So What’s Going on in the HAPPY Marriages?

The author of a book called Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis blames contemporary problems with marriage on—surprise, surprise!—capitalism.

Rolling out the intellectuals’ same old stale argument for more than a century now, Kipnis tries to persuade her readers that capitalist “robber barons” coerce people—by some never specified, never named means other than being successful money makers—into the institution of marriage. If it weren’t for greedy capitalists, then people would not be “forced” to go to work, buy nice things and keep up with the Joneses.

This Marxist argument barely merits mention at this point in history. It’s finished, and everyone but a handful of stupid, stubborn “intellectuals” (and a flailing U.S. President) knows it.

If it’s not capitalists enslaving millions into marriage, then who or what is? Or is there even any enslavement at all?

The answer is obvious. Nobody is forcing anybody to get married, have sex, or fall in love. People choose to get married in spite of the well-known statistics on divorce. Enslavement refers to a political-social condition under which force is initiated against people to make them do something they would never do of their own free will. Enslavement is the hallmark of Communism—and, to a lesser degree, “democratic” socialism (i.e., Communism voted into office by 51 percent of the population, in most cases).

Enslavement has nothing to do with capitalism, which is based entirely on voluntary trade, individual choice and personal responsibility. It is, nevertheless, a noteworthy psychological fact that people who subconsciously hold irrational ideas often feel enslaved. I see this all the time as a therapist. People feel angry and frustrated, but admit that they can’t name the source or cause of their anger and frustration. They might displace their anger onto their spouses, children or the clerk at the department store—but in truth, as they readily admit to a therapist, they’re simply angry. Why?

This is the point at which the cognitive therapist will ask the patient: Are you angry at your own ideas? Wrong ideas you have accepted, that don’t work for you—but nevertheless run your life?

This is the question that 62 percent of the population—those of you unhappily married, in some research—must ask yourselves.

After more than twenty-five years of talking to people who are unhappy in their marriages, I have not concluded that monogamy and romance are unnecessary, unrealistic or undesirable. The problem is that many basic ideas people hold about love and marriage are unnecessary, unrealistic and undesirable.

The most fundamental of these ideas is the idea of self-sacrifice; specifically, for a marriage to be successful, each partner must sacrifice himself to the needs, wants and interests of his partner. It’s a fascinating contradiction: We’re supposed to choose the college we want; the career we want; the kind of location where we want to live; our friends, and even our spouse. But once we marry that spouse, we’re suddenly supposed to forget what we want and only do what the other person wants! It is a form of slavery—but only metaphorically speaking. It’s self-imposed slavery.

This mistaken yet prevalent idea divides married people into two basic categories: the givers and the takers. Each one—the giver and the taker, throughout the course of the marriage—feeds and fuels the notion that self-sacrifice is the ideal. The givers use this idea to rationalize their surrender of themselves to the more dominant partner. The more dominant partner, of course, is the taker. If the giver asks to exchange roles once in awhile, the taker condemns the giver for being “selfish.” What this really means is: “How dare you suggest changing the status quo? I am the taker and you are the giver. To question this status quo is to question the very premise of self-sacrifice as the ideal. You don’t want to do that, do you?”

Of course nobody speaks explicitly in these terms. But these terms represent the subtext—the underlying communication—beneath everyday conflicts in the 62 percent of marriages in this society that are unhealthy and unhappy.

Our culture is dominated by married people who are either fed up with being the self-sacrificing givers, or who have lost respect, as takers, for their self-sacrificing spouses. Over the long run, givers and takers necessarily must end up despising each other: and the high divorce rate represents the climax of this continuing social-psychological conflict.

A myth, spread mostly by psychologists and social theorists of the feminist persuasion, holds that the giver is always female and the taker is always male. But, I have seen it both ways. Nothing from my years of seeing unhappily married people suggests that the split between males and females in these roles is anything other than evenly divided.

There are many put-upon and abused wives, but there are just as many whipped, washed out and self-effacing husbands.

So what’s going on in happy marriages? The entirely opposite subtext: A set of behaviors and communication in which neither party is expected to give up for the other, and in which there is enough objective compatibility between the two spouses that sacrifice would rarely, if ever, become an issue anyway.

Each partner feels: “I like who you are, and I don’t want you to change. I like who I am, and I don’t need or want to change, beyond normal and rational, ongoing personal growth.” Put two people together who feel this way about each other, add some physical chemistry, of course, and the rest will usually take care of itself.

Marriage after marriage breaks up without either of the spouses ever understanding the role that self-sacrifice (of one to the other) played in the destruction of their union. The givers, if they initiate the break-up, can no longer stand being in the role of self-sacrificial animal. If the taker initiates the breakup—perhaps because he (or she) can no longer respect the opposing spouse for all that selfless giving—then the giver becomes bewildered: “I did what was right. I gave and I gave. So why didn’t it work?”

The giver who asks such a question needs to check his premise. His premise is that self-sacrifice is both the moral and practical way to go. As the dismal statistics on marriage can attest: It is neither.

What about monogamy? Is this unrealistic, too? Should people stop expecting each other to remain sexually exclusive with one another?

My experience suggests that for some people, some of the time, monogamy is not desirable. Examples: young people (especially young men); recently divorced or widowed people; and individuals who aren’t yet sure if they want to give up living on their own. However, sooner or later most people want an exclusive relationship in their lives. Either sexual variety becomes less important to them, the value of exclusivity becomes more important, or some combination of the two. The important thing about monogamy, I have learned, is to be honest with oneself, and to recognize that everything has a price. If you want the benefits of an exclusive relationship, then you’re going to have to be exclusive yourself.

This is not a sacrifice. A sacrifice means giving up a greater good to a lesser good. But if you have decided that, at this point in your life, what you want is an exclusive relationship and you find a particular individual with whom it is worth having, then to accept monogamy is to merely affirm your personal, selfish preference. If you’re quite certain that you’re not at a point where you want to give up sexual/romantic variety, and that you haven’t found anyone yet with whom you’d want to be exclusive, then you should simply be honest with yourself (and, of course, others whom you date) about this fact.

The problem with today’s culture is that we engage in false alternative debates. This means we debate two sides of an issue that don’t reflect what the real issue at stake is. In romance, this means that we debate whether or not monogamy is inherently better, or if sexual variety is inherently better; we ask whether marriage is inherently better or non-commitment is the way to go; we ask whether we should be sexual puritans or sexually promiscuous, even though clearly both options have shown themselves to be impossible.

What is the real issue ignored in all of this? Personal responsibility. The proper moral and psychological approach to romance is to choose what you want but to also recognize that your choices have consequences and you’re going to have to live with them. If everyone took this rational approach, there would certainly still be divorce. (Divorce sometimes happens because people make honest mistakes, or for perfectly valid reasons people grow apart over time.) However, I doubt that, in a culture where most approached this issue rationally, there would be a persistent 50 percent divorce rate. I’m certain that in a more rational culture you would not find 62 percent of the population reporting that they are, in all honesty, not happy in their marital relationships.

How is it that the majority of men and women fail to practice personal responsibility in their relationships? I am revolted by the large number of men I hear who say, in all frankness, that while they don’t want to be monogamous themselves, they fully want (even expect) that their wives will be exclusive with them. I am equally revolted by the frequency with which I encounter women who operate on the premise that if they can only manipulate their man into getting married and/or becoming a parent, then all will be well—and of course, when it isn’t, they come crying to me or whoever else they expect to fix the result of their own errors and contradictions.

It’s time for the great majority of men and women to grow up. I read once that there’s an old Spanish proverb that says: Take what you want—but pay for it. This applies not only to the grocery or music store, but to all of life. Think about what you want. Project the likely consequences of choosing what you want.

Make sure what you seek out is rational and fair, not self-defeating or unfair to somebody else with whom you engage. Forget these pompous and arbitrary absolutes about “the institution of marriage,” “the morality of monogamy” and all the rest.

All you need is self-honesty, integrity and objectivity. Your capacity to fully enjoy the fulfillment of sexual and romantic love will benefit greatly from the consistent practice of these virtues.

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