It’s all in the ethos… that is, in the culture.
Our culture tells us that we should all have a good, sustainable, meaningful, enriching, happy marriage, and it gives us directions to show us how to go about getting one.
We all suffer the culture’s influence. Sometimes we follow its directives unthinkingly, as though they were self-evident truths. At other times, we don't know we are being influenced, but we still abandon old values in favor of new ones.
Today, we are often told that we should not respect values that have proven their worth over time. We are instructed to jettison them because we know better than everyone else, and, because we can use science to define new values.
In the old days happiness involved success and excellence. You earned your happiness by working for your success and by achieving new levels of excellence.
We owe the theory to Aristotle, but many others have defended it over the years. It is consonant with a work ethic, and it sees happiness within a world of competitive striving.
You cannot succeed or excel if you never compete. Or if you can never fail.
So far, so good.
Yet, when a feminist philosopher like Martha Nussbaum starts working on the theory, she shifts the terms, and, in place of excellence, she promotes something called … flourishing.
Thus, she introduces a new set of values, one that is not merely female-friendly-- there is nothing wrong with that-- but that promotes female dominance.
Gone is the manly feel of the concepts like success and excellence. Gone is the manly sense of competitive striving, of winning out over others, and of working for success.
The dictionary tells us that the word “flourishing” can denote success and thriving, but it derives from the word: flowering.
Flourishing involves success in the sense of coming into bloom. It resonates with a woman’s experience, not with a man’s. It is more the province of the private than of the public arena. It feels more like a natural process than something you have to work to attain.
If you start replacing success and excellence by flourishing, you will be changing your values and will eventually change your life strategy.
When a philosopher uses the concept of flourishing, she is not indulging an an innocent quirk. She is trying to create a world where manly enterprise and striving are replaced by a kinder, softer, feminine sense of flourishing.
If you are not aiming to excel, but to flourish, the success of your marriage will be defined by what some psychologists have called “self-expansion.“ Link here.
Of course, those who are purveying the ideas want it to redefine what you should expect from your marriage and how you should conduct yourself within it. In my view, this would work to the detriment of your marriage.
To begin with, the concept is ill-defined. It is low, as opposed to high, concept. Mostly because it does not really explain itself.
Do you really know what it means to have an expanding self? Is it like having an expanding waist line or like blowing up a balloon or like expanding your dominion?
You would not guess, from hearing the term, that it is telling you that a good marriage should be focused more on Me than on Us. And thus, that a good marriage involves two flourishing individuals.
The researchers have made the idea sound palatable. To them, a sustainable marriage involves spouses that expand each others' horizons, open them up to new experiences, and help them to grow as people.
It sounds like an ethic of personal enrichment, the kind that therapists talk about when they claim that their ministrations will give you a rich fantasy life. You may not have succeeded, you may not excel, and you may not know how to conduct a relationship, but you will feel so good for having had so many new experiences.
That sounds fairly harmless, don’t you think?
According to its proponents, self-expansion will keep romantic love alive in a marriage.
In itself this is a dubious idea. The truth is, the first blush of romantic love cannot really be sustained in exactly the same form throughout a marriage.
Marriage domesticates and socializes romantic love. That does not mean that married couples do not love each other, but that they love each other differently than they did before they made their public commitment.
Once a relationship is socialized and domesticated, couples tend to function as a single unit. "We" replaces "Me," and they fall into daily routines. When those routines are consistently performed, both spouses gain a feeling of security and stability. Without it, no marriage can be sustained on a positive footing.
I am not saying that the researchers are wrong to see that romantic love is the enemy of routine. They are right; it is. So they are correct to prescribe surprise and novelty for those couples who wish to sustain their romantic passion.
Here is what they must do: she will teach him to love the ballet while he shows her how to root for the home team. Apparently, this will make their marriage flourish.
Already, this paradigm raises two questions. What if he is simply not interested in the ballet? Or if she has much better things to do with her time than to follow the NFL? Shouldn't we learn to respect the fact that our spouses might have different interests and might not want to become professional dilettantes.
And what if the surprising new experiences are not quite so anodyne as those the research aims at?
What could be more full of surprises than a man who never comes home when he will or when you expect him? And what about a woman who surprises her husband by telling him about the times she cheated on him.
Surely, these experiences will provoke strong passions. This much I can guarantee.
And yet, do you really believe that these novel experiences would help sustain connubial love?
For those who believe, as I do, that human institutions are not perfectly malleable, Tara Parker-Pope responds by claiming that we have entered a new era: “But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting.”
As I said, both good and bad surprises can make your life more interesting. And keep in mind that the old Chinese adage: "May you live in interesting times," is a curse.
And how would this new theory of self-expansion correlate with the well-established research that has shown that the best predictor of marital success was how much a couple had in common.
The more a couple had in common, the more likely they were to stay happily married.
If this is true, then the best, sustainable marriages must contain fewer, not more, surprises.
Couples who come from similar neighborhoods and who have had similar experiences growing up will have a deeper understanding of each other’s experiences, will naturally feel closer and in greater harmony.
If they have a common background, they will be spending less time explaining themselves, will have more friends in common, and will have fewer chances to give offense.
Fewer disruptions and less passionate intensity might feel like a loss of love, but consistency and security will contribute to make your marriage more durable and more loving.
Marriage is not about surprise and shock. To succeed at marriage couples need to create harmony through negotiation. If both partners learn how to negotiate effectively, they can find mutually satisfying compromises.
Negotiated compromise, coupled with coordinated routines, will always feel like work. It cannot happen if the only issue is personal flourishing.
When it comes to sex, I think it fair to say that a married man will be getting less than he wants while a married woman will be getting more than she wants. If that is true, then success does not involve self-expansion or self-contraction, but compromise and accommodation.