19 Thoughts About Marriage

“There is no such thing as true love, or soul mates, or a truly satisfying and happy marriage. Except for me and my wife.” — paraphrase, some humanist philosopher

1. My definition of marriage, covering only what I think almost everyone will agree on: A risk-sharing agreement between two people who take responsibility for each other’s well-being. They almost always live together and raise children. A legal marriage makes some financial risk-sharing nearly inevitable. The agreement is usually costly and difficult to leave without clear evidence of abuse or sexual infidelity, and so is generally intended to be permanent at its outset.

2. The most obvious thing about a permanent commitment is that it shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

3. A commitment only affects your actions when the way you promised to behave doesn’t match the way you currently want to. A promise to brush my teeth every morning is as good as meaningless, because I always do. A promise to take care of someone when they’re sick only makes a difference when your relationship with that person has degenerated to the point that you’d rather not. Or so I thought when I was 19.

4. So when I was 19, I didn’t see the point of marriage. I didn’t want to force my future self to stay with someone she didn’t want to be with, and I didn’t want to ask someone to do that for me. Why not just do the best I can in a relationship for as long as it lasts, and then move on?

5. That logic sounded right, but it didn’t always feel right in my gut. Not when I was 20 and started to appreciate stability, when I was 21 and saw that life wasn’t as good without someone to share it with, or when I was 22 and learned that wherever Ben was felt like home. When I was in my early twenties I wanted to marry Ben as soon as I was “old enough”, but I thought marriage sounded like a bad idea.

6. [3] is wrong. A long-term commitment changes my incentives now. There’s some anecdote where an old man tells his grandson why marriages lasted longer in his day: “People my age didn’t grow up with mass-produced disposable everything. When something broke, we fixed it instead of walking away. Relationships are the same way.” Marrying someone makes them harder to dispose of and replace, so it’s less tempting to treat them as disposable.

7. I’ve been sneakily conflating marriage with commitment. But Ben and I have already committed, step by achingly deliberate step, over several years. We went through almost every question of “100 Questions to Ask Before Getting Engaged” before moving in together. We discussed how much money we’d put into each other’s medical and housing expenses, and decided the answer was “a lot.” And — less deliberately and unavoidably — we became closer and closer, until we reached the point where if Ben broke up with me I’d probably cry for six months and move somewhere without so many memories. Maybe in our case, marriage is an affirmation, declaration, and clarification of the commitment that already happened.

8. But let’s pretend that I can talk about marriage and commitment as one giant package. Even so, the theorizing in [3] and [6] seems shaky. Taking an empirical view on marriage — looking at what marriage does for the average person, or the average person who is similar to me — may be more reliable.

9. 41% of the marriages that formed a few decades ago failed, in the sense that they ended in divorce. People sometimes talk about that number as if it implies that 41% of those marriages should never have happened (and 59% should have), but that may not be right.

10. About 27% of marriages between people with college degrees ended in divorce, and people with graduate degrees are even less likely to divorce. It’s unclear whether this is because more educated people are better at picking partners, have better partners to choose from, or face fewer of the stresses that make relationships fall apart. About 70% of married people in the top income quintile describe their marriages as “very happy”, compared to about 50% in the lowest income quintile. People who marry very young (under 18) and high-school dropouts are dramatically more likely to divorce, making averages very deceptive.

11. Married people are happier and healthier than demographically similar unmarried people.

12. Obviously, since everyone is different, statistical evidence isn’t very informative about a specific marriage’s chances of success. Statistical evidence tends to only guide my action when the action has an effect that is either so large or so consistent that the data screams at you — stay in school! don’t smoke! don’t do opiates! These data refuse to scream at me. They just shrug, say “you do you”, and try to change the subject back to Meghan Trainor.

13. What might my marriage for everyone else? Leah Libresco has written about an “outward-facing marriage”, which exists for the purpose of fostering joint projects like raising children, running a business, or volunteering. This seems to have been the historical norm, especially when almost everyone was struggling to survive and running a home-based business or subsistence farm. Libresco talks about a marriage between people who share the same values and try to help each other act ethically.

14. The “inward-facing marriage” that exists for the personal satisfaction of its participants is a modern invention. Stephanie Coontz has suggested that this attitude makes modern marriage more fragile, a thing that ceases to have a purpose once it ceases to be joyous and fulfilling.

15. Although marriage is usually a tax hit for high-earning couples with similar incomes, there are a lot of legal benefits. Most of these are more appealing for the old and the sick.

16. Just as my early reasoning about marriage didn’t feel right with my intuition (see [5]), none of these more optimistic facts speaks to my heart. A pact to act ethically, a team devoted to making the world a better place, the ability to fall back on a second income if a business venture fails: these things sound right and good, but I have no emotional response to them.

17. There’s a cold and rational part of my mind that is almost always in charge. There’s another part of my mind that takes over when I see a cute puppy or when Ben complains that he’s cold or tired; it makes me run towards him pretending to be an airplane whenever I catch sight of him from a distance. She wants to marry Ben so that she can bring him a blanket and read him a story when he’s sick, so that she can shower him with hugs and takeout when he has a terrible day, so that someone will keep her bed warm in the winter. She is sure that she has met her soul mate.

18. Sentimental-Liz’s views don’t make a lot of sense to Rational-Liz. Rational-Liz thinks that you don’t need a marriage certificate to read someone a story. She thinks that even though old married couples in public are really cute, you don’t need the government’s permission to go grocery shopping together.

19. Rational-Liz and Sentimental-Liz have reached the same conclusion, even though their logic is very different. They have resolved to put aside their differences, because they both really like Ben.

About adaldrida

I'm a grad student. My interests are diffuse. Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Empirical Bayes, psychiatry, and sports physiology.
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3 Responses to 19 Thoughts About Marriage

  1. reena says:

    Sentimental-Reena just went d’awwwwwwwwww. This was beautiful.

  2. Pete Santorella says:

    1. I agree with reena.
    2. I bet it makes Ben cry.
    3. I think your # 1 is a very western view. To be more specific, very American. I would love to read some comments from people of different cultures.

  3. Janet Weller says:

    Beautiful, well written and worth saving.
    I do have one question about your statistics re married couples and happiness. I thought it was age and sex specific, that married women, and especially older married women are less likely to be happy than married men and unmarried (older) women.
    (I am still delighted about the engagement)

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