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Three Lenses Through Which We View Marriage

The moral lens focuses partners on greater selflessness.

KostaKostov/GL Stock Images
Source: KostaKostov/GL Stock Images

In a recent op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, David Brooks discussed what he calls the three lenses through which popular culture views marriage. The psychological lens focuses on compatibility issues (e.g., personality, temperament, finances, sexual appetite). This speaks to what I often refer to as the central problem in relationships—namely, that they involve people. And as you’ve probably noticed, dealing with people can be difficult. Most relationships, despite their many rewards, at some point become messy, burdensome, annoying, inconvenient, and/or perplexing. This raises the question of whether the American public has a stomach for real relationships; that is, relationships in which partners take the bad with the good.

One way to look at this first lens is from an attachment perspective. Attachment refers to the quality of safety and security in a relationship. In a marriage, the partners’ sense of security stemming from their earliest relationships and their anticipation of bad things happening carry forward into their adult partnership. This means that if you and your partner are experiencing compatibility issues, chances are that one or both of you are triggering good as well as bad memories from past relationships. If you don’t understand this and learn to accept and manage each other—much as you might raise a child or handle a pet—complaints about anger, fear, distancing, clinging, and the like will become cause for marital counseling or mediation.

Brooks’s second lens focuses on romantic love. Only a small percentage of solely romance-based unions pass the test of time. In fact, our culture maintains various romantic myths, such as that there is a single soulmate out there for you, and you must love yourself before you can love another. Many people marry for love as if that were the only thing that could keep them together. It’s true that nature provides us with a jet-fueled libido at the beginning of a relationship, but that does not guarantee a long-lasting, happy relationship. The truth is that mature love is developed through daily feeding of the marriage and devotion to the relationship, which provide the oxygen that allows partners to survive and thrive in the vicissitudes of life.

I’m an advocate of what I call secure-functioning relationships. This means that you and your partner operate as a two-person psychological system in a manner that is fully collaborative, mutual, and mindful. Without a doubt, if you and your partner put your relationship first and focus on each other’s well-being you will harvest the most benefits in the short and long term. This way, you are, as I like to say, in the foxhole together, whereby you have each other’s backs and unequivocally eliminate any sense of insecurity or threat in the relationship.

The third lens is, for me, perhaps the most salient. Here, Brooks is talking about the moral realm, and in particular the importance of selflessness. When partners put their relationship first and view it as the goose that will lay the golden egg, so to speak, they tend to guard it as if their lives depended on it. I’m asserting that their lives in fact do depend on it. The morality implicit in the mutual protection of this third entity—the couple’s ecosystem—is essential not only for the partners but also for their children and all others in their orbit. The marital system is the smallest unit of a society. Marriage partners are no longer simply individuals; rather, they are contributing to a collective that in turn supplies them with what they need to flourish in life, both inside and outside the relationship.

This lens focuses on a third that is greater than the partners themselves. In a sense, the relationship might be revered in the way partners share a reverence for God or for their child. The experience can be quite spiritual.

I like to ask couples if they are prepared to evolve as a two-person system in which self-interest does not overrule the common good. Unfortunately, in my experience, too many couples are at sea when it comes to answering the most vital questions: “What’s the point of being married? What do you do for each other that you couldn’t pay someone else to do? What makes the two of you so special? What do you serve? Whom do you serve?” These are largely moral questions. While political commentator David Brooks uses this lens to explain the declining quality of marriage, I prefer to see in it the clear image of a wiser, more coherent schooling on marriage that can lead us toward more secure-functioning relationships.


Brooks, D. (2016, Feb. 24). Why the quality of the average marriage is in decline. Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from…

Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner's brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Tatkin, S. (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style can help you find your ideal mate. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Wired for Dating and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern CA, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Tatkin developed a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute.

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