You can tell a lot about our culture by the way we talk about marriage. Take the upcoming exchange of vows between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Press coverage will focus on aspects like the cost of the festivities, the size of the crowds and the fashion choices of the wedding party.
But since marriage represents one of the most important factors in predicting a person’s happiness, this marriage – and all marriages – deserve deeper reflection than the press tends to give them.
Marriage is increasingly described as an economic transaction, with marriage rates dictated by the conditions of the “marriage market” – whether matrimony will improve or worsen one’s financial outlook. It increasingly serves as a “status symbol,” a means for couples to signal their rank by sharing photos of expensive engagement rings and extravagant honeymoons on social media. Scholars also suggest that marriage is becoming less of a lifelong commitment, with spouses entering and exiting more freely based on their individual level of satisfaction.
Beyond status, money and personal gratification, none of these trends delineate what a good marriage should actually look like, and what expectations each partner should have.
Fortunately, one of the greatest novels ever published – Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I teach regularly to my ethics students at Indiana University – provides deep insights on why some marriages thrive and others don’t.
The pitfalls of restless desire
Anna Karenina may have been published 140 years ago, but the doubts and desires of the characters ring true today.
The novel tells the story of four couples.
Dolly is the devoted mother of many children, while her husband, Stiva, cannot believe that he can be expected to devote his life to his family. The novel opens with a marital crisis precipitated by his infidelity.
Anna is a popular and astute socialite married to an honorable yet rather dry senior statesman, Karenin, who is 20 years her senior. Anna discovers that she longs for more.
Anna falls in love with Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer who grew up in a wealthy but failed family, with no meaningful family life. Anna eventually leaves her husband for Vronsky, which results in her fall from societal grace.
Kitty is a debutante and Dolly’s younger sister, and Levin is a landowner searching for the meaning of life. Though Kitty initially rejects Levin’s overtures, the two later marry and become parents.
The rich human panoply of the novel cannot be boiled down into a few simple rules for a happy marriage. Yet it brims with insights on the differences between happy and unhappy families.
Consider Anna and her brother Stiva. Both see marriage as a contract into which they can enter or leave at will. Stiva cannot understand how a young red-blooded, convivial man such as himself could possibly find contentment by completely devoting himself to his wife, “a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother.”
Surely life owes him more than that, he thinks.
Anna also finds her highly regimented marriage to Karenin less than satisfying and seeks the adventure of romantic love with Vronksy, a man to whom genuine family life is unknown. But ultimately even the lover of her dreams cannot rescue her from her perpetual dissatisfaction.
Levin is one of the characters who most realizes the richness of marriage. In preparing for his wedding, he “had thought his engagement would have nothing about it like others, that the ordinary conditions of engaged couples would spoil his special happiness; but it ended in his doing exactly as other people did, and his happiness being only increased thereby and becoming more and more special, more and more unlike anything that had ever happened.”
Levin is continually surprised by what he discovers of his wife, of parenthood, and of himself as husband and father.
Family life turns out to be far more fulfilling than he ever imagined.
Disciplined devotion pays off
One of the novel’s central insights is this: Marriage is far more than a relationship that merely fulfills the emotional, romantic and material needs of each partner.
In Tolstoy’s view, the best that partners can hope for from marriage is to be shaped by it in ways that make them better human beings. On the other hand, those who enter marriage thinking that it is all about their own satisfaction – supposing that their spouse and union both exist primarily to bring them pleasure – can expect to endure considerable unhappiness.
Anna, for example, thinks she has the right to be adored by all. When others, including her new life partner, Vronsky, seem to take interest in other matters in life, she is overcome by jealousy.
Another damning Tolstoyan criticism of Anna is her willingness to leave the care of her children to wet nurses and governesses. Though she indeed loves them in some sense, she is so preoccupied with her own needs that she has difficulty focusing on the role of a mother for any extended period of time.
While the novel doesn’t promote arranged marriage, it does suggest that a good union is less about picking your one true love from a crowded field of bad prospects than submitting to the requirements – the discipline, even – of loving your family.
A roving eye and a restless heart can always find something to long for elsewhere. But someone who operates from such a perspective will never grow fully into any relationship – precisely because they can always find others to long for. From Tolstoy’s point of view, such lack of dedication represents a form of immaturity.
The mission of being a spouse and parent, Tolstoy would say, is not to satisfy the longings people bring to marriage, but to allow marriage to develop and deepen our desires, enhancing our devotion to what is truly most worth caring about. To flourish in marriage and family life – no less than in life itself – is to learn to love the very things, such as family, to which good people dedicate their lives. In other words, a good marriage makes us better people.
A brief exchange between Stiva and Levin encapsulates this truth beautifully:
“Come, this is life!” said Stiva. “How splendid it is! This is how I should like to live!”
“Why, who prevents you?” said Levin, smiling.
“No, you’re a lucky man! You’ve got everything you like. You like horses – and you have them; dogs – you have them; shooting – you have it; farming – you have it.”
“Perhaps because I rejoice in what I have, and don’t fret for what I haven’t.”
Even though celebrity marriages are twice as likely to end in divorce, many are continually surprised when the marriages of the rich, famous and powerful come to an acrimonious conclusion. They shouldn’t be.
It’s impossible to get inside of the heads of these couples, but I do wonder if they loved their own beautiful lives and their vision of love more than they loved their spouses and their children.
Like Stiva, Vronsky and Anna, did they give their hearts – above all – to what they saw in the mirror?
Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.