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Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

Marriage and Parenting Among Self-Actualizing People - Dr Edward Hoffman

Self-actualizing people express abundant gratitude in marriage and are also sensitive to their child's unique needs

In my previous column, I presented Maslow’s views on friendship and romance among self-actualizing men and women. This column focuses on marriage and parenting. 

Do self-actualizing people marry, and do they experience lasting intimacy?

Maslow regarded marriage as a vital means by which people learn to overcome egoism—or using his own terminology, to gratify their basic needs for love and respect. Of course, he didn’t believe that marriage automatically bestows emotional maturity upon spouses, for he estimated that only 1% of American adults (the vast majority of whom in the 1950s-1960s were married) could be described as self-actualizing. Nevertheless, Maslow believed that marriage was a necessary though not sufficient criterion for self-actualization because its alternative—namely, celibacy—precluded the varied, intense life experiences necessary for personality growth.

Maslow described self-actualizing people as feeling and expressing ample gratitude in marriage. This outlook flowed from his research on peak-experiences, in which gratitude was a frequent concomitant of moments of great happiness and meaning. For example, Maslow stated, “Gratitude is important for emotional health. Both to prevent possible devaluing of daily life and to help retrigger peak-experiences, it is vital that people 'count their blessings'— to appreciate what they possess without having to undergo its actual loss.” 

In the decades since Maslow wrote those words, gratitude has become the focus of considerable psychological research. Mounting evidence shows that gratitude helps to maintain and enhance social relationships including friendships and romance. Studies show that spousal gratitude is associated with experiencing frequent small acts of kindness rather than bombastic but rare kindly acts, and intriguingly, also mediates financial distress in marriage.    

What are self-actualizing people like as parents? 

Based on Maslow’s comments scattered throughout his published writings, it’s possible to glean his conception of how self-actualizers actually function as parents. He and his wife Bertha raised two daughters, and he lived to see the birth and toddlerhood of his granddaughter Jeannie. Born soon after his major heart attack, Maslow took great delight in her presence. Decades earlier, in observing that his two daughters had shown markedly different personalities even while still in the womb, Maslow had become convinced that a truly comprehensive theory of human nature must incorporate inborn aspects. For example, he stated: “To talk of self-actualization implies that there is a self to be actualized. A human being is not a tabula rosa or a lump of clay.”  

How do self-actualizers as parents respond to the role of temperament? In a paper on higher motivation, Maslow reported: “Observations indicate great pleasure in their children and in helping them grow into good adults.” These two qualities, of course, are quite different from one another: A parent can impose a strong moral-ethical code on one’s child tepidly or even coldly, and another can revel in play with one’s son or daughter without ever instilling a sense of morality or ethics. Yet, Maslow was clearly intimating, these two qualities involving joyfulness and value-setting are not contradictory but unified among self-actualizers who raise children. From Maslow’s perspective, therefore, self-actualizing people have a lot of fun with their children while concomitantly committed to teaching values for becoming (in his phrase) “a good person.” 

Maslow viewed self-actualizers as highly sensitive to their child’s unique, individual makeup. Such sensitivity comes from pure attentiveness (what today might be termed mindful parenting), and he saw no substitute for it. Thus, in his essay, Toward A Humanistic Biology, he stated: “The mother, fascinated with her baby, who examines every square inch of it again and again with the greatest absorption, is certainly going to know more about her baby in the most literal sense than someone who is not interested in that particular baby.” 

Maslow sought to maximize his attentiveness to his two daughters utilizing a ploy suggested by his psychiatrist-friend David M Levy’s play therapy innovations. From time to time, Maslow would ask his daughters Ann and Ellen to put on a puppet show, offering to pay them for their delightful entertainment. It was not until many years later that the girls recognized that he had been able to discern their underlying feelings through the self-revealing puppet stories they enacted.  

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org