A recent blog post on marriage (Marriage Isn’t For You) has been making the rounds recently. I found the post to be a nauseatingly trite treatment of a difficult subject. I want to look at how damaging this kind of thinking can be when presented in such simplistic terms, but before I do that, I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.
I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.
Let’s say that I take the author’s advice when I marry. If “you marry to make someone else happy” as the author instructs us, and if I am unable to meet this criteria (a fool’s errand if there ever were one!), then does this criteria not require that I divorce my unhappy spouse? Even if I am happy in the marriage? In this case, no matter how happy I am in my marriage, my ethical responsibility is to divorce if I cannot make my spouse happy. If I were to remain married, say out of a sense of duty or because of my vows, then it would be clear that the happiness of my spouse is not my criteria.
At such a crisis point, I either need to drop the pretense of being in the marriage “only for the Other”, and continue the marriage under more honest terms, or I must divorce my spouse due to my failure to have what the author calls a “true marriage.”
A third option is to remain in the marriage with the original criteria in mind, but without the naiveté that such criteria can be met. After enduring the reality of an extended marriage, I may realize how naive it was to believe that making my partner happy would be a consistently attainable goal. Reflecting on the difficulty of actually-existing marriage, I may nuance the criteria (especially since a strict adherence to the criteria may demand divorce). In this instance, the initial naiveté is lost, though the orientation toward the Other remains largely the same: I desire to make you happy, and will continue to pursue this desire in the absence of its satisfaction. I will continue to seek your happiness even though I do not see it arriving yet.
If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love?
This approach seems to match the pace of actually-existing marriage better than an expectation that I will immediately be able to make my partner happy. Yet if the mistake in the first instance is impatience (“I have not made you happy, so I must either divorce you or stop pretending it is possible to make you happy”), is not the possible mistake in this third option the danger of an abundance of patience offered in the name of virtue? If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love? What if my spouse’s continued unhappiness is the result of marriage to me, despite my noble intentions and martyr-like commitment? What if I am the chief obstacle to my spouse achieving even modest, intermittent happiness? Can my commitment to remain married coincide with my commitment to produce my spouse’s happiness? Or do I need to consider the possibility that divorce for the sake of my spouse may be the most loving act possible?
What is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?
It appears that an exclusive emphasis on the happiness (or needs or desires) of the Other can produce the opposite of the claimed goal. Just as actually-existing Communism and Capitalism produce results that are at odds with the lofty ideals these systems claim to serve, so too can a slavish adherence to the exclusive “love” of the Other produce results that do not match the lofty ideals invoked. With the recognition of the disjuncture between ideal and reality in Communist and Capitalist practice, the real critical work of asking what is actually driving those systems begins. If Communists don’t really have the concerns of working people in mind, what are they actually trying to accomplish? If Capitalism doesn’t actually lead to greater freedom, what is the Capitalists actual goal? Likewise, if I claim to be committed to the happiness of my spouse, but don’t actually produce this happiness, what is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?
The language of extreme love masks an extreme hatred.
Several possibilities come to mind. One is the desire to avoid my impotence. If I am only interested in making you happy, and you are not happy, then perhaps by stating my ethical purity of my intent, I am able to subtly suggest that the fault lies with you, you for whom I have sacrificed everything! In this case, such a proclamation of love covers a proclamation of hatred. We find this love/hate dichotomy operating in certain forms of Christianity. Here, one is told that God loves sinners so much that He sent His only Son to die on their behalf as the ultimate act of love. If, however, you are not convinced by this, then you can go to Hell. Literally. This theology uses the language of extreme love to mask an extreme hatred.
An extreme offer masks an extreme demand.
Another possible account of the disjuncture between my claim to seek the Other’s happiness and the Other’s actual experience of unhappiness is that in making my claim, I am able to both claim my ethical purity while also levying a radical demand of the Other. If true love claims to demand nothing for the Self, but to be only “for the Other”, then can the Other offer love without having to meet exactly this extreme criteria? In this case, the offer of selflessness for the sake of the Other is at its root a demand of selflessness from the Other. “This is what true love is, and if you truly love me, you will love me in this way. Whether I love you in this way or not.” Here, an extreme offer masks an extreme demand.
An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness.
There is a different approach to the difficulties of love and marriage. Instead of an exclusive emphasis on the Other, there can be a focus on mutuality. In a mutually loving relationship, it is not necessary that both partners be in identical states at all times. What is important is that over time, the relationship is good for “us”. I may choose to be unhappy for a time because that allows for us to be healthy over the long term. Likewise, I may accept my partner’s unhappiness for a time for the same reason. Instead of a neurotic obsession with making my partner happy (and there is real horror in being forced into happiness!), an emphasis on the overall health of the relationship extends my concern from an immediate problem concentrated in one person, to a longer-term concern extended across both members of the relationship. An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness (and There Will Be Unhappiness). A mutual relationship unweights this emphasis on the individuals in the relationship, allowing for breathing room, creativity, and engagement with the struggle to love, to be loved, and to love mutually.
In the same way that Communists and Capitalists destroy people in the name of liberating those same people, so too can we destroy the one we love in the name of love. If we are in a genuinely mutual relationship, then we can never act unilaterally on the behalf of the Other. Rather, we act in mutual partnership with the Other for the sake of us. The Biblical notion of “two becoming one” is helpful here. It is not “two becoming two who love each Other to the exclusion of Self,” but two who become one, and in that oneness, love the Other when they love the Self, and love the Self when they love the Other. This is not a one that becomes a singularity, an undifferentiated one in which both partners are always in the same state (of mind, emotion, or what have you). This is a oneness in which both elements, both people, are mutually-constituting parts of the whole. Like the towers that together compose a suspension bridge, there is no “I” without “You”, and no “You” without “I”. If this is the case, then there is no validity to the notion of doing for “You” without doing for “Me”, of loving “You” without loving “Me.” Mutuality does not claim to love the Other to the exclusion of the Self, and does not make the implicit demand that the Other love in such a fashion.
Marriage isn’t for you.
Divorce isn’t for you.
They’re for us.
*I recognize that marriage is a complicated and problematic social institution. I use the term here as short-hand for a loving relationship.