Monday, March 26, 2012

Marriage is for Losers

Many therapists aren’t crazy about doing marital therapy. It’s complicated and messy, and it often feels out of control. In the worst case scenario, the therapist has front row seats to a regularly-scheduled prize fight. But I love to do marital therapy. Why? Maybe I enjoy the work because I keep one simple principle in mind: if marriage is going to work, it needs to become a contest to see which spouse is going to lose the most, and it needs to be a race that goes down to the wire.

I was at a church for years that extolled married life as the apotheosis of the human condition and the highest estate of earthly vocation.  Gestures toward single people withstanding that is probably still, ultimately, where they land. I have been approached by relatives and friends over the years who believe I would be most happy if I were married.  Sometimes I believe them but only, to make a polemical observation, when these have been people who have shown by their lives they are willing to be losers.  The people who have advocated marriage for myself, themselves, or for others who have to be right, right all the time, and to avoid ever apologizing for anything have made marriage repellant to me and it's not because I necessarily find marriage repellent.  There are people who would extoll marriage whose lives (and arguments) become arguments against it.  The single biggest argument they live by their lives is they can't be wrong, they can't lose.

Some of the bitterest single guys I have met have been guys who imagined they wanted to be marriage and never wanted to say "I'm sorry".  I don't recall them ever actually saying sorry for anything.  The most some of them have brought themselves to is saying "I'm sorry you feel that way about X [that I said or did and am not now apologizing for]."  Even as a single guy who's never been out on the market and dated I have observed that there are some people who are single year after year and decade after decade because, while they lament their singleness or the shallowness of others or the grossness of the physical activity or expectations of sex, they don't lament their need to be right and they don't seem to even think of the possibility of being wrong. Each crisis is an injustice against them and not a possibility for assessing whether or not they have had a shortcoming in wisdom. It's never more than partly their fault, which has gone a long way to explain why in the end they are completely single. 

Now some men and women are charming enough or physically attractive enough or strong enough or influential enough to land a partner despite a general unwillingness to be wrong.  These men and women can then extoll the wonders of marriage, and the greatness of it, and build a case that the foundation of marriage is that you get a real job or you get a real life or you get your ducks in a row and that if you get all these things you become a real man or a woman.

This may seem an eloquent and compelling argument for those already willing to be convinced, and most of all for those who believe they have obtained all the credentials for it, but I took all of this in a way that I notice has been puzzling to those who consider themseles "hopeless romantics" or "romantic" or to prize marriage. These people may not realize they are not arguing for marriage but for a social status. I hear this sort of argument that what you need to be is married and that how you get married is you get your ducks in a row. You fix all your problems first and then you get married.  As a guy I know put it the argument in Christianese is that if you just be the best Christian you can be the right person will show up. 

Ironically this is a sanctified variation of the social status argument, which is not necessarily the wrong way to go.  The argument is still that marriage or romantic attachment is predicated first on obtaining the right socio-economic position from which to then be qualified to be loved "in that way."  If you keep yourself in that position you keep being worthy of that kind of affection.  To win the special man or woman you have to win the status.  The objection to this kind of idea is to frame the objection as an observational protest--men will get the hottest woman can afford while women will get the richest man their looks can get them.  This is usually articulated most vociferously by the people who think this is how it is (is it?) and that it's unfair (why would it be?).

If earlier and less enlightened epochs appear to have been cruel about this point of sexuality and social utility their cruelty derives from what may be described as a remorseless pragmatism.  What you want (i.e. marriage and or sex) is simply not as important as your provable ability to obtain and maintain it and most of all the nearly universal, expected consequences of making a habit of this kind of social bond. 

To the extent that our modern epoch has predicated mutual romantic attachment as a good that can and should be pursued without respect to the social and economic capital required for the investment it may be considered an era in which people are urged to buy something on credit. 

What Flanagan's article discusses succinctly is another question besides that of attaining the right social or economic status some marriage advocates want to push for but without admitting to.  Flanagan touches on a topic that "hopeless romantics" and other people I've known who are single often don't wish to broach even beyond the bluntly practical considerations of the "ducks in a row" advocates..  Flanagan goes beyond either the pragmatic or idealogical pre-committments to marriage and social role to discuss what may be called the ethical credit rating and disposition of the parties who would choose to marry. 

Flanagan goes on to explain there are three types of marriage.  1) Both spouses are competing to see who will win, all the time. Flanagan notes these marriages are the ones in which both spouses destroy each other and any children unlucky enough to have been born to them.  2) There is always a winner and a loser and the roles are established and one spouse always wins and the other always loses.  These, Flanagan notes, are archetypal abusive relationships.  Then there is 3) where both spouses are in a steady pursuit of making changes and decisions most healing to each other.

I imagine just about any and every Christian blogger who is married would like to be able to say he or she has that third category marriage but my hunch is the reality is that there are plenty of people in cataegories 1 and 2 who are sticking together out of sheer Christian pious stubbornness.  Perhaps that's exactly as it should be.  A certain church pastor has declared that marriage is not supposed to make you happy but make you holy.  No idea whether there's any reality or truth to that statement ... but since Paul wrote that it was good for the unmarried to remain as he was and that so doing they would have more time to devote to the things of God ... I think I may just err on the side of some guy who wrote a book of the Bible for now. ;-)  Meanwhile, if Flanagan is right to point out that there are basically three categories of marriage and certain best-selling authors would tell us they've got category 3 now what category was it before, one or two? 

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