Chapter 11 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Explain at least three difference senses of what it means for something to be important in or for a relationship.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to learn some skills for healthy romantic relationships.
The question may arise as to whether certain (types of) satisfactions may be more important than others. For example, is it more important to have a good sexual relationship or to have a good intellectual relationship?
This question has three different senses. It asks (sense 1), are there some (kinds of) satisfactions that are (ethically) better than others for the people involved, or (sense 2) are there some (kinds of) satisfactions that make a relationship more enjoyable or happier than other (kinds of) satisfactions. It also asks (sense 3) whether there are some (kinds of) satisfactions that make the relationship more likely to continue in the same manner it is now, fade and perhaps be less loving, or grow better and perhaps be more loving; whether there are some that might make it more likely to fail or grow stronger, more likely to end or endure.
I will leave the answer to sense 3 for sociologists to determine, for they, if anyone, would be the ones to discover in some sort of scientific fact-finding manner what sorts of joys (and/or dissatisfactions) in what sorts of relationships between what sorts of people correlate with what sort of changes that take place in those relationships. That is, if there are any such correlations. It is primarily (but not totally) an empirical matter to determine which personal traits and relationship characteristics, if any, correlate with long time satisfaction in relationships.
With regard to sense 1, I will point out in the chapter on ethics what some of the things are which I think are necessary or important for the good life. Anything in a relationship that helps people attain these things will then be what I consider more important in this sense.
In this chapter, I wish to discuss sense 2, the question of which joys, if any, might be more enjoyable or more essential for happiness than others.
First, some cases:
When you are driving alone at night on a superhighway, it can be a very lonely experience, with cars zooming by you or you zooming by other cars without you or their occupants acknowledging each other. Some people do not even bother to put on turn signals when they change lanes to pass you and then cut back in. But quite often, after a time of this, someone you may not even be able to see very well, if at all, might drive along with you, signal appropriately, slow down or speed up just enough to be sure you and they can continue driving together. Of course, with CB radios there may be further communication, but I am talking of even the simplest case without such verbal contact. Such a meeting on a long drive can be a very heartwarming thing, and when one of you finally exits the highway, you might wave or flash lights at each other to say goodbye, never to knowingly cross paths again. On a short drive or on a busy freeway with most drivers driving courteously and well, one would probably not even notice some other particular driver that drove courteously even in a prolonged proximity.
When you are hungry, you feel like eating, and certain foods may be quite satisfying. When you are not hungry, neither food nor the thought of food may be very satisfying. When you are nauseated, it may be downright unpleasant.
Sex or the thought of sex may be very pleasant at some times and not pleasant at all at other times. Sex and food are not too different in this regard; when you are fully satisfied by either, the thought of more of it is not always pleasurable. Likewise, when you are distinctly not in the mood or the right condition, the idea of either might be quite unpleasant. Once at the beginning of one of those 48 hour stomach flu bouts, I just barely was able to drive back 200 miles from a weekend with my parents to my college apartment that I shared with three other fellows. I was suffering from all sorts of chills and nausea. I felt like I wanted to throw up but I seemed unable to, and I was not about to force it. I knew I needed some aspirin, but the thought of trying to swallow and retain aspirin was itself sickening. I wanted to sleep but was too chilled and too sick to my stomach. My roommates were having a party that night, which luckily I was able to completely ignore. I went to bed, in heavy pajamas and a robe, and under twelve thousand blankets. Still I lay there freezing and shivering. One of my roommates came in to see how I was. After I told him, he jokingly (I hope) said, “What you need in there is a nice, warm girl. Let me just go out to the party and see if I can find you one; then I’ll just bring her back to snuggle up in there with you.” Well, the very thought of such a thing made me so sick that I was able to lose my supper and my nausea in the bathroom simultaneously and immediately. I then took my two aspirins, finally started to warm up, went to sleep, alone, and felt not too terrible the next day. At least I no longer felt both about to die and afraid I might not. Sex and sickness don’t always mix. (A get well card I saw once said, “People sick in the hospital normally don’t keep trying to seduce their nurses — so either you are not sick or you are not normal.”)
In the Iliad of Homer, the protagonist Achilles quite clearly has the choice to fight in battle, be a hero, lead his troops to victory, and die in the process, or to quit the battlefield and go back to his homeland and be like a tender of sheep or woman at home while the “real” men of Greece fight, earn glory, and, in some cases, die at Troy. He makes the agonizing choice to fight though it will mean his death. Yet in the Odyssey when Odysseus talks to Achilles in the underworld, Achilles hates it there so much that he says he would rather be a manservant to the lowliest of men than to remain where he is.
Yet one gets the feeling that Achilles, if granted that option, would after a while no more wish to remain such a manservant than he had wished to come home and tend sheep in obscurity. The point of all this is the often forgotten, though hardly difficult, notion that under different conditions and circumstances, what people want, or find important (in sense 2) to make them happy or satisfied often varies with different circumstances, and/or with different moods.
Someone turning on their turn signal lights to signal a lane change may be hardly noticed most of the time; yet after long stretches on a lonely dark drive when no one else has courteously signaled, someone’s doing so may be very gratifying. Sex or food when you are in the mood might be super, otherwise sickening or simply not palatable.
In relationships, it is often the same way. What might be satisfying, desired, important, or very pleasant at one time or at one period in your life, may not be at another. To a teenager (or any insecure person) who feels unloved and inadequate, someone who simply likes them and perhaps likes to go out or make out with them might seem the most satisfying and important of people. But at some later stage in one’s life, where other problems or cares arise, that may not be very satisfying or important behavior at all. After a bad day at the office that makes you hostile and aggressive, an evening of knocking hell out of a tennis ball may be the perfect thing, whereas on another night, going out to a quiet restaurant with nice quiet conversation may be the perfect evening for a quietly gratifying day.
Where I once worked as a photographer, one of the people in the business office became passionately interested all of a sudden in doing photography. He bought a camera and electronic flash and some various lenses, after reading all the photography magazines he could get hold of. He was shooting all kinds of color and black and white film to see what he liked best, constantly posing his wife and kids and in-laws, analyzing the results, reading more magazines, talking to me about his results, problems, etc. In short, he found photography very interesting, satisfying, and important to him. For birthday and holiday presents his wife and family started giving him photographic equipment — lenses and other various accessories; and he was more than delighted with each one. Yet two months earlier, her giving him something like a tripod would have been a joke. He had no interest in photography whatsoever then. Photography, once not important to him, had suddenly become very important to him.
Just the other day I chided a friend (who is soon going to be divorced for the second time) for swearing that she is sure she will never ever want to marry again. I laughed at her and told her that she was old enough and wise enough to know that was probably an idle vow and that since she was an intelligent, beautiful, and caring person, undoubtedly she would someday in the not too distant future fall in love again and, being “certain” she was not making the same kind of mistakes she had in the past, she would want to be married, after she has been single long enough to learn to hate it as much as she now hates a marriage that has become untenable.
Some people go through their whole lives without their interests changing much; and what might be important and satisfying to them at age 16, like getting a new car, might also be their biggest thrill at age 56. Others, however, do change. And what might be satisfying or important at sixteen might seem unimportant or trivial at fifty. While my friend at the office is suddenly going berserk about photography, another acquaintance I know gave it up shortly after the birth of their second child, some twenty years ago. He had done lots of photography before getting married, then also took lots of pictures of his first child when she was very little.
But finally he simply tired of it and moved into other areas of interest. One of the more hotly disputed disagreements I had with my college German teacher (for whom I had the most passionate crush) concerned a point she made relating to a play we had just finished studying. She claimed that it was more important to love than to be loved. I saw that it was important to love, but since I had spent all of high school in love with a girl to whom I was only a friend and since I found my freshman year at college a very lonely experience, loving someone else did not seem half as important as being loved. Unrequited love was not something I highly recommended to anyone. Just one year later I was disputing something with a roommate when I found myself concluding in the vehement argument that it was more important to love than to be loved. Suddenly I stopped talking, realizing I was now arguing against my own position of a year earlier and taking my former teacher’s side (my teacher had concluded our discussion by teasing that if I were not so young I would see her point; and I had not been smart enough to tease back that if she were not so old she would see mine; and now here I was a year older and she was right. Damn!). Had it not been 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday at the time, I think would have telephoned my former teacher at home to tell her she had been right after all.
However, by the next morning, I came to my senses before seeing her and realized that we had both been right or half-right. At some times and for some people, it is more important to love, and at other times it is more important to be loved. For example, when you are demonstrably loved by someone whose affection you cannot honestly return and/or when you have gone a long time feeling no stirrings of passion and are starting to wonder if you are not jaded or partly dead, it might be more important to love than to be loved. When you are easily caring or loving toward others but feeling lonely or unloved in return, as I had been through high school or my freshman year at college, the opposite might be true. Sometimes both are equally important, finding someone to love and to be loved by. My teacher thanked me for my insight and for not sharing it with her at 1:30 by phone that morning. She also seemed pleased that a class discussion had meant enough to me for me to remember it.
In The Philanderer, Shaw wrote “the fickleness of the women I love is only equaled by the infernal constancy of the women who love me” (Shaw, 1906).” If one loves or finds oneself attracted to others, but finds that feeling (love, attraction, or infatuation) unreturned, then being loved may be far more important than loving. But as in the kind of case mentioned in Harrison’s “Is Romance Dead?” and in my friend’s seeking the magic in a relationship, it sometimes happens that one needs to be able to find passion for another more than one needs to have another’s passion directed toward oneself. Francoise Duc La Rochefoucald’s maxim might appropriately describe such a time: “The pleasure of love is in loving. We are happier in the passion we feel than in what we excite” (cited in Roberts, 1940, p. 471). Then there is Byron’s: “He who loves, raves…but the cure is bitterer still” (cited in Roberts, 1940, p.466). Or to repeat, Bailey: I cannot love as I have loved, And yet I know not why; It is the one great woe of life, To feel all feeling die.
Certainly, the stirring of feelings toward another, feelings long thought dead and missed, can be a wonderful and important experience, whether love then is returned or not. I once wrote a woman to whom I was attracted for no good reason at all, and told her of my crush on her, making certain to say I neither expected nor really wanted it to come to anything but that I simply wanted her to know how exciting I found her and that it was a nice feeling for me to experience, particularly since “there were so few worthy objects of infatuation” around. I hope she took that in the right way and was pleased by it. I think it is nice to let someone know you feel affection for them if you can do it without making them feel you are making demands on them and if you do not embarrass them. Also, verbally expressing an infatuation can help prevent it from becoming an obsession. And though obsessions can themselves be bittersweet when feelings have long been missing and missed, generally obsessions are not fun.
Unrequited love or even unrequited desire may be too frustrating to bear at times; but being loved by those who excite no passion in you may be a bore or an embarrassment. And so each might find its complement equally important. (Or equally unimportant… when other concerns are of more immediate interest and consequence than loving or being loved.)
In the ethics chapter, I will mention some things that I think are important (ethical) values to have and/or to pursue. But in the areas of interest or joy or satisfaction, there are many things that are perhaps of equal ethical value, though of different satisfaction or importance at different times or to different people. As long as one leads a morally good life, it makes little difference which particular good (as opposed to destructive or evil) interests one finds fun or satisfying. Sharpening one’s physical skills at tennis or one’s creative skills at photography may be equally good if both are fun recreation for different people. So may be just sitting around relaxing, or any of hundreds of other harmless things people do for fun.
Of any activities which are equally good, that which is most important (sense 2) or most satisfying is what is most important (sense 2) to some particular individual at that time and under those circumstances. It is pointless to ask what activities are, or should be, most important (sense 2) or most satisfying in general.
Hence, one may play the violin as a child, hate it, give it up, then later take it up again and find it terribly satisfying. One may find sexual satisfaction an important value at one time in one’s life and not at another. One person may like sports better than intellectual activity; another, just the reverse. A third may like or dislike both equally. Even in sports, a person may find fencing more of a passion than swimming, hockey more exciting to watch than football, or running more fun to do than playing golf. Even more specifically, a golfer may love tournament golf and hate social golf. An intellect may love history but be bored by chemistry or psychology. Even in a given field, such as math, someone may like one specialty far more than another. In medicine, a doctor may love endocrinology and hate pediatrics. I like certain kinds of philosophy but not others. I am much more interested in certain areas of ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion than I am in higher theoretical kinds of symbolic logic; with an interest somewhere in between for metaphysics, theories of knowledge, and philosophy of language. And, even in the subjects I have interest in, I have almost no interest in certain kinds of works by Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, and others that other philosophers might appreciate a great deal.
Some general interests may outlive specific interests, though not always. For example, someone’s interest in sports in general may outlive their interest in playing basketball or even in spectating in basketball. Many men who grew up in basketball of a different era have lost interest in the kind of hectic, sometimes out of control, much faster paced basketball of today. Many of them have turned to other sports to watch or to play for enjoyment, still finding an excitement in seeing individuals or teams playing against each other in a contest of athletic skill where winning and losing and championships are important. Sometimes it works the other way around; a person with an interest in sports in general may grow weary of watching so many contests that have become to him a predictably tiresome, repetitive, indistinguishable blur and simply focus his athletic interests on playing tennis or golf for fun and watch matches and tournaments only in order to learn from them, not because he gets excited about competition.
Especially Significant or Meaningful Satisfactions
Now I think that even among areas that are personally important at a given time there are some areas for at least some people that are of very special importance or significance to them. These are what I refer to as particularly psychologically important or meaningful areas. These are areas of psychological importance as opposed to ethical importance because remember I am speaking here, as in this entire chapter, of areas of interest, in terms of their personal satisfaction, not in terms of their overall ethical value, a subject that I will address later. I am assuming these are areas that are not ethically wrong for a person to enjoy but are worthwhile or simply ethically neutral areas in which to seek satisfaction. I am not talking about the pursuit of activities which are cruel or destructive or even self-limiting or self-victimizing, but of things which there is no reason for a given person not to find enjoyable. They do not necessarily have to be things which are of any great value outside of the interest and enjoyment they provide the person in question; they simply must not be things which are ethically wrong (for whatever reason) for her or him to pursue or enjoy.
It is easiest for me to speak here of my own most important or most meaningful areas. I have always been a fairly inquisitive person about how things work and about how people think and why they do the things they do. I like to understand people and to understand at least the basic principles, if not always the particular details, of physics and engineering. My interest in the thinking processes of people tends to be the greater of these, and often even my interest in scientific matters is not so much a question of how things work as it is why scientists think that is how things work — the theoretical basis for believing the scientific principles. I tend to get very excited about reasonable insights into people’s minds concerning the reasons for their behavior, their ideas and views about the universe, and about things like ethics. And I tend to appreciate and often like people who discuss and share such insights, particularly if they do so especially ingeniously, cleverly, or knowledgeably, whether they are drawing on knowledge from psychology, literature, art, history, personal reflection, philosophy, or whatever. I even prefer doctors and dentists who will discuss the reasons for their diagnosis and treatment and who have insight into your feelings and concerns rather than those who only silently treat your body without much if any explanation about what they are doing and why. One series of interesting, though perhaps rather conjectural, lectures I once attended had to do with historical medical detective work, trying to relate certain aspects of behavior and thought patterns of historically important figures to medical conditions they may have had, as diagnosed from unintentional clues about them in biographies, in their own writings, and in chronicles and histories about their era.
I even like sports better when coaches or announcers display expertise about, and put emphasis on, strategy and tactics more than on raw athletic talent such as speed, strength, agility, coordination, peripheral vision, and reflexes.
I like photography and art, but I like particularly those portraits or portrayals of people that give insight into their character and do not just show their features. I often get the chance to photograph beautiful women, but almost without exception, I enjoy that more (or only at all) when the woman I am photographing is intelligent or perceptive and intellectually interesting. Though photography most obviously is of a person’s looks, still somehow one’s character and one’s mind, come through in some important way, if not in the photograph, at least in the photography session. And I have invariably found that photographing someone who is externally beautiful but immature, naive, or vacant is not nearly as exiting or as much fun as photographing someone even less objectively or obviously physically attractive who is interesting, witty, or perceptive. And I think the latter kind of person (almost) always comes out even more attractive looking in my photographs as well.
Even regarding sex, I personally find silent sex, regardless of how physically pleasurable it might be, a fairly empty experience compared to sex, even less physically pleasurable sex, that also includes witty, teasing, playful, and/or intense serious conversation that give insights into each others’ minds and ideas. Touching each other is nice; but touching each other and talking with each other can be sublime.
I live a great deal in my head and I find that I can often get through many otherwise boring or painful experiences by simply concentrating on interesting things in a way that blocks out unwanted sensations. (I practice at the dentist’s, for example, since I am more afraid of Novocain and a dental error I cannot detect until after his office closes than of pain while he works. Unfortunately, this does not work as well at cocktail parties as it does at places where your thinking and your reveries can be uninterrupted.)
As I have grown older, finding people with perceptive insights and interesting intellectual knowledge they can explain in reasonable ways, has become increasingly important to me, particularly when I worked at jobs or was thrown unavoidably into company that seemed to frustrate or prevent any kind of thinking.
President Kennedy admired the scope and genius of Thomas Jefferson’s intellect and once told an invited party of illustrious Nobel laureates that theirs was the greatest collection and concentration of intellect ever assembled in the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
There have been many days after being around all the wrong kinds of people at work that many people have felt their level of intellectual companionship greatly increased when they got home from their jobs and closed the door to be alone or to be just with their spouse or even their younger children. I have often felt that way, and at those times in particular, finding intelligent companionship was far more important than finding any other kind of companionship.
I have not always felt this way, and I do not know how much longer I will feel this way, but for a very long time now I have primarily sought, and still primarily seek, companions with intelligent insights into the kinds of areas I find interesting, along with, or regardless of, any other satisfying characteristics they might have. These, to me, are the most enjoyable and exciting people to be with. And even previously when I was single, unattached, and lonely, if I became romantically or passionately attracted to someone who was not like this, I tended to shy away from any serious involvement with them since I knew it would not be a particularly enduringly enjoyable or fulfilling relationship for me.
Hence, with me, through most of my adult life, though sex and affection have always or often been important, and though I enjoy art, music, and a number of sports, the most meaningful and psychologically important area of life, and the area in which I have most sought and enjoyed companionship, is the area of intellectual kinship. Although I never needed for all my relationships to include this aspect (for example, I had some buddies I only played tennis with, but we had a great time and a lot of laughs on the tennis court and never tried to get together for anything else), if this area turned out to be missing in romantic relationships or in those other relationships that I wished to be more than just temporary or compartmentalized (like the tennis relationship), they were not as satisfying, full, or complete a relationship as I would like to have had them be. And although I became attracted to women who were not intellectual in this way, and have not always been attracted to women who were, it seems to be a quality that makes attraction more likely to develop in me for someone generally, and certainly one that makes romance and friendship more likely to be satisfying to me, gratifying to me, enduring, and successful. Regardless of what other important qualities or traits other people and relationships might have that I find satisfying, this one is (and has most enduringly been) the most important and the most necessary for my general happiness with the people and relationships.
That is why I have included in my characterization of love, pertaining to satisfactions, that if (and as long as) A has particularly personally important areas, whatever they might be, B must satisfy them to some extent and at least not disappoint, dissatisfy, or frustrate A in them. Whatever other areas, even whatever important areas, there may in which B makes A happy, if B does not satisfy A in these most important areas or, worse, if B frustrates or disappoints A in those areas, there is something crucial missing in the relationship for A, something that makes it less of a love relationship than it could be, and perhaps not fully a love relationship at all.
Sometimes something like good sex might be more important when you do not have it then when it is readily available. Some things are more psychologically important in a state of deprivation than in a state of fulfillment or easy access. Being deprived of something such as sex or food may be far more dissatisfying than having it is satisfying when it is easily available. Starving is much more of an ill or dissatisfaction than eating a normal meal or grabbing a sandwich, just because it is lunch time, is a good or satisfaction. One takes breathing for granted and does not consider it a particular satisfaction at all, but not being able to breathe fresh air is particularly dissatisfying and can make the first few gasps of fresh air very satisfying indeed after an almost asphyxiating experience.
And not just sex, but sex of a certain sort, may be more important at some times than at others. Sometimes, or to some people, romantic, loving sex is important. At other times, teasing or playful sex. Contrived sex, spontaneous sex, fast sex, or slow sex, or just sex itself of any sort may be more important at any time of deprivation of (that kind of) sex than when it is abundantly available. Or a gentle touch, nice personality, or someone whom you like liking your children and being kind to them, may assume monumental importance when not easily found or not readily available. Divorced women with children often particularly appreciate a date who likes their children, especially after going out with men who do not. People having a bad time or a bad relationship may overreact to and over-appreciate a person who supplies the needed missing aspects; though under normal circumstances such traits might not be quite so satisfying, stimulating, attracting, or even noticeable.
It is difficult to tell what may become so monumentally important under deprivation conditions. A simple hello may provoke the strongest affection or satisfaction in a lonely, depressed, or shy person. Finding an intelligent mind belonging to a person who is stimulated by ideas you have that so many others have ignored or belittled may be tremendously exhilarating. The deprivation of a normally unimportant satisfaction may trigger an obsession for its satisfaction that makes it difficult, or even wrong, to deny. As a desire (one which is not ethically bad or immoral) grows, it demands fewer reasons other than itself for seeking its fulfillment, and it demands greater negative reasons for its denial; the more you want something which is not somehow wrong to have, the fewer other reasons you need to pursue it.
Hence, it is extremely important to be aware of how changing environment affects one’s own, and others’, scales of importance of desires. Anyone may all too readily seek or accept (though often only temporarily) what would under normal circumstances be unimportant or unacceptable. For example, one often sees a divorced person marry a person only because that person is nice to them whereas their former spouse was not (perceived to be) nice to them. In such a case, just being nice may not be enough at a slightly later time when it turns out there are other needs or desires that are not being met. Or a person might fall in love during a lonely and terrifying “final exam” week at college, only to find out when the loneliness and terror of such a time passes, that they have “fallen in love” with someone they would never have under normal circumstances, and whom they cannot love now. Loneliness or fear can make one seek comfort with someone whom one would not find so appealing if one were happier or more secure. It might, in some cases, be the emotional equivalent of seeing someone at closing time in a bar through ‘beer goggles’ when they seem much more appealing than they will in the morning when one is sober; only instead of seeing them through beer goggles, one is seeing them through ‘fear goggles’ because under those conditions someone who seems comforting will be important.
(This is one reason why I think it important for children to learn that there are many people they can like who can like them and treat them nicely. This is why it is important for adolescents and adults to realize, as some people crudely and cruelly put it, “there are many fish in the sea” — that is, there are many, many people whom they can like and who will like them, so that they need not fear, or become dejected by, rejection from some, that they need not view such rejection as an objective sign of their unworthiness to everyone, that they need not become terribly infatuated with the first person, or every person, who is nice to them or shows an interest in them. There is certainly nothing wrong with young love or infatuations of this sort, but it would probably be less painful in the long run to realize that if the relationship is based mainly or solely on this sort of liking someone simply because they like you, accept you, show an interest in, you, or are nice to you, it may be ill-fated because of the lack of other satisfactions or goods; and/or it may be ill-fated because the infatuation may cease when the person finds out many others may also show the same interest and consideration.)
What is important then, in terms of satisfaction, is what is important to a particular person at a particular time under particular circumstances. No satisfactions of equal ethical value can be or should be considered to be any more important than any other without reference to person, time, and circumstance.
I used to think some areas were more important for (continued) happiness than others — that, for instance, people who mostly enjoyed talking to each other were somehow better off or somehow potentially better off in terms of their relationship’s enduring happily than say people who just mostly enjoyed having silent sex with each other. But I am no longer certain about that. I no longer believe that being able to discuss problems will always help you solve them in a relationship; it also takes goodwill and empathy or sympathy for the other person, and it takes both partners wanting to work out problems and having some insight and understanding how to do that. If the two of you have no need nor desire to talk much with each other, then enjoying dancing, sex, or bowling frequently might be every bit as satisfying as having discussions is to more cerebrally inclined people. And I am not certain that people who have good sex but other sorts of problems they cannot solve are any worse off than people who have sexual or emotional problems they cannot solve no matter how much they are able to discuss things.
A relationship with strong sexual gratification and little else may be doomed to failure in terms of being completely satisfying; but then so may one involving little but intellectual gratification. One can have few new ideas every day, certainly too few to be able to provide terribly much conversation for very long with a constant companion. And I am not sure which relationship in general, if either, would be likely to grow old and stale faster. Perhaps for longevity of a relationship, it is important to have a number of areas you enjoy with each other. Perhaps sociologists can determine that.
It is, of course, better not to have problems, or to have the abilities to solve as many problems as can arise; but given normal human limitations, difficult problems will arise in relationships. I would be interested to know whether some are inherently more destructive than others. Of course, there have been statistics available on such supposed causes of divorce as drinking, financial disagreements or problems, religious differences, etc. but these problems may only be symptomatic ones or ones aggravated or caused by other more basic defects in relationships, such as an inability to express feelings or even know one’s own feelings or inability to understand a partner’s problems or feelings. Are there some abilities or inabilities that are more important for (prolonging) happiness in relationships? I am not as certain as I used to be. It would be nice if social scientists could provide clues about what kinds of gratifications are more likely to remain gratifying for what kinds of people and relationships, if any. And hopefully, these clues would be accompanied by insights into their causal, and not just their statistically probable, nature.
In terms of satisfaction alone, not total value of the relationship, the somewhat perhaps simplistic relationship between Archie and Edith Bunker is perhaps a very satisfying relationship for them, though it would not be for people such as Gloria Steinem or Alan Alda.
But if Archie and Edith are happy with each other, and if they are doing the best they can, given where they are in life, what more, if anything, can be reasonably asked or wanted in their relationship?
Is the Most Enjoyable Relationship The Best Relationship?
The distinction between satisfaction on the one hand and other kinds of ethical goodness or value on the other prompts a question that is like the question to be raised in the ethics chapter — whether happiness (or call it satisfaction or contentment) is the single most important, or ultimately only, goal of people’s lives. I will try to show there that it is not, that the person with the happiest existence is not therefore the person leading the best life. But here let me just say that the people with the most satisfactory or satisfying relationships are not, therefore, the persons with the best relationships necessarily. For example, the soppy-dependent housewife who may be happy, but who has given up even unknowingly any opportunity for personal growth and development and/or accomplishment at the expense of that happiness.
But again, just in regard to the area of satisfaction alone, certainly physical beauty and sexual gratification can, and in many cases do, fade; but so can intellectual satisfactions as well as emotional ones. I am not certain that there is any one or any set of satisfactions that will necessarily guaranty to happily or satisfactorily sustain a relationship such as marriage through a long period of time. It might also vary for different people. It might be the ability not to change (if that is an ability) or, more likely I would think, the ability to adapt to each others’ changes in a successful way that does not make either party unhappy. And if each person changes in a way that makes them even more satisfying to the other, then all the better for the relationship. This is one way in which love or a loving relationship can grow more loving. It is all too rare perhaps, but it does happen.
Sometimes in a relationship, a woman, say, if she was not this way before, may start to grow independent in many of her actions from her husband. She may begin to work outside the home, becoming successful; may learn to play new sports such as tennis or golf, etc. In short, she may not depend on him for her achievements or for her emotional needs in the way she did before. Now this may cause a boon to their marriage if he likes her all the more as a person this way and if she is a better person to him as well as to herself because of it. Or, as in too many cases, it can wreak havoc in the marriage because either the husband becomes insecure or jealous and cannot handle it or because the woman feels she has outgrown her husband with her new life and finds she is not interested in him anymore. Or she may simply become too busy to be able to meet some of his legitimate needs or desires. Or he may have too many unreasonable and selfish needs to be able to cope with her new independence.
I used to think non-contemplative or ignorant people were less likely to have happiness or happy relationships — that somewhere in their lives something bad would happen they could not cope with and that they had not prepared for. But I don’t any longer think life always works that way. Some people are just dumb lucky. T hey often don’t even notice things that would bother other people, or they just incorrectly accept them as inevitable and go on about their business. They may not have the best lives but they may have the happier or more satisfying lives or relationships. For some, ignorance is bliss, though just not best.
In some cases where stability and sameness are due to unwavering traditions, no matter how unreasonable or bad the traditions, long term happiness is more easily achieved because what happens is expected and what is expected and (thought to be desirable and therefore) desired happens. In contrast, change, no matter how much for the better it might be, may cause difficult adjustment and may be dissatisfying to some who are less flexible and less interested in surprise.
People who are neither dumb nor lucky often do need some guidance in working out relationship problems or knowing how and when to terminate in the most agreeable way a relationship which, perhaps not through anybody’s fault, has grown irreparably bad, either through loss of feelings of attraction, loss of satisfactions, or loss of goodness. Certainly many people change throughout their lives and the changes may bring dissatisfactions or problems to their relationships. And these may be dissatisfactions that are insurmountable without more sacrifice or harm than is fair to ask or allow. But it seems to me that most of the problems that arise in relationships, even those that may call for “ending” a relationship do not call for any particularly great intelligence nor for deep or endless analysis to solve. It seems to me that most people with anywhere near normal intelligence and verbal ability can deal with each other about their relationship if they have some understanding of ethical behavior and some psychological insight into their, and their partner’s, needs and joys and wants. And if both want to try to work out their problems rationally, amicably, and fairly.
On one All in the Family episode, Archie mistakenly tried to pursue a romantic attraction for a waitress who had repeatedly flirted with him. It was at a time that he was particularly vulnerable to someone else’s interest in him because he was feeling ignored and abandoned by Edith who was doing time-consuming work that was exciting to her at a nursing home. Edith found out about the waitress, and told Archie she saw why he liked the girl — because the girl was younger looking and prettier than she. But Archie had already come to his senses and simply told Edith he had simply done a stupid thing, having momentarily lost his head, and that Edith did not have to worry about her looks to him at all because (in his characteristic backhanded complementary and sensible explanation) “the good Lord saw to it that as he and other people got older, their eyes lost the ability to see things that weren’t any more important anyway.” It was not the waitress’s looks that had flattered and tempted Archie, but her interest in him at a time when he felt Edith had lost that interest. That was what was important to him then. And he knew that and tried to tell it to Edith.
Of course, All in the Family was written by people with insight, but people with less verbal or analytic ability often do have the kind of knowledge, if not wit, to explain their feelings, their actions, and their concerns to their loved ones and then solve the problems they face. I no longer think an intellectually gratifying relationship is necessarily likely to be happier longer than one that is primarily say sexually gratifying. There will probably be enough intellect involved, or at least there could be, in the sexually gratifying relationship to solve problems that can be solved in it.
“I didn’t really believe you when you said sex was not necessarily the most important thing in love. But now that I have been married for a year, I have to admit that you were right. Sex is great, but the thing I appreciate and enjoy even more is that when I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep [my husband], even if he is very tired, will keep himself awake and just talk to me until I am relaxed and comforted enough to fall back to sleep. That is the nicest thing.” — a friend of mine.
- Figuring out what is important in a relationship to you, and in what way(s) it or they are important.
- Sex or the thought of sex may be very pleasant at some times and not pleasant at all at other times. Sex and food are not too different in this regard; when you are fully satisfied by either, the thought of more of it is not always pleasurable.
- Unrequited love is being loved by those who excite no passion in you.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: What are three different issues related to the importance of satisfactions in relationships?
- Question: What is sometimes at least as bad as the frustrations of your unrequited love or even unrequited desire for someone else?