Marriage IS for You: A Response to Seth Adam Smith

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In his viral blog piece “Marriage Isn’t For You,” Seth Adam Smith proposes that the best kind of love is selfless. When he began to doubt whether he should marry his girlfriend of many years, Smith consulted his father, who offered the following advice: “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. . . . Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.” Taking this advice to heart, Smith re-evaluated his approach to love. He decided, “Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’”

But is it really true that romance is based on selflessness? Let’s first try to imagine how one would choose a romantic partner by asking Smith’s question: “What can I give?” This demands selfless love—that we should love someone, not because of that person’s valuable qualities and virtues, but instead because of what that person needs from us. Consider the following example.

Sally is a college student pursuing her dream job when she meets Paul, a lonely college dropout of the same age. Sally is motivated, hard-working, and goal-oriented. Paul lacks these qualities of character, as well as any kind of long-term motivation. If Sally were to ask “What can I give?” she would find that she has plenty to give to Paul. Her energetic attention and care will help cure his loneliness. With this in mind, Sally decides that she must try to love Paul, because he needs her love.

If selflessness is really the standard of love, then it must be Sally’s duty to love Paul. But what would happen if Paul were to ask Sally, “Why do you love me?” If she were honest, she would have to answer, “Even though you aren’t that smart or the best looking guy around, I love you because you need me to.” Imagine how insulted and degraded anyone would be to hear that kind of response!

Let’s now try to imagine how one would choose a romantic partner by asking the question Smith rejects: “What’s in it for me?” This question demands selfish love—that when we fall in love with someone, it is with personal qualities and virtues that we value. To love is to value. Consider the next part of Sally’s story.

While dating Paul, Sally meets a fellow student, Luke, who shares many of her qualities and interests. He even has an adventurous spirit, an enduring optimism, and wonderful taste in art—and as such, she is attracted to him. Now conflicted in her feelings and presented with the possibility of pursuing a relationship with Luke, Sally asks herself: “What’s in it for me?” She thinks that the value to be gained in pursuing Luke is obvious, and that he would enrich her life. However, she knows it would be selfish to do so. She faces a moral choice: should she choose to keep degrading herself and insulting Paul, or should she empower herself, be honest with Paul, and admit the truth of her feelings for Luke, as he so deserves?

This conception of love has powerful appeal. It holds that when we meet the kind of person who shares our personal interests, complements our lifestyle, and embodies our most deeply held beliefs and values, that person has the capacity to enrich our lives, and so we can truly and properly love that person.

The kind of happiness to be gained in loving a person selfishly has the capacity to be fulfilling, long-lasting, and joyously enriching, because the person we love complements rather than hinders our life’s ambitions. Loved ones are like fellow-travelers on life’s journey towards further horizons. Naturally, not only do we want to get to our destination, but we want to choose a partner with whom we can enjoy that journey. Choosing the right fellow-traveler is integral to our enjoyment of life’s journey, and choosing the wrong partner can make it miserable. Because Sally’s one-sided relationship with Paul involves constant giving and never receiving, she will be threatened by ongoing resentment and regret. Both fellow travelers in a relationship must be moving towards the same horizon, but Paul clearly has no desire to do so, and Sally deserves better than that. A relationship with Luke, however, has the clear potential for an enduring, joyous happiness.

Sally’s choice of Paul over Luke—the selfless choice—is also an immoral choice. If Sally seeks justice, she cannot remain with Paul: he doesn’t deserve her love, and she doesn’t deserve the suffering of his partnership. If she seeks honesty, she cannot remain with Paul: she knows her feelings for Luke, and to remain with Paul would be an insulting sham to them both. If she seeks integrity, she cannot remain with Paul: she knows her values and her dreams, and to ignore Paul’s incompatibility with them is to betray who she is. To choose our fellow-traveler selfishly is to choose one who, consistent with each of these virtues, makes life’s journey truly happy. If today’s premarital youth are to take one thing from Smith’s piece, they should come away with a clear understanding of how not to approach searching for a person to love and marry.

Creative Commons-licensed image from Flickr user garryknight.

Posted by on November 21, 2013. Filed under Culture, Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Nicole

    Thank you for this article! I think most proponents of selfless love are from “Paul’s” point of view from this example. They want to keep their “Sally” and want their attempt to give what they can to make up for their lack in character, values, etc. And they trap “Sally” in the relationship by enforcing that selfless love is moral. If, instead, everyone loved according to their selfish interests, then only fulfilling, joyous, and honest love would be possible.

    • J.A. Windham

      Thank you for reading, Nicole. I hope that you have someone to love, it’s very important.

  • courtney

    You’re such a wonderful writer Josh, and I like this one much more than the original.

    • J.A. Windham

      Thank you, that’s so nice!

  • Dylan

    GET IT G!!!!!!

  • paul or luke

    Paul may be a loser but what if he dick game hella strong and Luke’s is hella weak. What is Sally’s moral choice there??!

  • BoodleBerrysAndCreme

    Adam Smith had it completely backwards. I can’t believe people found his article to be “enlightening” and “cute”.

  • Francesca Ford

    I think you should have tackled one more issue in this because I know exactly how people will respond. People will say, “If you’re selfish, why do things for your partner? Why help them? Why be kind? Why not cheat?” Though it may be obvious to us that these things are not instances of selfishness and instead would demonstrate a lack of integrity on the lover’s part, it is definitely not obvious to most people. Most people can’t even conceive of such a thing which is exactly why the, marriage isn’t for you, article got so many likes.

  • Golden Dollar

    No. Marriage is NOT for me. ha. Good article, though.

  • Reema

    I like your point about value. Probably it’s about a balance between the two i.e. selfishness and selflessness. Because, you cannot deny that the other is an individual with their own sense of things, their own dreams and wishes, their own value systems and their own truths too. So, it always helps perhaps to have an honest chat about each other’s belief (It may be surprising to find that very few people actually give thought to such things- at least then it’s a good start to get them thinking whether in the end you want to be with them or not) and one can easily then gauge the truth in their words from their general behaviour and thinking and the degree of open-mindedness they have so far, to life. (I say ‘so far’, because we evolve. Every moment. No matter what.) Then it will be very evident whether they can see each other to be able to live together and work together to become better- Isn’t that what life is all about? It’s perhaps a perspective of self-improvement; to honestly see with who does one see oneself to be growing better- That is a selfless selfishness in itself, because you are taking into account the other person’s self-improvement too? Sometimes one cannot see and that becomes a journey of discovery in itself. More than anything, it is perhaps about willingness? Like you said, To love is to value. And it’s not possible until one has figured out one’s own value. Thank you for this mind-churn! Namaskaram

  • Cameron

    I agree that love isn’t about giving everything you can to your partner, but I don’t think that’s entirely the point that the other article was making. Two factors that I, as someone who has been discussing the whole “marriage” thing with my boyfriend for a while now, picked up on really quickly were the points about marriage being for your future family… that is, “marriage” (not love) and your future family. I agree love has to be selfish in some ways. Romance is, by nature, about both partners having their desires fulfilled by another person.
    But the way I read the other piece was mostly about the goal of marriage, the institution. You marry someone because they fulfill you romantically and also because you think you can build a Life, capital L, with that person, which is NOT about you. It has to be about other people. Because by joining yourselves spiritually, religiously, economically, institutionally… you’re affecting a lot more than just your life. Marriage entails the other person’s ability to work with you and your kids and your existing family… and vice versa. That part of it is much more compromising and giving by nature than love itself is because it ties multiple people (not just the two getting married) together, hopefully forever.
    Futhermore, because of the high stakes involved with marriage, it’s a lot easier to fall into a panicky “what if he/she is not the one? what if there’s someone better out there?” mindset, which is completely destructive to the relationship, yourself, and any future you might have… which is where this guy seemed to be… the whole “cold feet” thing as you get ready to put your entire future on the line on the presumption that this person and you can make it last the long haul. And I think the realization that marriage might be about picking a compatible partner not only for yourself, but for your future, came into play.
    And so I think these things were very context-specific, very marriage-specific… not so much love or dating… or at least that was my interpretation of it.
    THAT BEING SAID: Good article, I agree with most of your points about love, don’t take this as criticism, but just a different viewpoint/interpretation of the original article! :)

  • http://www.aynrand.org/ Miguel Ancone

    Many a relationship of mine; and Ii’m aware of others, have floundered, fizzled and failed as a result of selflessly repressing desire and by renunciation of personally held values. Sad.