Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, is — along with his wife, Jennifer — the author of The Seven Big Myths about Marriage: Wisdom from Faith, Philosophy, and Science about Happiness and Love. At this time of some upheaval on the marriage front, he talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about some marriage fundamentals.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Unfortunately, I believed this first myth until fairly recently! I suppose there are at least some other people who believe something like I did. I used to think that love was just a matter of good will. If I choose to do what helps another person, then I love that person. Once I learned more about the nature of love, I learned that love includes not only good will for the one you love but also appreciation for and seeking unity with the beloved. All forms of love (agape) involve all three aspects, and the forms of love are distinguished primarily in terms of the third characteristic, the diverse ways in which unity is sought.
KACZOR: I’d say that marriage and love are related but that more than love alone is needed for a marriage. You could certainly have one man who loves four different women, but presumably this does not mean that a man should have a legal right to polygamy. Love can and does exist without legal recognition as marriage.
LOPEZ: “What we choose determines what kind of person we become.” Why is that a significant and not an obvious statement?
KACZOR: The approach taken in The Seven Big Myths about Marriage is to base our decisions on the standard of human flourishing and happiness. Rather than base decisions simply on following rules or on maximizing consequences (as a Kantian or utilitarian would do), Aristotle and Aquinas believe that a fully human life requires a particular kind of character. What we choose shapes who we become. Our characters are determined at least partially by the actions that we choose. Even though all people are alike in seeking happiness, different kinds of people seek happiness in different kinds of ways.
LOPEZ: You write, “Like any word, ‘marriage’ must be defined because, if marriage means anything and everything, then marriage means nothing.” What does marriage mean in America today?
KACZOR: We are in a great societal conversation today in the United States about the question, “What Is Marriage?” Some people hold that marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman who have vowed unconditional love to each other for as long as they both shall live. Other people think of marriage as a partial union between two people (of whatever sex) that can be dissolved whenever either party wishes. Still other people — advocates for polygamy — think that marriage can be a union of more than two persons. Nevertheless, I think people of all three of these views can agree that there must be some kinds of relationships that are recognized as marriages and other kinds of relationships that should not be recognized as marriages. Everyone “draws the line” somewhere between what is marriage and what is not marriage.
LOPEZ: What is the most widespread myth about marriage?
KACZOR: The most widespread myth about marriage is probably that “cohabitation is just like marriage.” I cannot tell you how many of my students think this, and how many of them believe that living together prior to marriage will lower their likelihood of divorce. In the book, I point out that many studies indicate that cohabitation actually increases the likelihood of divorce, and that the longer a couple cohabits the more likely it is that they will divorce.
It also turns out that cohabitation is particularly detrimental to women. If a man and a woman decide to live together when they are both 25 years old, what is likely to happen? If they are like most cohabiting couples, several years later they will not be married. So now the man and the woman are both unmarried at 32. Characteristically, the man now has more of what most women want in a spouse. He has more earning power, and he has advanced his career. He is more mature, stable, and capable of supporting a family. By contrast, the woman is in a different situation. Characteristically, the woman now has less of what most men want in a spouse — namely, youth and beauty. So relative to when they began to live together, the man has gained value in the marriage market and the woman has lost value in the marriage market.
LOPEZ: How did you come to focus on the seven myths you do in your book?
KACZOR: There are many, many myths about marriage, but I wanted to focus on seven in particular just for purposes of organization. I suppose if I counted up all the myths that the book debunks it might be something like The 141 Big Myths about Marriage, but that title doesn’t have a ring to it.
LOPEZ: Is it just ridiculous at this point in history to be trying to curb premarital sex and cohabitation?
KACZOR: It is just as ridiculous at this point in history to be trying to curb theft, which, after all, has been with the human race for countless years. If something contributes to human flourishing, it should be done regardless of what time it is. If something undermines human flourishing, it should not be done regardless of what time it is. I do not believe in ethics by means of the wristwatch.
LOPEZ: About the children: People get married and don’t have children all the time. Is it really a child-centric institution?
KACZOR: It is also the case that people get married and then hate each other later, but it does not follow from this that marriage is not about love. People get married and then cheat on each other all the time, but it doesn’t follow from this that marriage is indifferent to fidelity. As Augustine pointed out, the three goods fides, proles, and sacramentum — faithfulness, children, and love — are the goods of marriage. Not all marriages enjoy all these goods, but these are the goods of marriage nevertheless.
LOPEZ: Whatever does this mean: “All couples — happy couples, miserable couples, and divorced couples — have irreconcilable differences.”?
KACZOR: Research suggests that all couples have significant areas of disagreement. A couple’s irreconcilable differences could be about in-laws, money, sex, religion, politics, where to live, how many children to have, how to raise the children – the possibilities are endless. When they find themselves in this common situation, some people think that they should simply divorce their spouse and marry someone with whom they can agree on whatever the issues are. But a new spouse will simply bring new (and possibly also some of the old) irreconcilable differences. The solution is not to keep switching spouses. The difference between happily married couples and miserable couples who divorce is not having irreconcilable differences, it is how they deal with their irreconcilable differences.
LOPEZ: Why do you point out that “in the marriage vow there is no promise made to live with the other person every day of your life”?
KACZOR: This is a challenging question for which there is not a single answer that can be given. The reason is that what we should do in challenging situations is make best use of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom takes into account all the relevant circumstances and then comes to a judgment about what would be best to do. So, in cases of violence and abuse, it may be the case that a couple should live separately in order to preserve health and safety.
LOPEZ: How does “white martyrdom” come into play in a book about marriage?
KACZOR: Red martyrdom involves the shedding of one’s blood rather than commit infidelity to God. White martyrdom involves no bloodshed but rather intense suffering. It can happen, I’ve known of cases, in which a marriage becomes so difficult that the couple cannot live together any longer. Indeed, there are cases in which one spouse is separated from the other because of criminal activity that results in incarceration. To be faithful to the vow of marriage made to the spouse and to God in such trying circumstances can involve intense suffering, a kind of white martyrdom.
LOPEZ: How can we better understand happiness?
KACZOR: Following the great work done by Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., in his book Healing the Culture, our book distinguishes the happiness of the hedonist (level one), the happiness of the egoist (level two), the happiness of the altruist (level three), and the happiness of the spiritual altruist (level four). The first two levels of happiness are fundamentally selfish. The top two levels of happiness are fundamentally generous. I’ve supplemented Father Spitzer’s work with appeal to contemporary positive psychology, which provides an empirical justification for the claim that the happiest lives are lives of service, meaning, and engagement with others (levels three and four) rather than lives of accumulation of money, possessions, or pleasures (levels one and two).
LOPEZ: What’s identity got to do with it?
KACZOR: Although we all have the potential to find happiness in different ways, different kinds of people seek happiness through different kinds of activities. The hedonist seeks it through drinking, drugs, sex, food, and other bodily pleasures. The egoist seeks it through making money, spending money, seeking fame, seeking power, and seeking to be better than others. The altruist seeks happiness also through serving others, appreciating others, and being united with others. Finally, the altruist of faith does not contradict but rather adds to the kind of happiness enjoyed by the altruist. I think Aristotle was right that we cannot be fully happy unless we become a particular kind of person, a virtuous person. So happiness and identity go together.
LOPEZ: Your talk about different levels of happiness — is that about the most fundamental conversation to be having with anyone about anything?
KACZOR: I’d say in the ethical order it is the most fundamental conversation. But even more fundamental is a conversation about truth. If someone is a relativist, then they might say that happiness is different for each person and that therefore we cannot speak about particular ways of seeking happiness being more or less satisfying. The relativist view, it turns out, is self-contradictory and contrary to acceptance of science. So, almost no one really holds a consistently relativistic perspective. Once a person accepts the legitimacy of contemporary science, then the science of positive psychology can point a person toward the happiness of the altruist and of the altruist of faith.
LOPEZ: Is there an important order to your subtitle? Science, faith, and philosophy? What do these things have to do with marriage, really?
KACZOR: I think that science, faith, and philosophy are all aimed at the truth, including truths about marriage. Science seeks the truth by using the scientific method of empirical verification. Faith seeks understanding of the truth revealed by God. Philosophy aims at the truth that reason discovers through logical argumentation. In order to discover the truth, we need to ask questions. Different kinds of questions make use of different methods (science, faith, philosophy) to discover the truth. It turns out that some questions about marriage, only science can answer. For example, if the woman uses a contraceptive that is 99 percent reliable, what is the likelihood of pregnancy over the course of ten years? Other questions are matters of faith. For example, what did Jesus teach about love, forgiveness, divorce, and remarriage? Still other questions are matters of philosophy. For example, are there any logical arguments that cohabitation is something that generous, altruistic people avoid? I wanted to make use of science, faith, and philosophy in seeking answers to many important questions about marriage.
LOPEZ: What do you hope people would stop and consider most from The Seven Big Myths about Marriage?
KACZOR: I actually think that the stories that my wife wrote for the book, both the funny stories and the sad, add the most to the book. Part of the reality of marriage cannot be captured through philosophy, faith, or science, and she captures a glimpse of that in her delightful writing. So, even if people skip the parts of the book that I wrote, I hope they do read the stories in the book that she wrote.
LOPEZ: What’s your most important advice to newly married couples?
KACZOR: Marriage is a wonderful path to happiness because it involves the choice to love someone else unconditionally “until death do us part.” Nevertheless, many challenges and temptations to give up on marriage will arise over the course of a long life. Sooner or later, I think, one spouse or the other or both may want to give up on the marriage, to stop trying, and to forget forgiveness. I think the words of Winston Churchill are relevant when spouses feel like quitting: ”Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” If we love until the end, I believe we will receive the reward for love — everlasting happiness.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.