View logo

Choose your View

Road to satisfying selfhood does not have to pass through marriage

I agree that in order to have a healthy "we," one needs two healthy "I's." But I disagree that in order to have a healthy "I," one needs a "we." That's basically saying that anyone not in a relationship isn't healthy. I disagree. - E.W., Las Vegas

When trying to describe the paradox of "I" and "we," I often manage to confuse folks on exactly this point. So, let me elaborate. Then you can tell me if we still disagree. For readers following along, here's the column from Nov. 4 that E.W. is referencing:

In no way have I ever said or believed that unless you are participating in an emotionally committed, exclusive love relationship with an intention to permanence (how's that for qualifiers?), you are unhealthy. Some folks just aren't "called" to the vocation of marriage. Some are not "called" to romantic life partnership. Some people just never make it a priority. They might fantasize about it, even imagine enjoying it, even be wistful about not having it, but the simple truth is they never get around to choosing it. They just keep on making other things a greater priority.

Still other people find they have a calling that must exclude committed life partnership/marriage. Monastics, for example, eschew mortal, love relationships, instead "marrying" a religious path. I've heard occasional celebrities say that fame isn't particularly conducive to the health of committed love relationships, and for this reason, they haven't chosen one or perhaps will wait to choose such a love upon retirement and return to ordinary life.

I do not make any assumption that single people are unhealthy because they are single. Assuming, that is, you are single because of your own conscience, clear intention - an expression of your authentic self - or you have consciously accepted that the accidents of life have cast you that lot.

I'm saying that someone with, for example, an observably avoidant personality disorder is likely also single, but we would not say he/she is single because of a healthy, conscious, clear intention. The chronic absence of human intimacy, not to mention the chronic inability to make lasting commitments to intimacy, are part and parcel of the unhappy diagnosis.

But, even assuming an individual who chooses singlehood from a place of authentic selfhood, it would make it no less true that growing, developing and nurturing a healthy "I" would still necessitate encounters of intimacy and commitment with some kind of "we." An individual who says "no" to emotionally committed life partnership would still need to commit to something beyond the mere self.

Strictly speaking, a monastic isn't single. He/she is radically committed to a life of strict religious discipline, committed to a community of other monastics and committed to particular ministries to the wider world. Strictly speaking, an unmarried doctor serving in a Peruvian jungle isn't single. He/she is "poured out" of self into the love and intimacies of the work and the people thus served.

For ordinary moderns who are single by choice, any chance of realizing the work the selfhood will depend, sooner or later, on the kind of committed friend you are, your duty and faithfulness to family, your willingness to work for the common good in some particular cause, charity, ministry, etc.

As I rail on about the critical paradox of "I" and "we," what I'm rejecting categorically is the Idolatry of Individualism. There is no Individual Steven worth knowing except the one in faithful relationship with you!

I blame my own profession in large part for fostering the idea that, after I have successfully "worked on myself," then I will be ready for a healthy love. It follows logically, of course, that if you are married but find that you need to work on yourself, then you probably should divorce. This is a bill of goods. Divorce, per se, is not an effective strategy for finding oneself.

So, in short, I would never say you have to be in love or with a life partner or in a marriage to be healthy. I would say - emphatically - the only antidote for post-Freudian narcissistic navel-gazing self-absorption is finding something or someone to whom you are radically committed. Find something or someone who moves you as much or more than you move you. Reach for something beyond your individual self.

If you want to find yourself, then lose yourself. (I'm offering a free Dairy Queen Blizzard to the first reader who can identify the person I just plagiarized.)

Now, having said all that, here's an observable fact: The vast majority of ordinary human beings will tell you that a thriving life partnership is, for them, a crucial ingredient of a meaningful and satisfying life. Even most people who don't find such a relationship will tell you they wish they had found one. So, is it possible to live a meaningful and satisfying life without a thriving life partnership? Of course! And many single people do find great meaning and satisfaction in their lives. But some large part of that group will die saying, in as many words, they made the very best out of a life that was not their first choice.

It's certainly what I will be saying, should this be my lot. And this won't make me unhealthy. Just a man acknowledging a loss.

So, do we still disagree?

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or