5.1.11

The "Me" Marriage?

Ran into an 'interesting' article on the New York Times today.  The Happy Marriage is the 'Me' Marriage with an associated quiz to see how well you are doing. 

The initial point of the article is that those things which make for a lasting marriage do not necessarily make for a happy marriage.  Instead, the best marriages are those which bring satisfaction to the individual.  Tara Parker-Pope (the author of the article) briefly wonders: "Isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?" But quickly responds: "Not anymore."  Marriage used to be about this, among other things, but in "modern relationships" people want someone who will make their lives more interesting. 

Enter the concept of 'self-expansion' and a quiz to go with it.  Throw in some quotes from psychologists, a few thoughts on how couples grow together, and conclude with a wonderful throwaway quote: “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.” Stir it all together and what do you end up with?  Why, typical modern psycho-babel of course. 

Don't misunderstand me, there is much that is true here.  After all, who doesn't want someone to make their life more interesting? Who wouldn't want to enjoy new experiences and learn new things with a loved one? Don't we all want to become better people?  Yes, yes, yes.  But....

The assumptions which underlie this article, and the theories it proposes, are familiar to all of us:  The goal of life is happiness. One of the greatest enemies of happiness is boredom.  Ipso facto, we must seek out the new.  Alongside of this, we find that better means new.  Does your partner bring new knowledge, new experiences, new things?  If so, then your all set. But...

Taking this line of thinking to it's end, there is only one conclusion: a new spouse.  After all, eventually you and your spouse will overlap.  The article makes this very point; as a couple grows together they have greater difficulty differentiating between each other.  Then, I suppose, it is time to move on. If this article is correct, then this conclusion is both justifiable and inevitable, though the article itself does not go that far. But...

But...  I have said that three times now.  Clearly I do not believe this article is correct.  In fact, I think it embodies many of the deadly assumptions of our time.  Assumptions which are visibly destroying marriages, among other things. 

To begin, notice the subtle conflations of better with new.  The dangerous blurring of the line between happy and good.  The increasingly muddied waters on the sea of relationship which obscure our view into the many other goals and purposes of marriage.  Notice that the article begins by differentiating between a happy marriage and a sustainable marriage but, by the end of the quiz, we find out that they are one and the same (the higher your score the happier and more sustainable your marriage).

Then take a look at those assumptions again.  

1. The goal of life is not happiness.  In fact, making happiness the goal of our lives is precisely what prevents us from becoming the better people we ostensibly desire to be (not to mention preventing us from being happy!).  

2. Boredom is not one of our greatest enemies, especially not when happiness is no longer our goal.  In fact, boredom is much like pain.  No one likes it, but it is present for a reason.  Children instinctively know what pain means.  The other day Hannah touched a hot pan, and I saw this first hand.  She moved so fast that she didn't even burn her finger.  Score one for pain.  Unfortunately, boredom isn't so easy.  

3. "The new" is not the solution to boredom, at least not in any long term sense.  It is, in fact, a classic 'shifting the burdens' solution.  That is a systems thinking term, which I will now explain. A shifting the burden scenario occurs when a problem arises and is addressed at a surface, or symptomatic, level rather than at a fundamental level.  Let me give you an example.  

Joe was a hard working 30 year old whose career took up 95% of his time.  Every time Joe got sick he took medication.  We have all seen those Tylenol adds: I am an olympic athlete and I can't let a cold keep me down, so I take Tylenol and get back to training.  That was Joe to a  T.  Couldn't miss a day of work.  
However, as time went on, Joe found himself getting sick more and more often.  Finally, he went to see the doctor.  After a thorough examination the doctor asked for blood samples to do some tests.  Joe gave them, and hurried back to work.  A few days later the doctor called and asked him to come in right away.  
Joe was frustrated, because he had a lot to do, meetings to attend, and he was planning a trip to the east coast for the next day.  But his doctor assured him it was urgent.  So urgent that the doctor would be meeting him at the nearest hospital. After some serious schedule rearranging, Joe went to the doctor.  It turned out, according to his doctor, that Joe was not only suffering from over-work, stress (and the resultant high blood pressure), and lack of sleep, all of which the doctor had diagnosed initially, but also from severe malnutrition.  The doctor was surprised Joe could even continue functioning and ordered him to stay at the hospital for several days.  
Joe was lucky; his doctor caught the problems just in time. Joe had been so busy that he was subsisting on a diet of energy drinks, fast food, and TV dinners.  He was getting sick because he needed to slow down and make some major changes.  But the medications and the caffeine allowed him to keep working well past his body's natural limits.  You've heard of the guy in S.Korean man who played video games until he died?  Joe nearly worked himself to the same end.  

This is a classic shifting the burden scenario.  Joe had a problem.  He was living an unsustainable lifestyle.  This fundamental problem was causing a symptom: illness.  Rather than deal with the fundamental problem, Joe addressed the symptoms.  The insidious thing about this kind of scenario is that most of the time, as in this case, the symptomatic solution actually worsens the fundamental problem.  Being able to push on, with the help of medications, did not help Joe.  All it accomplished was to allow him to go on ignoring the fundamental problem of his lifestyle.  The seductiveness of this lies in the fact that dealing with fundamental causes of problems usually requires deep understanding, hard work, and a willingness to make big changes.  It's easier to deal with the symptoms.

How does this relate to our third assumption?  I propose that boredom is a symptom, much like Joe's illness was.  Treating that symptom with 'the new' is precisely like treating Joe's illness with drugs.  It temporarily allows us to go on, lifts our spirits and injects some new vim and vigor into our lives, all the while worsening our fundamental problem.  Leonard Sweet identifies our fundamental problem as semiotic breakdown in his book Nudge.  I would also point to the overload of intense stimulation, increasingly short attention spans, and the loss of understanding that truly good things make the waiting worthwhile.  Whatever you call it, the answer is definitely not "the new".  Instead we need to reconnect to the goodness, indeed the god-ness, all around us.

4.  Newer is not always better.  Sometimes it is, but there is no necessary correlation here despite the fact that we no longer have to say "new and improved."


I think I understand where this article is coming from.  The formula for life which most people uncritically accept, when applied consistently, leads to these conclusions about marriage.  And, after all, we have all seen how well this formula is working out for the rest of life, right?

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