Sunday, January 11, 2015

In Praise of Marriage

Way back when, in the heady days of the Vietnam counterculture and second-wave feminism people were wont to say that marriage was just a piece of paper.

You know… like, your paycheck is just a piece of paper.

Because of this exercise in social engineering, fewer people got married and fewer people stayed married. The enemies of marriage explained that it was a good thing.

Liberated from the shackles of marriage women, in particular, could find themselves and realize their full potential. They did not need men, any more than a fish needs a bicycle.

The argument was dispiriting. First, because it destroyed millions of homes. Second, because it was so profoundly ignorant.

By now, cooler heads have prevailed and everyone agrees that it’s better to be married. It’s better for your mental health and it’s better for your emotional well-being.

Claire Cain Miller reports in the New York Times that social scientists have recently concluded that marriage contributes mightily to your personal happiness. Having long pondered the question of whether happier people were more likely to marry or whether marriage produced happiness, the scientists now believe that the latter is close to the truth.

And they have added that it is even truer when couples consider each other to be best friends.

Miller summarizes the new research:

Social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier, but they debate whether that is because marriage causes happiness or simply because happier people are more likely to get married. The new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, controlled for pre-marriage happiness levels.

It concluded that being married makes people happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who remain single – particularly during the most stressful periods, like midlife crises.

Even as fewer people are marrying, the disadvantages of remaining single have broad implications. It’s important because marriage is increasingly a force behind inequality. Stable marriages are more common among educated, high-income people, and increasingly out of reach for those who are not. That divide appears to affect not just people’s income and family stability, but also their happiness and stress levels.

She continues:

Though some social scientists have argued that happiness levels are innate, so people return to their natural level of well-being after joyful or upsetting events, the researchers found that the benefits of marriage persist.
One reason for that might be the role of friendship within marriage. Those who consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend get about twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as others, the study found.

The effect of friendship seems to be the result of living with a romantic partner, rather than the legal status of being married, because it was as strong for people who lived together but weren’t married. Women benefit more from being married to their best friend than men do, though women are less likely to regard their spouse as their best friend.

Obviously, this requires some elucidation. I would disagree that legal status is trivial. Suggesting that cohabitation is the same as marriage contradicts the research Miller has quoted.

I find it strange that Miller would suggest that marriage is just a piece of paper, especially after she reported that the institution itself provides psychological benefits.

But, what does it mean to marry your best friend?

Here, Miller is suggesting  that we have arrived at a point in human evolution where women do not marry men who are breadwinners and men to not marry women who can function as homemakers.

And yet, why are economically disadvantaged Americans less likely to marry if not that men in those classes are unable to support a family.

Also, being best friends does not preclude respecting the traditional division of household labor. In truth, regardless of whether or not women work outside of the home they still do most of the housework in most American homes. And they are still primarily responsible for childcare.

But what makes a couple best friends?

We note first that friends choose each other freely. You do not choose your parents or your siblings or your relations, but you do choose your friends.

Within the institution of marriage, free choice of a spouse is the exception, not the rule. In many parts of the world today and through most of human history the choice of a spouse was anything but free.

The practice dates to sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe.

As long as the choice is free, an individual may choose wisely or unwisely. A woman might choose a man who will be a good provider and a man might choose a woman who will be a good mother and homemaker. There is nothing about the freedom to choose that precludes the exercise of reason.

But, there’s more to friendship than the freedom to choose.

According to Aristotle, friends see the best in each other. Being a friend means forgoing criticism, taunts, fights and arguments. Being a friend means knowing how to get along.

Also, according to the philosopher, friends remain friends because they demonstrate good character in their transactions. This means that friends are trustworthy, reliable, responsible and loyal.

Often enough, the durability of a marriage or of any relationships depends as much on good character as it does on true love. I would even suggest that in the absence of good character romantic love will eventually die out.


Ares Olympus said...

re: I would even suggest that in the absence of good character romantic love will eventually die out.

There are so many assertions, but connection "good character" and "romantic love" seems the biggest stretch, at least its either obvious, or too nebulous to be saying anything at all.

At least I can think of one of my cousins who basically confessed she divorced her husband of 20 years becase she was bored, and remarried a few years later to apparently a more sexually adventurous man, and they're both in their 50's and regularly go to Vegas and strip clubs together. So there is something boring about good character apparently if you can relax and talk dirty and all that naughty stuff? (Well, maybe this second now 10 year marriage will also end sooner than later, who knows?)

I never talked to her ex after the divorce, but I admit I took his side, so for me good character or not, my "romantic skills" may be limited. At least they say fighting over money is a big reason for divorce, but maybe I don't want my wife feeling so financially secure that taking half our nest egg seems a better deal than staying with a boring husband?

So I find myself as the last never married cousin, but seeing the reasons my female cousins had for their divorces, it does make me think women are pretty shallow.

And they say women do pretty well after marriage, and if they're financially secure after 50 are not looking for a husband any more, while older unmarried men don't fair as well, something about not taking good care of themselves, and having lower intimacy skills after depending on their wives for 30 years or whatever?

So myself, I have nothing against marriage, but as you showed in the start, easy divorce after the 60s and no fault divorce after the 70s made for "boredom" as a legitimate reason for divorce.

I've heard conservatives have expressed the concept of a "Covenant marriage". I very much approve of allowing religious beliefs to define higher standards of commitment.

I accept its still all tricky, like I wouldn't want to force someone to stay married to me against her will, but like if marriage has a "courtship" period before hand, it makes sense to me that there should be a "disolveship" period before a divorce, outside any court nonsense, but within a religous setting where individual and collective goals are expressed and negotiated and as needed a physical separation can be a part of it as needed. And if things are taken slowly and respectfully, there seems a better chance of finding renewed common ground.

Maybe good idealism, but going back to personal, will I stay unmarried? I admit the primary reason I'd marry would be to reinforce my relationship as a household, an economic unit. But from that POV, I'd be willing to get married, knowing we could divorce if our goals diverged, and go our own way, still supporting each other however long is needed for both of us to be ready to move on.

So I see I don't really want a Covanent Marriage myself, a promise until death do us part. I see love can be "until death", while marriage may not.

I admit, if I was married and my wife suddenly decided she want to move to Hawaii for a decade, and I wanted to stay, I'd say it doesn't make sense to stay married with disjointed households.

So it seems my ideals are utilitarian first, and loyal second, and generous third. I just don't want to wake up one day and find an enemy who used to love me. If that's what romantic love is about, I want no part in that.

Kerry said...

Seen on a..."Homosexual marriage, wherein the fish copulates with the bicycle."

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school (Catholic parochial) we had to take a sociology class. The theme there, and in other classes as well, was that marriage was hard work which lasted a lifetime. HARD work, sacrifice were pounded. When I got to college and took marriage in the family, they gave the identical message.

I remember thinking, why would I put myself through that?

As I entered the work force I saw knew many people who went through divorces. Every man was financially ruined. Some said well, "I did not get hit too bad."

Again, my thinking was: why would I do this to myself? Work hard at work, work hard in my marriage, to lose everything in the end.

How can something supposed to be so good be so hard.

Sam L. said...

I'm on #2; I was a widower and she, divorced. I've met him, so I believe her. I've been lucky twice.

My oldest friend from service days later told me he'd never marry an American girl--too demanding. He married a Japanese; she divorced him at about 20 years. Later, he found a European on the internet. I think that was about 6 years. He's now about to do it again. All I can do is wish him luck, but I feel the odds are against him.

Dennis said...

I am trying to think of any worth while endeavor that does not include a lot of work, discipline or it's share of hardships. It is all part of attaining expertise, competence and understanding that leads to enjoyment and ease in a profession, in marriage or in a life lived to its fullest.
Because marriage includes two people who have different experiences and upbringing there is an adjustment, adaptation and balance that has to be learned. Far too many people try to see it as a clash of wills where it is a combining and at best a look for synergy in the relationship. There is no winning, but a quest for agreement. If both people can realize it is not about themselves, but about the family unit then most things become easier to handle.
Admittedly far too many people mistake lust for love and this almost always leads to divorce. Ensure that this is not the case.
Having been married over 50 years there comes a time when one carries on conversations without speaking a word. There is something very satisfying and comforting about that.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Congratulation on your 50 years, Dennis!