Marriage & the Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs. the Supremacy of Love

(Please also see my paper on my website “The Traditional Chinese Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs. The West’s Supremacy of Love”)

This inconstancy in the subjective feeling called love is especially problematic in the relationship between spouses. In the Western tradition, the love that is supposed to exist between spouses is a romantic love. One is supposed to be “in love with,” that is, feel a deep romantic love for, one’s spouse. After all, that is supposed to be why one has married one’s spouse in the first place. When a Westerner or a Westernized person, which is most of the planet these days, no longer feels romantic love for his or her spouse, he or she feels extremely tormented. He or she is not supposed to not feel romantic love for the spouse, and in fact, if he or she “no longer loves” the spouse, he or she is supposed to either somehow make himself or herself “fall in love again” with the spouse, or quit the relationship. Otherwise, according to Western thinking, it is “dishonest” and “not honorable” to stay in a marriage “devoid of love.”

Thus in the Western or Westernized marriage, people are always trying to keep and cultivate the other party’s love. People are fearful that they might lose the other party’s love. There is insecurity, and whether the relationship lasts is not within one’s control. “What if he/she meets someone else and falls in love?” When someone of the opposite sex comes around one’s spouse, one gets all flustered and anxious - anyone could be a predator. One must always try to “show love,” to “keep the love going,” to “stay in love with each other.” All this anxiety and striving to please and “hang onto” one’s spouse invariably results in resentment.

In the Chinese tradition, however, one can be secure that the relationship holds as long as one stays in the relationship. There is no need to be fearful about losing the other party to some “wilting of love.” As long as one is the other’s spouse, the other person owes one obligations. Of course, one owes the other person reciprocal obligations. As long as the spousal obligations are carried out, that is, as long as they cooperate to build a life together and respect each other, there should be harmony and love. And unlike whether one can keep one’s spouse “in love with” oneself, which is not entirely within one’s control, whether one carries out one’s obligations is entirely within one’s control.

True, adverse conditions can make it difficult, but it is still within one’s control to try to carry out one’s obligations despite such conditions. In fact, in traditional Chinese literature the recurring theme is how heroes and heroines, movingly, carry out or try to carry out Cardinal Obligations despite impossible circumstances.

Therefore, in the Chinese tradition, there is a lot more security and a lot more relaxed enjoyment in marriage.

Feng Xin-ming

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