Monday, September 11, 2017

Marriage as Therapy

If you are in the mood for a little discouragement, read Eli Finkel’s view of marriage. Finkel teaches at Northwestern, so he has all the proper credentials. And yet, he seems to have conjured up the notion that marriage, that venerable institution, has now become a place for two people to do psychotherapy.

Worse yet, he entitled his article: “How to Fix the Person You Love.” Naturally, no one noticed that in another, canine context, “to fix” means “to neuter.”

One feels genuinely sorry for anyone who thinks that their spouse is their therapist—or perhaps they married their therapist—because, God be our witness, marriage is not designed to give you complete self-actualization. Has anyone ever considered that marriage has a communal purpose, that it serves a community and that it was not designed for your own personal self-indulgence.

What does Finkel mean by self-actualization? Glad you asked:

Achieving personal growth is an arduous process. A life characterized by the pursuit of self-actualization trades satiation and contentment for hunger and yearning. The path from the actual to the ideal self passes through anxiety, frustration and humiliation. It’s no different when our spouses are helping us get there.

Finkel is offering the secular version of an experience of spiritual transcendence. The religious version was associated with mysticism and is a proud part of Western religious tradition. If that is your goal, you should not see a coach. You should find a confessor, as did St. Teresa of Avila, and use him as a guide. This might correspond to what some therapists offer. It has nothing to do with coaching.

If large numbers of Americans believe such swill, we are doomed. The social fabric cannot long survive when people hold such a gross misconception of marriage.

Marriage is not therapy. It should never become therapy. You do not marry someone to help him to achieve spiritual or emotional transcendence.

Unless you are wallowing in a grotesque form of solipsism, you know that marriage is about your responsibility to other people. Nowhere in his essay does Finkel consider that spouses have responsibilities to each other, that they have responsibilities to their children, and that they are engaged in a cooperative enterprise. Married couples work together. If one decides to make of the other a reclamation project, the marriage is in serious trouble.

Finkel suggests that the old model of a marriage, where it was about running a household, went out at around 1850. This is a patent absurdity and does not deserve much attention.

Meanwhile, back at the therapeutic marriage, Finkel believes that a spouse can only help a spouse by being critical and dismissive. Really? We do understand, because we are semi-enlightened, that some coaches are hard on their teams. They are especially hard on young team members. In basic training a drill instructor is hard on the raw recruit. As we saw on Saturday, a Chinese schoolteacher can be very demanding and authoritative toward a three-year-old.

Hopefully, you did not marry a three-year-old or an overgrown adolescent. Everyone knows by now that when a coach is too critical he will demoralize his players. A demoralized player is not going to bring his best game. If he believes that his coach does not believe in him the player will not improve. He will continue to meet the coach’s expectations and play poorly. We are dealing with a fairly obvious truth here: if you want someone to improve, you should show confidence in his ability to play better.

This does not mean that you cannot point out errors, but for the most part these must be errors that the player can recognize himself. Presumably, a raw recruit cannot recognize his errors, so his drill sergeant will point them out, clearly and precisely. The recruit cannot really be demoralized, because he has not yet earned any self-respect.

But, what do spouses really want of each other? If they think their spouses need fixing, why did they marry them? Marrying someone for whom he or she might become signals bad judgment.

Marriage should not be seen within a therapeutic bubble. For one thing, who decides who is the therapist and who is the patient? What if the person who is tagged as the patient believes that the person who takes him or herself for the therapist should be cured of his or her pretense to being a therapist? What if each spouse wants to be the therapist? What if each wants to be the patient?

How well spouses relate to each other depends in some part on the way they function in the outside world. Does one spouse set about to coach the other spouse toward greater career success? Surely, that is not the same thing as full self-actualization.

It would be interesting, though also fruitless. If one spouse is selling insurance and the other spouse is a chiropractor, neither one can reasonably offer words of wisdom about how to improve job performance. In truth, most spouses will resent suggestions from someone who does not understand their business.

Finkel suggests that your spouse can either make you feel loved or be critical of you. Again, this is off the mark. How about making your spouse feel respected? How about feeling pride in your spouse’s achievements? How about developing a relationship of trust in someone you know you can always rely on? How about loving your spouse because he or she is an excellent parent to your children? These moral dimensions of marriage are the most important dimensions, so Finkel ignores them.

He also ignores the difference between roles of husband and wife. Being thoroughly modern and politically correct he speaks of two neutered beings seeking spiritual transcendence. He has nothing to say about the household division of labor or about the division of parenting responsibilities.

As for Finkel’s two options, they are both wrong:

In the face of this truth — that the modern ideal of marriage is, though alluring, highly demanding — we have two options. The first is that we ask our partner to play only one of the two roles: either making us feel loved and valued for the person we currently are or making us feel motivated to grow into the person we can potentially become.

This is not an ideal. It is a way to undermine marriage. The two roles in marriage are husband and wife. The two parenting roles are Father and Mother. Duh?

Finkel suggests that we can opt for comfort or for ambition. Here he stumbles on a truth:

Perhaps we’ll conclude that we would rather have a comfortable life than an ambitious one, or vice versa, and we can look to our spouse to help us achieve that type of life. Or perhaps we’ll decide that we want a life of both comfort and ambition, but that we’ll look to different people to help us achieve each of those goals. Maybe our spouse will make us feel loved and safe, but we’ll count on a close friend to help ensure that we never get so comfortable that we stop striving. Such a distribution of responsibility is sensible, because the skill set that makes somebody effective at nurturing us is often quite different from the skill set that makes somebody effective at motivating us.

Of course, one can be ambitious in one’s work and comfortable at home. In traditional marriages, women made comfortable homes while men manifested ambition in the world of work. Nowadays these roles have been confused, but still, a woman who is seeking work/life balance wants to have the time and the energy to make a comfortable home for her family. Hopefully, that is not yet a crime. And a man who has some ambition will not only provide for his family. He will provide well enough to allow his wife to choose how much time she wants to spend with her children.

As for a wife who is trying to motivate her husband to work harder and better at his job, criticism does not work. Confidence is the better course.

Consider this: when critical and hectoring wives succeed in remaking their husbands, said husbands are often so thrilled with their new being that they will run out to share it with other women.

A new woman will only know his new self. His wife can always remind him of his pre-reclamation self. If he gave in to her criticism, he will probably not want to stick around to show her that she was right.


Sam L. said...

The sentence, "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." comes to mind.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Finkel believes that a spouse can only help a spouse by being critical and dismissive.

I don't think that's exactly what Finkel was saying. I think he was recognizing the difficulty in helping anyone grow in maturity. Again the concept of "external self-awareness" is involved here.

The word "criticism" itself isn't describing objective reality, but an interpretation.

Feedback is a more neutral word, and it may contain pure observation, but even so any feedback can still be heard as criticism if you're already in a fight with your own self-critic, or if a truth about you is too shameful to speak about.

And Tasha Eurich tried to show a way to the middle ground on feedback:
"Not everyone will tell us the truth. Don't ask unloving critics. Don't ask uncritical lovers. Ask people who you know have your best interest at heart, and who are willing to be honest when you ask."

Ideally a spouse should quality, at least if she knows you well enough to not trigger the things you prefer to stay in denial over.

Adele said...
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