Sunday, March 24, 2024

Can we support this type of marriage?

If we were to go back to late Medieval/early modern Germany, what did marriage look like? I recently read part of a book by Judith Hurwich, titled "Noble Strategies". It describes marital practices amongst the aristocratic elite. 

What I found most interesting was the conflict between an older lay German practice of marriage and the Christian one. The lay German practice, at least amongst the nobility, was that a husband could set aside a wife and live openly instead with a concubine (and have children with her). Unsurprisingly, it was then generally expected (amongst lay writers) that it was the wife who had the responsibility of maintaining marital concord. After all, she was the one who risked being set aside if the marriage failed.

The Church gained control over lay marriage by the twelfth century and by the thirteenth was beginning to campaign against concubinage. However, it took some time for municipal laws to change, and for open, co-residential concubinage to be punished. The earliest change to the law in Germany was in Strasbourg in 1337, then Ulm (1387), Wuerzburg (1418) and Frankfurt (1468). You can see that the pace of change was slow, so much so that it was still in play in the 1500s. 

If we describe this earlier understanding of marriage, in which male adultery was permissible, as was the setting aside of a wife, as marriage 1.0, then Christian marriage becomes marriage 2.0. Again, it is not surprising that when both spouses were equally bound to fidelity, that the responsibility of upholding marital concord also shifted. In the 1500s it began to be increasingly considered the role of both spouses to maintain harmony within the marriage.

This more egalitarian view lasted from about 1500 to 1850. From the mid-nineteenth century, liberalism began to aim at the autonomy of women. This too took some time. By the 1970s women were entering the higher professions in larger numbers; no fault divorce was introduced; a welfare state had been created; and there was a level of material wealth in society that enabled women to safely and securely divorce their husbands. In a reversal of the situation in Medieval Germany, it was now women who were empowered to set aside their husbands.

Again, unsurprisingly, this has led to a change in who is considered responsible for maintaining marital concord. In marriage 3.0 it is the men who must uphold marital concord or else pay the price. In its roughest expression, this is simply the idea that a man must try to keep his wife happy or else she is entitled to leave him and he is considered at fault for the marital failure. You can see this mindset in the social media post below:

It is uncommon for this change in marriage to be formally acknowledged. Liberals are committed to an egalitarian ideal, so there would be much cognitive dissonance if it were recognised that the current system of marriage is like the pre-Christian one in reverse.

Marriage 3.0 is well entrenched, to the point that many conservatives, in wanting to defend marriage, assume that this version of marriage is what has to be supported. They sometimes do this by claiming that the task of making a woman happy in marriage is a simple and straightforward one, as in the following social media comment:

I want to particularly focus, though, on Nancy Pearcey, who is an academic I genuinely admire. She has, however, accepted the terms of modern marriage. She thinks we can use scientific research to figure out what men can do to make their wives happy and leans on two researchers for support in this, namely John Gottman and Terrence Real. Here she uses Gottman to claim that it is up to men to make marriages work:

And here she fully embraces the idea that the failure of marriage can generally be attributed to husbands not pleasing wives emotionally. It is a more sophisticated expression of the idea that the husband must make the wife happy.

So is all this right? Do men go into marriage not wanting intimacy or closeness? Is it easy to achieve intimacy or closeness with women? Can science provide some sort of definitive answer to the question of what women want? Is the future of marriage men learning how to make their wives happy?

I'm sceptical. Achieving happiness in life depends on a whole raft of factors, as I have outlined in a previous post (Making Lady Lawyer Happy). A husband can contribute to a wife's happiness, but that's as far as it goes. She can be unhappy no matter what he does.

It is also a little naive to believe that it is simple and straightforward for men to divine their wives' emotional needs. It's useful, as an illustration of this, to turn to a review of one of Terrence Real's books. The reviewer summarises the material in the book as follows:
Real faces head-on the reality that many women come into couples work with fierce anger, frustrated by trying to achieve true emotional intimacy with their man. His premise is that many women's responsibilities and aspirations have grown as part of the women's movement and their resulting, empowered roles, during decades when many men's roles and expectations have progressed less dramatically. As difficult as the tone of the anger and complaint, Real suggests the substance of women's frustrations is right-on, which will provide some much needed vindication for women readers.

This book is full of composite examples of couples-therapy sessions where the woman's attitude sounds in complaint and withering anger. The man in these examples sounds clueless, and deeply hurt by the woman's anger. Real's prototypical woman comes off like a nag, shaming while complaining. It is at this point where men typically recoil avoiding facing women's needs, and their own fears.

The man may think, "what's the problem: I am nice and thoughtful. I don't rage or abuse....."

The husbands are trying to meet their wives' emotional needs but the result is not loving intimacy but an abusive rage by their wives before divorce. Why would this be the case? Well, one reason is that the husbands and wives are most likely understanding the very concept of "emotional needs" differently. The husbands think that it means being loving-hearted and affectionate and supportive etc. And the wives? Well, consider the following piece by a practising psychologist, Dr Steven Stosny. I don't entirely agree with the framework he puts forward, but he does paint an interesting picture of what some of his clients mean by "emotional needs":

There is no question that young children have emotional needs in the development of a stable and cohesive sense of self and need help from adults to so do. It’s also true that toddlers cannot distinguish wanting something from needing it, which is why they can become hurt or tantrum-prone when we say “no” to something they want but obviously do not need, like a toy or a treat. At the moment they want it, it feels like they need it; the stronger the feeling, the stronger the feeling gets.

The toddler's brain is active in adulthood when we misinterpret feelings in relationships and confuse wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. It’s how we create a false sense that a lover (parent-figure) must mirror and validate our feelings or else we can't maintain a cohesive sense of self.
So we are no longer in the realm of freely bestowed love. That is no longer the emotional need. The emotional need is to have one's sense of self upheld via validation and mirroring of our wants and desires. It is not enough to be a loving husband to meet this kind of emotional need - this is the terrain of husband as therapist.

Dr Stosny goes on to explain that when we are feeling bad, it triggers the sense of needing to have or to do something, which, if we believe our spouse has to meet our needs, then means that they are at fault for the way we feel:
The perception of need falsely explains much of our negative experience in intimate relationships. If I feel bad in any way for any reason, it's because my partner isn’t meeting my needs. It doesn't matter that I'm tired, not exercising, bored, ineffective at work, or stressed from the commute and the declining stock market, or if I'm mistreating him or her or otherwise violating my values; I’m convinced that I feel bad because she's not meeting my needs.
It gets worse. Eventually, even if the husband gets things perfectly right, there is little sense of gratitude, only anger if things go wrong:
In terms of motivation, emotional needs are similar to maintenance addictions, those that cause discomfort in withdrawal, with no stimulation of reward centers in the brain when gratified. Over time, there’s little or no reward in “getting my needs met,” and lots of resentment when they are not. I may not even notice when you do what I want, but I'll be angry or depressed when you don't.

The resulting mindset is not based around mutuality or reciprocity:

In my long practice, people who are resentful about not feeling “validated” are not in the least interested in validating anyone’s experience that differs from their own. They’re more likely to invalidate–reject, ignore, or judge–other people’s experience when they decide that it differs from their own.
You can see why those women, in the antechamber of divorce, are so witheringly angry and why the men are so hurt and lost. Love has been interpreted as "meeting my emotional needs" and these needs are not for affection or patient understanding or anything like that, but to meet an intensifying and increasingly unrewarding series of wants and preferences understood subjectively as needs, with negative feelings, no matter what their source, also interpreted as failings on the part of the husband.

What would help move us away from 3.0? Some better metaphysics would help. First, an ontology in which the more that we give of ourselves, the greater the fullness in being. This would help shift the emphasis back to an ideal of mutual service within marriage, or, to put it differently, a model of marriage in which we gift of ourselves to our spouse. 

Second, an understanding of our telos (our ends and purposes) as men and women being significantly realised through fulfilling the offices of husband and wife. In other words, there is a common good within marriage, as by being a husband or a wife I fulfil important aspects of who I am as a man or as a woman. 

Third, it would also help to have a more traditional anthropology in which humans are considered to occupy a special place within the hierarchy of creation by being able to rise upward to higher forms of being or to fall downward to more debased forms. The act of love toward a spouse would then be valued as an expression of our higher nature, as something ennobling in itself. Again, this would hopefully help shift the focus away from "if you loved me you would do x, y and z so that my emotional needs get met". 

Finally, I don't want the aim of all this to be misconstrued. When it comes to marriage, there are higher and lower quality women. There are still men who will have rewarding marriages, even in these times. The aim is to become attractive enough as a man to have options with higher quality women, and to intelligently vet these women. 

What does concern me, in writing this, is the culture. In particular, I would consider it unfortunate if conservatives were to defend an understanding of marriage that does not deserve to be conserved.