The Legend of Marital Bliss: How Pleasure Conquered Virtue (And Other Whoredoms Committed By Modern Society)

People today get married because they believe a lie—call it a myth, fable, or legend—that has been propagated by scientist, therapist, televangelist, pastor and layman alike; a lie that many today worship: the myth of marital bliss. Young girls spend countless hours daydreaming about a prince in shining armor; young boys await a fair virgin with whom they’ll spend countless hours having mind-numbing sex. The girls wake up and read idiotic literature written by illiterate folk—think Fifty Shades of Grey here. The boys wake up and listen to music that objectifies women in almost a completely sexual manner; they help themselves to endless loads of pornography on a minute basis. Sex is seen as the cornerstone of marriage today. But sex alone is not the problem. In fact, in theory, it isn’t a problem per se. Sex is merely the byproduct of a society that has deeper issues: the myth of marital bliss. But what is this myth and whence does it arise from?

The myth presupposes at least one thing: pleasure. The belief that marriage should be a happiness-making-factory is believed by virtually everyone on the planet; even the so-called “marital therapists” who have PhDs in their respective fields. The current belief that our generation holds (and apparently the younger one too) is that marriage is all about pleasure. It is about making the individual happy. We get married today because we believe that marriage is about making you and me happy. Most of us would like to include sex into the “happy” category; it’s all about the touchy-feely, orgasm-like stuff that pleasure is made up of. We take pleasure in our K-Y Jellies and our ability to pop Viagra and have 8-hour erections. We read literature on giving women oral sex in hopes that they, too, would experience a pleasure-filled personal experience during sex. We take pride in our knowledge and our ability to give pleasure during sex and, inevitably, during marriage.

People divorce today for practically one sole reason alone: the unfulfilled pleasure-duties of the other spouse. We come into marriage thinking it’s all about my orgasm and my ability to balance a good birth-control-pill-taking diet.  In fact, people pretty much only divorce for pleasure alone these days! One spouse, or both, divorce because they are “unhappy.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Who said that marriage was supposed to make you “happy”? The presupposition all along—in our virtue-deprived society—has been that we believe that pleasure is the cornerstone of marriage. This is the myth of marital bliss. And I hate it. In fact, my essay is going to debunk it.

As a hardcore Christian existentialist thinker who is heavily influenced by Christian ethics and Kierkegaard, I believe that this myth is to be taken seriously and must be refuted and replaced. As an absolutist when it comes to ethics, I will be arguing that the myth of marital bliss is not only a crock of crap but also wrong. I will not be arguing in this paper that marriage cannot be happy or blissful—I will be arguing that the means can never be happiness itself, only the end. By making happiness the point of departure for everything, we have done away with what really makes marriages truly happy in any meaningful sense: virtue ethics. I believe in a happy marriage so long as it is based on virtues. This paper, then, will demolish the myth of marital bliss (which is based on sole pleasure) and replace it with the truth of marital virtue (which will result in true happiness).

Most marriages today end in divorce.[1] That’s merely an objective fact. Most people today believe that the chances of them divorcing are pretty much none. Most people marrying today believe that they have what it takes to get married and stay married. Most people never see themselves divorcing. Most people believe that marriage will make them happy. Many people coming into marriage think that their future spouse is perfect (or almost perfect). Despite what most people think, they do divorce. So what’s wrong with the picture? Why are so many people wrong?

I am saying that people are divorcing because they are entering marriage without a clue about what it really is. Marriage is, simply put, much more than pleasure—it’s friendship, loyalty, hard work, love, and covenantal union.[2] People come into marriage thinking that it’s a game that they know well; they have been trained by society to know all of the rules to the game. But the game they enter is completely different. The only resemblance between the game society taught them and the game of marriage that they have entered in is the sharing of the name “marriage.” The rules and regulations that society feeds us with (or should I say “shoves down our throats”) are mainly concerned with the individual: how to give and receive personal pleasures. We come into marriage thinking that it’s all about us. All about me. The underlying assumptions resonate well with an American society dominated by and subservient to individualism and egoism. The assumptions being that marriage is about the individual I. It’s all about how I feel in the fight; it’s all about how I feel when we raise children. The idea is that we must always be happy. The individual I, that is. It’s either the wife or the husband complaining about the other. Marriage is not seen as a joining of two individuals to form a unified whole; no, marriage is seen as a temporary partnership between two selfish individuals who want to be happy pursuing their highly-individualized goals. (Even the word “partnership” in my sentence probably does not reflect the true distance felt between these two individuals.) The you and the I never form a we. There is no us or we in the picture. When fighting, it is a “he said/she said” ordeal—never a “we said.” The focus is always on the individual. Not merely on just the individual, but on the detached individual. Existentialists—Christian ones—believe in individualism; but we don’t necessarily believe in egoism, self-centeredness, and selfishness. I, as an existentialist, believe in the individual but I do not believe in a detached individual. We should never remain disconnected from others; we should never be existentially alienated from our other half, whom we are bound to love. In our society, we have confused emphasis on the individual with narcissism. We have become obsessed with ourselves as detached beings. Instead of seeing ourselves as individuals influenced by society, we see ourselves as individuals detached from society. And society in this case is your spouse and family. They are your society; your most important form of society. By staying detached, we focus on our own goals; that is, a wife only cares about herself and a husband only cares about himself. They have not united; they have not become a we.

This narcissistic strain of individualism[3] is born out of a society that merely cares about what one feels and experiences as an individual. In contrast, in communal societies, people often care about what the people as a whole feel. Marriage is community. Marriage is to reflect what the we feels and experiences. When I have sex with my wife, it is not about how I feel as an individual but how we feel making love together. This aspect must never be forgotten. But enough about pleasures, even communal ones, what about marriage?

Marriage in modern America is merely seen as an extension of self-interest. We are all about the individualized I (contra the communal I). We are pleasure-driven creatures and we seek pleasures that benefit the individualized I alone. But pleasures are fleeting; and individualized pleasures, more so. For example, Mark and Lily are about to get married because they both make each other happy. They date for a year and believe that their happiness will last forever. They are marrying not because of finances or common goals; they are marrying because both are attracted to each other and make each other “happy.” But what is “happy”? In this case, it is merely a feeling, an emotion. It cannot be much more than that. But we all know that feelings can only last so long. We all used to love our childhood blankets—but we’ve outgrown them. Before long, all that ends. How do I know? Look at the statistics and at the amount of unhappy people sitting on antidepressants and seeking marital therapy. That does all the talking for me. The presupposition in this particular example is that marriage is about a feeling. We get married because we are happy and want to have sex with the other person. Guess what? I have news for you: there are many things that make us happy. And, moreover, just about anyone can have sex with anyone; it does not require a rocket scientist. Your ability to make someone happy and have sex with them does not make you marriage material. There has to be something more to marriage.

Marriage is, quite bluntly, something many of us think is important. According to Fowers, “[I]n contemporary America, the single most important thing you can do to enhance your physical and psychological well-being is to be happily married.”[4] So, marriage is a popular thing. Everybody wants to have a happy marriage. Many people write about it, too. But even those of us who write about it have been wrong. So much ink has been spilled on communication in marriage. People have argued that communication is pretty much the “one stop shop” and fix-all for marriage. If you have a problem in your marriage, it must be your communication ability. Again, the emphasis is not on the we but on the individual I. It is you that has a problem. What if I told you that we have nothing to communicate about? Maybe that’s our problem. (Notice my use of communal language.) But why would we have nothing to talk about? Well, no duh, because we had gotten married for selfish reasons. We married for selfish pleasures and fleeting feelings of happiness. Had we gotten married because of friendship and common goals (which would inevitably make an individual and a couple happy), we would have been communicating all along! People who get married for reasons other than happiness (reasons like common goals and friendship), stay together because their love is not based on simply being happy. It is based on much more.

A recent study showed how communication-promoters have actually failed to deliver their promises: happily married couples seldom used the so-called communication skills promoted by therapists.[5] The problem with therapists who use this as a sort of fix-all method is that this method has never really been tested out in the real world; it has mainly just been assumed that communication is a good thing. “Therapists did not begin their search for communication skills by studying successful couples in order to learn how they communicated with one another and thereby discover the skills necessary to a good marriage.”[6] So where did these theories come from? “The source of the communication skills favored by the trainers is their own training as therapists. There is a very high degree of overlap between the communication skills taught to novice therapists and the communication skills taught to couples.”[7] In other words, “therapists who teach couples communication skills are actually teaching spouses to be therapists to each other.”[8] But who are therapists? They are trained specialists who remain “objectively neutral” in their observations and remarks. They are taught to distance themselves. An individualistically-driven society produces individualistically-driven people just like an individualistically-driven therapist produces individualistically-driven “couples.” If couples actually really use what the therapists use, they’re bound to become more isolated and detached as individuals—there will be an even greater chasm between the I and the we. “If we accept that each of us is ultimately isolated, a completely independent individual, then marriage does seem like a way out of intolerable loneliness and despair. If we believe that our essential purpose in life is to feel happy, then therapeutic marriage provides an attractive path to that end. The problem is that our habit of seeing marriage primarily as a source of individual happiness has not worked out very well.”[9] I’m not saying that communication skills are not useful (they are), but to believe that they can salvage a marriage based on nothing but sex and pleasure/happiness motivated by self-interest is unrealistic. Two marital therapists who live together are not bound to stay married. Marriage is more than communication skills. Look at it this way: You may have the tools to build a house, but if there is no house to build, who needs the tools? Put another way: You can have the communication skills (i.e., tools) to communicate, but if there is nothing to communicate about (as there would be in a friendship-based marriage), then who needs the communication skills? “Look,” a couple may say, “we have nothing to talk about.” Exactly. At the end of the day, communication skills are probably not going to get you anywhere if you have no cornerstone to build your marriage on (a cornerstone like friendship, a common goal, loyalty, etc.). People who are not virtuous cannot lead virtuous lives. Moreover, if marriage is based on virtues, it requires virtuous individuals. What are virtues? Virtues in marriage are, at the very least: loyalty, generosity, justice, and courage. All of these are virtues of friendship. Before dealing with virtues, I would like to cover some ground in regards to how we, as a people, came to believe that the myth of marital bliss was actually scientifically-grounded.

Fowers writes, “I recently conducted a study of the terms that marital researchers use to describe marriage in their scientific reports. I found that satisfaction is by far the most commonly used term; in fact, it is used more than five times as often as any other term whereas other words indicative of a good marriage, such as commitment, loyalty, partnership, and teamwork, are almost never used.” In other words, the researchers had already bought into the lie that marriage is based on happiness (and pretty much nothing more), so they used the word “satisfaction” in their studies of “good” marriages. To be satisfied, in their opinion, meant that you had a happy marriage. “From the very beginning of research on marriage, social scientists have simply assumed that personal experiences such as happiness, satisfaction, or adjustment define a good marriage. Thus the most common indicator that social scientists use to identify a good marriage comes directly from our cultural belief that happiness is the core of a good marriage. In this way, through the emphasis on feelings about marriage, the myth of marital happiness is built right into the very foundation of marital research.”[10] The science has been flawed all along—and we were stupid enough to believe it. If we had believed in loyalty as the premise of a good marriage, we would have been asking our people whether their spouses were loyal to them. Then we would have calculated the number of good marriages in our society. As it is, we have mainly calculated the number of “touchy-feely” marriages in our society. Had we presupposed friendship as a key to a good marriage, we would have been concerned with asking the right questions. As it is, we are asking the wrong questions and we are getting the wrong statistics. “[I]nstead of discovering the truth about marriage, social scientists are simply documenting the myth of marital happiness.”[11] Moreover, “Social scientists not only fail to question the myth but also endorse it by conducting research that assumes the centrality of the individual and sees marriage primarily as a source of individual benefit.” [12]It is interesting for me to point out that much research has only reinforced what we already knew. Take John Gottman for example. His books are important and probably should be read (I’ve read many of them) but, in the end, he is merely documenting what we already know. How many of us would like to live with a criticizing spouse? Not many. Well, Gottman has a scientific answer: Not many. “It has now been scientifically confirmed that spouses who ignore, nag, criticize, or show contempt for each other are more likely than other couples to divorce. Yet how surprising is that?”[13] So much literature is spent on talking about gibberish and regurgitates what we already know. Now that I’ve spent some time criticizing our current approaches towards marriage and how we got here, I want to look at how things could be.

People need to base their marriage on virtues. Virtues are the acts of a good person who acts on the good not for the sake of anything else but only for the good itself. The good is seen as an end in and of itself. These good things are done so that the good human being may flourish; by flourishing, a human is led to happiness. (This is very much an Aristotelian approach towards ethics and virtues.) When we do the good, we hope that it would become habitual to us. The good must become a part of the virtuous person. To be brave, according to Aristotle, one must practice brave acts. To be loving in marriage, one must practice loving acts. The good is seen as an end in and of itself. We love our spouses not because they love us, but because we love them. If we love our spouses because they love us, then we love them because we love ourselves. (This would mean that our love for the spouse is a means to an end; we love the spouse as a means only for the sake of getting the true end, which is self-love.) It’s like giving a liter of water to a thirsty man knowing that he’ll give it right back to you. In giving the water, you are not actually performing a selfless act; you are actually acting in your own self-interest.[14]

What do virtue ethics have to do with marriage? I will provide one example which conveys their importance, used by Fowers. If a couple is fighting and arguing constantly, is communication really the problem? Fowers suggests that communication isn’t the root of the problem; it may be that self-control (a virtue) is lacking in the relationship, and that may be the actual problem. Aristotle remarked, “Anyone can get angry—that is easy…but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, for the right reason, and in the right way is no longer something easy.”[15] Taking Aristotle’s quote, Fowers argues for virtue ethics. He believes—and I agree with him—that communication itself requires virtues. Virtues such as honesty are already presupposed in communication. For example, the moment we begin to speak, we are hoping to communicate something. If we hope to communicate something, we are expected to be honest. But if we lie, then we are not communicating; if we are not communicating, why are we speaking? To communicate is to convey something via sound waves. All communication presupposes truth and honesty. If the presupposition had been falsehood, one could never ask a simple question like “What time is it?” since one would know that the response would be a lie. Thus we know that communication presupposes honesty and truth (which are virtues; they are good in and of themselves). So why have we forgotten virtues? Why have we abandoned the greater goods? Fowers believes that our discomfort with moral and ethical absolutes has led to this. Most therapists don’t want to tell you that what you are doing is “wrong.” We have been programmed by our post-modern, pluralistic society to think that truth is not universal and that truth, really, does not exist.[16] In our hopes to please everyone, we have forgotten absolutes. Absolutes are universal truths like honesty. We presuppose that people are being honest with us when we communicate with them. But since most of us are afraid of absolutes, we are afraid of virtues. If we are afraid of virtues, then marriage is no longer our friend (which, if I am right, is grounded on virtues of friendship).

Fowers advises us to look at marriage from a virtue perspective. He presupposes that friendship should be the bedrock upon which marriage is built. (I, too, have argued this in my book Rants on Love.) Presupposing friendship as the bedrock, Fowers sets out to look at three forms of friendship from an Aristotelian perspective. Aristotle argued that there were at least three forms of friendship: advantage friendships, pleasure friendships, and character friendships. The first two are generic friendships that we experience. For example, an advantage friendship is like two people who work for the same organization who are friends. They are friends because it is an advantage to be friendly with a coworker. A pleasure friendship can overlap with an advantage friendship; the only real difference is that in a pleasure friendship the focus is on pleasures. So, a pleasure friendship can be a marriage or relationship that is based solely on sex. The couple that gets married simply for sexual reasons is operating according to the rules of pleasure friendship. A character friendship, on the other hand, is much deeper than the previous two. In summary, “The best friendships are those characterized by shared goals, the partners’ recognition of each other’s qualities, and teamwork.”[17] This is a character friendship; it is when two people with similar characters get together because of their strong affinity for each other. They both have a common belief regarding what the “good” is and they both seek to find it, together. A marriage built on this form of friendship is bound to last much longer than any other marriage. Why? Because, if all of that sex fails and so-called “happiness,” the couple can remain together because they are friends and share common goals. In sharing common goals, they will be truly happy working towards those goals in life. “A strong marriage is built on shared aims that provide a kind of blueprint for the marriage.”[18] Essentially, this form of marriage is built upon mutual love, too. I have defined romantic love as a romantic/sexual friendship. I maintain that friendship is union (I would, then, be labeled a “union theorist” among those who discuss love).[19]  A husband and wife who are both devout Christians working together for the same cause, with the same ideals, in an isolated part of the world as missionaries would, in theory, never divorce. A divorce would be unimaginable. How could two friends cease to be friends? Only if their common goals ceased to be common. However, if the couple remains Christian and embraces a Christian worldview, there is no reason for us to suppose that they would divorce. They would be heavily invested in each other’s interests and would have a “we-mentality” that is about reaching a common goal (in this case it would be the ushering in of the Kingdom of God). If the friendship remains—defined as a character friendship, where two or more people work towards common goals, etc.—then the marriage stands. “[M]arriage at its best is a relationship built on friendship.”[20]

Another virtue that modern marriages tend to often forget is the virtue of loyalty. Loyalty is generally developed towards a person or a group of people with whom we have shared a historical relationship with. Whether we like it or not, loyalty is almost always a “knee-jerk” reaction given to those with whom we spend real, historical time with. For example, if I spend half of my life living in with a spouse, I would probably develop some sense of loyalty towards that person. In fact, by choosing to spend time with an individual, I am acting out my loyalty. In an Aristotelian sense, I am becoming a loyal person by practicing loyal acts (i.e., returning to the same individual over and over again). “When a romantic relationship begins, the bond between the partners is often relatively shallow and id often based primarily on physical attraction.”[21] However, as we spend more and more time with that person, we develop loyalty towards that individual. But it’s not only all about spending time with that particular individual to whom we owe our loyalty; it’s also about sharing experiences. Many people who share a similar experience are loyal to each other. Why? From a philosophical perspective, the experiences that we experience make us who we are; therefore, whoever shares an experience that we have experienced is participating in an experience that has become a part of us—in a sense, the person has become a part of us too. My ability to “connect” to other people who love Jesus is because Jesus has become a part of me. When I meet individuals who have shared my experience of Jesus, they are also, in a very literal sense, a part of me and my history. They are participants of a shared history that has somehow shaped who I am directly. Moreover, when we become married, we develop ourselves in relationship to our spouse. The spouse’s loyalty to us contributes to our loyalty to them. Not only that, but loyalty is an important virtue because it helps us remain good humans. How so? Because our identities are always changing, we need people loyal to us who would be there through our character development. What I mean is this: If a person had no sense of loyalty, he would come home to his wife, find her on her period PMSing away, and divorce her right then and there. Why? Well, she “changed”—and he had no loyalty to see her through her “changes.” Human character is fluid and presupposes loyalty. When your father suffers from Alzheimer’s and no longer is, in thought or in deed, your “original father,” you still remain loyal to him; for he is your father, even in such a changed state. “Our identities are never completely settled or finalized, because if we change how we act, we are changing who we are. There really is no inner identity that exists separately from how we live and act. Our identity is formed by the choices we make, the way we act, and the life projects we undertake.”[22] Who we are in a given moment is who we are. Life is, by all means, in the words of the philosopher Heidegger, merely a “happening.” We are in a state of change all the time; life is happening. It hasn’t happened. It will not necessarily happen in some future sense. It is happening, right here and right now. Don’t categorize me. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Don’t put people into categories—“They have a Type A personality and therefore must require such-and-such an approach.” This will never get you far in human life that is actually lived. What people need, because of their fluid characters, is loyalty—more than ever.

One could go on describing a whole ton of other virtues that marriage requires. (Fowers also deals with generosity and justice.) I am, at present, satisfied with giving just the two: friendship and loyalty. These two alone one could spend a lifetime discerning. Friendship is so important for marriage that it cannot be overstated. Loyalty, on the other hand, is just as necessary. So many of us jump on board when the ride is fun and easy, and get off when the going gets hard. Few of us have what it takes to remain loyal. Loyalty is a lost art. People like to divorce and move on. They like to forget their “attachments.” Marriage could be likened to pregnancy and labor. Allow me to set up a simple analogy. Those who enter marriage based on feelings and happiness, are like the women who get pregnant based on nothing but good feelings, sex, and happiness; when the going gets rough, they jump ship and abort the baby. On the other hand, those of us who enter the state of pregnancy based on friendship, loyalty, and love—when the going gets rough, we don’t jump ship and scream “It’s over”; no, because we are not basing our acceptance of the pregnant state on good feelings, we allow loyalty to our unborn child take over and help us pull through the long haul. In the end, only those who have placed their faith in the virtues give birth. Those who place their faith in feelings and happiness, jump ship the moment those feelings cease (in this analogy that would happen during labor). The key is what you base your marriage on. Both “couples” in this analogy experienced happiness and both had sex. The former had sex for sex’s sake; the latter had sex for friendship’s sake. Both were happy. But the couple basing their pregnancy on happy “feelings” was unable to carry the child to term. Why? Because once the happy feelings are over, the pregnancy is over. Happiness can never be used as a means to happiness; only virtues can be used as a means to happiness, true happiness. The legend of marital bliss based on bliss alone is myth.

written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

[1] Estimates vary between 42-60%. However, this number is not a fair representation because many couples that would have been married in 1900 are not marrying—they prefer to cohabitate. If everyone were to get married, as in the good old days, we would most likely have seen a larger proportion of people divorced   (since many who cohabitate do end up splitting up from their partners). For these statistics I refer you to Blaine J. Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness: How Embracing the Virtues of Loyalty, Generosity, Justice, and Courage Can Strengthen Your Relationship (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000), 11. Most of my paper will simply be engaging with this fascinating book. I recommend my readers read it.

[2] For a friendship-based approach towards marriage see Chapter 20 in Moses Y. Mikheyev, Rants on Love: Philosophical Fragments of A Dying Romance (Mustang: Tate Publishing, 2013).

[3] I do not believe that this kind of “individualism” should be confused with existentialism—which is arguably the most purest of philosophies, being one that encourages honest and pure approaches towards all human beings (read Martin Buber or Soren Kierkegaard on love and friendship).

[4]Blaine J. Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, 29.

[5] Ibid., 81. See his discussion of this issue at more length on pages 78-89.

[6] Ibid., 81.

[7] Ibid., 81-82.

[8] Ibid., 82. Words in original are italicized.

[9] Ibid., 88. Italics original.

[10] Ibid., 90. Italics original.

[11] Ibid., 95.

[12] Ibid., 97.

[13] Ibid., 96. This is a general—and completely dead-on!—critique of Gottman’s work.

[14] From a totally individualistic perspective, there is nothing wrong with this: you are only helping yourself. What’s inherently “evil” about that an individualist may ask? Well, if the presupposition is that we act only in self-interest, then, yes, this act is “good.” But if we believe that the individual stands in communal relationship to others, then such an act is selfish and is not good for the communal individual. By “communal individual” l I mean an individual who is both aware of self and the self’s relationship to other human beings. Human beings, in my view, then, are thoroughly social creatures. By acting only out of self-interest, the communal individual looses the “communal” aspect of his individuality and ceases to be “good” for the community.

[15] Cited by Fowers Ibid., 118.

[16] See his discussion of the issue on pages 120-122.

[17] Ibid., 129.

[18] Ibid., 130.

[19] I refer readers to my first book Rants on Love for an introduction to some of my views on love.

[20] Ibid., 142.

[21] Ibid., 151.

[22] Ibid., 157.

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