and what it is for
The week that runs from Christmas to New Year’s Eve, the last of the secular calendar, is typically associated with cozy domesticity. Our minds turn away from work - that American obsession - toward family and friends.
In the last week of the year newly past, of course, we had to contend with the growing swell of the Omicron surge. But we were also met with two articles about marriage that were almost unavoidable if you happen to use Twitter.
The first, by Heather Havrilesky, the author of the “Ask Polly” advice column, appeared in The New York Times, while the other, by Honor Jones, appeared in The Atlantic, where she is a senior editor. To put it simply and perhaps simplistically, the Times piece argued that hating your spouse was no reason to leave them, while the Atlantic piece argued that loving your spouse was no reason not to leave them.
One might reasonably wonder: are married people okay? What’s going on?
There are a few strategies of response here. One is to debunk the concern. Havrilesky’s piece, after all, is not so much about hating your spouse, though she uses that word liberally, but rather about needing to see them at more distance than long-term cohabitation tends to afford. Havrilesky wants us to know that she is perfectly aware that her husband has good qualities, that he is handsome and clever, for instance. It is just that he annoys her to death, too, and her response to this is what she rather imaginatively calls ‘hating’ him.
Jones’s story, meanwhile, is a classic mid-life crisis where boredom or ennui leads someone to behave erratically and perhaps irresponsibly, even as this behavior seems necessary for fixing whatever has gone wrong. When Jones talks about leaving the false idyll of her Pennsylvania home for a new life in New York City, it is not exactly with the clarity that Nora displays at the end of Ibsen’s Doll’s House when she slams the door shut on Torvald. For one, Jones’s (ex-)husband and children are still there, in Brooklyn, where the parents for a time alternate between two apartments, one of which houses the children.
Another response is simply to write off these reports from the front lines of marriage as idiosyncratic. Havrilesky and her husband remain married despite her thinking of him occasionally as nothing so much as a dirty pile of laundry. Good for them. Jones got a divorce in order to think about “art and sex and politics and the patriarchy”. Fine. Most people probably don’t find their spouse stultifying and most people probably don’t find being married an obstacle to thought about serious topics.
In the weeks since this odd couple of essays appeared, I have been tempted by both these responses. Neither response, however, is quite sufficient to explain the cultural phenomenon on display here. While it is too much to say that these essays point to a crisis in bourgeois marriage, they do suggest a genuine confusion about what marriage is for, one that goes well beyond the essays themselves.
Havrilesky comes closer to asking this question, when she notes that “marriage is a solution to several problems”, which, in the rhythmic odi et amo swaying of her essay, is followed immediately by the remark that it “creates infinite additional problems”. But what problems might marriage solve? Havrilesky mentions loneliness and feeling weak, problems that marriage also exacerbates as Havrilesky says and Jones’s example confirms.
What is most striking to me is that Havrilesky, in her resignation, and Jones, in her decisiveness, both cast themselves as existentialist heroes, people who entered into marriages under a set of pretensions they can no longer believe. Their choices, Havrilesky’s to stay and Jones’s to go, are in a way secondary to their shared narrative of themselves as discovering an ugly truth of human existence: that marriage and children are no balm to our essential isolation. To their credit, both writers regard their spouses as equally frail creatures in need of the same comfort, which they cannot offer them, either.
While Havrilesky speaks of the necessity of selfishness and Jones acknowledges putting her desires ahead of those of her husband and children, it would be wrong to caricature their shared picture of marriage as merely selfish or solipsistic. Instead, the ethical model here is reciprocity: each spouse gives comfort and care to the other in expectation of receiving the same.
Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Aristotle saw reciprocity as essential to philia, his term for all loving relationships and not only ‘friendship’, as the word is customarily and perhaps necessarily translated. Still, different kinds of philia call for different kinds of reciprocity. Your business partner has a reasonable expectation of comity and help, but only to the extent that you stay in business with them. These are friendships ‘of advantage’, as Aristotle puts it. With some of our friends, we primarily share in enjoyment. These are friendships ‘of pleasure’.
But there is another kind of friendship, most worthy of the name, that is centrally ethical and that makes possible the sharing not only of pursuits or pleasures but one’s whole life. In such a friendship, there is of course reciprocity, give and take. But it is not any longer, as with the other kinds of friendship, giving from one life and taking into another. Instead, the friends share a single life, to which both contribute.
Aristotle restricts such ethical friendships to those with good character. Still, the idea that, with our dearest friends, there is no longer quite the same ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ but rather only ‘ours’, is one that is accessible even to those of us who find themselves quite far from moral excellence.
I am perhaps biased toward thinking of marriage in terms of ethical friendship since I have ended up married to someone who was and remains a good friend of mine.
But is marriage just a kind of friendship? To be sure, married life is marked by distinctive features, not least the possibility of raising children together. But we learn something about child-rearing from cultures in which this practice is essentially multi-generational or multi-familial. Even in our own culture, single parents, by choice or otherwise, learn to lean on others. But so do most conventional two-parent households. These distinctive features, then, need not be proprietary.
What matters here is that marriage, like other serious kinds of friendship, can occasion ethical transformation because, at its best, it inaugurates a mode of shared life that lies beyond mere reciprocity. If we look to marriage simply to cure loneliness or feelings of weakness, we expect far too little of it. We will end up simply seeing our spouses as inconsistent sources of respite from existential dread.
The best cure for such dread, of course, is recognizing that we cannot simply make the values that sustain us. Rather, we discover what is good in life in and through others. In marriage, we commit to this path of discovery with someone else, not knowing what it may bring. Marriage is a fitting estate – though hardly the only honorable condition – for unknowing creatures such as we are.
How does this ethically-saturated view of marriage line up with the pretensions that Havrilesky and Jones suggest they’ve left behind? For one, it is more than the cliché that one’s spouse ought to be one’s best friend. Even with such a friend we are unlikely to commit in advance to a shared life in which we seek to learn who we ought to be.
Indeed, marriage should be thought of as a discipline that requires discernment, just as people ought to discern whether they can sustain a life in which they are doctors or teachers. It is quite possible to want to be married to someone, to know that that person wants to be married to you, and still for this enterprise to be folly, and not because you will make one another unhappy in any purely subjective sense.
On the other side, the real and frightening truth about our lives is not that we are alone, but that we are incomplete. There is no single remedy to this incompleteness. Neither a spouse nor children – nor career nor any other earthly satisfaction – can fill the void. But the special intimacies of marriage offer a refuge through which we can face up to that very incompleteness, give ourselves whole to another who does the same, and make possible this same self-giving to others. That is what marriage is for.