Just in time for Valentine’s Day, social scientists have announced a new theory of marriage, http://nyti.ms/1f00hLA. At its heart is the idea that people marry to get their needs met, and that, over the years, marriage has changed as people’s most pressing needs have changed. Here’s their picture of how American marriage has developed over the years.
In the agrarian times of the nation’s first century, people needed “institutional marriages” so that families could meet their basic needs for food, shelter and security. As the country became more industrialized and urban, “companionate marriages” became possible where couples, now more secure in terms of basic survival, could focus on satisfying their needs for love and intimacy.
Since the mid-nineteen sixties a new type of partnership has emerged. It’s called the “self-expressive marriage” in which, as the researchers put it, “Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” To achieve happiness in this self-expressive marriage, we’re told, couples must give the requisite time, energy and resources to enable the partnership to “facilitate each other’s self-actualization.” The New York Times summarizes the article in this way: “Couples can be happier now than ever before. But it’s rare.”
Rare, indeed. If happiness proves elusive in today’s marriages, I suspect it’s not just because people may lack the will or the resources to make “self-expressive” marriages work. I think the problem may have something to do with the way this new model for marriage is framed. I wonder if it isn’t too narrowly drawn, too focussed on the self. Marriage, of course, has always been about getting our personal needs met, and “self-expression” strikes me as a good thing to pursue, with your partner’s support. But if “self-actualization” is the only focus for a partnership, I‘m not sure it will have much staying power. In my experience, if marriage doesn’t become something more than an exercise in self-interest, it won’t grow; it will die.
I ought to say a word about ‘my experience’ when it comes to marriage. I confess I bring decidedly mixed credentials to the discussion. I’ve long felt passionate about marriage. As a newly-wed in the early 1970’s, I wrote a book that made the same point this new study emphasizes, that contemporary marriage, now free from traditional constraints, offers couples the chance to pursue new opportunities for personal dedication, Partnership: Marriage and the Committed Life (1975). In the book I described what this new form of partnership might look like and in my personal life I tried to live out this new style of marriage. The book did pretty well, but the marriage foundered. I consider the slow decline of that marriage and its ultimate demise to be the greatest failure of my life . But I also count that painful defeat as one of my life’s greatest learning experiences.
These days I still feel passionate about marriage, both in general, and, quite specifically, about the gift of my present marriage. So, forty years after first grappling with these matters, I’m at it again, offering my take on the prospects for marriage today. My approach this time is seasoned with a bit more humility and with some measure of confidence that comes from having experienced not only a painful defeat, but also many years of real fulfillment as a married person.
To my mind, today’s “self-expressive marriage” needs something more, something to keep the marriage from deteriorating into a rivalry between competing self-interests. I’d like to suggest a healthy dose of mutuality in marriage. I see a mutual marriage as one where you’re as committed to making sure that your spouse’s needs are met as you are to getting your own needs satisfied. In my view, marriage at its best is a matter of two people sharing three loyalties: each of you is loyal to your own fulfillment, you’re both dedicated to the other’s best interests and together you’re committed to the marriage itself, to making it an effective and satisfying means for caring for each other.
I’ve learned to develop a fierce loyalty to the relationship itself, as if it were a living creature born of love, sustained by forgiveness and fueled by desire and delight. Thinking of marriage this way shifts the focus away from constantly assessing just how much I’m getting out of the marriage and toward gauging how well the two of us are doing in building a partnership that serves us both. Of course, no marriage can guarantee that each partner will always be able to meet the other’s needs while getting their own needs fully met. But a spirit of mutuality in the marriage can help a spouse cope with being in that unfair place where they’re giving more than they’d like and receiving less than they need. It encourages a sense of resiliency through the difficult times, and holds out the prospect that both will work hard to right the imbalance as quickly and effectively as they can.
Mutuality in marriage, I’ve found, means working to become as good as you can at some very important things: when your marriage becomes that trusting place where you each receive acceptance and you both find solace and delight in one another, when you feel free and safe enough to tell each other anything and everything and secrets are no longer necessary, when disagreements aren’t left to fester and you’re both quick to ask forgiveness and to forgive without reservation, when you spend less time trying to convince and more time learning to understand each other, then you can be confident that you’ve built something very powerful together. You’ve effectively doubled the possibility for self-fulfillment as you each become the strong advocate for the other’s best interests.
I see mutual marriage as building capacity for something else, as well: for altruism, for sharing a love that goes beyond yourselves. When your marriage is steeped in a spirit of mutuality, you’re able not only to satisfy your own needs, you can serve others as well. This value-added dimension of marriage can take many forms. A marriage may become a sheltering place for nurturing children. It can become a center of hospitality, where a couple welcomes others into their home and into their love. And, a mutually-oriented marriage can be a powerful resource for spouses to support each other as they seek, through separate and shared commitments, to make a difference in the world.
So in this, the season of love, I say hurrah for marriage with all the changes it’s been through and for all that are yet to come. And here’s to all the lovers hoping to satisfy their needs in today’s “self-expressive” marriage. I can’t think of a better valentine we married couples could give each other than to embrace the values of mutuality and altruism in our marriages so that they might flourish, endure, and truly satisfy.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2014