Real Estate

Screening Tenants – Advertising And Showings

This post is part of a five-part series about tenants leaving a condo and finding and screening the new tenants:


I’ve touched on this in previous posts, and on comments on other blogs, but I’m a big believer in free advertising when it comes to renting out apartments in Toronto (other markets may be different, but in Toronto, for apartments, you can get enough applicants on the free sites).  I recommend posting ads on Craigslist (in “apts/housing for rent“) and Kijiji (in “apartments for rent”).  Both sites have filters to prevent you from reposting the same ad in a set period of time, but they’re pretty easy to get around (just make some superficial changes to your ad).  Worst case scenario, if it matches the ads together, take down the old ad and re-post a new one every few days.  The reason why you want to repost (and fight the system to do so) is that people will just look back through a certain number of ads and you want your apartment to be in the part they look through (the first ones!  they’re ordered reverse chronologically).

Kijiji sells “priority placement” and will also sell you the ability to move your ad back to the top.  I’ve never used either of these features (if anyone has and they care to comment I’d love to hear your experience).

In terms of the ad, there aren’t any limits to space (that I know of), so there’s no reason to use the crazy newspaper short forms:  e.g. “2 br, 2 ba, part furn”).  Both sites allow pictures, so it’s well worth including some!  I can never understand why some people leave out information (like the rental price!).  I include EVERYTHING I think might be relevant:  pictures, extensive description, all amenities, map of the area, rental price, nearby stores, etc, etc, etc.

Typically I also make up a website which I can direct people to from the ad (officially you aren’t supposed to do this with Kijiji, but again it’s pretty easy to get around).  I’ll copy and past from the website when I’m re-posting ads to one of the sites.

You may feel more “bound” by the sites’ terms of service than I do, in which case feel free to only post once, don’t link to an external website, etc.

There are a number of other sites, some for pay and others that are free.  I posted on all the free ones I could find, but I still found all my leads came from Craigslist or Kijiji.  Doing a Google search on “toronto apartment rental” will probably turn up most of the other sites if you decide it’s worth advertising as broadly as (freely) possible.


When showing the unit, at first I felt a bit weird walking around, gesturing grandly and saying “now please turn your attention to the lovely Corinthian banister”.  In part, because I don’t think Corinthian banisters exist, in part because even if they do exist my unit certainly doesn’t have one and in part because that it just isn’t my style.  When I was first showing my unit, my friend suggested that I feel free to point out any nice features of the apartment, and limit my “selling” to that.  I would have a standard walk around the building pointing out amenities, then I’d show them around the unit and do the same thing there.  I learned a few set responses to common complaints / criticisms such as:

  • “No, there isn’t central air conditioning, but you’re welcome to put in window air conditioning, and since you don’t pay for utilities, there won’t be any monthly fees”
  • “No, there isn’t a dishwasher, but you’re welcome to hook up a portable dishwasher to the sink”
  • “Yes, it is an older building.  Typically you either get a new condo with small units and fancy amenities, or older building with lots of space and fewer amenities.”
  • “No, there isn’t a second bathroom” (I could never think of a better response to this one”)

I foolishly would make appointments with individual applicants when I rented the first time, and it was madness (I spent a couple weeks constantly running back and forth to the condo).  This time I set out a 6 hour block, and told people that’s when they could come.  People who couldn’t make it, I told them I’d keep their contact info and let them know if I arranged another showing.  I did it over a weekend, got a good applicant, had them fall through (more about that in a future post), then did showings over a 2nd weekend and got another good applicant that stuck.

Two Wise Acres (which sadly has become defunct) has a hilarious post “How to manage prospective tenants efficiently, effectively and without killing them“.  I think I got every one of these other than the murderer (which, if you’re going to avoid one of them, that’s the one to avoid).

One thing that is AMAZING to me is how cavalierly people will not show up for appointments, and never call to say so.  My only theory is that it’s a chance for people to “stick it” to a landlord with no fear of repercussion (or maybe people are just ruder than I believe).

Sometimes I’d get phone calls or e-mails from people with INCREDIBLY complex lives and problems, (e.g. I’m moving back to the country and don’t have any rental history, I’m in Edmonton and need you to hold the apartment for me for a week while I book a flight to come see it, I’m going to start school near Casa Loma – which is NOWHERE NEAR the condo you’re renting, but for some reason I’ve decided to move to your part of the city instead).  On other rental issues, Alexandra and Rachelle had each summarized their feelings as “that’s not your problem” when I was asking how to deal with awkward situations with tenants and applicants.  I’m not sure if these people were scam artists or genuine people in a difficult circumstance, but I only went out of my way to a certain limit to accommodate people who had a unique situation and wanted to view the unit.  I think “it’s not my problem” is a reasonable mantra when people start trying to suck you into their drama.

Thanks again to Rachelle and Alexandra ! More details in future posts…


Work Kills a Piece of my Soul Every Day

Every so often I have an experience that reminds me why working is slowly killing me. I’ve started job hunting and the market for technical people is red hot right now (I started sending out resumes last Monday, and have already had 4 interviews today, with more coming up).

I was talking to two guys in Mountain View. They start asking me trivial Java questions. These are THE WORST technical interviews (programming on a whiteboard is bad too). Its like you’re interviewing someone to be a high school geography teacher and the entire interview is asking him populations of countries around the world. At the end, he’s going to feel like shit because he doesn’t have the population of Thailand memorized and you’re not going to have any better idea whether or not he’ll make a good teacher.

There are websites listing Java interview questions, and I could just spend an afternoon, read through them all, then come across like a genius to these nimrods, but I refuse to do it because its just *SO STUPID*. This was one of their questions if you’re interested.

One of them seemed like a decent guy, but the other guy, after every question I said I didn’t know or didn’t answer exactly the way he expected (often with technical questions there are many possible answers, and the interviewer has to be bright enough to realize when an answer is correct – even if it wasn’t the answer he was looking for), he acted snooty and made disparaging comments. Some people seem to be very good at deferring to people higher up the food chain from them, and treating people they see as below them like crap.

Towards the end of the interview I’d had enough and actually stopped it (only the second time I’ve ever done this). It surprises the hell out of interviewers when you end one early (its the ultimate in taking charge!). Probably not the smartest thing to do (I may have lucked out and got offered the job), but why would I want to work for a company that assigns a jerk to interview me?

With technical work, it seems to be necessary to get treated badly by the people above you in order to get a paycheck. I’m not sure if this is because our work is mysterious to them, so they feel they have to exert their authority somehow, or if its because we’re earning big salaries and they resent having to pay them or what.

Maybe this is simply the nature of 9-5 work (and why I hate it).

Real Estate

How To Screen Tenants

This post is part of a five-part series about tenants leaving a condo and finding and screening the new tenants:

I recently had my tenants give me notice and had to go through the process of finding tenants for the second time. I initially expected that it would quite straightforward, seeing as I’d gone through the process before and put quite a bit of thought into it at the time. Surprisingly, I found it quite an anxiety-producing experience: I guess I was out of practice after 3.5 years. Luckily, a couple of my favourite Money Smarts commenters, Rachelle and Alexandra, were willing (and very able) to answer questions, and I think the process went as well as could be expected.

I’ll try my best to identify which suggestions were from who. My apologies in advance if I take credit for something that was actually from one of them (I’ll grab any credit that isn’t nailed down).

Why They Left

I gave my tenants a rent increase earlier in the year, and they gave me notice less than 2 months later. Since rent increases require 90 days notice, and terminating tenancies require 60 days notice (and they paid for the last month’s rent when they moved in), they actually left before the increase took effect.

It’s a VERY debatable point with landlords: do you raise rent on good tenants? I remember one place I was living, they increased my rent from $650 to $700 / month and that was the straw that broke the camels back and I moved in with my girlfriend at the time. Their apartment sat empty for 2 months after I left, which obviously lost them a lot of money. There’s some point when tenants will leave, and the rent going up gets them closer to that point. On the other side of the coin, moving is a pain in the butt, and has a number of expenses associated with it as well. If you’re going to pay more than the increased rent over the next year on the move, are you really saving anything? Also, tenants often get distorted views of “market rent”. They think of prices in terms of what apartments cost last time they were apartment hunting, rather than what the current prices are (and are often shocked when they start hunting and everything is more expensive than they remember).

Given that I only raised my tenants’ rent by 2.1% (and this was after 3.5 years), I find it hard to believe this would have prompted them to move. They also had told me they were considering moving, as one of them was going to school in another part of town and it would have been a brutal commute. I acknowledge that this MAY have just been them being polite, and I drove them out (I’m certain that would be the interpretation of the “never raise the rent” crew).

The reasons to raise the rent is obviously a business decision. While a 2.1% increase of the gross rent may not seem like a lot, when it gets added to your bottom line it can be significantly (this would have been more than a 10% increase in my monthly cashflow).

The new tenants ended up paying the increased rental amount, so the market determined this was a fair price.

Notice to Vacate

I’ve had a very good relationship with the previous tenants, but I certainly wanted to do everything “by the book”. They just wanted to informally tell me when they would move out, but I insisted that they get me an N9 form. They were confused and bothered by the fact that, in Ontario, tenancies end on the last day of the month, but start on the first day of the month. I was sympathetic to this, and thought it was a fair question “where am I supposed to stay overnight with all my stuff?”. Both Rachelle and Alexandra had similar reactions to this and basically said “how is this the landlord’s problem?”. In the end I tried to soften it a little, while holding firm by sending them the following info:

Unfortunately, that is how it works in Ontario (that you need to vacate on the 30th). Surprisingly it isn’t a problem as often as you’d think. Often tenants won’t be in the new unit (they might leave a couple days early from the unit you’re moving into and the new landlord may let you in on the 30th), or the new tenants don’t need the old unit on the first, or the new unit has been empty (like when you first saw the unit you’re in after the renovations), etc., etc., etc. Some buildings have storage they’ll let you use overnight. I once had to move all my packed belongings to a friend’s living room over night (and then move everything again into the new unit the next day). Some people rent cube vans and use them as overnight storage as well as transportation.

They were still unhappy, but in the end, it worked out exactly as I suggested (they were able to move into their new place 1 week early). They couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t let them stay a few days into the next month, but obviously this would have cost me an entire month’s rent.

Another friend of mine who owns and rents a bunch of units says that he will leave units empty for a month for clean-up and repairs between tenants. He acknowledges that this is a big expense, and in part because of this he really looks for very long term tenancies (and has been quite successful in setting up his units with these). This was a higher expense then I was willing to take on between tenancies.

Thanks again to Alexandra and Rachelle! More details in future posts…


The Siren’s Call of Passive Income

I’ve previously posted about if passive income really exists.  Whether or not it does, as viewed from the personal finance community at large, there is a rabid interest in it.  I can understand the appeal, some work is done setting things up and result in the creation of a “financial perpetual motion machine” that throws off money every month.  Build enough of these machines and you can retire to sitting on a rocking chair, sipping lemonade and musing about how it’s good to own investments.  Sign me up!

All sorts of MLM or investment schemes get people pumped on the idea of becoming independently wealthy.  Sadly, often part of this is also providing them with flimsy ethical justification to take advantage of people (sometimes including friends or family).

Rich Dad, Poor Dad“, “The 4-Hour Work Week” and “A Million Bucks By 30” each got people quite excited about their ideas, but also raised some ethical concerns.  Is rushing headlong towards passive investing a reasonable excuse for bad behaviour?

Years ago a buddy of mine got really excited about “The 4-Hour Work Week” and was talking about some of the ideas.  He’s an INTENSELY ethical guy (most of our conversations have been about spiritual and family duties) and I was a little taken aback when he talked about streamlining his job responsibilities to 5 hours a week and doing business development, at the workplace, for himself the rest of the time.  When I asked him if he didn’t feel it was an implicit obligation to do his work efficiently and then use the time for his employer, he got a sly smile on his face and said “if I can get the work done in less time, then don’t I deserve to use the saved time for my own projects?”.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I asked him how his 4-Hour Work Week projects were going and he said he’d abandoned them.  He’d found, in the end, that the approach was driving him to make life choices that he wasn’t comfortable with.  He related some anecdotes about a partner he’d been working with, who he felt was also a very moral, ethical person, who had become obsessed with passive income to the point that it was damaging his life.

I’m certainly not claiming that people after passive income are the only ones who get money hungry or behave unethically, but there seems to be a surprisingly high correlation (in my experience).  Gurus offer some lame justification like “once you’re rich you can start a charitable foundation!” and otherwise sensible people start behaving badly.

When Roosevelt introduced universal retirement pensions as part of the New Deal in the US in the 1930’s, retirement was a pretty radical concept.  My father talks about how his grandparents felt like they’d won the lottery when they got their first pension check (in the 60’s here in Canada).  It seems pretty typical from a modern perspective, but the idea of being given a stipend and turned lose to relax for the rest of your life is a very modern idea.  In the past, family members would each contribute to the degree they were able (including the elderly), and family or savings was what would take care of you if you became too ill to do anything useful (otherwise you’d work).  Early retirement pushes this up even sooner, with young people dreaming of the life of Riley.

At the time of the New Deal, the retirement age was around the life expectancy, so only about half of Americans could reasonably expect to collect a pension (and most who did would die soon afterwards).  With ever climbing life expectancies, we now have retirements that can be expected to last decades (along with the large expenses to the system to provide this luxury).

I’m a pretty open minded guy, and if someone isn’t hurting other people, I take a live and let live attitude.  If sitting around in your undershirt drinking beer all day appeals to someone in their 30’s as what they want to do with the rest of their life, “go for it!” is my gut reaction.  But, will doing so make them as happy as they expect?  There have been research studies that show the typical retirement has negative health impact.  Maybe, as appealing as it sounds, becoming useless isn’t good for us? (to be completely honest, there have been other research studies that didn’t support that retirement was correlated with health issues, but they don’t support my post as well as this paper does 😉 ).

A number of people seeking passive income and early retirement would protest at this point that they don’t want to sit around in an undershirt (hopefully they’ll still drink too much beer).  They’ll say they plan to:  volunteer, go back to school, run a non-profit, write a book, etc, etc, etc.  I’m sympathetic to this:  3 years ago I even wrote a post detailing wanting to do some of these very things, for an early retirement!  While discussing this with a friend, she made the astute observation that I didn’t need to retire to go back to school (and here I am today, half way through a PhD program).

Perhaps, rather than trying to get passive income before starting to live our lives, we should instead consider how we could earn enough to survive, while doing what we want to do.

Business Ideas

Overused Negotiation Strategies

In one review on his site, John T. Reed talks about negotiation and describes it as:

I think negotiation is an important skill in real estate, but I think it’s overrated. If you negotiate too hard, you lose deals to other buyers and you get a reputation that scares people. I would characterize negotiation as important, but only marginally, in the grand scheme of real estate investing—more of an urban myth than a viable strategy. I tried it. I was a real estate agent and I took multiple negotiation seminars and read every negotiating book I could find. More bargains stem from low asking price.

He could be right.  I’ve always been interested in becoming a better negotiator, but still feel it’s an area I’m quite bad at.  Whenever I learn something, it often just gets me really annoyed when someone else tries it, rather than being something useful that I’m comfortable doing myself.  Perhaps it’s useful to know about them and not be affected.  We’ve written in the past about: threats, low-balling, another kick at the can, evading inappropriate questions, motivation to do the deal, being stubborn, being nice (and another excellent post on the topic by Thicken My Wallet), incentive, meaningless promises, and negotiations within ongoing relationships.

I’ve read “Getting to YES“, thought the ideas were great, but never really found an opportunity to put them into practice.  If any PF bloggers are struggling with ideas for posts in the near future, I’d love to read some ideas on ethical, effective negotiation techniques (or a convincing case that negotiation strategies / skills aren’t necessary).

There are some negotiation strategies that are *SO* overused that I can’t believe anyone has the gall to ever try them (but they must work occasionally!).

Someone Else is Interested

An eternal favourite of the used car salesman.  When you’re sitting on the fence about whether or not to buy, you’ll likely get a phone call that someone else is interested in the vehicle you’re looking at.  My father wanted to buy a truck and had said he was willing to pay red or black book price for it, but not the much higher asking price (red book and black book provides value for different year models of cars in Canada, like the Kelley blue book in the US – you can find copies at your local library).  The dealer REALLY didn’t like this, and offered lame justifications on why his higher price was warranted.  My father wouldn’t budge and left.  The next night, at dinner, a phone call came in.  Apparently the dealer was saying that a couple were looking at “my father’s” truck, and if dad could rush right down and buy it, the dealer would still sell it to my father instead.  My father just said “go ahead and sell it to them”, at which point the dealer started protesting and saying that he wanted to sell it to my dad and they could talk about it later.

In my father’s shoes, at that point I’d be livid that someone thought I was stupid enough to be manipulated that easily, but it must work sometimes for the dealer to try it.

In a hot market, real estate agents like this trick too.  The selling agent will say “there’s another offer, tell your buyer to ‘put their best foot forward'”.  The buyer’s agent is equally motivated to maintain the charade, and often you can get a buyer to bid against themselves and increase an offer before the seller has even considered their first one.  One of the most intelligent people I know bought a house recently and she fell for this, which had me scratching my head.

Take It or Leave It

The concept of BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement is very powerful.  Basically the idea is:  what’s your second option if you can’t reach an agreement in the negotiation?  If the person won’t beat that, you might as well just go with the other option.  Say you have a used car you feel is worth $2,000.  You want to give a gift to your niece, who is starting university soon, but really the most you’d want to give her is $1,000 (so you decide to sell the car and give her cash from the sale).  Say dealers keep low balling you and offering you $700 or less for the car.  If you can’t convince them to give you more than $1,000 than you might as well just make the car a gift to your niece and not bother with haggling.

Deciding what you’d do if you can’t reach agreement, assigning a value to it, then making sure you don’t go below that value is a good way to prepare for any negotiation.

One the other hand, some people will say “take it or leave it” at every step of the way, yet then yield and soften their position (claim they have a BATNA they don’t).  They threaten the negotiation (“give me what I want or we’re done”), when they don’t mean it.  If the person won’t offer a reasonable deal, I say let them leave the negotiation.  If they repeatedly threaten this, and don’t follow through, they can’t be taken seriously.

It has Sentimental Value

It’s a cliché to have someone in a pawn broker’s store sobbing about the sentimental value of a watch he’s trying to hawk.  Similarly, sometimes real estate agents will say things like “the seller raised 6 children in this house, she needs to get an offer which takes into account the sentimental value”.  I can’t for the life of me understand why someone else should be expected to pay for “sentimental attachment”.  If I’m that attached to something, I don’t sell it!  Why on Earth would I expect a buyer to compensate me for it???

What are the annoying (and obvious) negotiatation tricks you’re sick of encountering?  Alternatively, what have you found to be an effective and ethical approach to negotiation?


Gym Based Fantasy Workout Leagues

Nike+ is a really neat systems that basically puts a sensor in your running shoe, records the data to your iPod, then helps runners analyze the data and use it to understand their training and health.  I’ve written about the power of measurement in the past, and I’m a big believer that when you give people hard data about something, good results occur.

The basic idea behind this wacky business idea is a gym equipped exclusively with equipment that has extensive sensors attached to each of the machines.  Each time a user uses one of the machines, they swipe an ID card on a reader mounted on the machine and their work out is recorded (data is wirelessly gathered).  Gym users then get a continuous report on their work out program, broken into activities, effort & resistance levels, calories burned, adherence to a workout program, etc, etc, etc.  Automated suggestions are attached to the analysis (e.g. “You seem to be ready for a higher resistance level on the elliptical trainer” or “Increasing your time on the bicycles by 4 minutes would be worthwhile”).  If you go longer than usual without a visit to the gym, it could even send you e-mail reminders to get back into your work out routine.

This may be interesting in and of itself, but then a variety of interesting applications could be built on top of this “platform” for the gym users.  One example might be fantasy sports leagues where instead of the players being modeled on real sports stars, they are simulated based on the users’ work out data.  More core training could give your representative (or avatar) more power in the game.  Doing cardio could make them faster, missing work outs makes it more likely your player will have an injury, etc, etc.  On a regular basis, these simulations play a variety of games with one another, with the results of each match being sent to all the people involved and (hopefully) provide them with more motivation to continue working out and pushing themselves.

Say a group of friends decide to compete in the CyberGym’s 2010 World Cup.  They pick a country to represent them (Spain or Netherlands might be good choices), and their work outs fuel how well their virtual counterparts play.  In each match they play against other people working out at the same gym (or other gyms that are part of the franchise).  There could be a beginner’s league, where stats are based on improvement (so the new guy who is working hard at getting into a gym routine could be the most valuable player), or an advanced league (where the hard core gym rats would clean up).  Your team mates will encourage you to stick to your work out schedule (to increase the odds of winning), and on a regular basis you get e-mailed a description of each match, perhaps personalized with impressive goals your avatar made if you’ve been doing well, or fumbles if you’ve been doing poorly.  Each match description would tie the performance to the user’s work out routine, and have suggestions for modifying the routine to improve the routine and to make the avatar play better in the future.

Similar leagues could be available for tennis, basketball, or any sport that was of interest to people using the gym.

Would such a system make you more interested in working out, or would it just depress you that people are playing virtual sports instead of real ones?

Real Estate

Primary Residence as Your “Best Investment”

I always hear from people that their primary residence has been their “best investment”.  Usually this is accompanied by something along the lines of “it’s worth *8* times what I paid for it!” and a satisfied smirk.  As with many things, I suspect that people with this view are selectively interpreting the data to support the conclusion they want.

The actual return from a primary residence is tricky to calculate.  There is the sale price which can be compared to the purchase price, but there is also a massive amount of expenses that have been paid over the years (taxes, maintenance, utilities, etc).  On the other side, a primary residence lets you avoid paying rent, which must also be accounted for.

Last year, Ramit Sethi had a great post “Be the expert:  What’s wrong with this real estate comment?” where he quoted the following statement:

My father bought our family house in NJ for about $27k in 1964; sold it for $350k in 2000. Home ownership is terrific long-term investment.

and invited readers to critique it.

Erica Douglass, another blogger, gives an excellent analysis (along with other commenters), talking about how the house underperformed the market annually by an average of 4% BEFORE any expenses were paid.  Commenters calculate that the father could have put the money in an index fund, then spent almost $40,000 a year in rent and been in the same finanical position.

We’ve had a distortion in the real estate market over the last few years, and while I don’t think the sky is falling, I also don’t think it’s realistic to expect anything close to the returns we’ve seen over the last decade. This has been an extreme outlier, once in a generation, period in real estate.

Money Pit

People my age (mid 30’s) have never experienced it, but in the past real estate has had long period of no appreciation.  The view at those times were that houses are a money pit that you keep shoveling cash INTO (instead of ATM’s you can take cash out of as we’ve all been doing recently).  Rather than a massive crash where everyone is selling their home for 1/2 what they paid for it, I suspect what we’ll see is a long period of little or no appreciation as we pay for the party we threw last decade.

Rachelle recently posted a great quote from one of Warren Buffett’s letters to investors:

The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities — that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future — will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.

Never Buy Real Estate Again?

Am I saying that no one should buy real estate for the next decade?  Of course not.  I’m just arguing that, today, a primary residence should be viewed primarily as a consumer purchase:  something you’ll enjoy owning.  Like a car, it will possess some value, but buyers should be primarily concerned with whether they can afford it or not instead of what they hope the value will be in the future.  Similarly, investment real estate should be viewed based on its monthly net income, with very little expectation of appreciation.

For those of us who have done well recently in real estate, congratulations!  We shouldn’t expect to repeat it…


The Changing Foundation of Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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