Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

Choosing Transformational Marriage

A culture built on hacks doesn’t have much time for institutions or circumstances that are simply un-hackable in the long term. Thus you can find without much intensive searching a handful or more of articles per week revealing the (usually counter-intuitive) secret to hacking marriage: the latest trend, featuring a near constant stream of iterations in various publications, is polyamory.

It isn’t that the concept is new (from tacit understandings about mistresses to bell-bottomed ‘key parties’, philandering has always had an array of raiment to dress it up) or that the concept itself is any more salacious than the next that encourages the ongoing rumination on it, but rather that the idea of a solution to the problem of marriage is always tantalizing, especially when snap-fingers simple. Just do this, the usual marriage-secret article goes, and you’ll be happy, which is how you know your marriage is succeeding.

Thus, much of public discourse on marriage is devoted to figuring out what hacks can be applied to stave off dissatisfaction and ultimately divorce. Aiming to obviate marital discord (as much as policy can) seems wise to me; on the other hand, the notion that dissatisfaction’s natural conclusion is divorce seems to reveal a serious problem in how we conceive of marriage culturally. Should we imagine marriage to be an arrangement wherein personal satisfaction is the goal, or is it more intelligible theologically and socially to imagine marriage as its own project, something transformative and worthy of our service in its own right?

I agree with Stanley Hauerwas that the latter approach is the wiser one. According to Hauerwas, defining marriage as a tool for either the expression of a particular sentiment or the maintenance of it is, given the vicissitudes of satisfaction, a recipe for disaster:

We assume a couple falls in love and come to the church to have their love publicly acknowledged. One problem with this romantic view is that it tends to the presumption that if the love that was initially present in the relationship is no longer present, the marriage no longer exists. Romantic accounts of marriage simply cannot comprehend the church’s view that marriage names the time created through a faithful promise that makes possible the discovery of love.

In other words, the view of marriage that imagines quick-fixes to be solutions to prevent the dissolution of the marriage already mistake the nature of the institution. In the view Hauerwas calls the ‘romantic’ view, marriage obtains insofar as love does because it is only ever a declaration of love; the deluge of media mediating on how to restore affection, satisfaction, or interest to a marriage is evidence of this sense of divorce as the inevitable outcome of weakened sentiments.

Yet, all these projects intend to manipulate marriage to better serve one’s own purposes, while, as Hauerwas points out, marriage is better thought of as a purpose to be served, in which the long story of love unfolds. And though the utter saturation of pop theories on how to rig the perfect marriage may suggest otherwise, evidence on the foundations of lasting, happy marriages actually supports the more orthodox view.

Consider the four decades of research conducted by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, recently profiled in The Atlantic. After surveying and observing couples over a number of years, John divided them into two sets—‘masters’ and ‘disasters’—based on whether or not they had remained married or divorced after 6 years. He then analyzed the behaviors of both sets, and concluded this about the ‘masters’ of marriage:

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

That charity is discussed here as a ‘habit of mind’ is no accident; contrary to styles of marital thought that envision a ‘perfect match’ or ‘the one’, Gottman envisions the underpinnings of strong marriage to rely much more on how partners choose to relate to the relationship:

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

The type of sustained hard work that results in habituation to virtue tracks well with the transformational view of marriage that founds the Christian approach to the institution. When one is married, as Hauerwas intimates, something rather profound changes: A diminishment in satisfaction doesn’t impact that change, nor does the waning of sentiments or even a loss of love. Marriage, rather, changes the individuals who enter into it: Sealed together, they are fundamentally different than they were before. It is the capaciousness of this truth that allows it to sustain the metaphor of the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church, and it’s the strength of that metaphor that informs us of the gravity of marriage.

The relative regularity of divorce allows us a good view of the approaches to marriage that are functional, that is, the ones that don’t favor divorce as an outcome. In the case of the Gottman’s research, the result is clear: Marriage lasts wherein the couple allow themselves to be transformed by it, and faithfully commit to that transformation, re-orienting the way they relate to one another and the marriage itself by willful habitation to the virtues of charity and kindness. Marriage is already oriented toward divorce wherein the couple has high expectations of constant and instantaneous stimulation, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Faithr

    The trick is both husband and wife need to be on board. What is really tragic is when you have one spouse who gets the transformational thing but the other spouse does not.

    • Regardless of whether or not you “get the transformational thing” isn’t it a reality that marriage will transform you for better or for worse?

      • Never underestimate the ability of the oblivious to remain oblivious.

        Uh, but as someone who has been happily married for over 30 years, I’ll add that’s probably true for everyone except sociopaths and the hopelessly clueless.

    • Luna

      Absolutely. I was on board for what the article describes, but my husband was not. You cannot keep a spouse in a marriage, no matter what you feel, do, or believe.

  • Jennifer Roback Morse Phd

    Actually, either party can be “on board” and do something really transformational for their marriage. It is true that either party can end the relationship. Therefore, one cannot have “keep the spouse in the marriage” as the goal. The goal is living the life of self-giving capacious love, just as this article describes. This is a worthwhile end in itself. And, it is just possible, the spouse will be transformed. Particularly if you do not insist upon it.
    This is actually the main idea behind our book “101 Tips for a Happier marriage.” The original subtitle was “you can improve your marriage, even if your spouse doesn’t change a bit!”

  • Jennifer Roback Morse Phd

    I was inspired to write a blog post about this article! thank you for serving up some great food for thought! http://www.ruthblog.org/2014/07/16/transformational-marriage/

  • samueljames

    I hate to be that guy, but I happen to know the couple in the picture. It’s from an article he wrote on his blog the day before they were married. Unless he was reached out to for permission I don’t think they’d like it being used as a stock photo.

    • Mr. EP

      They actually paid us to use the picture, it’s ok.

  • Guest

    apparently there’s a fairly simple equation to guage how succesful a marriage will be: it’s the ratio of sex to arguments

  • Alaskan Ice

    Personally I look at marriage as the beginnings of family. Even for couples that can’t have children and choose not to adopt, it is still creating a safe environment for (in their case) non-traditional family or extended family. There are many definitions of marriage but after considering the Old Testament the one I subscribe to is coming together and remaining together united in purpose with full devotion and intent therein to remain. When people hook up or dabble in extra curricular affairs they are breaching that covenant with their spouse in either sense and any other co-conspirators. Thus two become one and stay one for the purpose of creating the safety and stability necessary to raise future generations, and not just children but grand children and great grand children if the good Lord blesses you to see them. The family is the highest order of government deserving the greatest respect and fidelity. A cause worth sacrificing all else for, certainly self.

  • Rachel

    “Marriage is already oriented toward divorce wherein the couple has high expectations of constant and instantaneous stimulation, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment.”

    This sentence presumes that both spouses hold the same attitude towards the marriage. What about the couple where only one spouse has “high expectations of constant and instantaneous stimulation, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment.”
    Surely this would be doomed to failure too? I believe I am in this position, my husband is, and always has been, discontented, always feeling his glass is half empty. There can be no growth like this.

    • Rachel,

      I think I know what you’re talking about. If your spouse is not on board with you for transformation, the marriage may easily become hard and frustrating. It’s a situation I’ve witnessed.

      If I may send some small encouragement, do hold fast to your belief that there is something greater than mere satisfaction, in marriage and elsewhere.

  • Thank you for your article. Many of us don’t have examples of good marriages within our own family and friends. Here is an example of a transformational marriage: http://www.conversationwithwomen.org/2013/07/26/my-difficult-marriage-and-how-its-actually-pretty-wonderful/

  • greenishgal

    Very wise. Although I try to focus on the positives in my husband, many times I admit to have a negitive undertone. Sort of like a back-handed compliment. This article has made me realize what effect this might be having on my relationship. Thank you

  • JQ Tomanek

    Good stuff. More like this!

  • Excellent article! We must question the common philosophy that focuses on “compatibility”. God’s purposes are usually achieved by joining two “incompatible” people.