Individualist vs. Relationalist Views of Marriage (David Brooks)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Second Mountain" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does your marriage leave you with unmet expectations? What sacrifices should marriage require?

David Brooks compares two approaches to life and, thus, marriage. The first approach is characteristic of individualism, which prioritizes personal liberty and spurns commitment. The second approach is characteristic of relationalism, which celebrates community and prizes commitment. 

Continue reading to learn about two views of marriage based on these two approaches to life.

Individualist vs. Relationalist Views of Marriage

According to Brooks, individualism and relationalism endorse markedly different approaches to marriage. However, Brooks argues that only the relationalist approach to marriage satisfies our yearning for a deep connection with another person.

To begin, Brooks claims that individualism’s emphasis on personal growth bleeds into its approach to marriage—it treats marriage as a pact between two independent people, whose primary goal is to help their spouse reach self-actualization. In this respect, the individualist view of marriage is a mutually beneficial contract in which each party helps the other grow. 

However, Brooks argues that the individualist conception of marriage will inevitably disappoint you because marriage repeatedly undermines your personal needs. For instance, you have to care for your spouse when they’re sick, listen to them when they’re upset, and support them when they’re frustrated. So, you won’t be able to concentrate on the personal growth that individualism exalts, leaving your expectations unmet. 

(Shortform note: Though many marriage and family researchers lament that marriage has grown more individualistic, others push back against this narrative. Indeed, one 2014 article points out that many markers of an individualist marriage—for example, having separate last names, keeping finances separate, and spending time alone—are scarcely more frequent now than in the 1960s. That these markers remain uncommon, they suggest, indicates that the individualist view of marriage that Brooks critiques remains uncommon.)

By contrast, Brooks writes that relationalism endorses a more substantial view of marriage. In the relationalist approach, marriage is seen as a covenant that fuses two people together, creating a new unit altogether. Thus, relationalist marriage requires us to forsake our independence, placing the needs of this unit over our individual needs. 

This form of marriage, Brooks argues, requires total commitment: You fight tirelessly for your spouse, and they fight tirelessly for you. In turn, although you sacrifice the independence that individualism celebrates, you experience the deepest intimacy possible with another person. Since we all crave this intimacy, according to Brooks, the relationalist approach to marriage ultimately proves more satisfying than the individualist approach.

(Shortform note: Research suggests that the claim that sacrificing independence makes for the most satisfying relationship requires a caveat. In particular, researchers found that although sacrifices made romantic partners feel more committed to one another, this was only true on hassle-free days; on days where they had many hassles to deal with, acts of sacrifice did not help them feel more committed to their partner. So, it stands to reason that although sacrificing our independence will normally improve our relationship, this won’t always be the case.)

Individualist vs. Relationalist Views of Marriage (David Brooks)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Brooks's "The Second Mountain" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Second Mountain summary:

  • The negative consequences of the West's focus on individualism
  • Why you should embrace relationalism to lead a fulfilling life
  • The four commitments that constitute relationalist living

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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