The Awful Advice of “Marriage Isn’t for You”

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_146Seth Adam Smith has some advice for you who are already married or soon to be betrothed. You may have already read his post, “Marriage Isn’t for You,” as it’s been very popular on social media. I understand why. He’s got a good thing or two to say about the throw-it-away culture in which some marriages exist.  Alas, he says much more than that, and reducing his post to those few gold nuggets takes him out of context.  The underlying philosophy of marriage he advocates is awful, just awful.

Money quote: “You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy.” No. No. No.

First, my wife would be rightly none too pleased if I told her that our marriage doesn’t make me happy and that I don’t look for it to make me happy. There’s no sin or shame in my taking pleasure in my spouse. She rightly expects me to! It would be deeply insulting to her if I were think of our marriage as an altruistic chore.

Second, as important as happiness is, it isn’t the purpose of marriage. Smith writes, “I realized that I wanted to make her happy; to see her smile every day, to make her laugh every day.” Bad realization. Sometimes you can’t bring a smile or a laugh to your spouse. Sometimes that shouldn’t be your goal. Sometimes relationships are about sharing tears. Sometimes they’re about letting the person you love be.

Third, this advice is a recipe for abuse because it’s so easy to turn around: You shouldn’t be concerned with your own happiness, dear, but with mine. It’s not selfish to care about your own happiness. And, yes, selfishness isn’t good for marriage, but then neither is self-neglect. Smith is, unwittingly I’m sure, advising a disposition of self-neglect.  That’s hugely problematic.

I’m sure Smith means well and wants to share the wisdom he’s learned. I loved his phrase “Walmart philosophy.”  Unfortunately, his binary way of thinking about marriage and happiness is just as dangerous.

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12 thoughts on “The Awful Advice of “Marriage Isn’t for You”

  1. Whether this advice is worthwhile or not depends on who you are. My guess is that for most people, it is worthwhile or at least worth thinking about.

    I read somewhere the suggestion that everyone should try to carry 75% of the weight of a marriage. Because it takes 75% before you’re actually carrying 50%. In all likelihood, the other person is carrying more weight than you think they are.

    Likewise, I think viewing a marriage from a selfish perspective is so natural that trying to view it from a selfless one is productive. You are far more likely to neglect the needs of your loved one than you are to neglect your own. Most people are, anyway.

    This is good advice for a lot of people, probably. But this was advice from a man to a man and from that man to, I suspect, mostly men. If nothing else, it’s probably good advice for men to hear. But it’s good advice for a lot of women, too.

    For others, it’s disastrous advice. If you already have martyrish tendencies, this is the last thing you need to here because it will validate and justify a lot of the things you are doing wrong. I think this is a very real threat with some, but selfishness is a far greater threat for a far greater number of people.

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    • I would say that this is bad advice even if you are a monomaniacal sociopath, which would probably make it more likely that you would assume the martyr’s pose.

      As Burt says below, love and relationships are not zero sum. There are better ways to tell someone to be wary of being selfish in a relationship, like “be wary of being selfish in a relationship.”

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      • I think sometimes it takes more than just a nudging. I think it takes more of a “You should look at it this way. Or you should strive to. You probably won’t succeed, but you will be a better husband if you look at things this way.”

        And I think a whole lot of people would be a better husband if they tried to look at things that way.

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  2. The well-intentioned Smith article, and the fatherly advice within it, comes close to identifying love and happiness as a zero-sum game. Which fundamentally mistakes the nature of the subject under discussion. Maybe that was the right advice to tell someone who is experiencing a bout of selfishness. But marital happiness, like sexual pleasure or profit from commerce, is not a zero-sum game and it’s best for both when each partner to such exchange genuinely tries to maximize the benefit to the other.

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  3. “You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy.”

    How ironic it is that your initial response to this statement is:

    “First, my wife would be rightly none too pleased if I told her that our marriage doesn’t make me happy and that I don’t look for it to make me happy.”

    Way to prove his point!

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