Our moral problem is man’s indifference to himself… We experience and treat ourselves as commodities, and [as if] our own powers have become alienated from ourselves… We are a herd believing that the road we follow must lead to a goal since we see everybody else on the same road. We are in the dark and keep up our courage because we hear everybody else whistle as we do. – Erich Fromm, Man for Himself
This moral problem identified by the German philosopher Erich Fromm in the 20th century has only deepened in our consumerist society and has, as expected, left its mark both on the world of feelings and the area of life-altering values and decisions. It is worth taking a closer look and identifying the bitter roots of mankind’s indifference to itself. The stakes seem high, because perverting the process of human self-knowledge distances humans from their chance to be happy.
The famous “incompatibility” argument
This has been the most common reason given for divorce since time immemorial. Many couples have been surprised to find that incompatibility could not be invoked as a valid and reasonable reason for divorce. It is assumed that before getting married, a couple should get to know each other well enough to really understand the other’s character. What can be done when people do not even know themselves, even before stepping into a relationship?
The excuse of a character mismatch is frequently invoked because it appears to be the most elegant one. One does not have to go into embarrassing, shameful, or scandalous behavioural details. Placing this excuse at the centre of the dysfunctional relationship somehow exonerates both partners from moral accusations.
However, if we look at the situation from a deeper moral perspective, that of education and self-education, the excuse of incompatibility incriminates both partners for the way in which they were formed during their whole lives up until the divorce, both before getting to know each other and during their time together.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because the cohabitation of two people who love each other brings with it numerous connections and resonances which are supposed to create harmony and balance, building and rebuilding the partners’ personalities in order to make them match as well as possible; and secondly, because it is assumed that they know themselves well enough so as to no longer “surprise” their partner in terms of their reactions to things, their attitudes, or their actions.
To be complete humans, we owe it to ourselves to get to know ourselves, to refine our characters over the course of our entire existence, to translate the entirety of our positive qualities, skills, and virtues into actions, and to diminish or eliminate our negative and destructive flaws and vices.
Here we can identify the main potential problem of dysfunctional couples, the one that is latent from the beginning of the relationship, and sometimes even overcomes the partners’ desire to make things work.
Snapshots from a couple’s life
Here are a few examples of couple mismatches, at various stages, in various situations and social environments. They all have destructive potential, even if they were overcome at the time.
1. He is getting ready to watch an interview with a reputed man of culture he appreciates. Coming back to the room, he finds that she has turned off the TV, arguing that “There was nothing interesting on, just a bald man talking…”
2. She sadly tells him after many years of living together: “I have come to the conclusion that life is also beautiful without you in it.” He answers: “Okay.”
3. She asks him why he used both of their student grants to buy media system without checking with her first. He answers: “I thought this is what you want, too.”
4. She receives flowers from him and forgets to put them in a vase.
5. He says he did not go to the maternity ward to see his child because “hospitals make him sick.”
6. Married for the second time, he cracks jokes at the dinner table with his friends: “A wife is like a car: one must change it every ten years.”
7. In a discussion with his friends about Women’s Day gifts, he suggests: “This is how I usually solve the problem when I do not have money to buy a present: I stir up a fight the night before, and we make up after Women’s Day has passed.”
8. One of them eats all the sweet treats and answers the other’s surprise with their own surprise: “I didn’t know you still wanted to eat them.”
9. One of the two comes home with guests without warning the other.
10. One of them makes holiday plans without consulting the other.
11. One of them is out late visiting someone on their own without letting the other know.
12. Both partners complain about the other’s relatives in public.
13. Neither partner shows gratitude or appreciation for gifts or acts of service.
14. One or both partners make jokes about the other, exaggerating or obscuring something just to get their friends to laugh.
When the behaviours in these snapshots deepen a fault line within the couple, this inevitably eats away at the relationship between the two.
The root of incompatibility
French writer Alphonse Allais used a paradoxical phrase to shed light on the cases which are most simple to classify. He wrote: “They loved each other and everything would have been wonderful…were it not for their ugly characters.” One’s character represents that complex combination of the basic, stable, defining traits of our personalities, and is involved in a constant process of formation or deformation which lasts for all our lives. This happens through education and experience, as a response to stimuli from our social environments. Therefore, if we have to deal with an ill-formed character, full of flaws and vices, and at times unbearable, then we have identified the source of our relationship problems.
There are, however, also cases in which neither partner has an ugly character, but they simply do not fit together, they are not on the same page, or their interactions bring out the worst in each other instead of helping them improve. In these cases, self-knowledge and self-development may contribute to mutual knowledge and development within the couple. These will show us how we can increase our chances for a harmonious emotional life, doing the best we can.
First, we need discernment to reject prejudgment and pseudo-wisdom which go around and which are more harmful than helpful, such as: “People never change!”, “You only have one life; it’s better to regret what you have done than what you did not do!”; “Live your own life and let others live theirs!”; “What matters is knowing what you want!”; “Better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep!”, and so on.
Then, it is necessary to become aware of an increasingly common, harmful phenomenon in the world around us: a vicious cycle young people fall into and can get stuck in for all of their lives, out of ignorance, convenience, or selfishness. If they do not practice the crucial process of introspection—absolutely necessary in one’s teen years—which would help them adjust their personalities to their social environment, have interactions which are as successful as possible, and make themselves known, accepted, and cherished for who they are, then they will grow weary of themselves, and will start to feel lonely. They will blindly start to head towards various groups and interactions without having gotten to know themselves—and experience failure, rejection, and relationships characterised by a lack of communication.
All this leads to self-isolation, in order to protect themselves from failures and disappointments. However, without practicing introspection and learning their lessons, they once again come to be bored or suffer from loneliness, only to once again throw themselves into interactions with a world in which they do not know what to look for and what is suited for them, because they do not know themselves and have not crafted their characters first. This dance between retreat and blind advance will probably lead, ultimately, to depression.
However, self-knowledge and personal development are the way out of the vicious cycle everyone is in danger of stepping into out of convenience, ignorance, or selfishness, chasing after the ghost of desires, after fulfilling their whims, or mistaking intense, momentary impulses pursuing life ideals. If someone is lazy, ignorant, or selfish, this does not mean they know themselves better “right from the start”, or that they “know what they want” and no longer complicate their existence by wasting time on self-education and developing their personality. They just think that what they strongly desire is good for them. This type of thinking, however, is wishful thinking.
We often like to believe that something is good for us on account of our powerful desire for that thing alone, or because we cling to it as to a way out of our seemingly empty lives. Even if the intense desire was gratified, we would not be happy with something that, in reality, is not good for us. For instance, if Rudolf Valentino’s or Elvis Presley’s fans—who killed themselves upon the news of their idols’ deaths—had lived to meet their hero, their meeting would have probably turned into a very predictable and disappointing fiasco. However, they thought life was no longer worth living if their idol was dead.
Chiselling a beautiful character gives us the opportunity to have relationships which are as satisfying as possible. Only in doing this can we resonate with the qualities of another beautiful character.
Disillusionment occurs where delusions have sprouted. And delusions sprout where there is no authentic knowledge of one’s own person, followed by a lack of knowledge when it comes to what would be good and satisfying for us. Furthermore, self-chiselling should go hand in hand with self-knowledge, and is absolutely necessary, should we desire to have quality emotional communication with other people. We can only fool them temporarily by mimicking required qualities or skills which we lack, or behaviours which would make us a good match to obtain the desired result of a relationship with them. However, in a true relationship, time betrays this charade.
It is also possible that one or the other’s poverty of character may be compensated, completed through goodwill and love, for the couple to function reasonably well. However, this leaves room for improvement, and it is worth aiming for the ideal. That feeling of being a “match made in heaven”, as some call it, requires one other thing besides self-knowledge and self-development.
Does a “match made in heaven” really exist?
For a non-believer, a “match made in heaven” is just a popular expression. For an authentic believer, this is a theoretical possibility. It becomes a very promising potential reality for a believer who entrusts his life to God and says: “You take it from here, God, because only You know me fully and know what and who is good for me!” However, in His great mercy, God makes this possibility available to those who are no longer beginners, who have been chasing delusions or unrealistic desires, but have come to their senses, and decided to place their rudders in His hands and were willing to mend what had to be mended inside them.
Miracles like this happened in the past, and still happen today. However, we will not hear about them on the news, in personal development training, psychotherapy classes, and perhaps not even in couples’ therapy sessions.
They are, however, there to be seen if we take the time to talk to the people who have experienced this. Sometimes, they have the gift of sharing their story, like the famous couple Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand. Other times, they remain anonymous to the masses, but brighten the lives of those who knew them and learned from their story, like my dear, late grandparents.
However, for those who do not give the “Made in Heaven” brand a chance in their own lives, the miracle will not happen, and life will not fully reveal its unimaginable charm, which has the power to lift us above our shortcomings, troubles, our old age, sickness or death. For them, not even Ion Minulescu’s lyrics will have meaning: “In the city where it rains three times a week/An old man and an old woman/Two broken toys/Go together hand in hand…”
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.