The Myth Of Narcissus and its Meaning


A person with narcissistic personality disorder has an extreme feeling of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him. He lacks empathy and readily lies and exploits others to achieve his aims. To others, he may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, or insensitive. If he feels obstructed or ridiculed, he can fly into a fit of destructive anger and revenge. Such a reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’, and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.

The myth

Narcissistic personality disorder is named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, Echo followed the grown up Narcissus through the woods as he went about hunting for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she rushed out to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.

The meaning

What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus.

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our self, in our own little ego, that we lose sight of our bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious people.

Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than Narcissus’s reflection in the pool of water. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolve in death and he merges back into the world in the form of a flower.

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much: the key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure and yet to dissociate.


Ebook Giveaway

Note: Owing to certain restrictions, this giveaway is open to US residents only.

Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Today more than ever, the education doled out in classrooms is cold and cognitive. But, once outside, it is our uneducated emotions that move us, hold us back, and lead us astray. It is, at first and at last, our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics, and our relation to money, sex, and religion. Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more. Yet many people lumber through life without giving full consideration to their emotions, partly because our empirical, materialistic culture does not encourage it or even make it seem possible, and partly because it requires unusual strength to gaze into the abyss of our deepest drives, needs, and fears. This book proposes to do just that, examining over 25 emotions ranging from lust to love and humility to humiliation, and drawing some useful and surprising conclusions along the way.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Heaven and Hell by Neel Burton

Heaven and Hell

by Neel Burton

Giveaway ends February 18, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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Burton is never short of an interesting and sharp judgment. —Prof Peter Toohey, Psychology Today

Each of us spends maybe 15 years or more in formal education. We are taught mathematics, chemistry, geography, history, and so on, but at no point are we taught anything about the emotions. ‘Heaven and Hell’ helps to redress the balance by educating our emotions… The book reminds us of the power and significance of our emotions, and that their influence is all-too-often overlooked. Each of the 29 chapters focuses on a particular emotion and discusses its origin, historical aspects and philosophy. The impact of each emotion, both negative and positive, is then addressed. Essentially, in relatively few pages, the reader’s existing perception of an emotion is challenged as he or she develops further insight and understanding. The book does what it sets out to do: it makes you stop and think… ‘Heaven and Hell’ focuses on a subject that is relevant to all. It enables and encourages us to think differently and challenges our understanding of emotions we experience but do not really think about… a fascinating read. —British Medical Association Book Awards

Growing from Depression, the Audiobook

GFD Audiobook-2

People with depression often lack the energy or concentration to read chapter after chapter, and may experience an audiobook as less of a challenge.

So I’m especially delighted to announce the publication (if ‘publication’ is the word) of an audiobook version of ‘Growing from Depression’, narrated by the very talented Alexander Doddy.

The audiobook is available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You can listen to a short sample chapter, The Search for Meaning, by clicking here and then on ‘Audible Sample’ under the cover icon.

Feedback and reviews most welcome!

My New Book on Marriage

If you marry, you will regret it;
If you do not marry, you will also regret it…
This is the sum and substance of all philosophy.
— Søren Kierkegaard

For Better For Worse-Should I Get Married? 1

For Better For Worse examines the institution of marriage in history and contemporary culture, along with kin concepts such as romantic love, sexuality, and family. Drawing upon several fields of inquiry, it sets out as neither pro- nor anti-marriage, but seeks instead to investigate an institution that has long been at the centre of society, and that we tend to take for granted despite its defining impact on almost all aspects of our lives. Whether or not to tie, untie, or retie the knot is a question that we each have to answer for ourselves, and this book aims no higher than to frame and inform our deliberation.

See the full contents list and pre-order the book:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

UK and ebook publication date: 1 October 2017

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Bible


It may come as a surprise that there is quite a lot of polygamy in the Bible. Some of the better-known polygamists, each with several wives or concubines, include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Moses, David, and Solomon. That said, biblical polygamy usually had a bitter ending. According to the Book of Kings, Solomon had ‘seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines’, but ‘his wives turned away his heart’. ‘For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God…’ (1 Kings 11:3-4).

Incest, bestiality, and prostitution

The Bible also features a fair bit of incest. Lot’s daughters both became pregnant by inebriating their father and raping him (Genesis 19:30). Ham ‘saw the nakedness’ of his father Noah. When Noah ‘awoke from his wine’, he ‘knew what his younger son had done unto him’ (Genesis 9:22,24). Tamar dressed up as a harlot and had sex with her unsuspecting father-in-law Judah in exchange for a goat. ‘And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt (Genesis 38:34).’

Leviticus prohibits incest: ‘None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness… (18:6).’ It also prohibits bestiality: ‘Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion (18:23).’ Deuteronomy condemns prostitution: ‘There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:17).’ St Paul also condemns prostitution: ‘Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid (1 Corinthians 6:15).’


The idea of exclusive monogamy goes right back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1, God seems to have created man and woman at the same time: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ After blessing them, the first thing God tells them is to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth’. However, Genesis 2 finds Adam alone in Eden. God says that ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’, and creates Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Adam seems to consider Eve as another self: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh… Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ This pronouncement implies marriage and monogamy as the norm for man. Much later, the Apostle Paul advised that a bishop ‘must be blameless, the husband of one wife… (Timothy 3:2)’. The serpent that draws Eve, and through Eve Adam, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is seductive, and phallic in form, and may represent sexual temptation or adultery. To punish Eve, God curses her to the pangs of childbirth, and to marital subservience. He clothes Adam and Eve in skins and tosses them out of Eden.

Romantic love

The concept of romantic love, which is, in fact, fairly modern, barely exists in the Bible. All love is directed at God, and the love for the spouse and more generally for the other is subsumed under the love of God. In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s love for God trumps his love for Isaac his own son, whom he is willing to sacrifice for no other reason than that God commands it.

Today, the most popular reading for weddings is Chapter 13 of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here is a quick run-through:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way: it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

The problem in this context is that Paul is not referring to bleary-eyed romantic love, but to Christian love for our fellow men. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is the source of the passage, gives the Greek agape as ‘love’, but the King James Bible prefers to render it as ‘charity’: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ Faith, hope, and charity are called the three theological virtues—‘theological’ because they are born out of the grace of God, and because they have God for their object. Charity in particular is the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.

Even the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon), which appears to celebrate sexual love, is read by the Jewish tradition as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, and by the Christian tradition as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his ‘bride’, the Christian Church. ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste (Solomon 2:1-3).’

David and Jonathan

So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman. David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, he appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle’ (1 Samuel 18).’ Much later, upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women (2 Samuel 1:26).’ One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: “Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love between them was homosocial rather than homosexual.

Ruth and Naomi

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is married to Elimelech. A famine leads them and their two sons to move from Bethlehem to Moab. In time, Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law destitute. Naomi returns to Bethlehem, entreating her daughters-in-law, who are Moabites and thus from a different ethnic group, not to follow in her barren footsteps. But Ruth insists upon following her, telling her: ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried…’ This sounds more like a marriage vow than anything else. When the pair arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the Bethlehemites: Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (‘Bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’ Ruth takes to gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz, who it transpires, is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. With Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth marries Boaz, who bears Ruth a son, Obed. Interestingly, it is as if Obed is the son of Naomi: ‘And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age, for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi…’ For the genealogy, Obed was the father of Jesse, and through Jesse, the grandfather of David.


Is married life better than celibacy? Jesus did not marry, and neither did Paul or most of the Prophets. Paul clearly favours celibacy and chastity, but accepts that most people ‘cannot abide even as I’ and that ‘it is better to marry than to burn’:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband … But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn … He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

While Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, Solomon, the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, seems—despite, or because of, his 700 wives—to warn against it, as well as against lust, on the grounds that they detract from the path to God:

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

The early Church Fathers took their cue from Solomon and especially Paul in favouring the freedom of celibacy over the bondage of marriage and family. Noting that angels are single, St John Chrysostom argued that celibacy surpasses marriage inasmuch as angels surpass men (Homily 19 on First Corinthians). Writing in the third century, St Cyprian maintained that, although God had commanded Adam and Eve to multiply, the earth, by now, was full (Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity).

Arranged marriages

From the Old Testament, it seems that marriages could be arranged, and that the virginity of the bride was paramount. In Genesis 24, Abraham makes his eldest servant swear to pick a wife for his son, not from the Canaanites but from his own kin. According to Deuteronomy, if a newly wed is found not to have been a virgin, she should be stoned to death in front of the door to her father’s house ‘because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house (22:21).’

Gender and marital subservience

Once married, should a wife be subservient to her husband? Used by God to introduce Eve in Genesis 2:18, the word ‘help’, ‘helper’, ‘helpmeet’, or ‘helpmate’, though possibly a mistranslation, suggests that Eve’s subservience predated the fall and God’s curse of marital subservience. According to St Peter, Sara obeyed her husband Abraham, ‘calling him lord’ (Peter 3:6). In Ephesians, St Paul compares marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church … Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing (5:22-24).’ In Corinthians, he establishes a clear chain of authority: ‘But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3).’

In the Middle Ages, the word ‘obey’ was introduced into marriage vows, but, even so, a wife’s subservience to her husband is not understood to be unconditional. In Galatians, St Paul says that faith levels the field: ‘But after the faith is come… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:25,28). In his 1880 encyclical Arcanum, Pope Leo XIII states that ‘The woman… must be subject to her husband and obey him; not indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honour nor dignity.’

Recreational sex

Is recreational sex permissible within marriage? Certainly, lust should not form the basis of a marriage (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). But once married, sex should not be withheld: ‘Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love (Proverbs 5:18-19).’ St Paul seems to agree, albeit it with less grace and poetry: ‘Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).’

Levirate marriage, contraception, and masturbation

The practice of levirate marriage is set out in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A childless widow should not re-marry with a stranger, but with her late husband’s brother; and their firstborn son will succeed in the name and estate of the late husband. This could concern the brother-in-law, who, by fathering a son in his brother’s line, would be creating a claimant on the larger part of his inheritance. When God killed Er, Er’s father Judah told his second son Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar and ‘raise up seed’ to his brother. But when he lied with Tamar, Onan, who ‘knew that the seed should not be his’, spilled his semen on the ground: ‘And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also (Genesis 38:10).’ This episode is largely responsible for the ban on contraception and masturbation.


Adultery is forbidden in several places. It is, of course, the subject of one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. David famously lusted after the bathing Bathsheba and impregnated her, leading, ultimately, to the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite, the death of Bathsheba’s first child by David, and the revolt of David’s son Absalom. St Paul inveighs against adultery in more than one place, and St Matthew goes so far as to equate it with a lustful thought: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28).’ According to Deuteronomy, an illegitimate child and his descendants cannot be admitted into the Church: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:2).’


In Old Testament times, a husband could easily divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24). Jesus, however, forbids it: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (Gk. porneia), causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matthew 5:32, and echoed in Mark and Luke). Jesus refers back to Genesis 1 and 2 when discussing the indissolubility of marriage: ‘Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matthew 19:4-6).’ By referring back to Genesis 1, Jesus may be implying that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman. Jesus performed his first public miracle at the marriage at Cana, saving the day by turning water into wine. This story has been upheld as evidence that he supported marriage, and also as an argument against teetotalism! St Paul commands: ‘Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).


Marriage and sex are strictly between a man and woman. Leviticus clearly condemns homosexual acts, as well as touching pork, eating shellfish, and getting a tattoo or a round haircut: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (Leviticus 18:22).’ The punishment is harsh: ‘they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 20:13).’ St Paul seems to echo Leviticus in condemning the ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ and the ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ (1 Corinthians 6:9), and again ‘them that defile themselves with mankind (1 Timothy 1:10)—although, given the original Greek, it could be that he is simply condemning male prostitution.

What of Sodom, destroyed by fire and brimstone? In Genesis 19, Lot gives shelter to two beautiful angels. The Sodomites threaten to force themselves upon Lot’s guests, and such is Lot’s idea of hospitality that he offers up his daughters instead: ‘Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof (Genesis 19:9).’ It is not clear whether the sin of Sodom was homosexual rape, lack of hospitality, or both or other.

The only reference to same-sex love between women is in St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans. To punish the people for their idolatry, ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural (physikos, ‘produced by nature’) use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly… (Romans 1:26-28).’ It could be that, rather than homosexual acts per se, St Paul is in fact condemning the prostitution and pederasty of the Romans, or the pagan practice of priests and priestesses prostituting themselves out of their temples, or simply those people who go against their nature, that is, against their heterosexual orientation.

Despite David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi, the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is relatively recent. The only possible mention of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is in Matthew 19:12, when Jesus speaks of ‘eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb’.

Closing remarks

Many traditional attitudes have come down from the Bible. But the Bible is not only or even primarily an instruction manual. It is not a unified work. It often contradicts itself. It lends itself to interpretation. It is open to misinterpretation. Choices made in style and translation can reflect the biases of the translator. Still, for better or worse, no single book has exerted a greater influence on the way we live and think.

A Feminist Critique of Marriage


Human societies tend to various degrees of patriarchy, in which men hold primary power. Most anthropologists agree that there are no known unambiguously matriarchal societies. In the state of nature, man subjugated woman by being physically stronger, while woman was frequently incapacitated by pregnancy and childrearing, which, through giving birth and breastfeeding, naturally fell upon her. In a modern society, with technology such as mechanization and birth control, the male advantage is largely if not entirely redundant. But still the patriarchy perdures, upheld by hoary ideology and vested interests.

This ideology is manifest, among others, in the socialization of children, which emphasizes man as breadwinner and decision-taker, and woman as mother and homemaker. Boys are encouraged to be brave and strong, while girls are expected to be passive and pretty, through, among others, fairy tales, dolls, activities such as dressing up or baking, and, above all, the examples and attitudes of role models, including historical figures. From a young age, girls in particular are indoctrinated into the virtues of marriage, which itself contributes to maintaining the traditional gender roles. Beyond a certain age, a man who remains unmarried is thought of as independent or intelligent, whereas a woman who remains unmarried is assumed to be desperate, at once a figure of pity and scorn. An unmarried man is called a bachelor—and you might even find him on a list of eligible bachelors—but apart from the antiquated ‘maiden’ or ‘spinster’, there is, despite the richness of the English language, no polite term for an unmarried woman. A woman who is strong-minded enough to forgo marriage and live out her own life is constantly made to doubt her resolve: “Never say never… You just need to find the right man… There’s this great guy I’d like you to meet.”

On the marriage market, women are made to feel like low value, perishable goods. To find a taker, whether for marriage or just for sex, they need to conform to sexist, ageist, and racist stereotypes, and do appalling things like paint their face and wear high heels, which become the visible symbols of their oppression. As they are encouraged to marry a man who is older, more educated, and better connected, they tend to begin life in a doubly subordinate position, which, of course, suits the man just fine. So much is evident from popular culture. Even seemingly innocuous classic pop songs, which on the surface are about romantic love, are in fact systemically sexist, revealing love as little more than a tool of patriarchy. Here, picked almost at random, are the opening lyrics of You Can’t Hurry Love by the Supremes: ‘I need love, love to ease my mind/ I need to find, find someone to call mine/ But mama said you can’t hurry love/ No you just have to wait.’ You couldn’t imagine these lines in the mouth of a man. And here are the opening lyrics of Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler: ‘Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit lonely/ And you’re never coming round/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit tired/ Of listening to the sound of my tears/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit nervous/ That the best of all the years have gone by/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit terrified/ And then I see the look in your eyes/ Turnaround bright eyes, but every now and then I fall apart/ Turnaround bright eyes, every now and then I fall apart.’ For contrast, compare some lyrics from Chris Brown’s Fine China: ‘It’s alright/ I’m not dangerous/ When you’re mine/ I’ll be generous/ You’re irreplaceable, a collectible/ Just like fine china.’

The marriage ceremony itself is sexist beyond parody. The bride appears in a fussy white dress that symbolizes her virtue and virginity, and everyone keeps on remarking on how thin and beautiful she looks. Her father walks her down the aisle to ‘give her away’, and she passes, like property, from one man to another. The minister, who is traditionally a man, gives the man permission to kiss the woman, as if that it in the minister’s authority and the woman has none. The man kisses, the woman is kissed. At the reception, only men are given to speak, while the bride remains seated and silent. From that day on, the woman will adopt the man’s name, as will their eventual offspring. Despite all this, the wedding day is said to belong to the woman. This, would you believe, is ‘her day’.

Why should two people who want to celebrate their love and live together put themselves through a wedding, or even get married at all? Or to turn the question round, what is the state, arm in arm with the Church, doing by sanctioning the private relationships of citizens? By legitimizing a particular kind of relationship and denying others, the state is entrenching monogamy and patriarchy while devaluing other forms of life and the people that choose or are forced into them, including single people, people in open or polyamorous relationships, and groups such as African Americans and the poor who for various reasons are less likely to marry. Anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized inter-racial marriages, and sometimes even inter-racial sex, remained in force in many U.S. states until as late as 1967. Is this not the state telling us who is and isn’t fit to raise a family, and what that family ought to look like? Marital status is not merely a matter of social prestige, but is attached to myriad benefits in areas as diverse as banking, taxation, healthcare, and immigration. In addition, marriage benefits the economy by producing new workers and consumers, largely through the unpaid work of women, and by making it difficult for workers with families to support to withdraw their labour. A wedding alone generates a spend of, on average, £24,000 (~$32,000), and probably that again on the gift list, which pales into insignificance compared to the £230,000 required to raise a child. The laws which govern a marriage are drafted by the state rather than the couple that has to abide by them, and while marriage is deceptively simple and straightforward to enter, it is, like the Hotel California, much more difficult to leave—and in two-thirds of cases, it is the woman who files for divorce. Divorce is a personal tragedy unnecessarily inflicted by the state on about 40% of the marriages that it sanctions, amounting in the U.S. alone to one divorce approximately every 36 seconds. When a couple divorces, people usually ask what went wrong with their marriage, but not whether there is anything wrong with marriage itself. Here are the closing lyrics of Hotel California: ‘Mirrors on the ceiling/ The pink champagne on ice/ And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device … Last thing I remember, I was/ Running for the door/ I had to find the passage back to the place I was before/ ‘Relax’ said the night man/ ‘We are programmed to receive/ You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave!’’

To partake in the institution of marriage in the 21st century is also to condone the historical abuses perpetrated in its name. Until relatively recently, women faced a ‘choice’ between marriage and a life of poverty and stigma. In many parts of the world, they still do. In Marriage and Morals (1929), the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that ‘marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.’ Once married, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed into those of her husband, and the so-called marriage bar restricted her ability to work outside the home. Marital rape was not criminalized, and yet contraception, abortion, and divorce were all denied to her. Rape of an unmarried woman was construed as a property crime against her father, robbing him of his daughter’s precious virginity—with, in some cases, the woman forced to marry her rapist. Rape of a married woman by a man other than her husband was construed as a crime against the husband, with little concern or regard for the woman herself. Only from the mid 20th century did evolving social norms lead to the criminalization of marital rape, but there are still many jurisdictions in which it remains a private matter, or in which the law is not enforced. Forced marriage is still practised the world over, including in the U.K. and U.S., and if marriage does not require consent, then, following that logic, neither does any subsequent sexual intercourse. Many married women cannot even leave the home without their husband’s permission. Women who protest or try to escape or so much as talk to another man risk being beaten or even murdered in an ‘honour killing’. In 2013, an eight-year old Yemeni girl died from internal bleeding after being raped by her forty-year-old husband on ‘their’ wedding night.

When I was a child, it was unusual for a woman to drive when there was a man in the car, because the man just had to be in charge. Things have improved since then: women have much more economic and political clout than they did just twenty or thirty years ago, and men are more egalitarian in their approach to matrimony. But women still shoulder the bulk of the housekeeping and childrearing, even when working full-time. A married man is likely to pursue his career as though he were still single, while a married woman is expected to forfeit her public life to follow her husband or care for the young, the old, and the sick in the family. Employers look favourably upon married men, while married women may be passed over for fear that they will go off to have babies or, worse, that they will refrain from colluding with the patriarchy. Because the man brings in more money, his time is valued and prioritized, while the woman’s unpaid contributions, which she fits around the man, remain largely invisible. The more the man earns, the more the woman can slip into subordination, with the middle classes leveraging their privilege to entrench archaic gender stereotypes.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of people tie the knot because they are terrified of loneliness, and social disapproval. But in the longer term, marriage can be even lonelier than its alternatives, and that’s before it breaks up. ‘The trouble’ said Charlotte Brontë in a letter to her correspondent (1852) ‘is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.’ There is also an argument that marriage is detrimental to community, weakening ties with relatives, friends, and neighbours. ‘Families, I hate you!’ wrote André Gide in Les Nourritures Terrestres (1897), ‘Shut-in homes, closed doors, jealous possessions of happiness.’ (Familles, je vous hais! foyers clos; portes refermées; possessions jalouses du bonheur.) There is of course the intimate relationship with the spouse, but sex can lose its appeal when it becomes a habit, or when it is taken for granted—wherefore the proliferation of sex manuals aimed at married women. In the spring of its rapture, romantic love seems to enclose the germs of freedom and fulfilment, but, with the turning of the seasons, yields nothing but failure and frustration—and it is worth noting that man had no need for romantic love back in the day when woman was his possession.

The gay rights movement fought long and hard for gay marriage. But ironically, this obscured the feminist message by making marriage seem like the crowning of love and a fundamental human right. David Cameron as Pater Patriae said that he supported gay marriage because he was a conservative, not in spite of it; and marriage, even gay marriage, or especially gay marriage, is a deeply conservative institution. Equality in marriage as in everything is of course to be welcome, but equality in this case should not be confused with liberation. To have the right to do something because others have it is one thing, to exercise that right is quite another. In the Second Sex (1949), the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that ‘marriage is obscene in principle insofar as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge’. At a time of unparalleled social freedom, why should we limit ourselves to an inauthentic, monotonous, and potentially calamitous life of state-enforced monogamy? Are we really so brainwashed, and so cowered, that we cannot imagine a better way of living?

The Challenges of Intimacy

A country can’t love you. At most it may need you. It’s much the same as people. —André Brink, The Rights of Desire


Emotional intimacy can be understood as a state of closeness between two people resulting from a process of interaction through which they feel able to share increasingly sensitive and significant aspects of themselves that they normally keep hidden, in some cases, even from themselves.

It begins with one person taking a risk by disclosing a private, personal, and emotionally charged thought, feeling, or biographical detail that leaves him or her exposed and vulnerable, in the hope or expectation of a supportive response, which, if forthcoming, encourages further self-disclosure from both parties. This process is largely dependent on goodwill and trust, which in the absence of a strong pull factor, such as mutual physical attraction, can take years to build.

Intimate discourse need not be verbal, and can also take the form of emotional expressions, meaningful glances, sustained eye contact, physical proximity, touch, and such like. Emotional intimacy can lead to physical intimacy, and, less commonly, physical intimacy to emotional intimacy. As a result, the two are sometimes confused. Historically, human beings lived in large families in tightknit communities that provided for all kinds of intimacy. But now, many people rely on just one person, usually their romantic partner, for all their intimacy needs, reinforcing the belief that one cannot have emotional intimacy without physical intimacy, or that they are one and the same. Intimacy exists on a spectrum, and in different shapes and forms: it is possible to create some degree of intimacy in all our relationships, even the most formal or fleeting ones; and, as in the days of yore, it may be that our most intimate relationship is not with our spouse or sexual partner.

Compared to men, women tend to be much better at intimacy, and a woman’s most intimate relationship is often with a same-sex friend. In general, men guard their privacy more closely than women. They are more reluctant to self-disclose, especially to other men. Interestingly, this is not, or not as much, the case for men from non-Western societies, suggesting that it has more to do with culture than with any biological differences between men and women. In the West, men are taught to associate emotions, emotional sharing, and emotional warmth with effeminacy or homosexuality; and to value macho traits such as assertiveness, autonomy, and resilience which conflict with barefaced self-disclosure. As a result, they prefer to reveal themselves in fits and starts, usually under the cover of some other activity such as drinking or sports.

This is a great loss for the male sex. Intimacy can feel like a bubble of bliss in which, at last, we can be ourselves, and, more than that, affirmed in ourselves. Tapping into the perspective, experience, skills, and resources of another broadens our horizons and increases our possibilities. Their unconditional support makes us feel stronger and more secure. Their interest and participation in the minutia of our experience seems to enrich it, lending texture and substance to our otherwise mundane, almost mechanical lives. Unsurprisingly, people who report having one or more intimate relationships tend to be happier and healthier, and intimacy is an important predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction.

Given its promise, the ability to create and sustain intimacy is key to a certain kind of flourishing life. Deep intimacy requires healthy self-esteem, to tolerate the vulnerability that comes with the self-disclosure of emotionally charged material. It also calls for courage and curiosity, and a fair amount of self-knowledge, with many avenues for further intimacy sealed off by not knowing what one thinks or feels, and, more to the point, not wanting to find out. It is, of course, not just about scrutinising ourselves, but also about reading the other, reaching beyond their words to arrive at their true meaning and significance, and adapting our every interaction so that it accords with their, and our own, perspectives, dispositions, and sensitivities.

Intimacy involves both give and take, often at the same time within the same interaction; and people who are narcissistic or self-obsessed should take care not to confuse friendship with an onslaught of one-sided ‘self-disclosure’. Intimacy cannot be imposed on people. Nor can it be forced out of them, for example, by probing too soon into their deepest secrets. It has to come naturally, gradually, at its own pace, if it is not to undermine the trust upon which it is built. It can take a long time to start seeing someone for the person that they really are, rather than as an object or instrument in our world. It is hard to trust someone who seems to be coming at us with an agenda of their own, and scant regard for ours. Modern dating, which is largely about instant gratification, and fitting a certain look or stereotype, can leave us feeling like little more than a lump of flesh at the meat market.

Once achieved, intimacy isn’t necessarily the sinecure that we might have hoped for, particularly if the affection that follows after it has acquired the existential flavour which people generally call love. Inevitably, life follows its course, with competing priorities and attachments taking their toll on our relationship. Having poured so much of ourselves into another, we become painfully sensitive to the slightest sign of disdain or indifference on their part, which we interpret as a loss of their goodwill and, more than that, an indictment of the person that we are—and that they know so well. Our natural reaction is then to snipe back or pull up the drawbridge, further undermining the partnership that took so long to build. Later, we may change tactics and tighten our grip, and, suddenly, like a bar of soap, our relationship slips between our fingers. On both sides, affection turns into anger, trust into resentment, and friend into enemy. What we forgot is that intimacy has a life of its own, that it cannot be forced or imposed, and that, sometimes, the best way to save a relationship is to step back before it is too late.

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