David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote an article outlining three views of marriage. You can read the whole thing here or keep reading for my quotes, summary, and commentary. In a nutshell, he said,
there are 3 lenses through which the popular literature tends to address marriage today:
the psychological lens, the romantic lens, and the moral lens.
Let’s look at these one at a time.
Brooks says “The psychologists want you to think analytically as well as romantically about whom to marry. Pay attention to traits.”
Ideally, yeah, we ‘d all be analytical about who we marry. But here on earth, I don’t believe most people's urges in relationship are actually that logical and rational… And as often as not, those who were successful in approaching life partnership from a “do you have the proper qualifications, character-wise” angle find themselves second-guessing at some point, wondering, “have I missed out on some measure of passion, excitement, deeper connection? I mean, I really picked a NICE partner, like I set out to, but is this all there is to me? To them? To life?”
So in my mind, this suggestion comes more from a forensic perspective, looking back on who was set up to be happy together without much work (those whose traits are compatible) and those who chalk up the demise of their union to “incompatible traits” or whatever words they use and who might say (or whose therapist might say) if they’d chosen better, they might not have suffered the way they did.
I tend to be both more pessimistic and more hopeful than that.
My own marriage and the hundreds whose inner chambers I’ve been privileged to be invited into have taught me that when humans marry, it’s often for a mash-up of "good" reasons and “bad.” It would have been very smart to choose someone as loyal and emotionally generous as Kurt. I’d like to think I’d deliberately pick someone who, predictably from the way he “uncled” even before I met him, would be an engaged, loving, and strong father. But more likely, I also chose him because he chose me (and he did that, in part, because he was tired of being alone). He made what I call my ‘princess fantasies’ come true: he put a ring on my finger and told the world he had Chosen me. At 23, I wanted that. So badly. His woodworking hands and the sawdust scent of him probably reminded me of my carpenter dad, Rick. And my being from Alaska and our visits there together plugged him into his Daniel Boone fantasies and opened a world of fishing and hiking and wilderness adventures. And I think there are lots of conscious and unconscious reasons people are drawn to each other. And similarly obscure reasons we just “can’t” settle down with perfectly delightful people who have the right “qualities” but just don’t feel right, to us… Perhaps they feel too right. Too different from the little twists and bumps inside our hearts, installed by the quirks of the love we experienced growing up.
I find that psychology is far more useful for growing together inside a relationship than for avoiding choosing a partner with whom you’ll need to.
David Brooks paraphrases Ty Tashiro, the author of “The Science of Happily Ever After,” as saying "don’t think negative traits will change over time, because they are constant across a lifetime.” I believe that, in people dedicated to shoring up their own egos. I believe changing ourselves is hard and changing our partners is next-to-impossible. Still...
I believe elevating the dynamics between ourselves and another person is a useful way to spend a lifetime.
I believe that becoming happier with that person you couldn’t help but choose is a combination of asking them to change (yes! I do!), changing our own contributions to the dynamic, and looking deeply at the real hungers that drive our desire for those conditions to be different, so we can not only redecorate the prison cell to our liking, but also unlock its door and claim more emotional and spiritual territory as our own.
Brooks’ second lens is the romantic lens.
He says "More than people in many other countries, Americans want to marry the person they are passionately in love with.” From my professional experience, I’d say that many couples find themselves in a place where they’re no longer feeling that “passionately in love” experience and then they do one of three things:
They resign themselves. “Passion dies. It’s a fact of life.” They decide to find a way to be happy (or not be happy, but go on) without it, keeping the marriage together “for the kids” or for the financial and emotional stability it brings, however hollow or tepid.
They decide they have a right to more happiness, more passion. They cultivate that passion outside the relationship without renegotiating its terms, or they leave the relationship by divorcing or breaking up.
A third, smaller group do this: they figure that they’re in this relationship for a reason and that their yearning for a deeper love or a more passionate connection is also valid. They seek to reconcile the two. They get very creative. Some renegotiate the relationship to open themselves to other lovers (that’s complicated, and emotionally very difficult for monogamist-leaning folks to do, but very worthwhile for those who thrive within a net of polyamorous relationships). Some renegotiate to ask something different of their relationship and to bring something different to it.
In shorthand, I say “keep me safe, I’ll keep you wild” or “keep me wild, I’ll keep you safe” might have been the agreement before: one of you was designated the more “lively” one and the other was the one who brought the security. But perhaps those roles have grown tiresome or restrictive. So these couples - courageously, for they’re rocking the boat that our culture has said is the very foundation of their lives - begin to examine and reimagine the tender and fierce agreements they have with one another.
Our safety and aliveness agreements are explicit sometimes, but mostly implicit.
We know what they are when we run into the things we’d like to do but that “my spouse would hate it if I did that!"
- “I’ll keep you feeling safe by always….. and by never…."
- “I’ll keep you feeling alive by making sure to…. and by never…."
- “I’ll be the fun one/happy one/positive one, and I’ll show it by always… and by never…."
- “I’ll be the smart one/the planful one/the provider/the fixer and you can count on me to always handle…. and to never…"
Couples who want to go deeper look at where they yearn to break these promises… and what they’re afraid will fall apart if they do. We devise recoverable ways to experiment. We get transparent about those yearnings. And we almost always find that the promises we were compromising our truest selves to keep were not promises that were truly creating the fullest aliveness for our partner, either.
This brings us to the third lens David Brooks identifies in the popular literature about marriage today: the moral lens.
Through this lens, he says, "The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love. Everyday there’s a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self. In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better."
Brooks goes on, "In the moral view, spiritual transformation — over a lifetime, not just over two passionate years — is the whole point. People have great power to go against their own natures and uplift their spouses, by showing a willingness to change, by supporting their journey from an old crippled self to a new more beautiful self."
He closes his article by saying "The three lenses are operating at different levels: personality, emotions, the level of the virtues and the vices. The first two lenses are very common in our culture — in bookstores, songs and in movies. But the moral lens, with its view of marriage as a binding moral project, is less common. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the quality of the average marriage is in decline.” This is a thinly veiled admonition, “if you want a better marriage, look at it through the moral lens; find ways your marriage can grow you and contribute more to the world.”
I both love this point and think that he misses a huge part of how transformation can and must be brought about. If we can learn to love better, to have larger hearts and smaller egos, if our marriages can humble us and inspire us with the everyday opportunities to serve and to soften, to be both vulnerable and reliable in ways that stretch us, then our marriages become monasteries, havens for spiritual growth.
But to deny desire and conflate the divine guidance it provides with ego’s ceaseless demand for gratification is a mistake.
Pushing down sexual energy, casting the yearning for deep emotional communion as the mark of an immature heart, pathologizing the very real human urges toward both novelty and familiarity… I see all these inside the popular literature designed to “help” people who are trying to view their marriage through a moral lens.
And it’s just plain mean. Making a values-based approach to marriage - one where we intend to be a better person every day through the process of meeting our spouse in their needs, championing their strengths, and forgiving their missteps - into a dry, ascetic pursuit makes an already tough path both harder and, to me, false.
The REAL opportunity for marriage as a spiritual pursuit is to make it the place where you bring your whole self:
Your yearnings and your devotions
Your best diplomatic skill and, when you need to, your wildest roaring-and-gnashing-teeth fits of rage…
Your maiden and your mother and your whore and your crone…
Your page and your warrior and your magician and your king…
You’re ready to come clean and you’re ready to admit to being dirty….
You intend to make a positive difference and you just want to be taken care of.
So I’d add another lens to David Brooks’ three.
The lens of desire.
Because without a lens of desire, we can only view marriage as a place where we (a) chose intelligently through the psychological lens or are learning to cope, using it or (b) had enough passion in the first few years to give us memories to last a lifetime or (c) nobly soldier on, becoming more virtuous by the day, if not truly self-expressed.
Let’s let the most exciting things in the world happen not to people who’ve gotten divorced and are finally living their dreams or to people who, unencumbered by partners and children, are building schools and lending to entrepreneurs around the world. Let’s let marriage be the hottest place on earth by bringing the best of our psychology, our romance, our morality AND our desires to it.