Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Marriage Is Particular

I was struck by this piece of writing about marriage which I saw someone quote on Twitter the other day:

from Arie Hochschild's The Managed Heart

This may well be how some or many people think about what they perceive as the prevailing marriage style in a society, but I think that it's generally a destructive way, and I'd like to pick apart why.

At the root of this formulation is an idea of a spouse as a sort of exchangeable commodity.  For example: "The average wife does more housework than my wife, so my wife should feel herself lucky that I put up with her lower level of contribution to the household.  I could find a lot of women who would do more housework than she does, and she couldn't find many men who'd put up with her level of household work."

All of this, however, stems from the idea of the 'average wife' and the 'average husband'.  Yet we don't marry averages and generalities.  We marry people, particular people with their particular strengths and weaknesses.

If you start comparing your spouse to the average, particularly measuring her weaknesses against the average and thinking how much better off you would be with an 'average wife', you sow the seeds of unhappiness.  The 'average woman' is a figment of imagination, easily painted with the qualities you want unattached to the particularities of any real woman.

When I met MrsDarwin, I certainly didn't fall in love with her because she was the average woman.  I fell in love with her because of who she was as a person: the books we both loved, the modes of thought and feeling that we shared, the fact that we preferred to spend time together than with anyone else.  If I fell in love with her, with her particularly instead of someone else, because of the ways in which she was different from other women, I clearly have no desire to exchange her for 'the average woman' because of some one quality in which the 'average woman' is imagined to be better.

What does it matter if the 'average woman' is more desirable in terms of running errands or sweeping floors?  I married my wife because the particular person she is, all qualities taken together, was the person I wanted to spend my life with far more than any other woman that I'd met before (or since.)  I believe that I'm lucky to have found her.  It would be madness to then turn around and complain that she wasn't sufficiently average in some respect.

It's destructive enough, I'm sure, to be sitting around thinking what it might have been like to have married some other specific person instead of your spouse, but at least in considering a specific person one is compelled to think of that person in whole, the things that you might like along with the things that you would not.  The dangerous thing about sitting around comparing your spouse to an 'average' is that it's now possible to yearn for virtues in which you think your spouse deficient without having to pair those with any other specific characteristics.

People are not commodities.  There is no shelf of Spouses, Grade A to be selected at the marriage store.  In any given person we take the good with the bad, the delightful with the mildly frustrating.  It's best that we remember that, and remember why we married our spouses, not start comparing them to some tantalizing "average" set of virtues.


mandamum said...

Mark Regnerus (vilified by some over his study of adult outcomes for children in nontraditional family structures) has talked about the effect on individuals when the society changes its views on marriage and dating in "Premarital Sex in America." I remember hearing him talk about the "price" of sex (what does one partner need to do to get the other partner to agree to it) and how it affects all relationships. It may not affect a specific relationship, but it taints the atmosphere in which all relationships are formed, and appears to at least have a statistical effect on "all" relationships.

A while ago, you commented that you and Mrs. Darwin reaped the benefit of both the loosening social mores about a man and woman interacting together before marriage, but also the leftover moral capital from a time of stricter mores - I think the effect spoken of here might be analogous (in terms of forming the soup in which all particular relationships form and flourish, or don't). I don't think it's being suggested that one person might think, "Well, if I'd married an average wife, I wouldn't have to..." but rather, in a mushy sort of not-really-examined way unrelated to any personalities, "This may not be expected, but it's me being virtuous" or some such.

I would agree that comparison would be generally a destructive way to approach one's own marriage. On the other hand, it might be worth noticing when it's happening unconsciously, the better to root it out. Also worth asking - is the article examining how relationships form, or how they unfold after forming?

When I was in college, I met a high-profile Public Catholic(TM), married then but now divorced, who said to me regarding my supposed "smartness", "Lots of guys would be turned off by that, but some aren't. I'd marry you, you know, if I were single." He perceived, true or not, that my potential pool of mates was limited by the fact of my intelligence, and how female intelligence was viewed in that time and place by eligible men.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Personally, I don't think I ever felt a vocation to the married state in general, so much as a vocation to marry one particular person. Had I not met him, I'm sure I would have followed my original plan of becoming a librarian with multiple cats. It's also the reason that as a widow I have never felt the slightest inclination to remarry. (Though I try to make it sound more socially acceptable by saying, "When you've had the best, why settle for less.")

Agnes said...

Unfortunately, I don't remember where I read that modern society views marriage as a contract (you enter into it for your perceived advantage, and implied, you may end it if it's no longer to your advantage), while in the Christian view, it is a covenant - you commit yourself to it and accept the good with the bad, as you said. I agree that the quoted opinion looks at marriage as if it only serves one's gain, and one ought to choose the "optimal" spouse to one's advantage. However, I also agree with what mandamum said: it is determined by society's attitude whether the fact that a husband has to take an equal part in housework is seen a neutral/normal thing, or a "negative" the husband has to accept with the good qualities of his wife, those he loves her for. In an age when the husband is legally allowed to beat his wife, a man who doesn't do it is seen as an extraordinarily good person, he throws in something extra into the relationship; while today it's a "minimum requirement" - he is expected not to use violence and hopefully pounished if he does.