Wisdom for a Happy Marriage – a Parody or a Perspective?

By Ashwini Mokashi ©

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A happy marriage in modern times may be an oxymoron, or the institution of marriage may be on the verge of extinction looking at the divorce rates in the US. One prominent reason I see, is that a marriage tries to join two people or two families and expects them to grow and develop in that joint fashion, while keeping up with the societal norms of individuality, individual happiness, individual freedom, etc. So, if thinking about individual fulfilment is the goal, then a joint or united happiness is a contradiction in terms. If the united happiness for the two people joined in marriage is the goal, then individual freedom and individual growth and happiness constitutes a logical fallacy, also known as reductio ad absurdum. And yet, we don’t see it as a fallacy, but as something glorious to look forward to. The concept of marriage exists between not just heterosexual couples, but also homosexual couples. People spend a ton of their savings on this joyous occasion of wedding, knowing that it may lead nowhere. So, what is the compelling argument for getting married and for staying married?

One can say that the getting married part is based on attraction, falling in love, a desire to be with one’s beloved, fulfilment of a dream, a chance to shower one’s affection on someone who smiles and doesn’t frown, or just to get rid of loneliness in one’s life. Agreed. Two people are joined in love and matrimony. Now comes the part of staying together or taking decisions together and that starts to become complicated. Things start withering away even before the actual wedding, as a lot of decisions need to be made about how to get married, whom to invite, how much to spend. None of this is pleasant. Someone must give and that someone is not happy. Then there is the fiasco about how ‘we need to talk’ and how much people should be expected to ‘give’ for the sake of marriage and how much should they expect to receive for being ‘in the marriage’.

Things only go downhill from here. The future of marriage on the wedding day and beyond does not look like a happy proposition. But the whole point of being married was to seek happiness, (not to mention security, children, fulfillment of various needs with the help of one’s partner). So, where did things go wrong? Being a student of ancient wisdom, I decided to consult the wisdom experts I had studied – Stoic Seneca and the Gita – to see if I could get their help in improving the expectations in the marriage, to save this dying institution – which couldn’t have possibly survived for centuries, to rescue it from the clutches of evolutionary biologists – who believe every man will be eyeing a younger woman for replicating his gene-pool, to help all women who believe that there is a better man out there but not the one they are married to. Now to be honest, the teachings of Stoicism or that of the Gita are hardly a model of conjugal bliss, as we understand it today. Having said that, here is how I interpreted their infallible wisdom in my own fallible way:

The Gita has a five-point plan for seeking happiness as follows:

  1. Sva-dharma or doing one’s own duty: This involves making sure that the household chores are done. For example, earning money, looking after kids or elders, whatever one’s ‘married-duties’ maybe. One is expected to not only fulfil but also excel in fulfilling one’s duties.
  2. Shraddha or faith: It is important to have undying faith that the marriage will survive – no matter how grim the scenario is. Ignorance about problems can be blissful sometimes.
  3. Samatvam or equanimity towards pleasure and pain: If the spouse is being very romantic, enjoy it, but remember it is not going to last. If the spouse is being miserable, ignore the other person – as that is also not going to last. Keeping the sense of humor alive at such moments goes a long way.
  4. Anasakti or non-attachment: One decides to get married for having feelings for one’s spouse, but the marriage itself is an exercise in non-attachment. Getting too involved gives rise to dependence, lack of trust, giving them too much importance, degrading oneself in our own eyes, jealousy and an invitation to misery. By practicing non-attachment, one is safeguarding one’s sense of dignity, one’s interests, keeping options open – personal or professional, and enjoying the good moments.
  5. Shanti or tranquility – One enjoys moments of peace, when one feels safe in the relationship. If the marriage succeeds, it is great. If not, one needs to practice using wisdom more often and emotional reactions – less so.  Not to mention, it was good to still have the job, life, friends, interests, hobbies!

Now let us turn to Seneca, a Stoic philosopher. Stoics don’t think much about falling in love, but they do support marriage and Seneca himself enjoyed a faithful and good marriage. Let us see his advice for being wise and happy, and how it can be applied in the arena of marriage:

  1. Kathekonta or appropriate actions: This requires always saying the right thing and no more. It is ok to say, the dinner was delicious. It is not ok to add, but I would have preferred it earlier or later, colder or hotter. Any such comments are forbidden, since they are not appropriate.
  2. Oikeiosis or what belongs to oneself: This means that one needs to belong to one’s newly formed family, to one’s community – the friends that both share together, and to a wider society, including one’s own separate sphere.
  3. Arete or virtue: Be good to one’s spouse. Remember why we chose them over the others, think about their good qualities and not those, one dislikes. Instead of criticizing, make a statement of what one feels grateful for.
  4. Apatheia or detachment: This is the most difficult step, which requires one to stay detached, so that one doesn’t take any criticism personally. Likewise, it is also necessary to remember that the fun moments have a fleeting nature, so hold on to those memories.
  5. Laws of nature: Understanding this requires us to understand that men will be tempted by younger and prettier women – just goes with being a man. Likewise, women will be tempted with offers of love, affection and pampering – that is what they need. So long as one is aware of the other person’s needs and there is a way to fulfil those needs, it is possible to protect one’s marriage through these traps.
  6. Eudaimonia or Happiness: Marriage calls for joint happiness. If one accepts that joint happiness requires sacrificing some amount of individual happiness, then a ‘happy marriage’ is a possible imaginable entity. If joint happiness is not a possible goal, then ‘a happy marriage’ is a mere oxymoron. For example, a career success for one person would imply the success for both, a personal milestone of weight-loss would still mean success for both. Likewise, a job-loss would be a problem for both, investments and/or kids not doing well would be a failure for both. While there is much to gain from the joint activity, there is also much to lose in a narrow individual sense in staying together.

Hence bringing wisdom in a marriage has the capacity to make it happy, but not bringing wisdom in a marriage seems like a continuous struggle and taking chances of surviving as a couple or as a family, six of one, half a dozen of the other. Did I say it was fun?

Published by ashwinimokashi

Ashwini Mokashi's book 'Sapiens and Sthitaprajna' is on Comparative Philosophy on the concept of the wise person in Stoic Seneca and the Gita. The book talks about how wisdom leads to happiness. This book is now also recognized by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association from New York. Her next book, a work in progress, is an account of a meditational community in India. Her broad interest is in synthesizing wisdom from various ancient traditions in the context of modern challenges.

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