Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is Marriage For You?

Three days ago Seth Adam Smith launched an attack on those who belong to the cult of Narcissus. He did it in a blog post entitled: “Marriage Isn’t For You.”

Everyone who saw the title must have assumed that Smith had written yet another argument against marriage. Smith would not have been the first to argue that the venerable patriarchal institution is incompatible with human flourishing, as they call it today. Surely, he was going to say that human beings could not fully flower if constrained by the rules and obligations that constitute marriage.

Sometimes, appearances are deceiving.

Those who read through his post discovered, as I did, that Smith was arguing for, not against marriage. Some of his readers suffered some very serious disappointment.

In truth, Smith’s title is a brilliant rhetorical ploy. Marriage is not for you, he wrote, because it is for your spouse. If you want to have a great marriage, he said, you should direct your energy toward making your spouse happy.

Some readers were thrilled at Smith’s conceptual dexterity. Others felt that he had perpetrated a “bait-and-switch.”

The worst part, for some readers, was the fact that he had learned this lesson by talking to his father. Apparently, he missed the lesson about always following your bliss or your gut. Appealing to patriarchal authority grates against some souls.

Smith respected the wisdom that comes from experience. Many of those who belong to the cult to Narcissus believe that they should never trust anyone over thirty. They prefer to make their own mistakes. Happily for them,the less apt they are to take advice, the more mistakes they will make.

You show your love, Smith wrote, by giving to your spouse, not by taking from him or her. And certainly not by considering yourself a self-contained being whose goal is your own satisfaction.

Obviously, the rule should be practiced by both spouses. If he is attentive to her and she is attentive to him, neither will feel exploited.

When a husband shows care and concern and consideration to his wife, she will normally reciprocate.  Not because he husband has told her what to do. A good spouse allows his wife to show her love by reciprocating of her own free will.

It is not an original thought. You know it in this form: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Obviously, this differs starkly from the narcissist's mantra: What about my needs?

Many people were thrilled to hear Smith’s advice about marriage. Those who adhere to the culture of narcissism took offense. What is the culture of narcissism if not an exercise in developing a very thin skin? At the least, narcissists, and many therapists too, understood that Smith’s position threatened the self-indulgence they have been peddling.

They took offense because they believed Smith was recommending that one spouse do all the giving while the other do all the taking.

Elise Sole summarized the narcissist's complaint on Yahoo!:

According to Andrea Bonior, PhD, a Washington, D.C.-based licensed clinical psychologist, Smith's intention may be good, but his message is muddled. “People live crazy, hectic lives, so taking time to appreciate your partner and the commitment you made to each other is a positive thing,” she tells Yahoo Shine. “However, marriage is not just about one person's needs." Science substantiates that: One recent study conducted by Monmouth University found that couples who focus on their own personal growth, as opposed to their partner's, are more committed and enjoy longer marriages. 

Amazingly, or perhaps, not so amazingly, Bonior did not understand that Smith’s formula does not just focus on one person’s needs. Apparently, she missed out on the concept of voluntary reciprocity.

I often report on the latest research from social psychologists, but I have my doubts about the one that Bonior mentions.

What does it mean to focus on personal growth? It seems to be saying that the best marriages are those where both partners are in therapy.

Color me doubtful.

By definition, someone who is focused on personal growth cannot at the same time be “more committed” to his marriage. He certainly cannot be attentive to his wife’s needs if he is completely self-absorbed.

Besides, how responsible and reliable can a spouse be when he or she is pursuing personal growth?

Responsibility and reliability, loyalty and trustworthiness are the foundation of all human relationships. No one should believe that the pursuit of personal growth will compensate for irresponsible, unreliable, disloyal and untrustworthy behavior.

And, doesn’t success matter, whether in the workplace or the classroom? How happy are marriages when one or the other spouse is unemployed? Does it make a difference if one or the other spouse has achieved career success?

Happily enough, Smith’s rule applies to other situations. One of the best ways to develop or improve a relationship is to give more and to take less from the other person. Being attentive to the other person’s interests and needs, without his or her having to articulate them, will improve any relationship.

Or, try this example. If you are an executive or a manager, should you care more about satisfying your needs or should you do whatever you can to make work more satisfying for your staff?

A good manager thinks about others first. He does not think about the personal satisfaction he gains from doing his job. If he ignores the needs of his employees he will not have his job for a very long time. And he does not think of his job as an opportunity to pursue personal growth.

Managing other people involves showing them that  you want to provide them with everything they need to do a good job.

It also involves setting a good example. A manager’s dedication to his job will show his staff that his interest coincides with theirs. If he ignores them in favor of his own effort to grow and flourish he will be a very poor manager indeed.


Sam L. said...

Not if you married someone for whom marriage is all about them. I've been lucky in marriage, twice.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I was talking to a friend after her divorce and into a too-early dating process IMHO, and I dangerously reflected out loud that perhaps some marriages last because one person is willing to do 90% of the work for periods of difficulty, and she was bitter from that question and asked "Where do I find someone like that?!"

What most surprised me from her response is to wonder why you'd want such a person, like how could any self-respecting adult want a relationship where they'd only take and have nothing to give?!

Not wanting to judge her, but to me it showed the depth of her resentment, and it was clear that she felt like SHE was the one in her 5 year marriage that had carried te 90% - always gave-in, gave-up, and gave in every possible way, so eventually she could get what she wanted, and finally something broke in her, her idealism, that she could give forever, and still have her needs completely invisible, and unvalued by her partner when she tried to express them.

I can't judge the reality of her marriage except it seemed for her "thinking about her marriage" was her idea of work of marriage, despite the fact its what she wanted to do, and for her husband, focusing on his career so they could have stable finances to raise a family was what he thought his work in the marrage was, despite the fact its what he wanted to do. So both of them could believe they were doing 90% of the work, and both of them may have felt resentful, when the other complained about their burdens.

The lesson I got from this is how resentment seems to build up from false agreements, an idea of wanting something, not asking for it, doing something nice for someone else, and then feeling self-pity for not getting what you think you want without asking for it.

I suppose there are six dozen different patterns of resentment, but maybe if you recognize you're feeling resentful, you should also look where you're being dishonest with yourself.

I'm 45, never married, and my last cousin married last year. Perhaps I'll never marry, but I'm very interested in the questions, including the biggest ones of how maturity is possible when we are so capable of deceiving ourselves.