radical Self Love” by Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Clear, concise, and deeply personal, it offers an eloquent glimpse of what our culture’s ruling class considers to be its priorities for human fulfillment: responsibility to self-fulfillment, first, last, and always.

The burden of the piece is that the author’s divorce is good for her because it has freed her to pursue her own path and arrange the priorities of her life—and the natural dependency of her children upon her—in a manner that allows her to pursue her dreams. She couches this in the language of self-love.

The talk about children often being better off due to divorce pulls on the emotions, as some children do grow up in horribly abusive homes. But it seems that was not her situation at all. When she uses the powerful imagery of “shards” of the nuclear family harming children, she does not draw from that the conclusion that competent parents have a responsibility to make the family work. Instead, the tenor of her argument is this: My ambitions are central and everything else, every other relationship in which I find myself, even that to my children, must be constructed in relation to that fact. Thus, if there is a positive effect on children, it is at best a collateral benefit derived from ending something she and her husband had failed at, not her primary motivation.

To prove her point, she even quotes her ten-year-old daughter to the effect that her mother’s work is more important than being there for her: “Some of my friends spend more time with their parents, but I have to give you a lot of credit because those kids are in two-parent families. Our criminal justice system is horrible and messed up, and you are trying to help it get fixed.”

For a 10-year old, that is quite a remarkable insight into the American criminal justice system and her mother’s importance. It is also rather sad that a 10-year-old should have to say it.

In the same week, English singer Adele gave an interview on the rationale for her own divorce and its impact upon her son. And she did so rather more pointedly, far less piously, and likely more honestly. Abraham agonized over sacrificing his son. Not so for this famous singer:

“Adele says her upcoming album was written with her son in mind so that ‘when he’s in his twenties or thirties’ he can understand ‘who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness.’”

The language is blunt in the extreme: she willingly chose to dismantle her son’s whole life in the pursuit of her own happiness. That is a truly horrifying testimony but emblematic of an age where self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice is the order of the day. We are all born free, according to Rousseau. That makes everybody else, even our children, first and foremost potential links in those chains that imprison us.

The Times writer is fortunate in her financial and social status. She has a well-paid job and apparently a cooperative former husband. They are raising their children well by her account, and there seems no reason to doubt that. Adele is similar, a successful woman who can follow her dreams and mitigate the collateral damage done to her son by her own behavior. And that is so typical of the increasing detachment from reality evident in the ruling class of our day: the promotion of lifestyles whose consequences their own money and status allow them to enjoy yet which wreak such havoc on others, the less wealthy and the less educated.

The children of society’s underclass do not have the privilege of idyllic weekend bike rides in the park with divorced parents. Yet the easy-come, easy-go attitude to the family that the wealthy and the educated promote has exacted a high cost as it has trickled down the social hierarchy. The families and neighborhoods of the underclass especially end up saddled with the social interest payments generated by the “radical acts of self love” of the chattering class.

Like many acts of love, this “radical act of self love” involves sacrifice—obviously not self-sacrifice, for who in today’s selfish age would ever want to do that? Instead, it involves the sacrifice of other selves, especially children. And none of the pious talk of how beneficial it can be to wealthy, successful, ambitious parents can hide that fact.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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