Philosophy  •  August 4, 2009

Marriage and Individualism

“This man was hurting, yet his problem wasn’t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could solve it,” said Laura A. Munson in her essay entitled “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” It is her account of how she dealt with her marriage that almost fell apart. Her husband one day pronounced to her, “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.” Instead of reacting to it in an expected manner, she decided to stay calm and said, “I don’t buy it.” Her essay struck a chord with many people who are/were in similar situations.

She described her own attitude as: “Instead of issuing ultimatums, yelling, crying or begging, I presented him with options.” In other words, instead of pushing or pulling, she decided to stay neutral. There is a certain wisdom to this strategy; pushing or pulling rarely works in terms of trying to influence others, so we might as well take a neutral stance. And, I suspect that many people responded positively to this refreshing idea. But, beyond this pragmatism, I believe there is something deeper in Munson’s psyche that motivated her to take the neutral stance. She went on to state:

“I simply had come to understand that I was not at the root of my husband’s problem. He was. If he could turn his problem into a marital fight, he could make it about us. I needed to get out of the way so that wouldn’t happen.”

I believe her theory plays into our unconscious sexism. In a world with traditional gender roles, a man is supposed to solve his own problems. In fact, he likes the idea that he can manage his own problems (that’s why a man doesn’t ask for directions even when he is lost). A woman likes a man who can take care of his own problems, because it means that he has room to take care of her problems too. A woman likes to believe that her problems are his problems also. (There is a certain wisdom to this, as I will explain later.)

Also in the world of traditional values, men are supposed to be aggressive and women are supposed to be passive. Munson’s strategy with her husband was passive aggressive. It is actually not uncommon. We often hear of women who become pregnant on purpose in order to save their marriage or relationship. On its face, it makes no logical sense, but it sometimes works. Some men do “come around”.

In our modern world, many gender roles have become obsolete, but our nature does not evolve as quickly as our ideals do. Because of it, many of us feel alienated when feminism forces us to accept roles that go against our nature. I suspect that the popularity of Munson’s essay is partly due to the fact that it liberates our nature from the tyranny of feminist ideals. That is, it is OK to let a man be a man and solve his own problems. And, it is OK too, to be passive-aggressive. Her strategy resonates with our feminine side.

Try reversing the genders in her statement. It’s a very different picture.

“I simply had come to understand that I was not at the root of my wife’s problem. She was. If she could turn her problem into a marital fight, she could make it about us. I needed to get out of the way so that wouldn’t happen.”

A man saying to a woman, “You take care of your own problems,” has entirely different emotional implications. Many people would find the man to be arrogant and unsympathetic. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what I was thinking in my 20s when my first marriage was breaking apart. I simply didn’t see any problem with myself. Just as Munson described at the opening of her essay, I too thought my marriage was “healthy.” So, when my wife began expressing her unhappiness with our marriage, I thought it would just pass if I let her work it out on her own. If I had a problem of my own, I would try to work it out on my own too, so why shouldn’t I let her do the same? The only type of help I offered was practical help, much like what Munson offered her husband.

My wife went through similar phases that Munson described of her husband. She started acting badly. She told me one day that she went home with some guy to his apartment and made out. I didn’t react. I stayed calm and analyzed the situation pragmatically. I explained that love and sex are two separate things, so it didn’t bother me that she wanted sex from someone else. She started smoking again after managing to quit for years. I took her bad behavior in stride. But my story has a different ending. She found someone else, and actually moved out. It was only at the last minute that the reality kicked in, and the tears started pouring out of my eyes.

We all love to pretend that we are not scared of death. Only when we can touch and smell death, do we realize how truly scary it is. When I thought I was going to die from my liver failure, alone in the hospital room at night, I cried and begged God to save me even though I had never believed in God before. We often overestimate our own abilities and underestimate the pain of reality.

My current wife, after reading Munson’s essay, said “I don’t buy it.” I don’t either. Her story ended as a triumph of her ego. We don’t know how she would have felt and acted if her husband had found another woman. Her strategy is not some sort of formula that always works. She could have been just lucky that it worked out in the end for her. It would be interesting to read how she would have explained it all if her marriage had failed in the end. It then would be natural to think of her neutral strategy as the cause of the failure. This is how meaningless any analysis of cause and effect is in a marriage.

For me, marriage (or any committed long-term relationship) is a symbiotic relationship where 1 + 1 becomes 3. Together you form a new organism and co-evolve. In some instances of coevolution in nature, two separate species become so symbiotic that an analysis of one of them as its own specie becomes difficult, because it cannot survive on its own. It’s almost like trying to analyze our head as its own specie independent of the rest of our body.

We often consider dependency as a negative quality especially in the Western culture where independence is highly valued, but it is important to distinguish codependency and inter-dependency. On the facade, they look identical. Inter-dependency is a symbiotic relationship where 1 + 1 = 3 whereas codependency is a form of addiction where 1 + 1 = 1. If we can be addicted to drugs and alcohol, we can certainly become addicted to people. What is the difference between wine enthusiasts and alcoholics? Often it is hard to tell.

We humans are social creatures, and we are capable of doing powerful things when we work together in a symbiotic relationship. As obvious as this may sound, I did not understand this until quite recently. My parents fiercely defended independence, so they never learned to build symbiotic relationships with others. To them, independence was the highest virtue of mankind. The fact of the matter is that their worshipping of independence was a way for them to rationalize their lack of social skills. In their eyes, being dependent meant being codependent. If anything can be done on their own, they preferred to do so. Ironically, this is a typical Western trap where independence is touted as a virtue, and dependence as a vice, and my Japanese parents fell for it. They didn’t see that stanch individualism is destructive to meaningful human relationships.

In a symbiotic marriage, we become a compound being where we cannot analyze each part separately. “Individualism” can no longer be applied to individual parts of the compound being, because one does not make sense without the other. In order to unlock the true power of human being, we need to commit to co-evolving together. Co-evolution does not happen overnight. It takes a long time and a serious commitment. Once a marriage starts co-evolving, any analysis of one part independently of the other is meaningless. Indeed, his problem becomes her problem, and her problem becomes his. In fact, seeing problems in terms of “his” or “her” is counter-productive and meaningless for a co-evolving creature. It’s like your left hand saying to your right hand, “You take care of your problems, and I’ll take care of mine.”

The evolution of computer hardware and software are described as co-evolution because one is useless without the other. The same can be said for any art criticism that tries to separate content from form. Such an analysis would never succeed in seeing any artwork for what it is. Likewise, any attempt to attribute the cause of unhappiness to individual parts in a coevolving relationship is futile and meaningless. When a few Jazz musicians are improvising together, what would be the point of analyzing who contributed how much to the overall success or failure? The music that comes out of the collaboration is indivisible. If they are interested in accounting for their own contributions, why play together in the first place? They might as well pursue their own solo careers independently. Marriage too works the same way. When you commit to a co-evolving relationship, you create a being of its own that is greater than the sum of its parts.