About 2500 years ago, somewhere in ancient Athens, there was a drinking party. As Plato tells it, each of the guests was required to give a speech about the nature of love. Among the illustrious participants, there was Aristophanes, the playwright. In his speech, he suggested that Eros is a longing to join together with one’s missing half, in the hope of becoming a complete being. In other words, the longing for completeness is the reason why opposites attract.
This attempted union of opposites is otherwise what’s known as marriage. Needless to say, this effort at union is problematic, even under the best of circumstances. Ideally, husband and wife will mature, such that other forms of love emerge to compliment erotic love, including affection, friendship, and agape. (For more on this, see: C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Four Loves.”)
Alas, this maturation can abort. Instead of affection, friendship and agape coming to the rescue, Eros can transmogrify into something far afield of a loving union: a miserable battle for moral superiority, an attempt to prove oneself the good person in the relationship and one’s partner the bad.
“I love you” then transforms into the battle cry, “I do everything for you and you do nothing for me!” And then the erotic longing for self-transcendence transforms into two individuals with their own accounting systems, arguing over who does more for whom, as heard in such phrases as, “I cooked dinner for you, last night and you didn’t even put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher!” Which is then met with, “Well I worked overtime to make the money so that we could buy the food for our meal last night! I wouldn’t have to if you got yourself a part-time job!” In some relationships, nothing is said, but one of the partner’s silently suffers, and feels herself or himself to be a martyr, and then perhaps waits for 25 years, to surprise her partner, by filing for a divorce.
This is not to deny that sometimes a serious inequality exists in a relationship, nor is it to deny that either partner can let down his side of the an equitable arrangement. What interests us here, though, is something far more common and a good deal darker: a perceived inequality, where none really exists, the insidious intent of which is to declare oneself morally superior to one’s partner. Related to this is an unconsciously manufactured inequality, so that one has grounds for accusing one’s partner of being selfish, and oneself the generous one in the relationship.
Here, then lies a mystery. How does the erotic longing for completeness quite often devolve into this miserable battle to prove moral supremacy? How does this unhappy state of affairs emerge?
Is My Existence Justified?
The erotic quest is not exactly what it initially appears to be. Looking deeper, we discern a clue. We see that it’s actually a quest to justify one’s way of being, in the spiritual sense. Let us see how this plays out. To experience one’s existence as justified means that one is living one’s life in the light of the infinite, absolute and eternal. Traditionally, the way to do so was by following God’s commandments for a righteous life, thus affording one’s life meaning. That is how one transcended the finitude, transiency and limits intrinsic to being a human being.
When Nietzsche declared, “God is dead,” he contended that this connection between the finite and the absolute, the temporal and the eternal no longer existed for a great many of us. It was feared, at the time, that people would respond to Nietzsche’s terrible realization by jumping off their roofs in despair. That didn’t happen because those who had lost their faith sought, in various ways, to supplant God as the absolute. Erotic relationships are one such effort!
After all, the desire to be loved romantically is essentially the wish to be regarded by another person as infinite, ultimate and absolute. This wish can be found in the expression, you mean everything to me. “Everything” is an expression of the absolute. Or it can be found, for example, in the expression, “You’re the one.” Instead of regarding God as the one, another person, through a kind of secular idolatry, becomes the one. That is why at root of romantic relationships lies a moral question: Is my existence justified? In other words, have I been able to transcend the finitude and transiency of my earthly existence either by having my partner regard me as the absolute or by regarding my partner as the absolute?
This effort to justify one’s existence by means of an erotic relationship fails for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there cannot be two absolutes, and if each partner in a relationship wishes to be regarded as such, there exists a problem. Secondly, if we succeed in seducing the other person into regarding us as the absolute, then we lose respect for the person. That is why there is much truth to Woody Allen’s notion that relationships are like the Groucho Marx line, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that was willing to have me as a member.” Yet another reason for this failure is that when we live with a person we see that he or she “has feet of clay.” It is impossible, in other words, not to realize that our beloved is neither a god nor a goddess, but a suffering human being, like oneself. There are many other problems as well.
Ideally, the discord between two people should lead to an investigation of the nature of romantic relationships. They would see that their failure was not necessarily a personal one; rather it was due to the nature of erotic relationships. Unfortunately, though, the failure of the erotic project most often leads to a sense of anger and accusation, a blaming of the other person for one’s disappointed expectations. This then turns into a battle over who is at fault for this failure, with one or both parties becoming self-righteous.
One might then view oneself as a good-natured chump, who foolishly became involved with a selfish person, if not a demon. C.G. Jung states somewhere that unhappy marriages have a certain stability, for once we think that he know the true source of our problems in life — namely our spouse — we lose our anxious openness to life. Closure sets in, which is comforting, but we cease to evolve as a person, for it’s that anxious uncertainty which is the catalyst for deeper questions and for our psychological and spiritual evolution.
The Acute Need for Self-Justification Among Secularists
There would appear to be strong evidence that this sort of bickering is more common amongst those whose orientation to life is predominantly secular and, therefore, egocentric rather than theocentric. After all, if one is not oriented to God or some other transcendent meaning, one will seek the absolute in various idolatrous ways, from social causes to utopian vision, from scientific progress to relationships.
But a relationship or marriage is a poor surrogate for being connected to an ultimate meaning, to the transcendent. Constant complaining, caviling, bickering and criticizing in a censorious way have, as their subtext, that one is the moral partner in the relationship. It bespeaks an inner emptiness, a bad conscience and a lack of true relation to the universe. The psychological mechanism of projection makes one’s partner into the image of one’s own faults.
A guilty conscience is even more likely to be found by those who are not just secular, but who seek to outsource their giving through government programs, i.e., by political liberals who feel that they are generous if, rather than giving their own money and labor, they vote for programs of government subventions to those in need, which, of course, essentially means stealing from those who earned the money. This pseudo-generosity doesn’t lead to genuine selflessness and self-transcendence. Rather its fruits are ego-inflation, an overbearing self-righteous, and a puffing oneself up with sanctimony.
This debased effort to justify one’s existence, though a pseudo-giving, allies itself with power motives. In the context of a relationship or marriage, one uses it as a weapon to attack one’s partner. It would also be all the more prevalent among liberal women, who tend to be animus possessed, and especially among feminists. They have an axe to grind in regard to some social injustice, which they use as a weapon to gain power in a relationship. So it is, then, that the quest for self-justification becomes coupled, in an unholy psychological alliance, with the lust for power.
A client of mine’s unhappy romance can serve as an example of this dynamic. He became involved with a woman who was politically was very liberal and a feminist. Not long after becoming engaged to my client, she told him that she would like the two of them to adopt a mentally retarded adult. My client started laughing, for he had thought that his fiancé must have been kidding. In any case, it led to a major quarrel between them.
They finally became reconciled, whereupon she told him that she wasn’t really interested in adopting a retarded adult, but that she just wanted to know that she was the kind of person that would, if the need arose. In other words, the idea of adopting a retarded adult was not a real idea on her part. It was merely a fantasy, the purpose of which was to have her feel good about herself. What she didn’t tell my client, was that her other purpose was to assign him the role of the mean-spirited villain, who was unwilling to save the world. He just wanted to save some money for their future marriage.
This argument set the discordant tone for their future encounters, she continually claiming, in essence, that she was the angel and he the selfish demon. They broke up, one evening, about six weeks later. She had invited my client over for dinner. He brought with him a book that he had purchased for her as a gift. But she was angry because he had neglected to bring over the scallions that she had requested.
When those who are secularists do anything at all for their partner — such as cooking dinner, in the example we just considered — their initial mood of selfless sacrifice soon gives way to feelings of being a chump or a sap. They are likely to completely forget anything that their spouse has given them. Indeed, they will sometimes engineer such a result. More particularly, they will decline gifts from their spouse, for it would hurt their case, their accusation that, “I do everything for you and you’ve never, ever done anything for me!”
Other Examples of this Devolution
We might add that this sort of dynamic can also occur not just amongst secularists, but by those who are overbearingly scrupulous and sanctimonious in their religious beliefs and who use religion as way to fault their spouse, for not living up to a standard. And so, one might hear something along the lines of, “Why can’t you be like Preacher Jones!” Here a churchgoer uses her pastor as a way of undermining the moral authority of her husband.
Another example might be a husband who denigrates his wife by insidious comparisons of her to his mother. His wife is being condemned for failing to meet up to an impossible standard. It’s an impossible standard, for his mother is no more than a fantasy ideal, on his part.
We have discussed the battle to establish moral supremacy in the context of marriage, but it can occur in other social relationships, including those between family members and in friendships. Many people’s lives consist of an anxious navigation, continually seeking to avoid the Scylla of feeling self-centered and the Charybdis of feeling like a chump. It is far better to follow the advice that Marcus Aurelius offers in his Meditations, to be generous and goodhearted because it is in accordance with one’s nature, rather than expecting reward or fearing that one is being used.
Here, again, inequalities do exist and often seriously need to be addressed and redressed, if a marriage, friendship or other social arrangement is not to end up on the rocks. But our concern here has been with the perception of inequality or with situations in which the slightest inequality is turned into a major issue or someone does a favor for us and never, ever lets us forget it.
As we have suggested, this devolution points the problematical nature of erotic relationships, their failure to provide what they initially promise: to satisfy the “everything dimension,” of selfhood, and with it the hope that one can feel one’s life in harmony with God’s will and the universe, and thus moral and justified.
To summarize, when the romantic quest to be justified in the eyes of one’s beloved fails, which is inevitable, there is a strong temptation to make disappointment, acrimony and accusation one’s fallback position. What true lover would seek the joys of vindication, by daily pointing out that one’s beloved is in the wrong? Alas, there are few true lovers, especially these days, but there are many people who have their own idiosyncratic accounting system. It consists of a tendentious and arbitrary manner of counting one’s own good deeds and excluding those of one’s partner (or one’s friend or family member). As a result, one’s partner’s account is always in the red. Wretched social relations are often the pernicious fruit of one’s own bad conscience, owing to inadequate moral and spiritual development.
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