Modal Spouses

 Posted by on 2 February 2006 at 2:39 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 022006

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen blogged about alternative marriages, but not in the way that you might think:

I define a modal wife (or husband) as a person you would have married (could have married?) had you met them at the right time, unattached, and under normal life conditions. The number of modal wives is typically greater than or equal to the number of real wives, although clever philosophers will recognize possible [sic] counterexamples.

Under one view, you have hundreds or thousands of modal wives, most of whom you never meet. (How many does the average person meet, how soon do you know when you meet one, and how confused would you be if they were all in the same room at once?) Your correct dating strategy is to cast your net very widely, and hope to find and marry one of these people.

Under another view, modal wives are no big deal. Your so-called “modal wives” are no better for you than, say, the best woman you could pick out of a lot of thirty eligibles. The key inputs for a good marriage are attitude and a minimum degree of compatibility, not search and discovery.

If this is true, searching for modal wives, or perhaps even thinking about the concept, can make you worse off. The quest for the perfect mate makes it harder to come to terms with what is otherwise a compatible marriage. Which perhaps is all you are going to get anyway. Marriage is good for you, and don’t be too fussy, this is not iTunes. Too much choice, or too much perceived choice, is problematic.

The two views offer directly conflicting advice (TC: My views are closer to the first position, although attitude remains all-important). Yet we may be uncertain which view applies to us and to what extent. You could put all your eggs in one basket and pursue just one strategy, but what a risk if you are wrong. You could act upon some weighted average of the two views; I suspect this is what most people do. But then the two strategies are constantly undercutting each other.

That is one reason why it is hard to marry well.

Tyler’s concept of a “modal spouse” is quite clever. Personally, I’ve noticed that my almost-seven years of marriage to Paul have rendered me ever-more romantically incompatible with other men. When we were first married, I could at least imagine myself dating some other men that I knew, even though I had zero interest in doing so. Over the years, that’s become harder to do. Now even such imaginings are impossible, since almost every deviation from Paul would constitute an unwelcome defect. Much to my annoyance, I even like his annoying qualities! More precisely, I wouldn’t wish his annoying qualities to be different, since I know them to be deeply connected to other aspects of him that I value intensely.

Thus my husband has systematically eliminated my modal husbands — apparently by some dastardly scheme of love! Of course, that’s the normal progression of a good marriage, since a married couple should integrate their lives with respect to a wide range of particulars, not just core abstract values.

Notably, I do suspect that many people do fit the “best of thirty” model of marriage fairly well. They are ever so flexible in their choice of spouse largely because they could be satisfied with almost any reasonably decent, attractive, and sensible person. Although convenient, such flexibility is not to be sought or envied. It is a symptom of selflessness — in the literal sense of “lacking a self.”

Like Peter Keating in The Fountainhead, such selfless people do not slowly carve out their soul in the process of choosing their values. Instead, they go with the flow, carelessly absorbing conventional values from the culture. Such people lack the deep passions that might enable them to find a truly significant other. They only need someone like themselves: someone safe, moderate, conventional, and ordinary. They need not search too hard, since they aren’t looking for much. So they’ll focus on relatively superficial qualities of prospective spouses, although usually not with any great clarity. They say: “Oh, he makes me laugh,” “She’s sensible,” “She likes my dog,” “My dog likes her,” “He adores me,” “He buys me presents,” “My parents love her,” “She’s kind,” and so on.

Although such qualities may be of some importance in a spouse, they ought to pale in comparison to more fundamental values. After all, why care that your wife loves your dog when she’s also determined to teach your children to love Jesus? Of what importance is your husband’s similar taste in movies in comparison to his jealousy of your every professional success? What if your wife supports your career ambitions, but only so that she can throw the most lavish parties on the block? What if she’s just as easy with the pool boy as she is with a joke? What if your husband’s close relationship with his family means that he’ll submit to their unwelcome interference in your marriage? How valuable is a wife’s everyday kindness if she melts into a puddle of helpless dependence in an emergency? Superficial qualities simply don’t say much about the choices that a person will make — yet those choices may bring joyful delights or unbearable misery.

While spouses in a good marriage may not explicitly share a system of philosophy, their operational philosophic principles do matter a great deal. Imagine that one spouse regards facts as absolutes, whereas the other ignores or wishes them away. Or that one spouse is guided by reason, whereas the other is a slave to the passions. Or that one meets disagreements with respectful understanding and persuasion, whereas the other resorts to manipulation, if not force. Or that one regards full virtue as possible, while other rationalizes failures by appeal to innate human weakness. Or that one regards work as an onerous chore, but it’s a core love for the other. Or that one spouse is determined to raise thoughtful children, while the other indulges their whims out of fear of being disliked. These are not minor issues: they shape the whole course of a person’s life, especially a marriage.

Moreover, a person’s deep values are not exhausted by the universal values of philosophy. Particularly in marriage, highly personal values matter. Some people immerse themselves in the aesthetic side of life, while others captivated by technology, the drama of sports, or the solitude of nature. Perfectly moral people differently value qualities like vivacity, reserve, sensitivity, passion, discipline, strength, calm, caution, spontaneity, exuberance, steadiness, openness, organization, friendliness, and so on — both in themselves and in others. Good people also pursue a variety of different careers, hobbies, passions, and entertainments — although those particulars are often somewhat flexible. So much variety is possible, yet the values of a married couple must be compatible or complimentary, although not necessarily identical. They cannot clash in their basic approach to life, since then life together will be painful, if not impossible.

As Ayn Rand argued in “Philosophy Who Needs It,” even people who never think of such issues in terms of abstract philosophic principles cannot escape them. They merely act upon implicit conclusions, whether right or wrong. The more than a person explicitly grasps and embraces his operational philosophic principles, the far less likely he is to betray them in practice. And that matters in marriage — and much else in life. Notably, people can explicitly consider philosophic issues even if wholly unschooled in the discipline of philosophy. In choosing a spouse, a person can consider his own character, personality, morals, and vision of the good life — comparing and contrasting it to that of any potential spouse. Unfortunately, many people lack even such basic skills of judgment, thanks to the “judge not” theme in our culture. They tend to fall back upon their emotions, often unhappily, and often to very bad ends.

Ultimately then, a person with deeply-held values must and will be very particular in his/her choice of spouse. He will not be content with any reasonably decent, attractive, and sensible person. He will understand that his value hierarchy cannot be integrated with most people, nor even with most good people. And he will be aware that many people hold deeply wrong if not pathological values. That knowledge will make a person choose his spouse very carefully — and rightfully so!

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