Sunday, March 26, 2017

How to save marriages: Replace romance with pessimism

We talked/argued at length about marital romance on an old C'weal thread. Here's Alain de Botton from the NYT who agrees with me:

... it doesn't matter if we find we have married the wrong person.  
We mustn't abandon him or her, only the Romantic founding idea upon which the Western idea of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can satisfy all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.  
... It might sound odd, but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our Romantic culture places on marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded. 

The person who is best suited to us, says de Botton, is "the person who can negotiate differences intelligently."

In a nutshell, the key to long-term contentment is to lower your expectations. By quite a lot. This reduces your outrage when your beloved does not live up to your ideal. And it reduces your sense of entitlement to be a perpetual object of adoration. You also learn to keep your mouth shut and/or say I'm sorry. And mean it.

I shared it with The Boy, whose road to the altar seems fraught with doubts and drama.

De Botton is a breath of fresh air, if you ask me. And seems like a good meditation for Lent as we try to become more generous people.

Any of our pre-Cana folks want to weigh in?

--Jean Hughes Raber


  1. It seems like we discussed this once or twice at dotCommonweal and I was one of the few who thought this was a horrible idea of what marriage should be. It's like making a business deal, taking on a partner to do a specific job, signing a contract. Yuck :) According to polls, most people do marry for romantic love - I don't think most people want to go back to marriage as a job.

  2. But that's not what the article is saying. Just that romance raises expectations that are impossibly high. And, civil marriage, IS a contract that lays out rights and responsibilities viz a viz assets, offspring, and next-of-kin duties. :-)

  3. I wasn't able to read the article - past my # of NYT articles for this month ;) - but from the quote you posted, I think he sets up a kind of romantic straw man ... "that a perfect being exists who can satisfy all our needs and satisfy our every yearning". I don't think that's exactly what romantics believe.

    People choose best friends for kind of the same reasons they choose romantic mates. They don't pick them for practical reasons alone and they don't expect perfection from them. They love them and no one would want to be best friends with someone they didn't love but who simply could meet their practical needs. Why should they choose a mate that way, especially just to make sure the relationship continues for the longest amount of time.

    About the rights and duties - people fall in love first. Some marry and some don't, but the love and the relationship aren't based on fulfillment of those duties, they are based on something more nebulous ... feelings.

    Or so I think, said the divorced person ;)

    1. de Button rejects the medieval notion of "real estate merger" marriage also. I think he's dinging the danger bell when Romance becomes the third partner in a marriage that imposes impossible standards or whispers in your ear, "You can change him."

  4. Jean, I think you and the NYT article are right about unrealistic expectations being a pitfall for marriages. I don't necessarily think being realistic rules out romance. I also think marriages go through stages, and it helps to be aware of them. This article does a pretty good job of laying them out: here
    Basically the 5 stages are: Honeymoon Heaven, Settling in and Settling Down, Family Central, Back to the Two of Us, and You Did It. It also discusses a stage that can happen any time: Explosion. This would be some kind of disaster or tragedy, or something terribly unexpected. I don't think this is given enough attention. The tragedy I can think of that is most destructive is the death of a child. If one of you loses a parent, the other can be there to help and comfort. But if you both experience the devastating loss of a child, how do you comfort each other? Unfortunately I know of several couples who broke up in the wake of something like this.

  5. I have some friends I've known since high school. They married at 18, right after school. Their daughter died a few years ago but they seem to still be very happily married.

    I'm wary of these blueprints for what relationships are supposed to be like. We don't treat our other important relationships like that - they live or die based on how we feel about the other person and how they feel about us. Can you imagine someone saying, "well, when we became friends I promised I'd love them forever and always be there for them, no matter how they changed, what they did, or how they treated me, so 'til death do us part."

    1. I don't know, I guess I do feel that way about my friends. One of the things nobody prepares you for is the death of close friends. Awfully hard. But friendships tend to evolve and people don't make vows. Friendships are also more elastic than marriages. You can take a break if someone is really bugging you. Harder to do when you're married, though that's what "religious retreats" are for, no?

  6. Marriage goes through phases, but maybe not the same phases in the order Katherine's article does. They might look like:

    1. Wow! This is fun!
    2. What is wrong with your family/I can't believe you think/do that!
    3. I love you and the kids but ...
    5. Wow! We have a lot more miney since the kids moved out,do you want to go to the senior discount matinee movie?
    6. Let's just enjoy the peace and quiet, and put in a DVD.
    7. What? What did you say? Speak up for chrissakes!

  7. One of the advantages of waiting 43 years (not our choice, really) to get married is that, by then ... long before that ..., you pretty know what there is to know about each other. If, after you wait a long time to marry and then find out that it was a "mistake", I have absolutely no sympathy.

  8. I'm with you, Crystal. I can't even imagine getting married without romance, and I am long-married - 44 years. This is one of my objections to Catholic teachings that insist that people who marry be "open" to children, and the condemnation of modern birth control. They seem to look at marriage primarily as a business contract, meant to produce more people to support the Catholic church. For much of history it was a business contract, with the couple having no choice in the matter. It was settled by the parents for maximum mutual financial gain. It is still that way in some countries. No thank you. Should couples know that it won't all be wine and roses forever? Of course, but that does not mean that it's better to go into marriage as a business contract, pessimistic about the romantic aspects, than to go into it with a strong, romantic love that will help sustain the couple through the down periods.

  9. It does feel sometimes like the church sees us lay people as their own little herd of sheeple (they the shepherds) which must remain in marriages to keep producing young to fill the pews. I might respect their views a little if any of them had any experience of being married. Apparently something like 50% of priests do have experience of romantic/sexual relationships and some do have children, but the 'married for life' thing is just for the people in the pews ....

    "New group for children of priests demands recognition from Vatican"

  10. It does feel sometimes like the church sees us lay people as their own little herd of sheeple (they the shepherds) which must remain in marriages to keep producing young to fill the pews.

    On the one hand, the Church's position on the indissolubility of marriage is very hard to accept. On the other hand, it comes straight out of the teachings of Jesus himself, teachings which seem to me clear and unequivocal. How do you propose the Church get around them? If all the ordained men in the Church all the way up to the pope were married, how would that change the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage?

    What evidence can you supply that the teachings of the Church are in any way intended to force Catholics "to keep producing young people to fill the pews"? I have heard that as an anti-Catholic pro-abortion argument, and it doesn't seem any less anti-Catholic as a pro-divorce argument. I know of nothing in Catholic teaching that requires Catholic couples in failing marriages to remain together and continue producing children.

  11. Yes, the NT has Jesus speaking against most divorce. I'd say that we should ask why he said what he did, what was his intent? I think it was to protect women of his time, who were pretty powerless on their own, from being abandoned by their husbands. That kind of cultural problem doesn't really exist anymore, and in fact in some cases, forcing women to stay in marriages can be bad for them - like if they are victims of domestic violence Muller of the CDF said they should still stay married in this case).

    Theologian Keith Ward wrote about what Jesus said about divorce - I had posted about a few years ago for those who want to see what he had to say ... ... it's an excerpt from his longer article here.

    About the church wanting people to have lots of children, I base my opinion on ..... their continued stance against contraception even in the face of overpopulation, of poverty, and of a total disregard from Catholics for the doctrine .... and the constant advice from the church that people have children - here's a recent article on the Pope" Pope calls not having kids a 'selfish choice'. Does that mean the church would like all those babies to grow up to be Catholic in this age of dwindling church attendance? I think it's possible..

  12. I think it was to protect women of his time, who were pretty powerless on their own, from being abandoned by their husbands.

    There is not one shred of evidence in the Gospels to support this theory. And in Matthew, Jesus says: "But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the
    marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." If Jesus was trying to protect women, why identify the divorced woman as an adulteress? And in Mark, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” If Jesus intended to protect women, why did he proclaim a woman who divorces her husband and remarries to also be in the wrong? Can you find anything at all in the Gospels that says, or even implies, that Jesus made his pronouncements on divorce to protect women?

    Also, Jesus makes his pronouncements on divorce not as a new rule to achieve this or that end of his own, but as an interpretation of Jewish Law. In fact, it is an interpretation of God's law going back to "the beginning" (Adam and Eve). It is not as if Jesus was speaking as a Christian and making a rule for the Catholic Church. He was speaking about God's plan from the outset of creation.

    The essay by Keith Ward was interesting, but it seemed to me he was arguing that since Jesus clearly used hyperbole at times, everything Jesus said is open to reinterpretation. Did Jesus—God incarnate—say nothing that can be taken at face value? Must every saying of Jesus be looked at not as setting down a rule or law, but merely as a "historically conditioned" statement which is not to be taken as literally true, but as indicating what the spirit of the law is?

    About the church wanting people to have lots of children, I base my opinion on ..... their continued stance against contraception

    To whom are you referring? Do you think Popes Frances, Benedict, John Paul, Paul, and John XXIII thought to themselves, "We must oppose contraception so we'll have more Catholic babies?" Do you really think Paul VI had the ulterior motive of maximizing the number of Catholic births when he wrong Humanae vitae?

    It would seem to me that anyone in the hierarchy who taught that contraception was wrong not because he believed it was wrong, but because he wanted to maximize the number of Catholic births would simply be evil. Are you really accusing the Church of evil in this regard?

  13. David,

    Yes, you're right - my idea that Jesus said what he did in order to help women is just my idea, with nothing specific in the NT to support it.

    I do have trouble interpreting Jesus' words and I'm not sure when I should take them straightforwardly and when I should wonder if he is joking or if there were transcription errors or if the writer of the gospel in question made stuff up. Jesus said some contradictory things, some scary things, some weird things. What I believe myself is that sometimes divorce is good and necessary. It wouldn't be the first time I disagreed with what Jesus seems to have said.

    Are you really accusing the Church of evil in this regard?

    Holy crap, David ;) We;re talking about an institution that has covered up the rape of children for decades (at least). I wouldn't put much past it.

  14. PS - about Jesus' words on divorce. I think it's important to note that every other Christian denomination, including the Greek Orthodox, have more or less accepted divorce. How did they all come to that conclusion if it's so unsupportable?

  15. No marriages should be put asunder by man (or woman) but definitely sundered some of them are. I know one case where the guy fought like he'll to keep a marriage together that can only be described as a pathological horror. Now, after fighting false accusations of physical abuse and pedophilia, he's $70k behind as well. Should have left the lying little cheating monster years ago.

  16. There are a lot of things in this world that shouldn't be, that are against God's will, but are reality. Denial isn't a good strategy for dealing with them. Sometimes marriages die. Stanley's acquaintance tried to do CPR, but it didn't work. I hope he found some peace after he was out of the toxic relationship.

  17. I think everyone should read de Button's article. He's not saying that every marriage can be saved; he's just saying that the romantic ideal can be toxic because it creates unrealistic expectations.

    I read WAY too much Catholic magazinr advice about saving marriages by putting in more "zing" or how NFP gives you toe-curling sex. These are not what save or kill marriages. It's insanity, addiction, money, and kids.

    Lookit Stanley's poor friend. Were "magic moments" by the fireplace and a surprise trip to a tiney little French restaurant or a bath with candles going to fix that train wreck?


  18. I did try to save my marriage. The ex found someone else he liked better and I tried for two years to convince him to stay married. I got terribly depressed and eventually had to move away to be able to get on with my life, such as it was. Nobody should settle for a marriage in which the other person doesn't love them or in which they don't love that other person. life is too short.

    1. I don't think you can save something unless the other person wants to, and trying to live with total rejection is just soul-killing and cruel. If they want out, what can you do but cut your losses and move on?

      I'm mistrustful of words like "love," though. Maybe it comes from being raised by alcoholic parents who always protested how much they loved us after some binge that involved a hospitalization or jail time.

      "Love" was the feeling that they had for us, and I'm sure it was real when they were sober. But it didn't translate into anything that was demonstrable like honesty, loyalty, kindness, or reliability.

    2. I've read that being raised by parents who are alcoholic is one of the hardest things ever. I have trouble too with "love" being just a word that doesn't have anything to do with loving acts. It's so hard to be a person sometimes.

  19. There is an unfounded assumption that all marriages solemnized in church by a priest is something that "God has joined together." If that is the case, God is a lousy judge of character about 50% of the time.

    I think that this teaching of the church is faulty and the result of wishful thinking as opposed to lived experience.

    1. I'm think that marriage partners are faulty in many cases ...

    2. I'm think that marriage partners are faulty in many cases ...

  20. I became interested in romantic love years ago when I was a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow largely because of two professors who were interested.

    In the post on Mary of Egypt the starting perspective was romantic love, so could do a post on it.

    On quickly looking at where the research literature is today, I will probably wait until the fall when I have digital access to journals. I usually take a course at the local community college.

    I am not for pessimism. My philosophy is optimistic realism. Perhaps that is why I was responsible for planning for most of my life. You take a very realistic look at all the problems and plot a hopeful best course through them.

  21. I thought Eleanor d'Aquitaine and her daughters made up romantic/courtly love as something to keep the overpopulation of unattached knights in line until they could gin up another Crusade for them. The gist was to get a troubadour to write some songs about your loveliness, wear some diaphanous outfits, hold tournaments, hand out some prizes, throw some banquets with dancing and lots of booze, and keep the men coming back on the off-chance that they could arrange some bed intrigues.

    It sounds exhausting.

    1. Jean, The research evidence is that romantic love integrates a number of different physiological, psychological and social processes and thus has varied across time and cultures and well as from person to person.
      When I was interested in this area during the academic phase of my life I was a social psychologist who was interested in psychophysiology. The psychophysiology part ended my academic career since deans had to invest in a lot of equipment for me to pursue research.