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Marriage: Love or Duty? (part 2)

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Is it OK to seek personal happiness?

Here's an interesting quote:

"Marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married." (Seth Adam Smith)

This sounds beautiful, almost holy. And yet. This is a beautiful idea pushed into an extreme, and extremes are NEVER healthy, no matter how beautiful they sound.

This quote still presumes that in some way you'd be able to experience meaning, fulfillment and some sort of pleasure, even if only in fulfilling your own ideals. But what if the other person is not really a good partner for you? What if, in spite of your efforts and sacrifice, things are getting worse and worse? What if, with time, you and your partner have simply developed in different directions?

There are plenty of people who perceive others' efforts and idealism as a weakness to be exploited, as in business, so in relationships. There are even more people who are simply not a good match to you, whether emotionally, intellectually, or at the level of life values. How long can you tolerate it? What's the point of life without joy? How long can you suppress your emotions, without them bursting out in other ways: through manipulation, passive aggression, depression or disease? Also, what kind of example do you want to give to your children? Would you want them to live in a similar way? Preserving marriage at all costs was a way to ensure survival in the history by making a society more stable, but now our survival is not threatened anymore (or at least not in traditional ways). When survival traditions become oversimplified dogma, they cause hypocrisy, subtle and not-so-subtle violence and unhappy children.

It seems weird that I have to defend human desire for happiness; can we even be human and neglect such a basic part of our nature? Still, throughout the history, happiness was frowned upon in favor of community survival, and still many people prefer extreme, oversimplified beliefs and ideals, rather than complexity and balance.

Love or duty?

So, in a case where happiness in a relationship is not achievable, is the purpose of marriage happiness (love) or duty? I guess everybody chooses for themselves; what I don't like is judging other people according to rigid beliefs, if we didn't experience how it feels to be them. Life is already hard enough; to be a good parent, employer/employee and similar we already need to sacrifice a lot; do we have to judge people who don't want to give up every chance for happiness?

Perhaps the key mistake of our society in this context is raising children and young people on the ideals of love and happiness in marriage, only to push them later to stay married because of the ideal of duty. If people stay married even if unhappy, because of ideals of sacrifice and persistence, can we truly call it love? Duty would be a much more appropriate word.

If, then, the purpose of marriage is duty (which is true for some communities and individuals), then children should be taught from the beginning that marriage is a social contract established for the purpose of duty, not love. Then young people could be aware of what choice are they making and decide if that's what they want, and if yes, when. But if this was common, much less people would decide to get married, which would endanger tradition and tribal instincts which still guide many if not most people. That's why mass-manipulation is socially accepted, even cherished.

Healthy and responsible parents can raise happy and secure children even if they don't live together. We could discuss what has worse consequences for children: divorce or living with parents who are unhappy, perhaps fighting, ignoring or humiliating each other all the time? In both cases, children face pain, that's inevitable (and perhaps even better for them than being overly protected from challenges). If parents can be supportive and guide children through the short-term pain, they will do them a much bigger favor than through pretense and sacrificing their own happiness.


Many relationships become unhealthy because people expect to receive happiness and fulfillment from the other person, rather than taking responsibility for creating it themselves. That leads to mutual dependence - symbiosis - and often to manipulation, too.

A sense of duty in a marriage often stems from the impression that the other person is emotionally or financially dependent of us. While this is correct when it comes to children, it's not healthy for adult people. Still, often children and young people are still subtly indoctrinated that women should be financially dependent of men. This is additionally enforced by society valuing female work and female intelligence less compared to male, and by lack of social support to parents of small children, especially single mothers.

Additionally, people of both genders can feel emotionally dependent of the stability of marriage. This can lead to situations in which marriage is preserved out of duty, not happiness. The next step, which some people and communities do, is to put duty in the first place, while personal feelings are ignored (which is an example of idealism leading to imbalance). These people might truly want to live the ideal of supporting others, sacrificing themselves for their families and valuing stable families over temporary emotions. Sometimes this is the more mature and reasonable choice. But is it always?

I'd say an ideal relationship is the one in which both people take responsibility for their own happiness and respect their partner as an independent individual who doesn't owe them anything (because they both invest into the relationship equally), rather than perceiving the partner as some kind of personal property. Such a person would not feel good about trying to keep around somebody who would be happier somewhere else. "But you promised!..." is an attitude of a victim, not a strong adult. As for children, healthy and responsible adults are willing to take responsibility for their balanced upbringing, regardless whether they live together or not.

Generally, it's important for every relationship that individuals preserve their emotional and material independence, that they communicate clearly, have firm boundaries and have their own interests outside the relationship. Few things kill passion more than the feeling of obligation, i.e., the feeling that the partner depends of you. Few things can increase passion more than an independent partner who changes and grows, and who stays with you because they so choose, rather than because they feel bonded. Can you be such a partner? Do you have enthusiasm and liveliness you create yourself, rather than seeking it in somebody else?

Inherent differences in need for stability and need for change

Some people enjoy strong stimulation, get bored easily and have a need for adrenaline. This can show in their close relationships, too. Sometimes this can be learned in childhood, but it's quite easily possible that such traits are the consequence of human biological diversity. From evolutionary perspective, humanity needs some part of its population to like risk, excitement and change, which is often a contribution to society. For a different kind of contribution, humanity also needs people who enjoy peace, stability, and even routine.

If you are a person who enjoys risk and change, but you believe in the ideal of long-term relationship, you can feel a particularly strong ethical and emotional conflict, especially if you are in a relationship with a person who is emotionally healthy and a quality partner. Your values say one thing, but your whole body pulls in another direction. Can you resist this for years, or even your whole life?

Ideally, you'd recognize your nature on time, while you are not yet committed to a stable relationship. Then you can be more honest to yourself and other people, too. Perhaps you'll come to the conclusion that traditional forms of relationships are not for you. This is all right, if you can clearly, honestly and timely explain this to potential partners. The worth of a relationship is not necessarily in its length. Some people can learn and create most through the depth of long-term relationships, and others through exploring and new experiences. We don't all have to be similar. It's important to come to terms with what you want and to be honest to others from the very beginning. (Also, do not lead them on if they are not into the same kind of relationship as you are. A client told me a few weeks back, "Some men think that if they say, "I don't want commitment", it gives them license to act however they want". If you don't want commitment with someone who does, it's only ethical to back off. End of story.)

Consider also if you can bring change into your life in other ways instead of changing partners. Perhaps through entrepreneurship, traveling, active hobbies and other forms of new activities? If you find a partner who is also open to change and exploration, the relationship doesn't have to become routine. It's particularly important that a partner is emotionally independent - a needy partner who wants you to make them feel safe is not likely to remain stimulating and challenging. When you look for a partner, keep this in mind, as well as the need for honesty.


I don't believe in forcing people and relationships into rigid boxes. I believe in diversity, as long as it's honest, well-meaning and considerate. When you have to make a difficult decision, it's primarily important to be honest to both yourself and others, and to learn to distinguish healthy emotional urges from unhealthy and immature ones. Recognize also that few decisions are entirely without some unwanted consequences, so you need to be ready to deal with them.

Just because we might be in committed relationships, our hormones and childish emotional patterns won't go to sleep. Worse, once a relationship feels safe and reliable, our hormones can make us seek new forms of excitement, while childish parts of our subconscious minds can easily wake up if a new person comes around who reminds us of our unfulfilled needs from childhood. Then intense emotions can easily bring us to idealize the new person and believe them a better match than the current partner, even if the partner is emotionally more mature and invests more effort into the relationship.

Consider carefully to what extent your emotions seem to be the result of hormones and childish hopes, and how well do you realistically know your new crush. Do you take your current partner for granted and did you neglect your own efforts? It's likely that you will repeat that in your next relationship, and next, which might end up in a string of disappointments. On the other hand, it is possible that you have matured, and the new person might realistically be a better match to your essential values and healthy criteria. But be honest to yourself and listen to any warning signal you might feel.

If your committed partnership is in crisis, first consider if you put enough effort in it, or do you expect to be comfortable without work? Do you give love to your partner in the ways they want to receive it, or do you insist on doing it only in the ways you like? Is your communication honest and does it reach deeper than surface, or do you avoid opening up so that you'd appear stronger and in the right?

If frustration and disappointments in a relationship are superficial and short-term, while mutual respect and efforts are there, then it's definitely a good idea to stay in the relationship and focus on improving it further. But if your whole body keeps telling you that you betray your values by staying in a relationship, then pay attention. There is time to invest into a relationship, and there is time to acknowledge your boundaries.

Part 1

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung

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