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On Marriage

Minimal Marriage

Minimizing MarriageMarriage has been around for five thousand years. Its meaning and purpose have changed during that time, most recently with the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. However, in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake argues that the institution needs more fundamental reform.

“Is there good reason for marriage to be structured as it is—monogamous, central, permanent (or aspiring to permanence), with its dense bundle of legal rights and responsibilities? Is such an arrangement really part of the good life, and should it be privileged in the just society?”

Not only is the institution unjustifiably revered, says Brake, it actively causes harm. Fixing this, she argues, is a matter of justice, and she outlines her proposal for reform.

The case for reform

Marriage presents a particular type of relationship as an ideal: an amorous, exclusive, long-term relationship between two people, where the partners prioritise each other above everything else. Often the individuals must be of the opposite sex.

Brake argues that not only is such a relationship not inherently superior to any other, marriage devalues other relationships by suggesting that it is. Yet despite this, adults who marry are privileged, benefiting from social recognition and rights that are denied to those who are not.

Brake argues that neutrality and political liberalism require that law not be based solely on controversial moral or religious norms, unless they can also be justified by reasons that anyone would accept. Just as the state should not restrict marriage to heterosexual relationships because of the beliefs of some Christians, so it should not restrict it to only two people, to those in an amorous relationship, or to those who only intend their union to be short-term.

Minimal marriage

Brake argues that at its core, marriage is simply a legal framework designed to promote caring adult relationships. Since such relationships can be fostered by benefits granted by third parties, the principal legal function of marriage is to provide an efficient way to designate another person for the receipt of these benefits.

Just as there is no reason for the state to require that the person receiving such benefits should be of the opposite sex from the person granting them, so there is no reason to require that all benefits be assigned to the same person. Currently, marriage involves a mutual exchange of a pre-defined bundle of rights and responsibilities with only one amatory partner. Frequently, the partners are not even aware of all the rights and responsibilities they are exchanging! Instead, Brake argues that the state should allow people to select from these rights and responsibilities and exchange them with whatever individual or individuals they choose. Moreover, these rights need not be exchanged reciprocally. If I choose to assign familial hospital visiting rights to my friend, my friend does not need to extend those same rights to me. Brake calls her proposal “minimal marriage”.

“The central idea is that individuals can have legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange with each.”

Brake argues that the state should put no restriction on the nature of these legal relationships, other than they be caring relationships.

Ideally, Brake suggests that the number of entitlements available would be reduced to only those that recognise or support caring relationships. Other rights, such as those providing health care through marriage, would be removed, since the law should not assume dependency between spouses. However, she acknowledges that there may be practical difficulties implementing this, since we do not live an ideal society.

It’s refreshing to read such a thoughtful critique of an institution that so frequently goes unquestioned. Brake forces us to consider what the purpose of marriage actually is, and whether there might be better ways of achieving those goals. For that alone, Minimizing Marriage is an essential read.


Amatonormativity and the Case for Marriage Reform

Minimizing MarriageHeteronormativity is the belief that sexual and marital relations are only appropriate between a man and a woman. It’s a belief that has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years. Only now is it being challenged. However, there is a more fundamental belief about marriage and sexuality that continues to be taken for granted. In Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake calls this amatonormativity. It’s the belief that a normal relationship is exclusive, amorous, long-term, and involves the partners prioritising each other above everything else; that obtaining such a relationship is a universally shared goal; and that such a relationship should be preferred to other relationship types.

Evidence for amatonormativity is everywhere. It’s in the concerned parental questions about when you’re going to find someone nice and settle down. It’s in the raised eyebrows that greet you when you dine alone, put friendship above romance, bring a friend to a formal event or attend alone, or show no interest in finding romance. Such behaviour is considered odd. That’s amatonormativity.

Adults whose lives don’t follow the amatonormative norm face discrimination. They are subject to negative stereotyping, including accusations of being immature, selfish, irresponsible, a “man-child” or a “crazy cat lady”. Their friendships are denied the social recognition given to those in amorous relationships. They are denied access to the privileges afforded to the married, for example the ability to extend spousal immigration or hospital visiting rights to a close friend instead.

However, amatonormativity is so entrenched that most people consider this justified preferential treatment rather than wrongful discrimination. It is widely believed that amatonormative relationships are superior because they require commitment and promote mutual care. Brake disagrees. Such relationships may require the partners to make a commitment to each other, but they do not guarantee that they will have a commitment, as the divorce rate attests. Moreover, commitment is not desirable in itself. It may facilitate the achievement of complex, long-term goals, but such goals may have no more inherent value than short-term goals that do not require commitment. Likewise, abuse and unidirectional caring can be found as often in amatonormative relationships as in other ones.

Amatonormativity also has negative effects on the lives of those who subscribe to it. “Amatonormativity sustains the belief that marital and amorous relationships should be valued over friendships, and this undermines the attempt to pursue enduring friendships,” Brake writes. “Pressures to enter amorous love relationships likely result in individuals viewing friendships as less valuable than they might otherwise, and in some cases choosing less fulfilling relationships, given their idiosyncratic needs and preferences, than they otherwise might.” Amatonormativity is also responsible for our unrealistic belief that one person should be able to satisfy all our emotional, erotic, intellectual and companionship needs, an expectation that frequently causes unhappiness.

Marriage is not necessary to benefit from amatonormative privilege, but it is usually sufficient for it. Indeed, argues Brake, our current conception of marriage is a major cause of amatonormativity. By holding up one kind of relationship as special, and explicitly privileging it, our culture encourages people to pursue it.

Because marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods commonly attributed to it, is not inherently more valuable than other kinds of relationship, and actively produces harm, Brake argues that it is a matter of justice to reform it.


The Wedding Vow: The Promise it's Okay to Break

Minimizing MarriageIt’s considered bad form to break a promise. We regard those who don’t keep their promises as untrustworthy. If you make a commitment to someone, you’re expected to keep it.

One of the most serious promises that you can make is a wedding vow. Traditionally, this is a promise to stay with someone, for better or for worse, through good times and bad, until death. Indeed, we call it a “vow”, rather than a mere “promise”, to underscore just what a solemn commitment this is. Few promises are weightier.

It’s ironic, then, that a spouse who unilaterally decides to break it will generally face little condemnation.

Few would criticise the unilateral termination of such a vow in cases of abuse, whether physical or mental. But our society sets the bar much lower. If one partner is unhappy, perhaps for no reason more serious than because she no longer enjoys the same leisure activities as her partner, many people consider that sufficient grounds for termination. Even if the leaver made little effort to save their marriage, even if there are children involved, few will condemn someone who ends a marriage unilaterally. It is enough that they are unhappy. The vow seemingly counts for nothing.

This contradiction is explored by Elizabeth Brake in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. She starts by summarising the problem:

“Although many people see marriage as a serious undertaking, divorce—when “irreconcilable differences” threaten one or both spouses’ happiness—is not widely seen as a serious moral wrong. However, breaking a promise is widely seen as a serious moral wrong. This suggests an inconsistent triad:

  1. Wedding vows are promises.
  2. Promise-breaking is morally impermissible in the absence of morally overriding circumstances or release by the promisee.
  3. Unilateral divorce (an unreciprocated decision by one spouse to leave a marriage) is generally morally permissible.

If wedding vows are promises (1), then unilaterally willed divorces are acts of promise-breaking, which, according to (2), are prima facie morally impermissible. But as divorce is generally permissible (3), it cannot be an impermissible act of promise-breaking. How shall we resolve this?”

Brake considers several ways to reconcile these contradictory premises.

The first, what she calls the “hard-line” response, is to reject the third premise, and declare that unilateral divorce is almost always immoral. This view still permits it in some circumstances: where a more stringent moral duty overrides the promise (for example, a duty to protect oneself or one’s children in an abusive marriage); where there has been deception; or where one party has defaulted on an obligation (for example, not to engage in extra-marital sex). However, if none of these conditions apply, the hard-line response does not consider mere unhappiness sufficient reason.

The hard-line response argues that it is morally wrong to break wedding vows, but not that one should be legally compelled to keep them. What is legal and what is moral are not always the same. Moreover, marriage is a contract. Like other contractual arrangements, performance of contracted services cannot be compelled, and where one party no longer wishes to do so, there are typically terms under which the contract can be dissolved.

The second way to resolve the problem is to assert that the “morally overriding circumstances” described in the second premise are almost always present. Brake terms this the “hardship” response because it holds that the hardship of a failed marriage overrides any promise. Essentially, this response boils down to saying that unhappiness, whatever its cause, is sufficient grounds for divorce. However, Brake argues that the moral duty to prevent one’s own unhappiness is no stronger than the moral duty to uphold a promise, except in extreme cases. “Morality requires promise-keeping even at the cost of personal unhappiness,” says Brake.

The third solution is to argue that a promise is not binding if some assumption made by the promisor (in this case, the continuance of love) turns out to be false. Brake dismisses this. Promises based on risky assumptions may be reckless, but they do not excuse the promisor from discharging their obligations. Moreover, those who marry know that love does not last in many marriages, so it’s hard to argue that an assumption that it would continue in theirs is reasonable.

However, Brake contends that there is a fourth option: that wedding vows are not promises at all. She argues that this is because the spouses are promising something (the continuance of loving feelings) that is outside their control, and you can’t promise to do what you can’t do. Brake offers an analogy:

“If you visit me in Calgary, I might say, “I promise to show you Calgary’s historic downtown blues bar, the King Eddy, where some of my colleagues once took Elizabeth Anscombe,” only to find that developers have torn it down; in that case, I never promised you anything. I tried to promise, but didn’t succeed: I didn’t obligate myself to show you the bar because the act is impossible. My failure to perform is not wrong, nor is it promise-breaking.”

You might argue, however, that love is a verb, not a feeling, and that wedding vows are actually a promise to behave lovingly, something that is under our control. Brake disagrees:

“Since the “love revolution,” the Western understanding of marriage involves a crucial emotional component. Spouses may explicitly promise specific acts like sexual fidelity or cohabitation. But surely most do not intend to promise, or be promised, mere behavior… While one can promise to perform love-sustaining acts, this is not a reasonable way to construe the promise people are trying to make when they marry… Conceptually, promising to perform an action requires an intention to promise to perform that action. I have not promised to undertake “love-sustaining acts” if it has never crossed my mind that this is what I am promising, and if I believe I am promising to love someone forever.”

In short, we could promise to behave lovingly, but we don’t. Instead, we recklessly and misleadingly try to promise that our loving feelings will last forever, without realising that this is impossible because we cannot command our feelings.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had the same opinion. Writing in Café Philosophy, Skye Cleary describes his view:

“If romantic love is ephemeral, promising to love your partner forever is absurd and a lie, according to Nietzsche. Love that lasts a lifetime is the exception, not the rule. Love, like any other feeling, is not within the individual’s power. Nietzsche’s argument is as follows: love is a feeling; feelings are involuntary; and a promise cannot be made based on something that one has no control over.

What one can promise, however, are actions. In a loving relationship, one can promise actions that “are usually the consequences of love”. It would be much more appropriate to recognise this contingency and be honest about it. To avoid deception in wedding vows, Nietzsche recommends saying something along these lines:

“FOR AS LONG AS I LOVE YOU I SHALL RENDER TO YOU THE ACTIONS OF LOVE; IF I CEASE TO LOVE YOU, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO RECEIVE THE SAME ACTIONS FROM ME, THOUGH FROM OTHER MOTIVES”.”

Brake’s view is intriguing, essentially arguing that society’s tolerance for unilateral divorce is because it recognises that wedding vows are not promises. But her argument is so technical, that it’s hard to imagine it has ever crossed the mind of the average person. As Brake herself notes, those who marry believe they are promising to love forever, so they are likely to hold the same view of the promise made by someone who leaves their spouse. As such, you would expect them to judge their behaviour on that basis.

Instead, I believe the lack of condemnation for those who walk out of their marriages is explained by Brake’s “hardship” response. Because contemporary Western culture values personal happiness so highly, the unhappiness of a spouse is considered a “morally overriding circumstance”. Even if it might be possible to alleviate their unhappiness through some other means, if the disaffected partner believes that terminating the relationship is the quickest way to be happy again, most people will not judge them for that. Given Brake’s view that morality requires promise-keeping even at the expense of personal happiness, this suggests that, on this point at least, Western culture is immoral.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is our assumption that marriage should make us happy. However, marriage was not designed to maximise happiness. As Stephanie Coontz notes in Marriage: A History, it came about as a way to extend co-operative relations beyond the immediate family and increase the family labour force. It spoke to the needs of the larger group, not the individual. By insisting that it satisfy our personal need for happiness too, we are asking it to do something for which it was not designed. It’s no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce, that so many that don’t are unhappy, and that marriage is universally considered to be hard work.

In the rest of her fascinating book, Brake goes on to consider how marriage might be reformed to better suit our needs today.


Alain de Botton on Changing our Expectations of Marriage

TheCourseOfLoveAlain de Botton's The Course of Love is an unsentimental - some might say pessimistic - look at modern marriage. Writing in the latest issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, Skye Cleary suggests that the book's main weakness is "that it napalms the Romantic ideal so successfully that it’s not clear that the institution of marriage is worth rescuing". But De Botton doesn't argue that we shouldn't get married, just that we should enter it with much more realistic expectations.

“Once, you were deemed ready for matrimony when you’d reached certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a trousseau full of linen, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece, or a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession. Then, under the influence of Romantic ideology, such practicalities grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, and the focus shifted to emotional qualities. It came to be thought important to have the right feelings, among these a sense of having hit upon a soul mate, a faith in being perfectly understood, a certainty of never wanting to sleep with anyone else again. The Romantic ideas are, he knows now, a recipe for disaster.”

Instead, de Botton offers a quite different set of criteria.

One, you’ve given up on perfection:

“Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure rather than of assuming we have found a way to skirt the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, “the wrong person.” This needn’t be a disaster, however. Enlightened romantic pessimism simply assumes that one person can’t be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a “good enough” marriage.”

Two, you don’t expect to be fully understood:

“Love begins with the experience of being understood in highly supportive and uncommon ways. They grasp the lonely parts of us; we don’t have to explain why we find a particular joke so funny; we hate the same people; we both want to try that rather specialized sexual scenario. It cannot continue. When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacities for understanding, we mustn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were—and we did likewise. Which is normal. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with, anyone else.”

Three, you admit that you are crazy:

“It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good—to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step . . . and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.”

Four, you understand that marriage itself is deeply flawed:

“Rabih is ready for marriage because he has understood that it isn’t Kirsten who is difficult. They seem “difficult,” of course, within the cage of marriage when they lose their tempers over such petty things: logistics, in-laws, cleaning duties, parties, the groceries . . . But it’s not the other person’s fault, it’s what we’re trying to do with them. It’s the institution of marriage that is principally impossible, not the individuals involved.”

Five, you are prepared to love, rather than be loved:

“We speak of “love” as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural—and dangerous—fixation on the former. We start out knowing only about “being loved.” It comes to seem, quite wrongly, the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, and clear up while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful. We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly, and make everything better. It sounds “romantic,” yet it is a blueprint for disaster.”

Six, you understand that sex cohabits uneasily with love:

“The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.”

Seven, you accept that in some ways your partner is better than you, and you want to learn from them:

“We should bear having things pointed out to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.”

Eight, you accept that, deep down, you and your partner are not compatible:

“The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the “right” person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.”

Nine, you accept that the love stories in books and movies and TV shows bear little relation to reality:

“By the standards of most love stories, our own real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories—stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalize our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.”

Is de Botton too pessimistic? I don’t think so. As he puts it himself, “Melancholy isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.” If we entered marriage with more realistic expectations perhaps there would be fewer divorces and fewer children shuttling between two houses with no one place to call home.


Alain de Botton on Monogamy

TheCourseOfLove“Marriage,” notes Alain de Botton in one of many pithy observations in The Course of Love, “is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” And no more so, perhaps, than when it comes to sex.

De Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy:

“If love is to be defined as a genuine concern for the well-being of another person, then it must surely be deemed compatible with granting permission for an often harassed and rather browbeaten husband to step off the elevator on the eighteenth floor in order to enjoy ten minutes of rejuvenating cunnilingus with a near stranger. Otherwise it may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself.”

De Botton suggests that the near-universal value we place on monogamy (a value so ingrained that attempts at polyamory often founder on jealousy) has a religious origin:

“In the West, we owe to Christianity the view that sex should only ever rightly occur in the presence of love. The religion insists that two people who care for each other must reserve their bodies, and their gaze, for each other alone. To think sexually about strangers is to abandon the true spirit of love and to betray God and one’s own humanity. Such precepts, at once touching and forbidding, have not entirely evaporated along with the decline of the faith that once supported them. Shorn of their explicitly theistic rationale, they seem to have been absorbed into the ideology of Romanticism, which accords a similarly prestigious place to the concept of sexual fidelity within the idea of love. In the secular world, too, monogamy has been declared a necessary and crowning expression of emotional commitment and virtue. Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted fidelity.”

In an age where contraception has separated sex and pregnancy, shouldn’t such fidelity be unnecessary?

“It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.”

Alas,

“This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin… Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naive to assume that the distinction between “weird” and “normal” has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed “normal” to wear cutoff shorts, expose belly buttons, marry someone of either gender, and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably “normal” to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person.”

The problem, suggests de Botton, is that, for many people, love is “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”. We want to feel special, to be the sole object of our lover’s attention, not one of many. Romanticism tells us that we should be all our lover needs. This value is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us cannot feel loved if we know that our lover is sleeping with someone else.

What’s the answer? De Botton concludes that there isn’t one:

“Adventure and security are irreconcilable, he sees. A loving marriage and children kill erotic spontaneity, and an affair kills a marriage. A person cannot be at once a libertine and a married Romantic, however compelling both paradigms might be. He doesn’t downplay the loss either way. Saying good-bye to Lauren means safeguarding his marriage but it also means denying himself a critical source of tenderness and elation. Neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right. There is no solution.”


Alain de Botton on Why We Marry

TheCourseOfLove“There is no-one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. Marriage is certainly a risky proposition: some estimates suggest that only around 38% of married couples describe themselves as happy and around 50% of marriages end in divorce. So why do we do it? De Botton dissects some of our most common rationalisations.

We marry because we love the way we feel when we’re with our partner, and we assume we’ll continue to feel this way:

“He proposes because he wants to preserve, to “freeze,” what he and Kirsten feel for each other. He hopes through the act of marrying to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual…

[But] Rabih is not marrying—and therefore fixing forever—a feeling. He is marrying a person with whom, under a very particular, privileged, and fugitive set of circumstances, he has been fortunate enough to have a feeling.”

We marry because it’s intoxicating to find someone who loves us:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal, to someone who has often and painfully doubted many things, not least herself, of a proposal from an ostensibly kind and interesting person who seems unequivocally and emphatically convinced that she is right for him.”

We marry because it’s better than being alone:

“To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there’s no one left to call or hang out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.”

We marry because our culture has taught us to value instinct over reason in matters of the heart:

“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages there flowed loneliness, rape, infidelity, beating, hardness of heart, and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative, and abusive. Which is why what has replaced it—the marriage of feeling—has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct, and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of “reasons,” those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six weeks since they met; one of them has no job; or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it may actually be deemed to be, for apparent “recklessness” is taken as a counterweight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable “reason.””

We marry because our culture has lead us to believe that unless a relationship leads to a commitment to stay together for the rest of our lives, then it lacks purpose, and we’re tired of looking for a relationship that can live up to that ideal:

“He asks her to marry him in order to break the all-consuming grip that the thought of relationships has for too long had on his psyche. He is exhausted by seventeen years’ worth of melodrama and excitements that have led nowhere. He is thirty-two and restless for other challenges. It’s neither cynical nor callous of Rabih to feel immense love for Kirsten and yet at the same time to hope that marriage may conclusively end love’s mostly painful dominion over his life.”

We marry because we think we’d be easy to live with:

“He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy. Rabih’s tendency to tidy obsessively when he feels chaotic inside, his habit of using work to ward off his anxieties, the difficulty he has in articulating what’s on his mind when he’s worried, his fury when he can’t find a favorite T-shirt—these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see him, let alone to create a mess, request that he come and eat his dinner, comment skeptically on his habit of cleaning the TV remote control, or ask him to explain what he’s fretting about. Without witnesses, he can operate under the benign illusion that he may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around.”

We marry because of a reckless desire to demonstrate our commitment:

“Those voices which hint that marriage is no longer necessary, that it is far safer simply to cohabit, are right from a practical point of view, concedes Rabih; but they miss the emotional appeal of danger, of putting oneself and one’s beloved through an experience which could, with only a few twists of the plotline, result in mutual destruction. Rabih takes his very willingness to be ruined in love’s name as proof of his commitment.”

This recklessness is captured perfectly by de Botton’s definition of marriage:

“Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.”


Mark Vernon on Friendship, Love and Sex

The Meaning of Friendship

“A friendship which includes a sexual element is the best sort of relationship that many people hope to have,” says Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship. “The downside is that sex can clearly imperil friendships by its possessiveness or its inappropriateness.”

Sex presents a number of problems to friendship. First, relationships based on physical attraction can form quickly, with little need for personal disclosure. In this respect, they are similar to relationships based on utility or a shared interest. As a result, the relationship may fall apart if the couple later realise there is no real basis for any friendship between them.

Conversely, friends who sense a sexual undercurrent developing between them may hesitate to pursue those feelings lest they put the friendship at risk.

However, even just the possibility of such feelings developing can cause problems:

“Imagine a man and woman becoming friends at work - good friends - and deciding to go out for dinner together as an apparently natural extension of the friendship. Then, as they're sat across the table from each other - starched linen, candles and a rose between them - they start to feel awkward. Unwittingly, they have been drawn into uncharted waters as dinner for two is the sort of thing that lovers do, not friends. The evening is one of embarrassment, and the friendship flounders. What's happened is that cultural assumptions about the activities associated with a sexual relationship have imperilled a friendship quite as effectively as any actual erotic attraction itself…

The complication that comes from such an unresolved sexual frisson is the suspense. Indeed, suspense is as much a cause of erotic frisson as any actual sexual attraction might be: people do not even need to fancy each other, just be conscious that they might. In Evelyn Waugh's phrase, even 'a thin bat's squeak of sexuality' can frighten people off or distract them from becoming friends.”

However, sex doesn’t just imperil the friendship between lovers, it can jeopardise their other friendships too:

“In today's world, there is a myth of romantic love based upon the idea that two lovers become one flesh, a totalisation of life in the other, supremely enacted in sexual ecstasy which is symbolic of that union. The myth or ideal tends to exclude others, not because lovers do not want friends, but because it tells them that their friends are incidental - pleasant but non-essential adornments to the lover's life together. Although few people in real life believe the myth in its entirety, it is difficult to ignore it entirely too...

Think of the estrangement that can come about between friends after one of them marries another... Or recall just how hard it can be to sustain a friendship when your friend started a new sexual relationship..."

Vernon suggests this may be because the partiality of friendship may be seen as a threat to the supposed primacy of the sexual relationship.

“Is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife - 'forsaking all others', as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.”

To my mind, this is one of the great tragedies of modern marriage. The idea that one person can satisfy all of our sexual, emotional and intellectual needs is infantile. Our notions of exclusivity, indoctrinated in us by our culture, all too often cut us off from a richer, albeit more complex, tapestry of relationships that have the capacity to profoundly improve our lives.

At the root of the problem is our tendency to value sexual relationships above mere friendships. We often talk about how a friendship can blossom into “something more”.  Yet by doing so, we have created an incentive to misunderstand our feelings:

“In a culture where sexual consummation is seen as the highest expression of love that two people can hope for, a fascination for someone is easy to mistake for falling in love, even when it is simultaneously obvious that a sexual relationship would be inappropriate, unsustainable and possibly ruinous of the friendship.”

Aristotle valued things differently:

“[Aristotle] assigns close friendship top place in the hierarchy of human relationships, regarding it as a key ingredient in any flourishing life. There's a place for 'friendly lovers' too, if lower down: they can hope for some contentment. They belong in his second category of friendship, the kind that form because of some mutual shared pleasure, in this case that being sex...”

Vernon seems to agree:

“Perhaps friendship should assert itself more strongly in our romance obsessed world... For contra the myth, there is a love that does not desire to possess. It is called friendship. It loves the other, and wants them both to be free.”


Can Love Last?

CanLoveLastIn Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time, psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell explores why romantic love usually fades over time. His surprising argument is that it's because we expend considerable effort degrading it, and for good reason.

Mitchell argues that it’s our desire to stabilise our relationships, to guarantee access to love, that undermines desire:

“The great irony inherent in our efforts to make love safer is that those efforts always make it more dangerous. One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling. So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety— thereby undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive…

Love, by its very nature, is not secure; we keep wanting to make it so.”

Mitchell considers several factors that are often blamed for the decline of romance in long-term relationships: that it thrives on novelty and is dispersed by familiarity; that sexual lust is difficult to reconcile with respect and admiration; that romance is inspired by idealisation, which withers with exposure to reality; that it turns too easily into contempt; and because it’s eroded by the guilt and self-pity generated by the mistakes we inevitably make.

Romance may be dispersed by familiarity, but Mitchell argues that often that familiarity is not real but constructed, to give us the feeling of security we seek. We convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about our partners, that they cannot surprise us.

Passion doesn’t decline because it’s incompatible with respect and admiration but because it’s so arousing that we do everything we can to control it.

Romance may be fuelled by idealisation, but it doesn’t ebb because reality sets in. Mitchell argues that idealisation is not inherently a bad thing. Fantasy doesn’t necessarily cloud reality, it can also enrich and enhance it. Each offers a different viewpoint that can be useful in different contexts. However, long-term relationships are necessarily utilitarian, and an idealistic view of our partner’s abilities are not helpful in that context.

Romance isn’t eroded because love inevitably becomes contaminated by our natural human aggression. Because of the risks inherent in love, anger and even hatred are inseparable from it. Aggression is a necessary component of romantic passion. Aggression is a response to threat, and the threat of losing the person we love is constant. Romance is not degraded by the presence of aggression, but by an inability to manage it skilfully. Mitchell gives an example:

“There are many different strategies for managing the confluence of love and hate in romance. The basic underlying principle is to both express and control the aggression at the same time by diminishing or obliterating the object of desire. Aesop long ago identified this common solution as “sour grapes”: the seemingly desirable other that disappoints was rotten all along. There might be good grapes out there somewhere, but self-protection against disappointment requires constant reminders not to expect any sweetness from one’s own bunch. Denigration thus serves the purpose of maintaining equilibrium, and a chronic contempt for one’s long-term partner often feels like a necessary requirement for stability.”

Romance isn’t necessarily eroded by the mistakes we make. Mistakes are inevitable, and hence so are the guilt and pathos that flow from them. However, Mitchell argues that guilt and pathos each appear in two forms. In genuine guilt we accept responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that nothing can be done other than bear the feelings of regret and move on. In genuine pathos we may grieve over the way we were betrayed or disappointed, but again, we move on, recognising that the future can be different. In contrast, in guiltiness we become enmeshed by our guilt, becoming stuck in attempts to buy exoneration because we cannot accept the suffering we have caused. In self-pity we become stuck in a perception of ourselves as a victim. Guiltiness and self-pity degrade passion, but genuine guilt and pathos do not.

So can romance last? Yes, says Mitchell, but not by attempting to resolve the tensions inherent in it, or by “a laboured struggle to contrive novelty”. Rather, it requires two people who are able to tolerate its fragility, understand the forces that undermine it, and a willingness to constantly build and rebuild it.


Neil Strauss on Monogamy, Polyamory and Marriage

The TruthOne reason we marry is to create stability in our lives. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz noted in Marriage: A History, since we started marrying for love, around two hundred years ago, marriages have actually become less stable. Is lifelong monogamy an idea whose time has come and gone? Are there other forms of intimacy more appropriate to the way we live our lives today?

These are the some of the questions explored by Neil Strauss in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

“We expect love to last forever. Yet as many as 50 percent of marriages and even more remarriages end in divorce. Among those who are married, only 38 percent actually describe themselves as happy in that state. And 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after having their first child.”

The book is not an intellectual exploration of the subject, but a personal one, as Strauss recounts his own battle to understand what kind of a relationship he himself wants.

“When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore…

Maybe the problem isn’t just me. Perhaps I’ve been trying to conform to an outdated and unnatural social norm that doesn’t truly meet—and has never met—the needs of both men and women equally…

Is it even natural to be faithful to one person for life? And if it is, how do I keep the passion and romance from fading over time? Or are there alternatives to monogamy that will lead to better relationships and greater happiness?”

The book begins with Strauss in rehab for sex addiction after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Like Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Strauss sees his desire for variety in women no differently from his desire for variety in any other aspect of his life:

“I love traveling, eating at different restaurants, and meeting new people. Sex is the same: I like getting to know different women, experiencing what they’re like in bed, meeting their friends and family, and having the adventures and memories…

Whether it’s Nicole or Sage, Anne or Veronika, each woman is a wonderful world unto herself. And monogamy? It’s like choosing to live in a single town and never traveling to experience the beauty, history, and enchantment of all the other unique, wonderful places in the world. Why does love have to limit us?”

Strauss wonders whether the desire for exclusivity is selfish:

“Perhaps on some level, the demand for exclusive love is an immature demand, the desire of the needy child who hungered to be the sole object of its parents’ attention, affection, and care.”

When a relationship starts to fall apart, should we even try to save it? Strauss observes several men in therapy with him struggling hard to save marriages they’re not enjoying anyway. “You know, Neil, I call her every afternoon and tell her I love her,” one man sighs, recounting his attempts to win his wife’s forgiveness. “I send her flowers. I do everything to show her I care.” “But do you care or are you just doing a duty?” retorts Strauss.

“Most people seem to believe that if a relationship doesn’t last until death, it’s a failure. But the only relationship that’s truly a failure is one that lasts longer than it should. The success of a relationship should be measured by its depth, not by its length.”

Echoing Anthony DeMello’s belief that our behaviour is largely programmed into us in childhood, Strauss realises his life is “running on a unique operating system that took some eighteen years to program and is full of distinct bugs and viruses”, and that the roots of his behaviour can be traced back to his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his mother.

“I move on to explain the third type of parenting: enmeshment. This is my upbringing. Instead of taking care of a child’s needs, the enmeshing parent tries to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms: a parent who lives through a child’s accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent, this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection, once they’re in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. This is known as avoidant attachment—or, as they put it here, love avoidance.”

In contrast, one of his therapists says:

“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”

Strauss, however, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with his therapists’ assertions about what’s right and wrong.

“If we eliminate one half of the dysfunctional relationship, the dysfunction is gone,” I explain. “What’s left is a single guy enjoying life and its pleasures. Why is the option with two people in a reciprocal nurturing relationship any better than this option?”

Disenchanted, Strauss quits therapy, agonising over whether to end his relationship with Ingrid:

“This is it, then: I must make a decision. A lifetime of monogamy with the woman I love. Or a lifetime of dating who I want, of doing what I want, of having complete and total freedom. It doesn’t mean I’ll never have a girlfriend or a child or a family. It just means I’ll have them on my terms, not those of this repressive society that expects you to cut off your balls as soon as you say “I do”…

On their deathbeds, people don’t think about their work or their life experiences or the items remaining on their to-do list. They think about love and family. And I’m throwing it away. I may genuinely be turning that nightmare I had when I was a kid— of being a lazy, broke, unloved deadbeat sleeping on the couch in my brother’s perfect suburban family home— into a reality this time. But do I actually want that dream: a house in the suburbs, a domestic routine that never changes, a lifestyle where going out to a movie is some sort of grand adventure, ungrateful kids like me who blame all their problems on their parents?”

He decides he doesn’t.

“Ingrid strokes my head reassuringly and says, “I feel like I caught a beautiful bird in the wild and put it in a cage, just for me to look at.” I listen. She knows. She understands me. “The cage is near the window, and the bird keeps looking outside and thinking about life out there. And I need to open the cage and let it go, because it belongs in the wild.” Then her face falls, her eyes redden, and the tears start coming faster. I can’t let go, but she can. Between sobs, she sputters her last thought, the six words that will haunt me forever after: “But birds die in the wild.””

As Strauss sets out to explore alternatives to monogamy, one of his friends cautions him to remember his real objective. “The goal is not monogamy or nonmonogamy. It’s for you to be living a life that brings you happiness.”

Monogamy has its drawbacks, but Strauss quickly realises that polyamory comes with its own challenges:

“Shama Helena explains that to most people, polyamory means having multiple loving romantic relationships in which all the partners know about one another. The key word here is loving. A relationship that permits only casual sex on the side wouldn’t technically qualify. The other distinction is honesty. Having a secret mistress or being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship wouldn’t truly be polyamorous either. And poly doesn’t necessarily come with freedom. Many relationships, Shama Helena explains, require sexual exclusivity to some or all members of the group— or, as it’s called, polyfidelity…

There’s a concept called compersion. And that means if your partner has another lover, rather than being jealous, you’re happy for her because she’s happy…

True love is wanting your partner to have whatever she wants—whether or not you approve of it.”

As Strauss starts to have non-exclusive relationships, he begins to realise how difficult this is. “Compersion is a struggle. It goes against every fiber of my being. I don’t know if my resistance to it is cultural or evolutionary or both,” he says.

When Strauss tries living with three women in a group relationship in San Francisco, he realises there are other challenges. Now he’s not managing one relationship, or even three, but six: between himself and each woman and between each of the women. The conflicting expectations rapidly bring the experiment in communal living to an end.

“A piece of relationship advice Lorraine taught in rehab rings ominously in my head: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments”…

In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts. But in the end, this strategy leads only to suffering. It’s not a relationship when the other person is completely left out of it.”

Strauss tries other open relationships, but again struggles with jealousy. When he becomes sure that one woman is on the point of leaving him for another man, he calls one of his former therapists, Lorraine, for advice.

““Just remember,” she adds soothingly, “that the only people who can be abandoned are children and dependent elders. If you’re an adult, then no one can abandon you except you.””

This doesn’t help. Strauss realises that although he wants to be able to have multiple partners himself, he wants those he’s with to be exclusive to him. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.

As he begins to realise that polyamory is not for him, Strauss’ thoughts return to Ingrid, and why he loved her.

“Love isn’t about wanting someone to save my life or see a vista with me or make me laugh or any of those selfish reasons I’ve always given for loving Ingrid. Those are just things she can do for me or ways she makes me feel…

[Love is] when two (or more) hearts build a safe emotional, mental, and spiritual home that will stand strong no matter how much anyone changes on the inside or the outside.”

Strauss realises that he should have stayed with Ingrid, and asks her to take him back. Remarkably, she agrees. As the book comes to an end, however, Strauss acknowledges that this is not the end of his story, that building that safe home together will be difficult.

“Though Disney cartoons and romance movies end the moment the lovers reunite, leaving the audience to assume they lived happily ever after, in real life this is the moment the story truly begins…

Without the intensity to keep them busy, the common enemy to unite them, or the obstacles to intensify their longing, these legendary lovers now face the biggest challenge of all: dealing with each other— and the differences, be they great or slight, in their values, upbringings, opinions, personalities, expectations, preferences, and imperfections.”

The Truth is a fascinating account of one man’s journey from monogamy to polyamory and back again, and a sobering reminder of the difficulty of maintaining any kind of relationship with another human being.


Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Role of Marriage

MarriageAHistoryMarriage has existed for around five thousand years. But as Stephanie Coontz observes in the fascinating Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, the idea that love should be the main reason for getting married has only been around for the last two hundred. Coontz presents compelling evidence of how this shift has rendered marriage more optional, fragile and risky than ever before, and illustrates the extent to which our ideas about love and marriage are determined by when and where we are born.

"For thousands of years, marriage served so many economic, political, and social functions that the individual needs and wishes of its members (especially women and children) took second place. Marriage was not about bringing two individuals together for love and intimacy, although that was sometimes a welcome side effect. Rather, the aim of marriage was to acquire useful in-laws and gain political or economic advantage. Only in the last two hundred years, as other economic and political institutions began to take over many of the roles once played by marriage, did Europeans and Americans begin to see marriage as a personal and private relationship that should fulfill their emotional and sexual desires. Once that happened, free choice became the societal norm for mate selection, love became the main reason for marriage, and a successful marriage came to be defined as one that met the needs of its members."

Different perspectives

There are similarities between the institutions classified as marriages throughout history, but coming up with a common definition is difficult.

"Marriage usually determines rights and obligations connected to sexuality, gender roles, relationships with in-laws, and the legitimacy of children. It also gives the participants specific rights and roles within the larger society. It usually defines the mutual duties of husband and wife and often the duties of their respective families toward each other, and it makes those duties enforceable. It also allows the property and status of the couple or the household head to be passed down to the next generation in an orderly manner.

But marriage does not serve all these functions in any one society. Moreover, almost every single function that marriage fulfills in one society has been filled by some mechanism other than marriage in another."

Coontz provides numerous examples to illustrate how our current ideas about love and marriage, far from being timeless and universal, are specific to our culture and age. 

“In the Chinese language the term love did not traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife. It was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals invented a new word for love between spouses because they thought such a radical new idea required its own special label.”

Adultery was sometimes considered a good thing.

“In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to “exert its powers between two people who are married to each other.””

In some societies today, too much love is considered a bad thing.

“In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.”

Coontz provides some fascinating examples of how other cultures have regarded same-sex relationships.

“In many Native American groups, for example, the rare person who chose to do the work of the other gender could marry someone who shared the same biological sex but played the opposite role in the division of labor. A man doing “woman’s work” could marry a man doing “man’s work,” and a woman doing “man’s work” could marry a woman doing “woman’s work.”

These social gender roles completely overshadowed the actual biological sex of the partners. As a result, sexual relations between two people of the same sex, when one had chosen man’s work and the other woman’s work, would not have been considered homosexual, had an equivalent of that label even existed. But eyebrows would certainly have been raised at the idea of a man and a woman living together if both were playing the same work and gender roles.”

The ancient Greeks valued some homosexual relationships above heterosexual ones:

“The Greek model for true love was not the relationship between husband and wife. The truest love was held to exist in the association of an adult man with a much younger male.”

In Victorian England, despite general condemnation of actual homosexual acts, intense same-sex friendships were considered unremarkable:

“People did not pick up the sexual connotations that often make even the most innocent expression of affection seem sexual to our sensibilities today. Perfectly respectable nineteenth-century women wrote to each other in terms like these: “[T]he expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.” They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights.

Only at the end of the nineteenth century did physical expressions of affection between men begin to be interpreted as “homosexual,” and only in the early 1900s did ardent woman-to-woman bonds start to seem deviant.”

Coontz also reminds us that marriage is not a fundamentally religious institution. Not only does it pre-date the Christian church by several thousand years, “for the first eight centuries of its existence, the church itself showed little concern about what made for a valid marriage or divorce among the lower classes of society”.

The rise of the love match

When the idea of marrying for love started to emerge in the late eighteenth century, there were several factors that still acted to stabilise the institution. There was a belief that there were large, innate differences between men and women, and that marriage enabled them to gain the benefit of each other's unique abilities. There was no reliable contraception, so sex and child-bearing were still closely linked. There were penalties for illegitimacy. There were strong social controls on people's personal behaviour and penalties for non-conformity. Divorce was not readily available. Women were legally and economically dependent on men and men were domestically dependent on women.

One by one, these restraining factors fell away. Reliable contraception had a huge impact:

“The pill gave unmarried women a degree of sexual freedom that the sex radicals of the 1920s could only have dreamed of. But when a large number of married couples stopped having children, it also radically changed marriage itself. Not only did effective contraception allow wives to commit more of their lives to work, but it altered the relationship between husbands and wives. Without a constant round of small children competing for their attention, many couples were forced to reexamine their own relationships more carefully. In addition, the growing number of childless marriages weakened the connection between marriage and parenthood, eroding some of the traditional justifications for elevating marriage over all other relationships and limiting it to heterosexual couples.”

Improvements in healthcare and nutrition resulted in people living longer, and therefore being married longer.

“In England in 1711 the median age at death for men was thirty-two. By 1831 it had risen to forty-four. By 1861 it had reached forty-nine, and by the end of the century the median age of death was in the high fifties. “The average duration of marriage,” estimates historian Roderick Phillips, “increased from about fifteen to twenty years in preindustrial Europe to about thirty-five years in 1900.””

The erosion of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy in the 1960s and 1970s, while reversing an ancient inequity, also stripped marriage of one of its traditional functions.

In parallel with these changes came a rise in individualism, in the belief that everyone is entitled to personal happiness and satisfaction. Marriage became freighted with increasingly high expectations: that it should provide sexual satisfaction, emotional intimacy, self-fulfilment, a sense of meaning and a source of fun. Married couples should be best friends and put each other above all other relationships. Each should provide the other with everything they need. Such a package of expectations, notes Coontz, is historically extremely rare.

As love became the main reason to marry, loveless marriages started to be seen as a problem. The idea that women might have to enter such a marriage just to survive economically was seen as unacceptable, and spurred demands for women’s rights. The risk of being trapped in a loveless marriage, if love and intimacy disappeared, prompted calls to make divorce easier. 

“Evidence of a slippery slope leading directly from the celebration of free choice to the destruction of family life was provided by the mounting demands to liberalize divorce laws. In the mid-seventeenth century, the poet John Milton had already argued that incompatibility should be reason enough to declare a marriage contract broken. His view found little support in the seventeenth century but gained much broader backing in the eighteenth. By the end of the eighteenth century Sweden, Prussia, France, and Denmark had legalized divorce on the grounds of incompatibility…

The strongest opponents of divorce in the nineteenth century were traditionalists who disliked the exaltation of married love. They feared that making married love the center of people’s emotional lives would raise divorce rates, and they turned out to be right...

In 1891 a Cornell University professor made the preposterous prediction that if trends in the second half of the nineteenth century continued, by 1980 more marriages would end by divorce than by death. As it turned out, he was off by only ten years!”

Today, 43% of all first marriages in America end in divorce within fifteen years.

All these changes came to a head at the end of the twentieth century:

“In less than twenty years, the whole legal, political, and economic context of marriage was transformed. By the end of the 1970s women had access to legal rights, education, birth control, and decent jobs. Suddenly divorce was easy to get. At the same time, traditional family arrangements became more difficult to sustain in the new economy. And new sexual mores, growing tolerance for out-of-wedlock births, and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment changed the cultural milieu in which people made decisions about their personal relationships. During the 1980s and 1990s, all these changes came together to irrevocably transform the role of marriage in society at large and in people’s personal lives.”

Coontz does not argue that these changes are bad. “When a modern marriage is stable, it is so in a more appealing way than in the past,” she says. Her point is that marriage is no longer necessary:

“Marriage used to be… the gateway to adulthood and respectability and the best way for people to maximize their resources and pool labor. This is no longer the case. Marriage still allows two people to merge resources, divide tasks, and accumulate more capital than they could as singles. But it is not the only way they can invest in their future. In fact, it’s a riskier investment than it was in the past. The potential gains of getting married need to be weighed against the possibilities offered by staying single to pursue higher education or follow a better job. And the greater likelihood of eventual divorce reinforces the appeal of leaving your options open while investing in your own personal skills and experience.”

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage is a fascinating read in its entirety.


Barbara Fredrickson on Love

Love20In Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a fresh paradigm of love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance".

"Forget about the love that you typically hear on the radio, the one that's centred on desire and yearns for touch from a new squeeze. Set aside the take on love your family might have offered you, one that requires that you love your relatives unconditionally, regardless of whether their actions disturb you, or their aloofness leaves you cold. Set aside your view of love as a special bond or relationship, be it with your spouse, partner or soul mate...

Love is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones...

Love is not lasting. It's actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable..."

Instead, says Fredrickson:

"Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care... Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong."

She calls this "positivity resonance", in order to deliberately dissociate it from our  common preconceptions of what "love" means. (Fredrickson's book opens with an oh-so-true quote from Margaret Atwood: "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love".)

What's unusual about this conception of love is (1) the idea that it can arise between any two people and (2) that love is not something that can exist solely in one person but that exists in the connection between them. Or as Fredrickson puts it:

"Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections."

In other words, unrequited love is not love at all.

Neither can love be unconditional. There are certain prerequisites that must be satisfied for it to occur. The first is a perception of safety, the second the existence of connection:

"True connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies... Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present."

So what's the difference between the love you feel for your partner and other kinds of love?

"At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance."

It's not just about the total number of micro-moments we experience in our closest relationships, however. When we deeply understand someone, and accept them for who they are, those moments get triggered more frequently:

"Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other...

Your intimates offer you history, safety, trust, and openness in addition to the frequent opportunity to connect. The more trusting and open you are with someone else— and the more trusting and open that person is with you— the more points of connection each of you may find over which to share a laugh, or a common source of intrigue, serenity, or delight."

Sharing an activity with someone can be a way to generate positivity resonance:

"Couples who regularly make time to do new and exciting things together— like hiking, skiing, dancing, or attending concerts and plays— have better- quality marriages. These activities provide a steady stream of shared micro-moments of positivity resonance."

However, some shared activities may generate positivity, but not love. For example:

"You and your family members take in the same television comedy. Yet absent eye contact, touch, laughter, or another form of behavioral synchrony, these moments are akin to what developmental psychologists call parallel play. They no doubt feel great and their positivity confers broaden-and-build benefits both to you and to others, independently. But if they are not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they do not resonate or reverberate, and so they are not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection."

Fredrickson is unafraid to follow this line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion, carefully drawing a distinction between positivity, love and the bond of marriage:

"And here’s something that’s hard to admit: If I take my body’s perspective on love seriously, it means that right now— at this very moment in which I’m crafting this sentence— I do not love my husband. Our positivity resonance, after all, only lasts as long as we two are engaged with each other. Bonds last. Love doesn’t. The same goes for you and your loved ones. Unless you’re cuddled up with someone reading these words aloud to him or her, right now, as far as your body knows, you don’t love anyone. Of course, you have affection for many, and bonds with a subset of these. And you may even be experiencing strong feelings of positivity now that will prime the pump for later, bona fide and bodily felt love. But right now— within this very moment that you are reading this sentence— your body is loveless."

Nevertheless, Fredrickson's paradigm remains a uniquely liberating one:

"Viewing love as distinct from long-standing relationships is especially vital as people increasingly face repeated geographical relocations that distance families and friends. Falling in love within smaller moments and with a greater variety of people gives new hope to the lonely and isolated among us."

[First published 26 January 2015; updated 16 June 2015]


David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."


Why Good Women Leave Good Men

It's tempting to believe that a marriage only fails when something goes spectacularly wrong. Drug abuse. Alcohol abuse. Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. Cheating. That it requires one or both partners to be significantly defective in some way. Even if a marriage could be blown towards the rocks by less cataclysmic events, we reassure ourselves that we would have sufficient warning to correct course before it foundered.

It's sobering to learn that neither of these things is true. We may see ourselves as a good person, we may try our hardest, we may think that our marriage is healthy. Yet one day, without warning, our partner may leave us anyway.

When this happens, understanding what went wrong may be extremely difficult. Even if we ask our partner why she is leaving, the reasons she gives us may be little more than post hoc justifications of a decision she has already made, not the fundamental reasons that caused her to make it. If she feels guilt or doubt over her decision to walk out, if she dare not admit the true reasons to herself, or herself does not fully understand them, those rationalisations may be essential to allow her to preserve her self-respect. But in an attempt to learn the truth, they may be largely useless.

For the one who has been left, the realisation that they may never understand what went wrong can be as devastating as the loss of the relationship itself. In the absence of a plausible explanation, the tidal forces of cognitive dissonance may threaten to pull them apart. They may feel as if they did nothing to warrant such a betrayal, that they are a fundamentally a good person, yet find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that, having been abandoned, they must be in some way defective. They may instinctively judge the one who left as having acted callously, unforgivably, yet struggle to reconcile this with the kind, thoughtful woman walking out the door, still loved by her friends.

However, while the specifics may remain elusive, there are general templates that may fit such an apparently inexplicable ending.

Perhaps it was a gradual accretion of resentment due to an inability to communicate:

"I have a friend who is going through a divorce right now and “we fell out of love” is her explanation... In this particular relationship, nothing really bad happened. My guess is just that the two of them got on a bad path of non-communication and instead of talking things through, one or both harbored resentment for years. When one of them started talking divorce, they probably went to marriage counseling, but at that point it was just too late. There could have been years when one or both felt lonely and sad and that their marital situation was hopeless."

Perhaps it was a lack of presence:

"Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present."

Or perhaps it was a lack of passion:

"She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time."

However unfathomable it may be, a reason still exists. No-one walks out on a whim.

Our desire for understanding may be driven by a need for closure, or a fear that, without it, our next relationship may founder on the same rocks. But closure is elusive and the circumstances that doomed one relationship are unlikely to play out in exactly the same way in another. Perhaps the best we can do is accept that people change, and two good people, who once fit together well, may not always remain well-matched.

Marriage guarantees nothing. 


Erich Fromm on Marriage

TheArtOfLoving"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed," said Scott Peck. "It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present."

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm starts with the same premise, and extrapolates what this means for marriage:

"This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other— and yet are expected to love each other...

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling— it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?"

However, Fromm continues, it's not that simple:

"Inasmuch as we are all one, we can love everybody in the same way in the sense of brotherly love. But inasmuch as we are all also different, erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all.

Both views then, that of erotic love as completely individual attraction, unique between two specific persons, as well as the other view that erotic love is nothing but an act of will, are true— or, as it may be put more aptly, the truth is neither this nor that. Hence the idea of a relationship which can be easily dissolved if one is not successful with it is as erroneous as the idea that under no circumstances must the relationship be dissolved."

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