Maybe it really isn’t for you…

You all know that I can’t resist stirring the pot when it’s hot.  There’s been a heartwarming (blech) new blog post circulating in social media the last few days, leaving a lot of heads nodding.  (Presumably in agreement, but maybe they were just tired.)  My heart’s not particularly warmed, but I do have my skeptical face on right now.  Here it comes.

I don’t like the message of this blog post, by Seth Adam Smith.  I think, intended or not, it slips in unhealthy, archaic platitudes about relationships beneath the guise of an insightful sentiment-fest.  I also think it’s one of those memes that asserts its own truth unchallenged and with enough face-value appeal that it elicits a positive response without people stopping to construct logical counter-arguments.  So it’s my duty to answer some of its content point-by-point, raising some serious objections.

I met my wife in high school when we were 15 years old. We were friends for 10 years until … until we decided no longer wanted to be just friends. I strongly recommend that best friends fall in love. Good times will be had by all.

Well, that’s really very nice, but right off the bat we have reason to suspect Smith’s capability for insight into relationships as a whole.  It sounds like he’s only had the one serious relationship, and he might need a little more varied experience to make generalizations about commitment.

Nevertheless, falling in love with my best friend did not prevent me from having certain fears and anxieties about getting married. The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?

Okay, so he was either having some run-of-the-mill cold feet– in which case he would have eventually decided that he did think he’s be happy with the choice– or he was having serious reservations, in which case he really probably shouldn’t get married just because it will make his partner happy.

My dad giving his response to my concerns was such a moment for me. With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

To be fair, Smith’s quoting his dad here, so he didn’t originate this idea, he just climbed on board.  That still puts it squarely in his jurisdiction.  My main problem with this argument is that it equates marriage with having in-laws and children, and coparenting the children.  It assumes that without a legally binding contract, couples can’t nevertheless have all the benefits of love, closeness and shared lives.  It goes without saying how conservative this viewpoint is, but it also serves to shame and reject single parents, gay parents, and couples who simply choose not to marry, by insinuating that they are somehow leaving out a step, a service you ought to do your partner and children for some reason.

It also implies that people in unmarried relationships do not “make [each other] happy,” or at least not as happy as marriage does.  This partly smells to me like a like a misogynist assumption that women are all conniving to get men to marry them (presumably because they want an easy income?  I don’t know) and men are doing their girlfriends a favor by relenting and finally buying the cow.  Indeed, this whole piece, in its man-to-man chat way, embodies an androcentric and bigoted perspective.  Men, it whispers, you need to pony up and do right by your gal like your parents did, or she won’t be pushing your babies out.

As such, this passage not only perpetuates a ridiculous stereotype of women, it again excludes from reckoning all the nuances of coupling– the queer community, polyamorous relationships, and of course simply women who didn’t really want to get married anyway.  It never seems to recognize the obvious question:  What if both partners are feeling the same doubt and hesitance?  Is each of them supposed to be telling him/herself that it’s for the benefit of the other, when the other is passing the same buck?

My father’s advice was both shocking and revelatory. It went against the grain of today’s “Walmart philosophy”, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one.

Way to make human relations transactional, buddy.  That’s just what I always say to myself: “If I’m not crazy about this partner, I’ll just exchange them at the store.”  Surely there’s some middle ground between resigned selfless devotion and Wal-Mart?  What if, say, people cared about the mutual interest of themselves and their partners, i.e., having a positive, fulfilling relationship?  Does this really require transferring the entire purpose of the marriage to your partner alone?  Moreover, does it really have anything to do with a marriage license?

No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?” while Love asks, “What can I give?”

Again, this sounds like a very nice sentiment, and in some ways it really is.  I agree that treating the other kindly and lovingly is a crucial and beautiful and enjoyable part of love.  But there is a limit, somewhere, where free giving becomes sacrifice.  And trust me, I’ve been a martyr to my relationships.  It’s not pretty.  It can’t make either of you happy unless you’re with an utter narcissist and are yourself immune to resentment.  Encouraging people to remove themselves from the equation entirely is a recipe for codependency and emotional abuse.

Some time ago, my wife showed me what it means to love selflessly. For many months, my heart had been hardening … I was callous. I was selfish.

But instead of matching my selfishness, Kim did something beyond wonderful — she showed an outpouring of love. Laying aside all of the pain and anguish I had caused her, she lovingly took me in her arms and soothed my soul.

The kind, morally upright action of a good partner.  But what if he remained “callous” and “selfish” indefinitely?  What if this “fear and resentment” progressed to emotional, verbal, physical abuse?  If a person is deliberately blocking out self-interest, where is the line to be drawn between giving, and being used?

In sum, I want to give this article the benefit of the doubt and say that it probably doesn’t mean exactly what it says.  The author likely wasn’t really thinking, “I don’t get any happiness from my marriage, but it’s only for my wife anyway, and so that we can have a socially legitimate family with kids and in-laws.  If I didn’t marry her, I’d forgo all of that, and also break her heart because golly marriage would make HER happy!”

No, I imagine he was probably thinking about loving his wife and not treating her like shit, and about having resolved his temporary cold feet.  He was probably writing from the hip and not planning to deconstruct any of his ideas.  The trouble is that when you write, you always offer your own experience to your reader.  This blogger is setting himself up as a worthy example (at least, ever since his wife cured him of selfishness) via a description of an extreme and untenable relationship ethic. 

I have zero problem with people expressing controversial ideas, but they have a responsibility to think through the implications of what they say and, if necessary, clarify some responses to criticisms.  And on that count, sweet-sounding or not, Smith’s blog post fails utterly.

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