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.