In a recent NYTimes op-ed David Brooks tackles the tricky topic of married life. In "The Three Views of Marriage" he contemplates why most married people are unhappier today than in the past. His premise is interesting but he proposes a theory of a "moral" marriage that is contrary to our understanding of the psychology of committed relationships.
Brooks offers three lenses through which to evaluate the quality of a marriage: the psychological, the romantic and the moral.
The psychologist says don't marry someone who is mean or emotionally unstable. Check.
The romantic says don't marry someone solely because you are passionately in love with them since passion wanes after a few years. Check.
The moralist says marriage isn't about getting your own needs met, but about cultivating what Brooks calls "selfless love". Here's where it gets interesting.
Brooks' view of a moral marriage sounds akin to the personal sacrifice and inner self-judgment of entering religious life. In his view, a moral marriage requires one to relinquish individual needs and desires and embrace the "higher purpose" of committing to your partner's personal growth and self-development. He writes of married life: "everyday there's a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self." No wonder more than 50% of marriages end in divorce!
In my work as a couples therapist, I've learned that a good marriage is based on exactly the opposite. Although Brooks criticizes those who try to satisfy their own needs during marriage, this is the backbone of a healthy relationship. We are led to believe that partners who focus on each other's emotional or psychological states are happier. But, this other-focus, even if one calls it "moral growth" cultivates dependency, denies autonomy and leads to frustration and stagnation in marriage.
Let's assume that I chose to focus on encouraging my partner to be the best they can be. What if their idea of a "best self" is different from mine? What if they fail, or get frustrated? What happens to my own needs if I am focusing on theirs? What does this do to our relationship? Am I actually seeking to control my partner to control myself?
In Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch writes that in a happy marriage, couples are differentiated. They have the ability "to maintain a separate sense of self while in relation to another". They don't disregard each other, or focus solely on themselves, but neither do they need or depend on each other to grow. In a differentiated relationship, each partner takes full responsibility for his or her own emotional stability and personal growth. Couples who rely on each other to ease anxiety, or are overly invested in the emotional fluctuations of their partner, cannot fully realize their own individual potential, and are less capable of intimacy in times of stress. Couples who seek to impress each other or feel pressure to improve, often experience their relationship as superficial and become resentful.
Intimacy develops when each partners strives to become the best version of themselves and offers that person to the other. This provides safety and encourages each partner to confront their vulnerabilities without retribution or judgement. True connection develops when people recognize the best in each other borne not out of expectation, idealism, or selfless devotion, but out of individual autonomy, self-regard and mutual respect and recognition. Brooks may long for the days of greater morality in personal and public life, but I doubt that moral judgment is the road to a healthy marital relationship.