Marriage Isn’t Either/Or; It’s Both/And

The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?

Then, one fateful night, I shared these thoughts and concerns with my dad.

With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. I’ll tell you,” said he, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love it. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter–as I did!”*

This is the money quote from this post, “Marriage Isn’t for You,” which is going viral on Facebook right now. The post is about a guy who learns from his dad that marriage is about giving yourself up for another person’s happiness, and — Wait, how did Miss Havisham sneak in there?

So listen. I think I understand what he’s trying to say with this post, and I appreciate it. There’s some useful advice about marriage here: Don’t throw in the towel at the first sign of discomfort in your marriage. Your marriage won’t always be actively making you happy, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or can’t be improved. Don’t be self-serving or self-centered; be considerate of your spouse’s needs and how you can serve them.

This is good marriage advice, but it is not universal marriage advice; like most advice, stating it as something for strong universal application instead of a nuanced individual one turns it into something awful. 

Here’s where the nuance needs to come in: Depending on the power dynamic in the marriage, a marriage that’s all about what a person can give for their spouse’s happiness can feed condescension, codependence, or other unhealthy enmeshment. This attitude in a marriage says, “Look how happy I make my partner! They could never be this happy without me; I’m going to keep working and working to make them happy, regardless of what they think they need or their own self-actualization.”

And this attitude can feed abuse. Telling people that marriage isn’t supposed to make them happy can lead to people rationalizing away their spouse’s mistreatment of them because making their spouse happy is more important than their own suffering; and it feeds the narrative that’s especially prevalent in Christian culture that an abused spouse (specifically, an abused wife, although gender doesn’t come up in this particular post) has a responsibility to stay in the marriage and keep submitting. Telling someone that “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’” is a form of gaslighting; it reinforces the idea that even if they’re suffering, well, happiness isn’t the point of being married, is it, and you don’t want to succumb to the “Walmart philosophy,” do you?

As for the author’s comment about the disposable-marriage mentality we supposedly have nowadays — “My father’s advice . . . went against the grain of today’s ‘Walmart philosophy’, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one” — well, the statistics don’t really bear this out. In fact, the divorce rate has been declining since the 1990s, and data indicate that 21st century marriages are lasting longer than they did a few decades ago. Anecdotally, I know a number of couples my age who have divorced, and not a one of them has made the decision lightly or because their marriage wasn’t sufficiently “all about them.” Rather, in every case, the choice to divorce has been a difficult decision that they made only after exhaustively trying to fix the marriage and ultimately concluding that remaining married was impossible. So I take issue with Seth’s insinuation that the world is full of selfish entitled people who flippantly give up on their marriages.

The truth is, even in a healthy, mutually respectful marriage, putting your partner’s needs above your own is an ideal that’s harder to live up to than you’d think.

I certainly try to sacrifice for Aaron and consider his needs and happiness as important; and I know he does the same for me. We do our best to submit to each other and urge each other to pursue the things that make us feel happy and whole. But I can’t do this for him, and he can’t do this for me, unless we are also considering our own needs.

We submit to each other, and we're Jesus Feminists.
We submit to each other, and we’re Jesus Feminists.

You know the advice — “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” If I’m not setting healthy boundaries and looking after my own self-care and well being, I don’t have the resources to meet his needs. And sometimes meeting his needs means that I have to say, This part of our marriage isn’t working; we need to find a compromise. I have to acknowledge that it’s not in Aaron’s power to meet all of my needs, just as it isn’t in my power to make him fully happy, either. Sometimes making him happy means urging him to invest in other relationships with people who share some of his interests in things that bore me, just like his making me happy has meant empowering me to spend time apart doing the things that I love that he has no interest in, like deconstructing Victorian literature. And sometimes doing what’s best for our marriage means saying and doing things that make your partner distinctly unhappy — like, Hey, I need you to find a therapist to work on this issue that’s coming between us. Or, No, I can’t work with this. Things have to change.

So no, Seth, you’re only partly right. Marriage isn’t just for you. But it’s not just for your spouse, either. Marriage is for both of you, and ideally, marriage means both partners working together to ensure their own needs are being met, while also doing everything they can to meet their partner’s needs in a healthy way. (And for heaven’s sakes, don’t marry someone that you don’t see yourself having this kind of partnership with. Telling “almost married, single, or even the sworn bachelor or bachelorette” not to base their decision to get married on whether their spouse makes them happy is utterly unhelpful, Seth.) It isn’t either/or; it’s both/and.

*****

*Edited to add: Just to clarify, the second half of the quote here isn’t from the original post, but from Great Expectations. I elided the blog quote into Miss Havisham’s speech because it seemed to more fully express the same unhealthy assumptions about what love and marriage are about; but people have pointed out that it was unclear that I did this, and they’re right. The original quote from the blog post says:

“Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

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5 thoughts on “Marriage Isn’t Either/Or; It’s Both/And

  1. Abi, I think the author of the original piece has edited it. The quote from his father reads differently from what you have here. Some of the comments on his blog are also responding to other things in the article that I don’t see there. Either there are two versions of this, or he went in and changed things after the post went viral.

    One other point to mention…the author is Mormon. I know that some Mormons identify as Christian, but I also know that they reference other sources of revelation in living out their faith. So they would not necessarily feel held accountable to the Biblical teachings of mutual accountability. (I’m trying to be gracious and careful in my wording, because I don’t want to offend any LDS readers you have.)

    1. Beth, I elided the quote from the original post into Miss Havisham’s speech in Great Expectations, out of snark. I should’ve been more clear about what the blogger’s actual words were.

      It’s interesting that the author is LDS, since the post is getting a TON of shares by evangelical Christians on my Facebook timeline, many of whom consider LDS doctrine to be incompatible with their own beliefs. In any case, you’re right that his faith background is likely influencing the ideas about marriage that he expressed in his post. But given that it got picked up by so many non-LDS readers, it must have seemed compatible with their beliefs as well. Interesting.

    2. About the Biblical teachings of mutual accountability…theologically speaking, Mormons DO believe that way. However, I think a lot of cultural views have heavy influence when it comes to marriage. A lot of weight is put on “sacrifice” in the Mormon world (as well as in the general Christian world). Most Mormons do identify themselves as Christian because of the fact that they study the bible and believe in Christ.

      And as for this post–Brilliant! Good, healthy relationships definitely involve loving yourself and taking care of yourself as well as being willing to compromise sometimes and push yourself a little bit on some levels to please your spouse. I especially appreciate the part about how relationships also mean knowing when and how to say “no.” We cannot be everything for our partners, but that’s the beauty of other familial relationships and friendships. 🙂

  2. Ah…I have read too little Dickens and it has tripped me up yet again. 🙂

    There are certainly plenty of similarities between the patriarchal wing of evangelical Christianity and LDS doctrine on the family. I don’t know enough about LDS beliefs and practices to know if their church is monolithic in adherence to patriarchal thinking or if there are more liberal factions who would disagree.

  3. as I mentioned on twitter, I haven’t actually read the original article – but I appreciate this critique anyway because whenever I hear the “it’s not about you” advice I get a knot in my stomach and always wish people offered disclaimers with it. While I can see the good-intentions and the truth in it, a twisted version of those truths kept me in an unhealthy relationship for years, repeating over and over to myself for those years: “it’s not about me. Love is sacrificial. Love is about who you are loving.”

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