Friday, August 14, 2015

Love, Marriage and Bickering

I have commented fairly extensively on different aspects of the history of marriage in The Last Psychoanalyst, so I was happy to read that expert Stephanie Coontz agrees with some of my observations. As might be expected, I agree with some of hers. On other matters we respectfully disagree.

In my book I emphasized that marriage has rarely had anything to do with romantic love. People did not start marrying for love until the early 16th century in Europe and they did not institutionalize love marriage until 17th century England. The champions of love marriage were, of course, the unfairly maligned Puritans.

Coontz believes that love triumphed over marriage. I believe that freedom won out.

Marriage underwent its most significant change when women were given the freedom to choose their husbands. Some women must have chosen to marry for love, but, obviously, women are perfectly capable of taking into consideration the many other factors that make up a durable and happy marriage. To think that women are led around by their emotions or that they make major life decisions for sentimental reasons is slightly demeaning.

This difference noted, we examine the views of Coontz:

Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love. 

In ancient India, falling in love before marriage was seen as a disruptive, almost antisocial act… In China, excessive love between husband and wife was seen as a threat to the solidarity of the extended family.

Marriage has always been a foundational social institution. The survival of one’s genes and one’s culture depends on it. Since most people at most times in human history married when very young, it made sense that adults would not want to trust such an important decision to callow adolescents.

Besides, Coontz continues, if marriage was based on love, the loss of love would be grounds for divorce. Thus, love marriage would be socially destabilizing:

People correctly recognized that marriages based on love were potentially very destabilizing. It was going to lead people to demand divorce if the love died. It was going to lead to people refusing to get married. They were very frightened by this and they thought, “How can we get people to get married and stay married?”

As it happens, in most parts of the world today, marriages are either arranged or semi-arranged. Even in America, where young people want to marry someone they love, but they do not fall in love with just anyone. They take other factors into consideration. If you ignore all of the social implications and run off with someone you love but who is unacceptable to your family and friends, you will have problems.

As Coontz describes today’s marriage, she seems to emphasize ideology more than love. She seems to believe that a marriage of equals is necessarily going to be a love marriage. And yet, marrying for love and marrying according to an ideology are not the same They need not coincide. If Coontz confuses the two, she is in error.

Many of today’s young people believe in a marriage of equals, in marriage as a statement, in marriage making a political point. And yet, on the most practical level, a woman who defers marriage will often find that she will not be marrying the man of her dreams and the love of her life. As a woman gets older, her options decrease and she will often find that she has to settle.

Regardless of whether it is a love match, in a marriage of equals the old rules, Coontz explains, no longer pertain. Such are the wages of politicizing the institution. She means that neither party is bound by the old rules or the old roles. Coontz considers this to be a great opportunity, even though she recognizes that it produces unnecessary stress.

Allow Coontz her say:

The fact that individuals can now lead productive lives outside marriage means that partners need to be more “intentional” than in the past about finding reasons and rituals to help them stay together. A marriage that survives and thrives in today’s climate of choice is likely to be far more satisfying, fair, and effective for the partners and their children than in the past. However, couples have to think carefully about what it takes to build, deepen, and sustain commitments that are now almost completely voluntary.

The notion that the choice of a spouse has now become almost completely voluntary is an illusion. Coontz recognizes it when she says that people should think deeply about their decisions. If they do, their choices cannot be as nearly completely voluntary. They might, however, be willful.

I emphasize that if you fail to take into account the views of those near and dear to you, you will be imposing someone on them whom they may not like. And this will cause you all manner of grief in the future.

Coontz is enamored with the idea of overcoming reasons and rituals. So much so that she considers it inevitable. She offers a different picture of marriage:

You can no longer force your partner to conform to a predetermined social role or gender stereotype or browbeat someone into staying in an unsatisfying relationship. “Love, honor, and negotiate” have to replace the older rigid rules, say psychologists Betty Carter and Joan Peters.

Here she seems to believe that one must choose between coercion and chaos. She is echoing an old feminist notion, to the effect that the only reason women wanted to be mothers to their children, even to the point of working less, was that they were forced to do so.

Over time, cultures have developed rules and roles in order to make marriage more efficient, more effective and more economical. If you need to negotiate every dish, or every chopped carrot or the vast number of activities that need to be coordinated to have a harmonious marriage, you will be spending an ungodly amount of time in conversations that might easily lead to confrontation and drama.

If you choose to waste that much time on unnecessary activities, you are free to do so.

And yet, a marriage where the least gesture must be negotiated will often descend into a power struggle. After a time, women might find that they would rather be alone and men might decide to run off with the nanny—who observes more traditional rules and plays a more traditional role. Of course, not every family has a young nanny… and not every man can afford a divorce. Many of today’s modern marriages stay together because no one can afford divorce and because divorce is bad for the children.

Strangely enough, Coontz has no problem with a marriage filled with constant bickering. One does not understand why she prefers it to harmony, but here is her rationale:

Bickering is absolutely vital to a modern couple coming to marriage with their own habits and expectations and histories. It turns out that 10 years down the line, the couples that didn’t bicker are either divorced or less satisfied with their marriage than the ones who do bicker.

Bickering takes time and energy. It does not advance anything. Those who prefer not to bicker might have decided that a marriage of equals, a marriage where everything is subject to constant negotiation is not worth the trouble. Of course, bickering and negotiating are not the same thing.

Coontz continues:

Today marriage is, above all, a relationship. What makes it a good relationship is that you can enter it or not; you get to choose. You get to change your mind. You get to renegotiate the rules over time. You can leave it if it ceases to be good, and that means that you have more negotiating power within it. But it also means that if you can’t negotiate it to mutual satisfaction, it can break up. The same things that have improved marriage as a relationship have made it less stable as an institution and have required us to do more continuous work and change in our marriages than people used to have to.

In truth, marriage is a social institution. When you consider it to be an expression of love or a political statement, you weaken it.  If you make it into a relationship that can be entered into or dissolved at will, you will be diminishing it and will also destabilize the home life of far too many children.

A married couple is involved in a relationship, but there are many different kinds of relationships and it is wrong to believe that they are all the same.

The best marriages are not filled with constant bickering. They might begin by trying to recreate the institution to suit them, but they often find it too taxing and too disagreeable. At best, they will revert to the mean or to the norm. It beats wasting your time trying to reinvent the wheel.


Sam L. said...

Constant bickering will increase one's stomach acid, and may well lead to finding fault with the partner that cannot be smoothed over, or not without a lot of effort.

David Foster said...

I have heard it claimed...don't know if this is valid or not...that research shows marital bickering to have a much more serious physical impact, ie potential health impact, in men than in women. Would seem to make sense IF the fight-or-flight response is stronger in men.

Anonymous said...

I know several men who did, or still do, endure emotional and/or physical abuse by their wives.

My father, after 20+ years w/my Borderline mother, lived in a flophouse for a while.

My nephew, consigned to living in the spare room, finally couldn't take it anymore. He's now dealing with PTSD. A Navy Chief, 6'2", had items, including knives, thrown at his head by a 5'2" wife.

A retired speechwriter pal has a hefty wife. Last week, she slammed his face into a wall, drawing blood. Not the first time. I'm v worried.

One of my best friends (I have 2) was totally shunned by his wife for 10+ years, then she divorced him.

Women can do emotional abuse far better than men.

I still pine for my ex-wife. We married when I returned from VN. It took me a few years to decompress. By then, we were divorced.

Love. What is is good for? Huh. -- Rich Lara

Recruiting Animal said...

I'm going to assume that romantic love has a purpose. And if it has no place in marriage what is it for?

In traditional, authoritarian societies in which marriages are arranged there would seem to be no other place to express it unless perhaps you were a rich man who is allowed to have concubines or secondary wives.

Everyone has experienced love that has no chance of being requited (for whatever reason) so it is possible to live a life in which you experience romantic love but do not act on it and get over it.

You seem to be saying that so strong an emotion has no place in everyday life like, perhaps, uncontrolled rage.

Anonymous said...

The initial bliss is evanescent. Followed by, ideally, loving companionship. And Inevitably Children, until recently.

I don't know from personal experience. My only romance was brief and troubled by "decompression". But it lives on in my nightly dreams.

Only a part of our brain is human. The frontal lobes and their connection, of which I disremember the term. The remainder burrows down to reptiles and autonomic systems.

The top part is certainly capable of wonderful thoughts and feelings. It's also capable of hate, cruelty, and malignancy - like war, murder, and other horrible violence.

Is love an aspect of "The Selfish Gene"? Which rules us like automatons, most esp. in Reproduction?

I've given up trying to understand it all. I've settled for "The Absurd" of Camus. -- Rich Lara

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"The best marriages are not filled with constant bickering."

My marriage is not perfect, by any means. In fact, most people would look at us and say we're awful. Bickering "all the time," as my mother likes to say. Well, Ma... Our house, our rules. But in most instances it's our sense of humor, assertive independence, and commitment to a higher standard for ourselves, which usually ends in our dryly laughing at the absurdity of it all.

The greatest book I ever read on marriage is John Gottman's "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." It gave me hope. I'm a feisty guy, I argue a lot, don't give in easily, and my mother always told me when I was young that I'd fail at marriage. She was wrong.

What I learned from Gottman was that volatile marriages can work. You just have to find the right match. I could never have married the nice girl down the street. Or the sweet, emotional type that does all the volunteer work, using her sensitivities for good. I have a lovely wife, but she is tough, beautiful, sarcastic, thoughtful, cutting, hilarious, cynical, intelligent, and she fits me perfectly as a foil, confidant, challenger, etc. She's fully human, and fully alive. I love her.

But we get in the corners (a hockey term), sometimes in public, and some can find it a bit unsettling. We do our best to be polite, and comport ourselves well in mixed company, but we do confidently disagree.we do not just "set it aside." We always come out smiling, one of us having made a funny remark that defuses it all. So people squirm, and some are amazed at how our exchanges end. That's how volatile relationships work. And the discomfort goes both ways: we find their interminable niceness and vacant tidbits (eyes fluttering, compassionate humming, unbreakable eye contact, vigorous nodding) unsettling. We ask ourselves "Aren't y'all real with each other?"

I remember our pre-nuptial therapist teaching us "active listening," with all its gesticulating and inane validation customs. We thought it was preposterous. My wife asked her "How do I validate something I don't think is true? Am I just supposed to let that go???" She replied that truth is subjective, and we both immediately cracked up. I literally don't think we ever laughed so hard at anything in our lives. It was stupid. We couldn't get through an interlocution on that system without belly-aching laughter. The therapist HATED us, because it was a weekend group session. I don't remember what that approach was called, but it was pathetic. I mailed her a copy of Gottman's book afterwards. Needless to say, I never got a thank you note back. I'm sure the lady would be heartened to know that we are childless, both as an expression of karma, and testimony to God's infinite wisdom, and for the good of children everywhere.

If I'd married a sweet, tender, dutiful, sensitive, doting, happy-happy-happy woman, I'd probably be insane right now. The "good life" for me is about life in all its heights and lows, seeking truth, standing for "the more," and getting the most from every day. I'm not a go-along-to-get-along kind of person. Nor is my wife. I don't give a $&%# what other people may think. We have a great marriage. If we create an uncomfortable environment for others sometimes, that's not my intention. But I can't stand listening to others' vacant conversations, their platidtudes, their personal sacrifice to pretend to smooth things over, their dripping sentimentality. It's all too "nice," and I know some of them suffer... I've talked to the husbands and wives from time to time. There's pain there. And I see it's avoidable. That's not for us. Live and let live, I suppose. And it goes both ways.

There's no perfect marriage, but you've gotta be honest with yourself and each other if you want to be happy. At least in our case.

Ares Olympus said...

re: The best marriages are not filled with constant bickering. They might begin by trying to recreate the institution to suit them, but they often find it too taxing and too disagreeable. At best, they will revert to the mean or to the norm. It beats wasting your time trying to reinvent the wheel.

In my 20s I read about "consensus decision making" in the context of intentional communities or households, and a core idea was a "block" so any (adult) member of a community or household could block any decision. So the idea was to enable all voices to be heard, and allow everyone to agree to a path of action that affected everyone. There was also a lower vote, basically an "abstain" which could mean not having an opinion, or not having an opinion that you don't need to defend, or at least after having your say.

So of course consensus on every decision in practice becomes time consuming, so the first simplification can be called "delegation" where you divide responsibility among members, and trust the member who has the responsibility delegated will act in the best interest of the group, or consult other members point of view if a choice might be controversial.

I'd expect traditional marriage (from any tradition) uses delegation in this way, like saying the husband is given authority towards the outer world (like where to live), and the wife has responsibility towards the inner world (like raising children or meeting domestic needs). So such authority might appear tyrannical from certain points of view, but benevolant under others, like having the peace of mind that there are things you don't have to worry about. And perhaps there is a biological advantage to such divisions, especially when there are children involved.

But there are overlaps in any system, so that's where things get interesting. Money stands center in a household for bickering, or especially when the appetite for spending exceeds the income available.

In the intentional community system I remember, the answer was bold, but followed the marriage model where all income went into a common account where all bills were paid, but all members received a discretionary stipend every month that could be spent or saved, and there'd be no need to account for how it was spent. And the same system could work with husband and wife, with 3 accounts - his, hers, and ours. It might seem excessive, but it is simple. And some couples might keep 99% of their income in the common account, and others might keep 50% if they were very independent, and might contribute extra from personal savings during times of large purchases.

Questions like "Where to live?" in traditional marriage have the husband would get a larger voice. But where to live in a two-income family is much trickier, unless you're in a large city with opportunity for both, probably one spouse will have to compromise for the other.

The intentional community ideal had similar problems, and partially solve it by what they call "inhouse labor" which partly means recognizing the value of "home economics", but also including starting a home business that could generate extra income. You can imagine daycare for example, if you're caring for your own kids, adding a few more takes not much more work. And again, a division of authority, and no need to bicker.

But the downside of any such agreements, whether a couple or group, is how to deal with slackers, like a wife who wants to stay how and write poetry all day, or a husband who thinks his weekend band will one day make it to the big time. If anyone is doing work they don't 100% like, they risk feeling resentment if the other(s) is/are "following their bliss" that doesn't seem to be helping add to the whole. That has unlimited room for bickering, and while love can carry it a long while, once resentment is recognized, someone's perceptions have to change, and there are no right answers, and splitting up will always seem easier.

Dennis said...

As I have stated before I have been married for over 52 plus years. So long that I don't know any other existence. Much like IAC I don't know whether I could stand being with a woman who wasn't a strong woman able to hold her own with me because I was a typical Type A individual. Twenty years in the military and another 20 plus years working for the DoD required a woman who could handle everything when I was gone. In fact she knew the system better than I did because she had to be strong enough to handle the continuous BS that working with the military entailed. One has to understand the strength of each person and utilize them.
We had 3 children early on about 15 months apart until we figured out what the problem was. (tongue in cheek) She was the at home mother for about 15 plus years. This gave the children the training and love that they needed that is a large part of a child's early upbringing. Interestingly early feminism used to understand this and even tout how important early training was in life, but I digress. Then she started a career where she did not have to think about, for the most part, taking off to deal with taking care of the children who were now growing fast into young adults. Admittedly I did sort of push her out of the house. We both finished careers we could be proud of doing our own thing.
Over the years I began to realize that the vast majority of things people bicker and argue about are not worth the time or effort. If one is observant enough one realizes what are the "red flags" that need to be handled carefully. In retirement we are both into the arts. She in sewing, quilting, embroidering and making things for children and other cancer survivors whereas I enjoy being a performer and a musical director for a big band. There is something about taking 20 plus people plus vocalists and helping them to be the best they can be both as an individual and a group.
Eventually a marriage turns into a business where two people constantly strive to keep success as a goal.

Just an aside here: