The Rarity Of A Truly Great Marriage

Brooks again:

“In the United States, nearly 40 percent of marriages end in divorce. Another 10 to 15 percent of couples separate and do not divorce, and another 7 percent or so stay together but are chronically unhappy. In other words, more than half of the people who decide to marry, presumably driven by passionate love, wind up unhappy. The odds are worse for couples that marry before age twenty five.”

If that is not depressing enough:

“And there are very few things worse than a bad marriage. Being in a bad marriage will increase your chance of getting sick by 35 percent and shorten your life span by an average of four years.”

The obvious take-away is choose very, very carefully, but I can’t imagine any couple in passionate love saying to one another, “WAIT, before we consider getting engaged, we should read and think about David Brooks’s marriage advice.”

 

The Prospect Of A Truly Great Marriage

Brooks’s best paragraphs on marriage highlight Tim and Kathy Keller’s insights:

“In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller describe how the process of improvement and elevation happens. First, you marry a person who seems completely wonderful and mostly perfect. Then, after a little while—maybe a month or two, maybe a year or two—you realize that the person you thought was so wonderful is actually imperfect, selfish, and flawed in many ways. As you are discovering this about your spouse, your spouse is making the exact same discovery about you.

The natural tendency in this situation is to acknowledge that of course you are a little selfish and flawed, but in fact it is your spouse’s selfishness that is the main problem here. Both spouses will also come to this conclusion at about the same time.

Then comes a fork in the road. Some couples will decide that they don’t want all the stress and conflict that will come from addressing the truths they have discovered about each other and themselves. They’ll make a truce, the Kellers say. Some subjects will not be talked about. You agree not to mention some of your spouse’s shortcomings so long as she agrees not to mention some of yours. The result is a truce-marriage, which is static, at least over the short term, but which gradually deteriorates over the long one.

“The alternative to the this truce-marriage is to determine to see your own selfishness as a fundamental problem and to treat it more seriously than you do your spouse’s. Why? Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it,” the Kellers write. ‘If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.'”

Jives with my experience.

 

The Maximum Marriage

Man did I hit a wall a third of the way through David Brooks’s Second Mountain. Despite it weighing two pounds, I could not pick it up. Instead I watched The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, Billions, and went full New Yorker.

But since I keep thinking I may use a chapter of it in my writing seminar this fall, I have begun reading it again, Part III in particular, titled Marriage. The first of the five marriage chapters is “The Maximum Marriage”. At the risk of creating cliche-i-cide, this is the idea that you should never settle in marriage, instead you should go ALL IN with a soul mate who completes you.

I have several problems with Brook’s marriage advice. The first is that he failed at his. Of course this doesn’t disqualify him, assuming a greater degree of reflection and vulnerability than he shows. He alludes to being the problem and explains that his ex-wife and him have an agreement not to talk about the dissolution of their marriage, perfectly understandable, but then it’s probably best not to present oneself as an authority.

Brooks is newly married to his former research assistant, a much younger woman for what it’s worth. When reading him wax poetic about maximum marriage, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong, why, and what about the references to the “art of recommitment”?

I also have questions if not concerns about the concept of “maximum marriage”. Recently, an acquaintance gave up her will to live a few weeks after her lifelong husband unexpectedly died. That’s an extreme example, but surviving partners of long-term maximum relationships or marriages often struggle with how to live without their “soulmates”. Brooks makes passing references to “autonomy” when that concept, in my opinion, deserves more attention.

Brooks also breaks down the “stages of intimacy” in the manner of someone who gives too much credence to every social science article he reads. He slights the mystery of intimacy and the organic nature of how two people create intimacy and sometimes decide to team up for life. In addition to describing intimacy in too linear a fashion, he doesn’t offer young people any practical advice on how best to answer the innumerable questions he suggests people considering marriage ask themselves.

Sometimes I suggest, based upon my experience backpacking in Southern Mexico in 1986 with who would become the Good Wife on 7/11/87*, that the newly in love backpack together in a developing country. I promise you’ll learn more about one another in a month than you probably would in a year. How do they make decisions? How do they spend money? How do they deal with sketchy hostels? How respectful are they of others? Are they quick to laugh or humor impaired? And most importantly, are they kind and are you a better person as a result of their friendship?

It’s funny isn’t it, the Humble Blogger giving the New York Times writer a hard time about his book. But why quit now. Brooks quotes other people way too much. Half the time the quotes do not have the intended effect, I’m often left thinking “huh” even after a second reading, and the incessant quoting compromises his voice. Of course I’ve already argued he’s not the most credible person on the topic, but his consistent leaning on others doesn’t solve that dilemma, for me, it only adds to it.

Also, despite Brook’s fealty to all things social scientific, a glaring oddity is that he never mentions the role money often plays in failed marriages. I can only speculate that’s because his ex-wife and him never lacked for it and most of his friends and acquaintances are similarly well-to-do. How does he spend fifty pages giving marriage advice without even touching upon financial compatibility?

So why, given my criticisms, is Second Mountain a best seller? In fairness, there’s good mixed in, but I suspect a large part of it is professional reputation. Given his previous writing, and his very high profile, he gets the benefit of the doubt from most readers. Oh, Brooks is often insightful, so this must be too.

Not necessarily.

*don’t feel bad if your “Happy Anniversary” card arrives late

The Hidden Cost Of Wealth

William James via David Brooks in Second Mountain:

“James concluded that there is something in us that seems to require difficulty and the overcoming of difficulty, the presence of both light and darkness, danger and deliverance. ‘But what our human emotions seem to require,’ he wrote, ‘is the sight of struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through it alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another [challenge] more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us.'”

Unwittingly, with this insight, James exposes a hidden cost of wealth. Often, the wealthier people get, the more their lives are taken up with endless conversation about how to make life more convenient and comfortable as well as with the actual researching and purchasing of products and services intended to make life less difficult and challenging. The amorphous goal is to eliminate struggle. The accomplishment of which fails to inspire anyone or anything.

Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

Of Mountains and Spain 2019

Three years ago, in light of our 30th anniversary, I promised the Good Wife a trip to a “Spanish speaking” country. It only took three years to pull of. The GW has always had a passion for languages, Swedish, Amharic, Spanish in particular. Sad isn’t it, that she married such a language loser, but she has to take responsibility for focusing exclusively on looks.

A week or two before the trip, while loitering in the kitchen, she said to me, “Being in Spain with you is going to be sexy.” Hubba hubba! All of a sudden the long distance flights seemed more manageable. But then I regained my senses and said, “Yeah, except for the fact that you invited our daughters.” Correcting the record, she smiled, “Ah, that was your idea.” What the hell was I thinking? Probably that their schedules would never allow it. They happily proved me wrong. We never should have taken them to live for short stints in China and Norway when they were young.

Here are the sordid details you so desperately want. The four of us shared small apartments in Madrid and Seville for eleven days. I was sick as a perro for about a third of the time. In the end, I’m sorry to report, there was very little hanky and next to no panky.

But all was not lost.

David Brooks in a recent piece, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, contrasts first and second mountain life. He writes:

“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. . . . 

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.”

And:

“Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one.”

I may finally be approaching the base of the second mountain. Why do I think that? Because when the GW asked me what my favorite moment of the trip was, I wasn’t quite able to tell her. Instead, I told her my second and third favorites.

My absolute favorite was witnessing the wave of emotion that came over her as the trip drew to an end.

The last morning in Seville, I rallied and we went for an aimless walk through our neighborhood’s ancient, narrow streets. Eventually, we ended up at the outdoor window of a tapas bar in a small, beautiful, mostly empty plaza. We ordered dos cafes con leche and waited at an outdoor table. Sipping our drinks, she started to cry. “This is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to sit with you at an outdoor cafe and just enjoy the moment.” Later that morning, the tears continued as she declared her abiding love for the whole dam fam. I can’t remember ever seeing her happier.

That made the lengthy planning process, the marathon plane flights, the expenses totally worth it.

IMG_1814.jpg

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.