Married couple Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler have produced a book containing the world best marital advice. It’s called: The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration and Cautionary Tales, from Adam & Eve to Zoloft.
One accepts that the book is full of wit and wisdom. And yet, it sounds suspiciously like something that was put together by a junior marketing executive.
Be that as it may, Grunwald wants to entice us to read it, so she has offered a snippet of world-class wisdom in Time magazine.
Perhaps a senior marketing executive thought up this: What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to married couples?
Grunwald responds with a quote from Irish poet William Butler Yeats:
In wise love, each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life.
To place this in context, Grunwald reminds us that Yeats spent his life desperately in love with a woman he never married. I am not sure why this makes him an authority on marriage or on love, but you may draw your own conclusions.
Not to quibble any more than usual, I would note that wise love, whatever it is, is not really the same thing as marriage. We are culturally inclined to believe that there is an indissoluble bond between love and marriage, yet the history of marriage belies that supposition. For the vast majority of human beings, romantic love has not been contained within marriage. And, the vast majority of the marriages that have occurred throughout human history have not been based on romantic love.
What is Yeats trying to say?
He is saying that you should ignore the person you encounter on a daily basis. Ignore the faults and foibles, the flaws and imperfections and seek out the “high secret self.” That is, see the best in your spouse and ignore the rest.
But, what does this mean? Yeats might simply be revealing that he never married the woman he loved, thus that part of her remained unattainable to him.
Besides, if your spouse has a high self why does he or she have to keep it secret?
Grunwald suggests that Yeats wants to say that marriage should be about bringing out the best in your spouse.
In Grunwald’s words:
Simply put: If you’re smart about it, you’ll rise above the inevitable setbacks and stresses of a shared life, and you will make it your lasting mission to bring out the absolute best in your spouse.
Surely, this is good advice. It echoes Aristotle’s definition of the best form of friendship. If so, it is not specific to marriage. And it is certainly not specific to romantic love, wise or not.
Grunwald is not talking about Yeatsian mirroring, but one forgives her for not belaboring a strange idea.
We will note that Grunwald, following Yeats, sees marriage in terms of emotional and mental exercises. Among them, the admonition to banish all signs of contempt for your spouse.
Of course, she is correct to believe that such a negative attitude toward your spouse’s faults and flaws is corrosive:
You have to banish contempt. Contempt is an acid, and it etches ugliness into love. To banish contempt means that when your husband has given in to his least attractive tendencies, his most fearful, or fearsome; when your wife has lost her focus, her patience, or her heart, this is the moment when you must exercise the x-ray vision I’m sure Yeats would have mentioned if he’d known about Superman. This is the moment when you must see through the annoying, demanding, complaining, failing, faltering wreck in front of you—and find the strong, kind, fascinating, functional person you know your spouse wants to be.
The kind of criticism that helps marriage is the kind you learned in English class: studying something so well that you can find its hidden patterns and its deeper truths.
Her good sentiments notwithstanding, Grunwald contemptuously describes a spouse as a “faltering wreck.” Next she asserts that a good spouse should see through all these negative traits.
A cognitive therapist would point out here that it is better for an individual to make a list of his or her spouse’s good qualities, rather than to make a list of the bad qualities and then attempt to ignore them.
Note that Grunwald does not mention that in everyday life a good spouse will perform a myriad of positive actions, even at the level of courtesies, and will participate in any one of a number of household routines.
One might even say that a spouse’s best self lies in the consistent performance of said routines, or even, the reliable and responsible participation in them.
If so, the best self is anything but a secret. It makes more sense to say that a spouse puts his or her best self into action on a regular basis than to say that he or she is keeping it hidden.
We forgive Yeats for not knowing this.
As for Grunwald, she is a woman of her times—and of the therapy culture. Therefore she descends into psychobabble.
For her the “high secret self” involves what one’s spouse really, really wants.
It is not a very original thought and it is not very useful either.
You can’t do this without understanding what it is that your spouse truly wants…. The “high secret self” exists apart from daily desires and even apart from the twists of fate and fortune that get in the way.
It feels more useful to tell people to be married to the one they are married to. It is also more useful to recognize the good things that one’s spouse does, the signs of good character.
If you seek out the bad, the flaws, and struggle to suppress your contempt, you are on the road to sainthood, not to connubial bliss.