The Changing Foundation of Marriage

by Mr. Cheap

I was going to include this post in the “week of romance” back around Valentine’s day, but there wasn’t room (I guess I’ve just got too much love to give).  Marriage and divorce can be two of the biggest factors in personal finances:  the right partner can help us get what we want out of life, and the wrong partner can ruin us.  I think in many ways Western society has an unreasonable view of marriage which makes us more likely to get divorced, and to be unhappy in our relationships.

In the West we’ve developed the view that “true love” is the only acceptable basis for a marriage.  Other cultures and times factoring social standing or financial status into a marriage decision is viewed as incredibly crass by modern, Western standards.  My brother was laughing his head off one time when he told me about a friend of his who was dating a woman he didn’t find attractive and was only dating her because she was a doctor.  His friend’s justification was that looks will fade but she’ll remain a doctor.  The modern (Western) perspective on this is even if you’re thinking such things, you should never say them.  Many people around the world would find my brother’s friend’s perspective completely reasonable (and wouldn’t understand why my brother and I found it so funny).  The funniest part was the doctor dumped the friend eventually.

I have friends who had arranged marriages, and they can never understand the disdain many Westerners have for this style of marriage.  I acknowledge it’s not always the case, but my friends have presented it to me like a match making service:  they get introduced to someone but there’s no obligation to marry if they don’t connect.

Kurt Vonnegut has written that he thinks marriages fail because there aren’t enough people involved.  In the past a marriage would unite two families, so a small horde of people would all be invested in making it work and would keep pushing the two people together.  His view is that in modern times, two people just aren’t enough to “keep it together”.  An Egyptian friend of mine told me when he was getting divorced his father said to him “until you can prove to me differently, I hold you 100% responsible for the failure of this marriage”.  Ouch! How many marriages would endure if this was the attitudes of the parents?  A Japanese girl I went to elementary school with lived with her parents and grandparents and she would talk about how her grandparents hated one another (but had been together for decades).

Clearly this is a negative when considering truly poisonous marriages, perhaps with abuse.  On the other hand, how many marriages might have worked out if there were a few more people involved in wanting them to work out and trying to help the two people stay together.  I know another couple who divorced who had a hyper-active child (it was never said but I think the kid was a big part of the stress in the marriage).  They might have been able to stay together with a bit more support.

In one episode of Penn & Teller:  Bullshit! they featured a psychologist, Helen Fisher, who has a model of human mating that views it as three stages:

  • Lust—the sex drive or libido
  • Romantic attraction—romantic love
  • Attachment—deep feelings of union with a long term partner.

Her perspective on the show (which seems different from what is articulated on her web page) is that couples tend to go through these three stages (they start out in lust, which develops into romantic attraction which develops into attachment).  Her claim was that Western culture is obsessed with the romantic attraction phase, which she argued will only last for the first couple of years of a relationship.  Some people go looking for a new partner that they expect the romantic attraction to last forever with, which just isn’t the case:  it’s a transitory experience.  The movies sell us the idea of “true love forever”, which just isn’t possible.  One perspective on “Romeo and Juliet” is that (spoiler alert!) they HAD to die at the end.  Relationships change, and they would have developed a realistic understanding of one another beyond infatuation if they’d survived long enough.

At conferences I’ve attended recently I got talking (separately) to two middle aged academics who are women.  In each case, their husband had recently left them and they were struggling to make sense of it.  I mentioned Dr. Fisher’s theory, and it resonated with each of them.  One said that she felt her ex-husband didn’t understand that “relationships evolve”.

Of course the changes have been a mixed bag.  Increase gender equality within marriages is certainly a good thing.  But with the high divorce rates, I think there’s SOMETHING that isn’t right with the popular view of marriage (and that it’s very worthwhile trying to figure out a relationship that will work for the long term).

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