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Is life as a couple a “laboratory” for the practice of ethics?

Couple arguing

Family life is filled with delights and annoyances that are felt particularly deeply within the couple itself. The hypothetical case study of “Jack and Kelly” offers an illustration that many of you have commented on. What if living together provided a sort of ethical laboratory for each of the partners? This is the idea proposed in the following text. In order to develop this hypothesis, the author of the article briefly recalls the conditions for a successful practice of ethical principles , as well as the operational modes of the imperious self according to Ostad Elahi. Then you will be invited to give further thought to the matter by taking part in a quick poll based on your own personal experience.

The decision for two people to commit themselves to living together as a couple is very often the first true moral contract they have entered into as human beings endowed with freedom of conscience. In any case, it is probably one the most determining ones. Ethics can be defined as the application of the terms—sometimes explicitly specified (e.g. legal obligations), but very often only implied—of this moral contract in all situations of everyday life. In this respect, the relationship between spouses, considering the nature of the commitment itself as well as the frequency and the wide variety of situations that involve both parties, may well be considered as a major testing ground for ethical practice.

There is another, more subtle, reason why living as a couple provides a “laboratory” for ethical practice: each spouse will live next to the person who, over time, has gotten to know them best and will, intentionally or not, serve as a mirror of the other’s character traits in general and of his/her faults in particular. So it will be up to each partner to either consider this situation a tremendous opportunity to improve their characters and correct their flaws, thus developing human and ethical qualities, or opt for avoidance or even favor all sorts of anti-ethical behaviours in their couple.

Conditions for practice

From the moment the practice of ethics is considered to be the foundation of the work needed for the process of spiritual perfection, the concern for ethics within a couple cannot boil down to the more or less intuitive practice of a few principles inherited from education. It actually requires much more sustained attention, as even the best ethical dispositions may be ruined by developing into mere routines.

I will give a few illustrations of this ethical work within a couple, but it stands to reason that the conditions stated here are valid generally, in all contexts of social life. For maximum effectiveness, that is to say to best favor the process of perfection and promote harmony within the couple, the practice of ethics must fulfill a certain number of conditions, among which:

  • The nature of one’s intention: the intention with which this ethical work is carried out with one’s spouse should be truly selfless. The idea is not to change the other but to change oneself. Experience has shown, however, that slipping from one to the other is easy and frequent.
  • The practice of ethics must be repeated: in order for an ethical principle to become part of our second nature, it must be practiced over the long term. Let’s suppose members of a couple have a tendency to make hurtful remarks to each other. It is not by forcing themselves not to do it on one single occasion that they will manage to overcome a deeply engrained habit; rather, they must strive for a long time, even if numerous setbacks are likely to occur along the way.
  • It must be comprehensive: when deciding to practice an ethical principle, one will often be confronted with bitter reactions that have to be accepted as part and parcel of ethical work. Let’s suppose, for instance, that because I have recently realized that my spouse’s professional activity is at least as time-consuming as mine, or even more so, I have decided to participate more in household chores. The chances are, in the beginning, I will tend to make my partner notice my increased involvement and expect being thanked every single time I take down the trash or I vacuum the rooms. And very likely, in lots of cases, my expectations will be totally ignored. Needless to say, if what I wish to do is develop altruistic qualities and a sense of equity in me, then the best thing for me will be not to be offended and keep striving.
  • It must be varied: just as eating healthily requires providing one’s body with varied food, fully developing one’s self by no means implies focusing on one single principle while neglecting the others. For example, solely devoting all ethical efforts toward one’s spouse on being equitable in domestic chores, on the grounds that it is already quite enough, while on the other hand disregarding any emotional dimension will likely result in undermining the relations within the couple.
  • It must be contextually appropriate: the practice of an ethical principle depends on the context and it is important to avoid a blanket approach that disregards specific circumstances. For example, although it is appropriate to be sincere towards one’s spouse, it is not suitable to be so in any kind of way, at any moment or in front of other people. It would then create more difficulties than it would solve.
  • It must be balanced: each principle must be performed in a balanced manner, without going to either extreme. To return to the previous example, sincerity clearly is a key element of ethical practice, but that does not mean we should systematically tell our spouse about the most obscure nooks and crannies of our soul. Or if we decide to be more affectionate with our spouse, that does not mean we should lapse into systematic demonstrations of that affection, which may become quite annoying in the end.

It is worth noting that this ethical work will be all the more fruitful as it is accomplished simultaneously by both spouses in a spirit of fond and mutual indulgence.

What hinders ethical practice: the imperious self

However, as soon as we decide to undertake ethical work, particularly with regard to our spouse, we instantly realize that hindrances and hurdles crop up in our thoughts, which systematically prevent us from implementing the design we harbored and rapidly stifle or waste our motivation to improve. These are the effects of an instinctual entity that Ostad Elahi calls “the imperious self”—a hyperactive entity within us that drives us to act against ethics. Besides head-on attacks from the imperious self that may result in our willpower’s capitulating in front of illegitimate whims or desires, I have noted some of the most effective strategies concerning the imperious self.

  • Unawareness: we are usually totally unaware of the very existence of this entity within us, which makes it fully free to act as it will;
  • forgetfulness: we simply forget to do what we have decided from an ethical point of view;
  • self-justifying rationalization, through which we manage to convince ourselves that we were right after all not to have acted ethically—indeed, the imperious self is also a reasoning power that will resort to slyness and deception to achieve its ends;
  • the shifting of the problem on our spouse: we see the mote in his/her eye but not the beam in our own.

The essential part of the work needed for the process of perfection actually consists in bringing this entity under control so as to be able to practice ethical principles in a resolute, perseverant and constructive way. That is where, Ostad Elahi says, one of the functions of transcendence comes into play. By developing a sincere inner relationship to the divine, human beings receive energy that fuels their spiritual approach, generates a desire for Good in them and enables them to progressively and efficiently master the emotions and impulses that prompt them to harm others as well as themselves.

The effects of ethical practice within the family

As mentioned before, the first impact bears upon the construction of one’s own self and the development of one’s own humanity. These numerous effects include:

  • the fact that spouses become less demanding toward each other, thus easing one of the main causes of disagreement within a couple;
  • the development of true tenderness and intimacy that will strengthen the union even as physical attraction naturally decreases over time;
  • the feeling that a sort of abundance and benevolence surrounds the family, providing help through the unavoidable trials and tribulations of life and favoring better social and material success as well. A couple in which an ethical approach has been implemented is a strong couple with a huge and fruitful fund of mutual trust and confidence.
  • The ethical glue that holds a couple together has notable effects on children and on the quality of their education. It is a well-known fact that the atmosphere in a family has a much bigger impact on children than all the moralizing speeches they could be given, particularly if those speeches are not supported by the parents’ behaviour in everyday life.
  • Such a couple becomes a source of greater well-being and a reliable source of advice and support for all the people around them. The effect of ethical practice goes beyond the framework of the family and spreads around it. One may therefore legitimately speak of an effect of social solidarity resulting from ethical practice within a family.

In conclusion, it seems to me that ethical practice, as defined by Ostad Elahi, reconciles the demands of both material and spiritual life in the most active and responsible way. Asserting—and verifying by experimenting in the most everyday circumstances—that ethical work within a family and particularly in a couple is the foundation of progress towards both deep humanity and the divine is sending out a strong message in this day and age when families tend to fall apart and the transcendent dimension of human beings tends to be widely ignored or denied.

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  1. A. May 04, 2014 12:32 pm 1

    Poll / Practice: varied
    I have also experienced the importance of the emotional side and the impact this can have on the relationship within a couple. Neglecting it is a source of issues (bickering, bitter disagreements) even if one does his/her utmost to help out with daily chores. For instance, calling one’s spouse only to solve practical problems inherent to everyday life, never saying hello with a smile or doing so without even looking at the person, a cold/indifferent welcome/greeting when she/he gets back from work, or not pay full attention when he/she speaks etc.. are all part of a long series of daily micro-deeds that end up accumulating (with time) and are conducive to the absence of the emotional dimension (within a couple’s relationship)

  2. A. May 04, 2014 12:40 pm 2

    Poll / Practice: repeated
    For a few years I have decided, as part of my practical ethical work, to accept all invitations to social events (typically dinners etc..) which my wife and I receive. And this without moaning even if I am tired and I have to get up early on the following day (eg I need to catch an early flight etc..). My wife simply loves social events, dinners etc.. whereas I would be glad to do without them. This iterative practice has considerably reduced frictions within my couple and has strengthened our relationship.

    1. Bob Nov 20, 2023 3:49 am 2.1

      I have a similar situation where my partner likes to travel occasionally whereas I am happy just to stay home. We are an older couple and our traveling is much less often but I am still trying to be more accepting of her needs and do not bicker when she wants to plan a trip and go somewhere.

  3. A. May 04, 2014 12:57 pm 3

    Example of one’s spouse serving as a mirror:

    My wife’s behavior with my children has been extremely useful to identify my shortcomings. She is a an excellent educator and a very good mother: affectionate, benevolent and altruistic (always available for her children). She also enjoys a certain degree of authority and she has a lot of common sense. Whereas I am much more egoistic, + often show a lack of common sense. For instance when confronted with unusual situations like my elder son’s inappropriate language and violent verbal reactions (puberty!) to parental authority she reprimands him but also educates him, whereas my reaction is to reprimand him + to want to throw him out of the house. She is definitely a better educator

  4. Anonymous May 04, 2014 1:09 pm 4

    Poll / Practice: repeated, comprehensive, contextually appropriate

  5. Anonymous May 04, 2014 2:51 pm 5

    Poll / Practice: repeated, comprehensive, balanced

  6. Anonymous May 04, 2014 6:20 pm 6

    Poll / Practice: contextually appropriate

  7. Drftrop May 04, 2014 6:38 pm 7

    Poll / Practice: repeated, comprehensive
    I have been trying not to complain about the things he does. Trying not to criticize him. Or get annoyed at some of his idio syncrescis.

  8. Neda1 May 04, 2014 6:52 pm 8

    Poll / Practice: repeated

  9. Ramin May 04, 2014 8:51 pm 9

    Poll / Practice: repeated
    By repeating ,I have noticed I am much calmer and do not jump to the conclusion very fast.Again ,with the help of higher power that is possible(Divine help).

  10. David May 04, 2014 9:11 pm 10

    Poll / Practice: the imperious self:
    I have noticed that I am mostly unaware of my “imperious self.” But when aware, i noticed that “the imperious self” is like a balloon with a need to be constantly inflated (or otherwise it can not exist!) It inflates itself either by bringing the other party down (ie criticizing, correcting, disagreeing and so on) so in comparison looks taller-better-bigger. Or inflate itself by concealed or frank self praise (how i would do that thing, oh please let me interrupt you to tell you the correct version! from the beginning! I know it, all, I don’t have to hear, tend to do much talking, and so little listening ….) Either way my “imperious self” is operating detrimentally to my couple’s relationship. So i need to constantly wake myself up to awareness!

  11. jo May 04, 2014 10:06 pm 11

    Poll / Practice: repeated

  12. MA May 05, 2014 12:41 am 12

    Poll / Practice: varied, balanced, cleverly knowing our weaknesses and positive points rather than seeing our partner’s faults and causes.
    I’m single. yet i’m experiencing with friends and in society daily the very same issues in different patterns,
    I’m learning from my mistakes in the life lab too.
    Thanks for bringing up such a valuable topic

  13. roxanne May 05, 2014 2:53 am 13

    Poll / Practice: repeated, comprehensive, varied, balanced

  14. Khosrow May 05, 2014 3:46 am 14

    Poll / Practice: balanced
    I have been practicing this during the recent years, and have had acceptable results.

  15. mf May 05, 2014 4:43 pm 15

    Poll / Practice: repeated, balanced, Putting myself in the other person’s shoes

  16. jij May 05, 2014 8:44 pm 16

    Poll / Practice : repeated

  17. N.M. May 05, 2014 9:18 pm 17

    Poll / Practice : repeated, varied
    My impatience with family members has always been a negative point of my personality. Over the past year and a half I have improved but I am still constantly struggling to remain calm and not snap when I am irritated or have a bad day.

  18. Kim May 06, 2014 6:44 pm 18

    Poll / Practice : repeated, varied, balanced
    When I heard a criticism from my spouse the other night I had to remind myself this is an opportunity to evaluate myself instead of getting offended. Even remembering the word Laboratory helped me react better at the time !! So I am having much a better morning today because of this practice.

    1. Bob Dec 02, 2023 4:22 pm 18.1

      I also will sometimes bristle when my wife criticizes me. I see the tendency and am attempting to temper my reaction and take her remarks seriously as an indication to review my behavior. If her remarks are correct I will attempt to change my behavior if necessary. I will try listen and learn more effectively from her comments in the future.

  19. MS May 06, 2014 9:08 pm 19

    Poll / Practice : repeated, comprehensive, balanced

  20. Mk May 08, 2014 3:13 am 20

    Poll / Practice : comprehensive

  21. ahmad May 08, 2014 3:14 am 21

    Poll / Practice : repeated, comprehensive

  22. N May 10, 2014 7:13 am 22

    Stress and fighting over money constitute one of the most oft-cited marriage problems that couples face. Generally speaking, when couples fight about money, their dispute is really symbolic of something different—power struggles, different values, or other issues that surround money. However, in tough economic times, financial stress can actually cause more general stress, and more conflict over things unrelated to money, as well as money-centered arguments. (For example, when I’m extremely stressed about money, may be less patient and more stressed in general; then pick fights with my husband about unrelated things without even realizing it!)

  23. LA May 10, 2014 8:36 am 23

    Poll / Practice : contextually appropriate
    Reminding myself of Ostad Elahi’s lessons of generosity and tolerance in society always brings about a compelling sense of altruistic behavior and practice in me.
    Challenges are not scarce since my imperious self’s attempts to misdirect me are extremely strong. However, I find that after each failure, the need to improve understanding of my mistakes as well as striving to not repeat them, stem from an inward resiliency brought about by the knowledge and awareness that I receive from these posts! So very grateful for them.

  24. N May 10, 2014 9:49 pm 24

    I’ve been married for more than 32 years. I’ve learned that Criticizing and blaming are not effective ways of handling marital problems. And that kind of an on‑going volatile communication stance will only wreck intimacy and punish our marriage.

    Remember, being married and familiar with someone is not a license to trash each other. Some couples have a nasty habit of talking down to each other, thinking that it’s okay because they are married. Well, it’s not okay.
    As Ostad Elahi says we should approach our spouse in a respectful and understanding way. Then he will be more likely to give us the same consideration.

  25. yocto May 12, 2014 3:18 am 25

    Poll / Practice: repeated

    Repetition is my problem. More often than not, when I do something good, be it an altruistic deed or fighting against my imperious self, I convince myself it is good enough, I have done enough, I have done my part and I can stop for a while. Just one little step satisfies me so much that I forget about the big picture, future, what am I doing here and what I should do to actually get results. How could someone dream the dream of “perfection” and only occasionally do what it takes to get there?

    Is this dream something within my reach or is it only within the grasp of a few individuals with high spiritual rank? These occasional acts “in vivo” with long pauses is the aftermath of a lifetime idealistic mindset. What part don’t I understand about “truth is only absorbed and assimilated when put into practice”? This is a sick trick my imperious self plays on me and I always fall for it. I believe Ostad Elahi has mentioned “everything is possible in this world” so isn’t reaching borderline “perfection” an achievable goal? If it is, how can I think about my future and be pragmatic about it?

    I have noticed I do this with everything. I work real hard for one day, then I stop for a while. I exercise for a short period of time, then I stop. I am organized and keep everything in place for one week then everything goes back to chaos and disorder. The only thing I can say I have been consistently doing without interruption is brushing my teeth, every night… I feel bad if I don’t do it. This is how I want to be with fighting against my imperious self and doing good deeds, to repeat so much that it becomes my second nature.

  26. mandana May 12, 2014 5:43 am 26

    Poll / Practice: contextually appropriate

  27. Vida May 12, 2014 6:44 pm 27

    Poll / Practice: repeated

  28. Jimmy May 23, 2014 5:32 am 28

    Poll / Practice: comprehensive

  29. M May 25, 2014 5:33 am 29

    Poll / Practice: repeated, contextually appropriate, balanced

    I just wish I knew what I know now years ago! I’m sure that I could take better routes and make my marriage more peaceful. I have figured out recently that I became that person that I did not like. Instead of teaching the good to my husband , I learned how to be bad and how to hate! And for that I’m so sorry. By looking at my spouse and seeing through his bad behavior , looking for the good in him I could have acted nicer and gotten rid of the bitterness. I always wanted him to change and become the person that I wanted him to be! This is not to say that the way he behaved all these years was right but it’s to say that I could have reacted differently if I had known what I know now. So if I repeated the good behavior, that is contextually appropriate and is balanced I wouldn’t have wasted all these years, and for that I’m so sorry.

  30. mer May 26, 2014 5:34 am 30

    Poll / Practice: repeated, varied, contextually appropriate

    I try not to take him for granted and place myself in his shoes by contributing to daily chores and look out for his needs. I have to fight the urge to be lazy and just let him do things because the more I try, the more he does. The times I can see my intention, is when I go out of my way to do something and he responds the opposite of what I expected. It takes a while of internal turmoil for me to realise it is a good sign and helps me correct my intention.

  31. FA May 27, 2014 5:35 am 31

    Poll / Practice: repeated, contextually appropriate, balanced

  32. mer May 27, 2014 1:04 pm 32

    I know exactly what you mean. It is so hard to persevere, and I find it harder to do the small acts which my imperious self is very quick to point out do not matter!!! For me, what helps keep me going a little longer than before is to not think of what I will gain but what I would lose. If I use your example, I would have to say that the only reason I feel bad about not brushing my teeth is because I am certain that if I don’t I will have bad breath and ultimately I will lose most of my teeth which I do not want to happen. It is not a second nature, just good sense. I am not certain of the ultimate result of my practical program and I am extremely inventive with excuses for not keeping a proper record. But I also have a competitive streak which I use by imagining being in the other world but way back from Him only because the ones in front of me did all those things I thought did not matter, everyday. I know that I am looking at it through material pride but that is enough for me to be able to imagine how terrible it would feel to be at the back and being blocked out from being close to Him by not using the opportunities given to me here. It is a good reminder to me of what I am trying to avoid.

  33. Zk Jun 12, 2014 6:43 am 33

    Poll / Practice: repeated, comprehensive, varied, contextually appropriate, balanced

  34. ari Jun 19, 2014 8:47 pm 34

    “A section of the French civil code stipulates ‘spouses owe each other mutual love, fidelity, help and assistance.’
    It was recently changed after more than 200 years untouched (since 1804) to add the word respect , and this famous section now states: ‘spouses owe each other mutual love, respect, fidelity, help and assistance.’
    (comment from a reader in the French version of the article).

    In some languages, there is a specific respectful “You”. Some spouses use it to communicate with each other…

  35. kbld Jun 22, 2014 1:24 pm 35

    @ ari

    Actually, there is no indication of a duty of “love” in the famous article 212 of the French Civil Code. If somebody knows of a legislation in which this very disposition includes “love”, please let us know. In France, this duty was to be added in this article at the beginning of the 20th century, but they ended up deciding not to add it (see Mélanges Wiederkehr, p. 627: paper of C. Philippe). They thought that law cannot oblige somebody to love someone else. Reciprocally, we can think about that: do we need law to tell us something like that to do it?

  36. ari Jun 23, 2014 7:13 pm 36

    @ kbld

    Thanks for that rectification. This translation was taken from a “un.org” communication (united nations). Other communications use the word “fidelity”instead – perhaps love = fidelity ?

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