Monday, April 16, 2018

Marrying the Wrong Person

So-called self-anointed philosopher Alain de Botton raised an interesting question in yesterday’s New York Times. Why, he asked, do we persist in marrying the wrong people?

Why do we keep making these mistakes? De Botton suggested that it’s all about feeling. We follow the call of our feelings and marry because it feels right or because we have feelings for another person. Thus, we marry the wrong person because we have been acculturated by therapy to rely on our gut feelings.

This seems to be variant of what is now called love marriage. In the past and in most cultures, marriages are social arrangements. They are alliances between families. A happy young couple may or may not have more or less a say in the selection process, but parents have a considerable say. In most cases parents facilitate the process by providing a small, list of appropriate spouses. Individual bliss takes a back seat to social harmony.

And yet, psychology researcher and Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz has shown that we make better choices when we have fewer options. When we are presented with a multitude of potential spouses we are likely to believe that there is always someone better… out there somewhere. When we have a smaller selection we are more likely to make a more rational choice. The great cosmopolitan metropolis, what with the multitude of options, has turned the process into a catch-as-catch can.

De Botton does not see this, but somehow we are not surprised.

Being as he is a so-called self-anointed philosopher de Botton has no idea about how arranged marriages work. Examine his muddled thinking:

For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity, abuse, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, in hindsight, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish and exploitative. That is why what has replaced it — the marriage of feeling — has largely been spared the need to account for itself.

Actually, some young people today choose their spouses by exercising their rational faculties. Many follow the call of their loins, but most young people, we like to think, know better.

Were all arranged and semi-arranged marriages horror shows? Of course, not. If the institution did not serve a purpose, it would not have survived throughout human history. True enough, and importantly, cultures that practiced arranged marriage consigned romantic love to the realm of adultery. It was not just men who indulged in adulterous liaisons. Women did too. And, when men went off to make the beast with two backs with a mistress or a lady of the evening, their wives were often not unhappy about it.

Dare we mention, that if these marriages were more stable and more durable than our current marriages of feeling, they would have fostered less solitude. After all, when social harmony is the goal people are more likely to be getting along with friends and family, within a constituted community. In today’s marriage of feeling, the burgeoning divorce rate has produced far more loneliness and misery.

Most of the rest of de Botton’s description of arranged marriage is fantasy. It is more than strange that he seems to devalue the use of our rational faculties in choosing a mate. If a marriage of feeling is more likely to collapse in misery, would it not be better to think rationally, to consult with family and friends, before making such a momentous decision.

De Botton’s limited rational faculty does not address the issue.

He then describes a marriage of feeling:

What matters in the marriage of feeling is that two people are drawn to each other by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right. Indeed, the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six months since they met; one of them has no job or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it can feel. Recklessness is taken as a counterweight to all the errors of reason, that catalyst of misery, that accountant’s demand. The prestige of instinct is the traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable reason.

People marry for feeling, not so much because the species underwent millennia of trauma through arranged marriage, but because our therapy culture has stripped them of their identity as social beings. They have been reduced to bundles of feeling and have become slaves to their emotions.

But, we should also add the fact that many people today do not believe in traditional marriage. They do not follow the rules of marriage and do not respect the different roles and duties involved in this eminently social relationship.

As for trauma, it certainly enters the picture. It enters because people marry later in life. When you marry later you have very likely endured a number of failed relationships. Thus, you have suffered traumas. And, as we know, being traumatized will make it more difficult for you to make a rational decision about a prospective mate. When you have been traumatized your mind goes into trauma avoidance mode. You will exclude people who resemble the person who traumatized you and will feel safer and more comfortable with people who have less in common with the person who traumatized you.

But, de Botton is not finished regaling us with his pseudo-psychology:

We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.

And, what if we are not mired in our childhood feelings? Often we make mistakes. We do so because social ties are disintegrating and we are suffering from anomie. It makes very little sense to think of this terms of an effort to recover childhood feelings. Sometimes the right person feels wrong, but that must have more to do with the traumas we suffered while trying to find our way through the dating wilderness.

Ironically, the older you are when you marry, you will have suffered more traumas. The solution is to rely on the judgment of other people. We have all been told that once we are older we can make more independent decisions. We have been told that we need not rely on other people, because we bring so much life experience to the table. And also because we are presumably solvent and independent.

This is obviously wrong. The more you have been traumatized by bad relationships, the more you should rely on those who are wiser and more rational. Often they know you better than you do. Often they see things in a relationship that you do not. They might get it wrong. More often, I suspect that they will be getting it right. At the least, the older you are the more you should distrust your feelings and should run decisions by your advisory board. They might not be right all the time, but their judgment will often be better than yours. You need not marry the person that everyone likes, but do not dismiss the person out of hand… give him or her a chance.

And then, de Botton offers an interesting and intriguing point. It does not matter, he says, if we have married the wrong person. Life is tragic, anyway, so grin and bear it. And this means that we should recalibrate our expectations… not expecting the other person to be just like you are, but accepting differences so long as they can be negotiated. Marriage, he says, has an administrative element, one that ought not to be ignored.

Fair point. You should overcome the romantic illusion that marriage is an expression of true love. You should also jettison the illusion that true love can best exist when two people have less in common, or when their love is socially tabooed. 

Marriage is not therapy. It has not been designed to afford you a path to self-actualization. You ought to give up the idea of being independent and autonomous and you ought, as de Botton sees, give up the idea that it's all in your feelings or that love will conquer all. If the two of you do not know how to work together your marriage is heading in the wrong direction.


Ares Olympus said...

I like this assertion "The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement."

To me this the abilty to step back emotions and not take things personally that don't need to be. Being good at disagreement must start from the premise that our own point of view isn't the only valid one. I am often fascinated to see how some couple stay together and some do not, and its not clearly predictable. Sometimes it seems like the answer is people must "lower their standards", but probably it is more accurate to say that we adjust our standards towards the reality we find ourselves, so some standards may be raised high while others can be let go as immaturity.

whitney said...

I read somewhere that the person you should marry should be somebody you're willing to start a business with. And you should look at them in that vein. That seems like very sound advice to me

Shaun F said...

Well..sleeping with the wrong person for the wrong reasons usually leads to disaster, or marriage. And with all the Viagra available to the young bucks with "erectile dysfunction" (or free if you're in the military) because they are incapable of intimacy - well you can see where this all can lead. Combined with alcohol, crack, or weed and coming from a broken family? Not pretty. The Chinese still seem to have the family unit intact.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

"When we are presented with a multitude of potential spouses we are likely to believe that there is always someone better… out there somewhere."
More evidence that "catch and release" can be tricky.

JPL17 said...

For what it's worth, my experience completely confirms Stuart's advice.

I.e., one of the profound differences between my disastrous, short first marriage and my happy, long second marriage is that the first was entered into without input from a single soul, whereas the second was entered into after thoughtful consultation with family and friends who were older and/or wiser than me. Indeed, I suspect the reason I didn't ask for advice before marrying wife #1 was that in my heart I knew exactly what advice I'd receive.

A word to the wise.

Anonymous said...

or, some of us married wisely the next time BECAUSE of the trauma suffered last time. We learned our lesson about relying on chemistry, infatuation, or yes, marrying someone our friends and family expected us to.