Column | Feb. 24

Patton's error: The how, not the who

You, as well as I, have probably grown tired of hearing the same critiques of the matchmakerly advice given by Susan Patton ’77 — that she entrenches antifeminist ideas or is closed-mindedly elitist and gender normative. So, as a change of pace, rather than dealing with any of her points specifically, I’d like to offer a different argument: that, on the macro level, Patton is simply missing the point. In the question of marital satisfaction, she focuses entirely upon the who and not the how of lifelong relationships.

Patton’s discussion focuses on the end goal of nabbing a life partner, but not the skills — developing self-knowledge, the capacity to love and the communication skills — which lead to finding a healthy relationship that can flourish long after marriage vows have been made. Fulfilling relationships are not up to luck or fate or aggressively strategizing your romantic life while in college. Rather, they are based fundamentally on knowledge of yourself, your strengths and vulnerabilities and your ability to communicate to and accept these things in another person. These are skills that must be learned, practiced and honed over a lifetime.

I have no issue with the importance Patton places on finding a suitable husband or wife — of course, this is something that a statistical majority of us want, and it will hugely impact the course of our lives and happiness. And she is right that many do not give it the attention it deserves.

But Patton frames the issue of lifelong marital satisfaction as yet another hoop to jump through: a box to check off, like our next internship application or homework assignment. As much as we type A, high-achieving Princeton students don’t want to hear this, not everything can be accomplished through striving and working hard — except, perhaps when those intentions are turned inward, upon yourself.

Instead of telling us to treat the search for a significant other like yet another item on our to-do list, Patton should instead be encouraging introspection, the nourishment of our passions and the development of close friendships, romantic or not. These are the kinds of valuable pursuits that will form the foundation of the people we want to become — not a process of constantly looking outside ourselves and waiting for the universe to drop happiness and a husband into our laps. Happiness must be cultivated from within, not captured from without.

Perhaps better advice, for those of us interested, would be to take a class like “Marriage 101,” which has been offered by Northwestern University for the past 14 years. The class aims to help its students to “develop the skills necessary to build loving and lasting partnerships and marriages” by offering biology, psychology and sociology in its teaching of topics such as “Getting to Know Yourself,” “Sexual Intimacy,” “Managing Conflict and Fighting Fair” and “Common Problems of Marriage.”

As I’ve written before, a holistic education of the mind — learning the skills of self-awareness, emotional regulation, and developing a set of inner directives or values — is something that is not at all addressed by formal education, but should be. I’ve only recently had a chance to begin formally developing these skills after starting individual psychotherapy, but I could have easily learned many of the basics in a classroom setting.

Alexandra Solomon, the head professor of Marriage 101 and licensed clinical family psychologist, said in The Atlantic that developmentally, college is when we are supposed to be grappling with and developing these kinds of emotional and, for lack of a better word, spiritual skills. “Students are thinking about who they are as people, how they love, who they love, and who they want as a partner,” Solomon said.

If an education of our persons, not just our intellects, were incorporated into the college, or even high school curriculum, perhaps we would all be tending to our emotional wellbeing more actively than we do now — a solution that could likely please both Patton and her detractors. An awareness of what contentment entails for each of us, as unique individuals with different needs and talents, would encompass our capacity to make all kinds of decisions about our lives: friendships and careers, as well as significant others. It’s cheesy, but as the old adage goes, how can we know and love someone else if we don’t first know and love ourselves?

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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