Written by Jori Sackin
Drawings by Charlie Mylie
It is easy to criticize other people’s relationships. We do it all the time, sitting at bars, drinking and swapping stories, comparing and passing judgment on our friend’s behavior. In one sense, it’s a perfectly healthy thing to do. In order to understand what’s acceptable, we bounce it off the other people around us. If someone were to say, “Susie’s really been sleeping around,” they are exchanging gossip, but more importantly, they are gauging your reaction. If you were to say, “So what,” that tells them one thing, as opposed to, “What a slut.” Some people think of gossip as trading information, but what we are really trading is our reactions, and in doing so, gauging the ever changing line of what is normal.
Gossip in this way is helpful, because through these interactions we might learn what isn’t healthy. If you have a partner that beats you and you tell your friends, hopefully you'll hear some pretty strong voices telling you to leave. If you are with someone who doesn’t seem very committed to you, who doesn’t do the dishes, occasionally cheats on you and is enjoying living rent free, that is another situation your friends might want to talk to you about. However, all of this relationship criticism doesn’t tell us what a healthy relationship is. It only tells us what it isn’t. We are then left to infer, that a healthy relationship is the absence of all these negative things.
This is not the main failure in relationships or in gossip, but rather the main failure of criticism. Without a clearly described positive vision, it seeks to describe the “healthy” in relation to the absence of error. What it leaves out is the positive vision of what a relationship can be, of what they can do. What relationships can do, in the positive sense, is give us a larger share of life. They do this by allowing us to be more ourselves, and collectively, by making us more together than we ever could be separately.
If you trace the historical relationship of marriage, you will see it first as a business proposition, as a way to link families and secure resources. The static roles of husband and wife were non negotiable. You were there to fulfill your biological duty, as well as to fulfill your social duties, by performing the roles that were given. This kind of relationship is best defined by transactions, percentages, and ownership. I will trade you this, if you trade me that. I own this. You own that. I want this percentage, so you can have that percentage, etc.
If you are critical of this arrangement, you can easily find all kinds of faults with it, but what you must realize, is that most of your critiques revolve around the fact that you have a different conception for what marriage can be, which is, I would imagine, marriage as communion through love. Without this positive vision, you are left making criticisms for how to make marriage a better, fairer business relationship. In short, the accumulation of faults through criticism does not help us imagine something greater, it can only tell us what is wrong with what we already have. There is no way to make the conceptual leap from thinking of marriage as business to marriage as love, through criticism. What is needed is the imaginative envisioning of what marriage can become.
The Three Quests of Percentages
If you were to sit down at the kitchen table with your significant other in front of a blueberry muffin, the modern business relationship would dictate that exactly 50% of that muffin belongs to you. You are two equal people and each person is entitled to their share. This legalistic interpretation is rule bound. In all situations, you are entitled to your 50% and you might spend your life diligently looking for instances of exploitation from this system. In this view, if you let your significant other eat the entire muffin, you make a note, that in another circumstance, you are entitled to an entire muffin without sharing. Criticism in this system points you toward a relationship where in more circumstances, you get your 50%. The quest for your equal share is the quest for fairness.
The quest for personal autonomy takes the position that what should be gained in life is freedom of action, unconstrained by other individuals or social forces. In other words, I want the whole damn muffin. Any individual that stands in the way of that 100% is denying me my share. In this view, I want to eat as much of the muffin as possible, and any share I give up is a partial defeat. I only give exactly what I think I have to, and am constantly looking for ways to subvert other people’s interests so I can get more for myself.
In this conception, if someone hugs me, they are restricting my ability to move. Communing with others is equally an imposition on my freedom. Love is a confining structure that limits the possibility of novel experience. Relationships are alliances that are only valuable, if they are helping me get more of my 100%. Once they stand in my way, or appear to be hindrances, they are immediately discarded, as they lose all value.
In this view, a person wants to be hugged, but not constrained. They want to be loved, but not confined. They want to feel the intimacy of human relationships without submission. The quest for 100%, denies them the ability to more deeply commune with others, and thus relegates them to a smaller share in life. It does this in the name of wanting to experience more, however, always leads to the opposite.
The third quest is sacrifice, the quest for 0%. This quest shares all the same characteristics with the quest for 100%, just in reverse. Instead of offering domination, it offers subordination. It has the appearance of selflessness, but maintains the self through its shallow view of percentages. Joy is achieved only by receiving nothing. By imposing this 0% relationship on everyone, it denies them the chance to become more than they were. In this sense, giving is not derived from the joy of others, it is derived from the deprivation of self.
What these three quests illustrate is that there can be no transcending the business relationship without giving up the legalistic concreteness of percentages. In marriage as business, the greatest you can hope for is a fair business relationship, which is, we each get our half, and aren’t exploited by the other. The other two paths lead to various forms of subordination/ domination, which themselves offer a slight pleasure, but ultimately, a shallow one.
We sometimes think of modern love as freeing us from the calculated business decisions of marriage. We look down on the historical heavy handedness of requiring things like dowries, or the upfront calculated political treaties that joined people together. However, modern love has not freed us from thinking of marriage as business, rather it has just made it more fair. It has reduced the amount of exploitation, but offered little in its ability to move beyond this most basic conception.
There is no better word than "partners" that explicitly reveals how we think of marriage as business. The definition of a partner is, "a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or company with shared risks and profits." (wiki) Two partners, such as in a law firm, each own 50% of the business. The business (the relationship) is expected to produce tangible results. These results further the interests, desires, and pleasures, of both parties. When the relationship stops producing these benefits, it has lost its value.
Expressions of expectation of production such as, "I'm not getting anything out of this relationship" show that we expect results. In this metaphor, we put "work" into a relationship, like we put "work" into business. We then expect a proportional reward. If we get no reward or if the reward is less than we imagine, then we perceive we are not getting "our fair share". A share is defined as, "A unit of ownership that represents an equal proportion of a company's capital. It entitles its holder (the shareholder) to an equal claim on the company's profits and an equal obligation for the company's debts and losses." (wiki)
While moving from thinking of marriage as property to marriage as partnership is a step forward, it is still a shallow form of human companionship, in that, the bond that is created is entirely dependent upon profits. If you are in a relationship that is going fairly well, but you imagine greater profits out of another relationship, then it would make sense to dump the person you are with, and try the newer person. People that jump from relationship to relationship are then always in the hopes of finding that one big payoff, that relationship where there is a minimal amount of energy required (work) and a maximum amount of profit (pleasure). This ideal is usually projected in the future, and might always be perceived as existing in the "next person".
In the end, you must be willing to give up your hold on percentages, and relinquish your fear of exploitation. Because of this necessary release of percentages, it’s then exceedingly hard to describe marriage in the positive sense, which is, marriage as communion through love, precisely because it cannot exist in any rule based way. There is no set formula that can do justice to the experiential reality of two people navigating their lives together. This is why countless poets, musicians and greeting card companies have tried to ground love in metaphor. They seek to make the ambiguousness of the concept more concrete. These metaphors take the form: love is a ________. In all cases it describes a partial truth and in all cases fails to adequately contain it.
What can be said is that communion through love requires mutual submission, not just once, but every day. It is not a self-sacrificing gesture of altruism, but rather, an action that gains for yourself a larger share in life, one that gives more pleasure, more access to novel experience, than any previous conception before it. Marriage as love through communion says that no matter who eats the muffin or what percentage is decided, the outcome is the same, which is, “We ate the muffin.”
This new conception, being less legalistic and more ambiguous, leads to more problems, not less, precisely because of its new found complexity. It is easy to see when you are getting your 50% and when you are not. It is a much harder to decide whether you are loved. If you submit yourself fully to a relationship, that is, if you leave yourself open to the possibility of changing from who you were, in the hopes of becoming something more, but instead find yourself dominated/subordinated, by one of the three quests, both people then become less, and are equally denied the path to a larger, more encompassing embrace.
To make things more confusing, the denial of this path, is not always apparent. It can be completely unconscious. If everyone knew exactly what they were doing, and what they were trying to accomplish, if there were some rule based system that we could consult to let us know whether we are in fact loved, if we could develop a way to peer into people’s intentions toward us and know what they were thinking, it all would be a whole lot easier. There are none of these things though, and so we undoubtedly struggle with these unconscious forces, forces that push us towards domination/subordination without us wanting to go there, forces that blind us to the sometimes obvious intentions of the people around us, forces that rewrite the world as we want it to be.
This aspect of communion, that we are beings with unconscious intentions trying to love other beings with unconscious intentions, who both don’t understand what is really going on, can make everything quite confusing. If that weren’t bad enough, we are not static beings, but beings that are shaped and changed by the contextual environments that we move in and out of. To top it all off, we also center this relationship around the most undefinable ambiguous concept there is, love. How then out of all of this confusion can we possibly come to a positive vision? It can come from only one place, which is, our sensitivity to what is going on right now. Our conception of our greater share, must be rooted in our experience in the present. There is no other place for it to come. It is, human beings, honing a greater sensitivity to themselves and their experience with the world.
Entering into marriage as a business relationship, is entering into it with a true conception of our basic responsibilities to each other, which is, not exploiting the person we are with. However, this is only the base level of what is going on. Two people, once joined, then have the opportunity, to go beyond this shallow conception. They do this, not by adhering to a socially prescribed ideologue of what marriage can be, but by being observant and sensitive to each other. If both people show a sensitivity to the present, if both people mutually submit to their shared experience, they can leave beyond their fears of exploitation and embrace their larger share.
Routine and Our Strange Robotic Nature
Everyone that’s worked in the service industry is aware of what it feels like to be a robot. Whether it is an action or a certain phrase that we have to say over and over, we feel its sometimes limiting, sometimes soothing role. It is limiting when we feel dominated and confined by the strictness of its rules. It is soothing when we feel the dissolution of self in our movements and actions. Marriage gives us the opportunity to confront these robotic desires, desires that push us towards accepting the routine of everyday life, in favor of the work that is required to keep and maintain the positive vision of what we might become.
Routine provides us, not only the predictive power to know what is coming next, but also partially dissolves the self in its formulaic movements and actions. While it is hard to recognize the negative effects of such practice in ourselves, it is much more apparent in others. Only when this nature is reflected in another, can we see it for what it is, a disconnection with what is happening in favor of formulaic response. The ability for two people to fall into these routines together, gives them the opportunity to confront their mutually robotic desires. Marriage, is itself, a confrontation and struggle with our strange robotic nature. It is constantly wrestling with the joys and terrors of routine.
In this struggle, we strive toward communion through love, but constantly fall back into our shallow business relations because of our infatuation with these robotic pleasures, (as well as the pleasures of domination/ subordination.) What can free us from this slide is a practice that seeks to ground us in the present. Many people have embraced the idea of love as communion, as well as ideas that seek to ground them in the “now”, ideas that seek to expand their notion of self, and make them more compassionate to the people around them. However, the embrace of the idea, is not the embrace of the practice. It is an inadequate substitute, which leads to less than stellar results. Belief is not practice. Faith is not practice. Agreeing with this article is not practice. Any conception of love through communion, must be practiced in the present.
Just as there can be no definition of love, there can be no formulaic definition of practice, because it is itself, a release from formula. Like love, this also causes many problems, as the necessary ambiguity gives people room to make up all sorts of things that justifies whatever they want to do. Like love, it is sometimes confusing even with the best of intentions whether you are practicing or not, whether you are really in touch with what is going on or are completely deluded. Such is life.