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Nietzsche’s (Surprisingly Sound) Advice on Choosing a Spouse

Plenty of advice on what makes for a good, happy marriage has been thrown around for centuries. 

Ironically enough, it was a lifelong bachelor, who possessed rather ambivalent feelings on the institution, who offered some of the very best insights on this front. 

Friedrich Nietzsche never walked down the aisle himself, though he proposed marriage multiple times, to the same woman, who rejected each of his overtures. Perhaps, as may have been the case with Thoreau as well, this experience of unrequited love lent a bit of sour grapes to his future thinking on women and matrimony. For Nietzsche’s professed feelings about marriage would indeed be conflicted; he saw the institution as beneficial for the raising of children, and thus to society as a whole, but also as a potential burden on a man’s personal progress and fulfillment.

But Nietzsche offered similarly dualistic and frequently polemical takes on most other subjects as well. While his approach was to mix irony and seriousness — to provoke thought, rather than offer clear takes — within these intentional obscurifications he nonetheless embedded unarguably sound maxims and timeless truths.

Thus among the philosopher’s writings on marriage, you can find some surprisingly good nuggets of wisdom. Ones that can be used as helpful gauges in deciding whether or not you should consider taking your commitment to the person you’re dating to the next, ultimate, level.  

The main thrust of Nietzsche’s view on matrimony is that if people are to make a good go of it, romantic feelings and sexual attraction alone won’t suffice; the relationship has to be built on a foundation of strong friendship. As he famously said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

In assessing whether your dating relationship has this foundation of friendship, and will thus segue into a happy, successful marriage, Nietzsche would have you ask yourself the following three questions:

Is your significant other a good friend in general? 

To be a good spousal friend, one should have already proved to be a good friend in general. Nietzsche said: “The best friend will probably acquire the best wife, because a good marriage is founded on the talent for friendship.”

If the person you’re dating has healthy, deep, long-lasting friendships, that can be taken as a sign that they’ll make a good spouse; conversely, if their friendships are conflict-ridden, marked by premature ends, or simply non-existent, that can be a red flag worth heeding.

“Do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman up into your old age?”

The above is a direct quote from Nietzsche, and he follows it with this observation: “Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time you are together will be devoted to conversation.”

Feelings of romantic love and lust will decline; your physical bodies will age; but your spouse will remain your primary source of comfort, interest, and entertainment, for, if everything goes well, a half century or more. Marriage is essentially a long conversation, so when you’re dating someone, evaluate the quality of your current communication. 

Do you feel like there’s always more to talk about with your significant other than there is time, that you can hardly get enough of conversing with them? Can you talk about all sorts of things, from the fun to the philosophical? As Nietzsche notes, “Friends do not unquestionably uphold, reinforce, and echo our attitudes but provide new perspectives and interrogate our presuppositions.” So does your partner like being a bit challenged and engaging in a little friendly debate? Can she hold her own in such exchanges without becoming frustrated or offended?

Or, conversely, do your conversations stay shallow, and you find that she doesn’t have much to say, about much of anything?

If the latter is already the case, when your relationship is still fairly new, just imagine how barren the desert of your dialogues will be in the years and decades to come once your respective past histories, present landscapes, and future hopes have already been thoroughly mined, mapped out, and explored. 

While the goggles of new love may cause you to overlook how little real conversation you engage in now, and how much of your time together is filled with trading memes, making out, watching TV, and nothing-more-than-time-filling-teasing, as time passes, you’ll become bored, and the realization you have perhaps five more decades of daily dead time ahead will hit you like a ton of sobering bricks. As Nietzsche observed: “How many married men there are who have experienced the morning when it has dawned on them that their young wife is tedious.”

It’s possible to make too much of the cliché of pitying the older couple at a restaurant that eats their meal in silence. After all, one of the well-earned privileges of intimacy is the ability to comfortably be together without speaking. But while a couple can sit in silence, in the best relationships, you rarely want to. There’s too much you desire to discuss, and your banter is too terribly enjoyable to forgo.

Do you have mutual admiration for each other?

Like Aristotle, Nietzsche thought that the highest type of friendship was one based not just on utility and pleasure, but on a shared commitment to excellence. Each participant in such a relationship loves the other person not just for the practical benefits and sheer delight he or she offers, but because of their luminous, edifying character. Between such friends exists mutual admiration. They motivate each other to be better, and together tackle pursuits that make them such. 

It’s been said that lovers interact face-to-face, while friends move through the world side-by-side. But really, the happiest lovers pivot between these positions; they build a relationship on the intimate heart-sharing between them, while also having a common, noble aim outside themselves that they strive towards both as individuals and as a unit. They have what Nietzsche called “A shared higher thirst for an ideal above them.” 

Love, Nietzsche said, “arouses longing for the Superman,” and this is as true for love in friendship as love in marriage. A partner worth committing to, is one who pushes you to be the strongest, most creative and courageous version of yourself — one who, by their own example of discontent with mediocrity, inspires you, as Nietzsche put it, to “become who you are.”