Marriage as Friendship

In Christian theology, marriage is typically thought to have three ends or purposes: begetting children, bestowing grace and providing a remedy for sin, and creating mutuality in interpersonal communion. The first purpose is easy to achieve (though a little more difficult to do well); the second purpose is entirely up to God’s gratuitous action. In this blog post, then, we are going to focus on the last purpose, which does not receive nearly enough philosophical and theological attention. We are going to examine how Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’ theological and philosophical system allows us to think of marriage as friendship.

Aristotle identified three types of friendship. The first is called a friendship of utility. These are relationships based on benefit and what Aristotle calls eros or erotic love. These are relationships that exist because each party gets something out of it. The friendship that exists between soldiers or co-workers or classmates is an example of such a friendship. Aristotle says that these relationships are impermanent, and they form and dissolve frequently based on changing circumstances. A friendship based on utility does not have to be between people who necessarily like each other, but simply has to serve some benefit.

The second type of friendship is a friendship of pleasure. Friendships based on pleasure, unlike those of utility, are between people who like each other and desire the other person’s company, precisely because it is pleasurable (and not necessarily useful). The partner in such a friendship is desired for their own sake because it brings so much pleasure. These are the friendships most of us have–our conversation partners, the people who share our hobbies, the people who delight us when we are in their presence. Among this type of friendship, Aristotle includes lovers who find sexual intercourse mutually pleasurable.

The last type of friendship is a friendship of virtue. If friendships of utility are based on material advantage, and those of pleasure are based on pleasures of the body, the last type of friendship is based on the good and the mutual pursuit of virtue. The tie that binds these relationships is not the good received, but the good that is willed to the other. These are friends who want primarily what is good for their friend, even when the pursuit of this good is not always easy or pleasurable. However, this last type of friendship according to Aristotle is indeed the most useful and the most pleasurable in the long run.

For Aquinas, this last type of friendship is the ideal relationship that rational creatures and designed to cultivate. We have the best chance of flourishing intellectually, morally, and spiritually when we have a social life based on this last type of friendship. In fact, without friends, the virtuous person’s life would be impaired. Without friends, a person would lose enthusiasm for virtuous living, and lose the motivation to act in the right way.

Friendships based on virtue allow a person to expand their capacity for virtuous deeds. Say I struggle with temperance but excel in courage. A virtuous friend who excels in temperance can provide me with the much needed motivation to act temperately in a given challenging situation. In turn, I may help this friend to become more courageous by providing her motivation to have fortitude in a challenging situation. Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that in friendships based on virtue, our friends are united to ourselves in such a way that their actions are in some way also our own. The friend is more than an Other. The friend is rather another Self.

My instinct tells me that most people think of marriage as either the first or the second type of friendship. A marriage of utility is one that might be formed because of financial benefit, or because a woman thinks that her child needs a father, or to help someone get immigration status. These marriages used to be very common, but I suspect they still happen an awful lot, especially between single moms and the “nice guy” who is just so good with her kids.

A marriage of pleasure is probably much, much more common. These are marriages formed between people who like each other, who have mutual interests like wine tasting, a love of Irish literature, or jogging. These are marriages that form because after years of dating, the two people still like each other a lot, the sex is good, and marriage is just the logical next step.

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, a friendship based on pleasure is not a bad thing in itself. The problem with these friendships is that they tend to dissolve when the pleasure dissolves. Say the sex stops being good, or every conversation on Irish literature has been exhausted, or knee surgery and pains of aging make jogging an impossibility. When the pleasure subsides or loses intensity, the friendship dissolves. And this is what happens to an awful lot of marriages.

Even marriages that last may still be these ephemeral pleasure-based friendships. This is why people push the contractual nature of marriage–you make a vow with another person to stay with them until “death do you part.” It is these vows which keeps marriages of pleasures together. When the vows are not taken seriously, the marriage simply dissolves. And this is why we have the divorce rates that we have today–a bunch of people who married because of a friendship of pleasure, and when the pleasure died, so did the marriage.

A better way to think of marriage, one that is more theologically and philosophically sound, is as this last type of friendship. According to Aquinas, there are three “acts” or fruits of this last type of friendship: benevolence, concord, and beneficence.

Benevolence signifies the willing what is good for the other, rather than just willing what is good for oneself. Beneficence signifies the doing good for the other, rather than just doing what is good for oneself. Both of these are important, but the truly distinctive mark of this last type of friendship is what is called concord.

Concord is the union of will which sustains common projects. A relationship has concord when the couple enjoys each other’s company, converses with one another, and agrees with one another’s opinions. But just agreeing with one another is not enough for a relationship to have concord, because even strangers may agree. Concord, according to Aquinas, is principally about choice, when two people agree on what is advantageous, believe in the same things, and make decisions based on these common values. Friends need not agree on everything–one may believe that vegetarianism is a better way of life, while the other may love a more carnivorous lifestyle–but they do need to have similar values. For example, they must agree at least that healthy eating is an important value to them both and they must also make decisions with an eye towards living out that value in their practical decisions.

In other words, the highest form of friendship is characterized by a union of wills. One’s choices should align with one’s friends, and not just occasionally, but habitually. And if the friendship is a true one, these choices should be virtuous ones. Say one person in the couple always wants to drink and party to excess, whereas the other one wants to drink and party in moderation. This is a relationship lacking in concord, and thus, not the sort of friendship we are looking for. This is why Aristotle and Aquinas say that friendships based on virtue need to be between people who are of similar levels of virtue.

So how does this play out in marriage? A virtuous marital relationship is one that forms because two people share similar values, and they act on those values. Pleasure, of course, is part of the equation, but it is not the most important factor. That is, a virtuous marital relationship is not based on the fact that two people enjoy the same things (although they probably do in a lot of cases) but because they believe in the same things.

The important thing to realize is that a relationship with concord is not a static one, not formulaic, and always changing as circumstances change. Aquinas says that the realm of the particular–that is, the realm of concrete action–is infinite in possibility, even though the virtues and values behind such actions remain constant. There are innumerable ways, for example, to be courageous in any given situation.

To go back to our original example of sharing values about healthy eating. The vegetarian and the carnivore may have different ways of living out their values, but they agree on the values behind those lifestyle choices. As they both grow and learn more, the way they continue to make decisions to live out their values will change. They may come to find that processed foods are most detrimental to their health, and they may resolve together to cut back on or avoid all together the processed snacks they love so much. They may find that the temperate enjoyment of fine wine fits in nicely with their resolve to eat healthy, and they may take a wine tasting class or a trip to visit vineyards in order to learn more about their new hobby. They may have conversations and debates about the health value of genetically modified foods, or share health articles like this one from the NYTimes. But what is important to the friendship (and to the marriage) is that they embark on these things together, sharing together their effort to live a healthy life. They learn from one another, they strengthen one another, and they grow closer to one another in the process.

A marriage based on this type of friendship is not fleeting. It’s foundation is much more than just utility, and more also than fleeting pleasures. This is a relationship that grows, develops, and strengthens because the people in it grow, develop, and strengthen one another. This is a relationship that changes without ending because the people in it change, and yet their beliefs and values remain constant. This is a relationship in which there will always be something to talk about and something to do because the people in it are constantly seeking for ways to live out a virtuous life. This is a relationship where two people walk together toward a common goal, helping each other along the way.

On a final note, a marriage will face certain challenges that other friendships of virtue will not face. For example, a married couple may face financial difficulties, reproductive difficulties, or mental illness or depression. And unlike other friendships, married people have to live under the same roof, face the same challenges, and bear all the same burdens. Partially for this reason, Aquinas calls marriage a sacrament, meaning that in the institution of marriage, God offers the grace necessary to endure the difficulties the couple will face on their path to their ultimate goal–union with God.


4 comments so far

  1. texpat on

    Well said.

    In a marriage, if one partner’s values change (and the other partner’s do not), should the couple split up?

    • everydaythomist on

      One of the things about virtue is that it is a stable disposition of character, not something that changes over night. So if one has a friendship (or marriage) or virtue, one would expect that the friend’s/spouse’s values are not going to undergo any dramatic changes. What I mean by that is that in a relationship of virtue, both will remain committed to the good, even though they may have different ways of going about achieving the good. That being said, some people do undergo dramatic changes whereby it seems that they are indeed no longer committed to the good. This happens a lot with mental illness or addiction, where a person develops a problem unwittingly over time like a drug habit, or even begins resorting to domestic abuse due to depression or the development of a personality disorder. In such extreme situations, it may be harmful not only to the relationship but to the development of virtue in the other member, and so it actually may be better to separate. Those cases, however, are extreme and relatively rare.

      In most cases of seeming “changed values,” both parties still remain firmly committed to the good, but they develop very different ways of expressing it. For example, one may begin putting a lot more emphasis on saving money, whereas the other may still want to “live large.” Or one may want to have children and the other one doesn’t. Or, one may either get or lose religion. In all of these cases, it is not necessarily a change in values (meaning a commitment to the good) but rather a change in the expression of values. Virtuous individuals work through such things, and their relationship often grows stronger as a result. But the foundation for their conversation and negotiation remains their firm, unwavering commitment to the good.

  2. jen on

    I’ve never read this idea expressed so simply and perfectly.

    Why then are so many marriages based on pleasure instead of virtue? How does one settle into a marriage of virtue? It seems like it argues for dating a long time before marriage or marriage at an more mature age (over 25). Thoughts?

    • everydaythomist on

      The short answer for why so many marriages are based on pleasure and not virtue is that most people are not virtuous. Virtue is a firm and stable disposition of character that requires time and experience to develop. Aristotle thought you had to be middle-aged, for example, to truly have virtue. But one of the important things about virtue that I mention in the post is that the development of virtue is actually facilitated by having friends who are in concord with you. That means, basically, you are at the same level of virtue. You may both be committed to the good, but not fully virtuous in the sense that you don’t yet have that firm disposition of character distinctive of virtuous people. You can still get married at this stage though, and still develop a relationship of virtue, especially as you embark on experiences together that help you both develop in virtue.

      I think what is key for testing a relationship is exposing it to lots of different circumstances in order to see how “contextual” a person’s virtue is. That is, are they only committed to the good in certain circumstances, or is their commitment to the good consistent, regardless of circumstances? A couple that has not faced any real challenges which test the relationship should perhaps reconsider before jumping into marriage. But a couple that has experienced both joy and trial and has endured both in a virtuous way, can assume that their marriage has a lot of potential for success.

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