Do Romantic Relationships Imply a Loss of Self? Should They?

To David Brooks, the false dichotomy between autonomy and sociality lives on.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

Ibrahim Asad/Pexels, CC0
Source: Ibrahim Asad/Pexels, CC0

In a recent New York Times column titled “When Life Asks for Everything,” David Brooks presents what he calls “two models of human development.” One is what he calls the “Four Kinds of Happiness,” of which the highest is “moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.” The other is the well-known Maslow scale of needs, the highest of which is “self-actualization, which is experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.” He casts these in opposition, writing that “in one the pinnacle of human existence is in quieting and transcending the self; in the other it is liberating and actualizing the self.”

However, there is no necessary conflict between these two conceptions of happiness, and this points out a frequent theme of Brooks’ that I find myself disagreeing with whenever it arises: the presumed dichotomy between autonomy or authenticity on one hand, and sociality or concern for others on the other. While Brooks has described this dichotomy in his New York Times columns and books (especially The Social Animal), I argue in my latest book, The Decline of Individual, that it is a false dichotomy, that autonomy and sociality can be reconciled if we think about them the right way.

To Brooks, autonomy and authenticity are reduced to selfishness, and “liberating and actualizing the self” is an inward-facing exercise that involves neglecting the interests of others. But neither term implies selfishness. Rather, autonomy and authenticity describe an independence of thought and decision-making, in which you make the choices that are true to the person you want to be—regardless of the content of those choices. A giving person can be just as autonomous and authentic as a selfish person; dedicating your life to helping others can be a beautiful expression of autonomy if it is chosen to express one’s true self. In fact, Immanuel Kant, a staunch proponent of the importance of autonomy, wrote that true autonomy means acknowledging the equal dignity and moral status of all persons, which leads to his wide range of duties and obligations which can hardly be regarded as selfish.

In his most recent column, Brooks applies this [false] dichotomy to the case of marriage. He discusses a new book by Eli Finkel titled The All-or-Nothing Marriage, in which Finkel argues that modern marriage is oriented more towards (as Brooks writes) “the individual self-actualization of each of the partners” rather than the promotion of the couple as a unit unto themselves.

I actually have some sympathy for this perspective. I’ve written often on the need to put your partner and your relationship above yourself, to think in terms of we rather than me. (See this post.) But at the same time, we don’t have to lose our selves in a relationship; ideally, being close to another person can allow your self to grow within the relationship rather than despite or against it (even if you sometimes grow out of it). (Again, see here, here, and here.) 

In other words, marriage (and other long-term relationships) do not have to involve denying one’s individuality or autonomy. Instead, you can become part of a greater whole while still remaining your own unique self, making an authentic choice to join your life with another person but not disappearing in the process. It isn’t a choice between being an individual and being in a relationship; this is yet another example of a false dichotomy. We can be both.

If we understand autonomy or authenticity as describing how we make choices, and acknowledge that those choices can be altruistic, selfish, or anywhere in between, we can dispense with the false dichotomy between individuality and sociality. Only then can we appreciate that we can be autonomous and authentic individuals who are devoted and vested in other people as well as ourselves. We can, to use Brooks’ terms, both actualize and transcend the self at the time. In the spirit of Kant, it can be the highest expression of autonomy to sacrifice one’s own well-being for another person, but we can only realize that if we stop equating autonomy with self-interest.