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).

12 replies on “The Changing Foundation of Marriage”

My last husband left me one day with no notice. I basically came home one day to discover that the furniture was gone. There were a lot of things wrong with that relationship. I didn’t need him and he went and found someone who did. These are a few things I’ve learned.

1 – You have to respect the other person and allow them to be who they are intrinsically.
2 – You have to have more than one passion that brings you together the more in common the better.
3 – Kindness goes a long way. No one is perfect.
4 – You have to want the other person to succeed, not be jealous because they are more successful than you are.
5 – Take care of yourself because how happy you are in your relationship often depends on how happy you are in your own skin

I have noticed in my relationships that love waxes and wanes. Certain times I will be really impatient with my husband and not like him very much. Then a few days go by and he’ll do something sweet that reminds me of why I love him so much. I have to stick around to remember.

I also think that a lot of people get distracted by the “lust” phase of an alternative relationship. The grass looks greener on the other side of the fence before you’ve had to wash his underpants and had to live with them and their weirdnesses. The grass may well be far greener on your side of the fence 🙂

Rachelle: I think you’re probably right about all that (and you certainly have more experience than I do – I’ve never been married).

I’d imagine it’d be tough to keep the romance while washing underpants…

Mr. Cheap, that was a nice article.

I agree that couples do need support to succeed. Everyone could use a little help. A strong family makes for a strong community and a strong community makes for stronger families. I do believe -wrongly or otherwise – that the high divorce rate is having a negative impact on our society. From how kids perform and behave at school to how it affects the home economics – we are all interested in money here right!

Try as I might, I can’t understand why someone would enter into a voluntary lifetime contract that has no benefit and only a downside in the event that either party wants to terminate the contract.

Marriage, like many old traditions, is no longer useful. If you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, why do you need to sign a contract to that affect?

Dividend Man,

You are considered legally married after one year’s cohabitation. This is the way I get married 🙂 I have come up with 5 reasons why no one will stand up in public.

1 – No one is brave enough
2 – Too cheap (me lol)
3 – Scared of my family
4 – Not smart enough
5 – Too smart

Marriage is actually a very horrible institution especially for women. It dates back to the time when women were property. A father (previous owner) gave away his chattel (the daughter) to a suitable owner (whomever paid the highest price to the father). Women were expected to be monogamous to ensure that the heir was the fathers. To this day a man who has multiple partners is much more likely to get a pat on the back from his chums. A woman, well not so much.

I’m just saying…

Interesting discussion Mr. Cheap. I agree with Rachelle and Helen Fisher. One thing I would add is that once you’ve reached the attachment phase, it can actually lead to a sort of romantic resurgence. As we mature, we realize that sharing the mundane parts of life as well as the more exciting parts can be very satisfying – even romantic – but in a different way than we experienced romance in our 20’s.

You do you what DRIPs and SPP are right? Alot cheaper and more effective then any of the methods you listed. Only downside however is not all stocks offer a DRIP and SPP but most do.

I think you are missing a key part here Mr. Cheap (and it is ironic on a money blog) and that is MONEY. A lot of the ‘arranged’ marriages stayed in tact through family pressures yes- but the whip being wielded was the economic/social dependence of women on their husbands/families. The marriages ‘worked’ because women gave in. Even in those cultures, educated women are (increasingly) no longer dependent on the men and so now we have the divorce rates to show for it (as traditional men persist in being the troglodytes their dads got away with being). East and West has nothing to do with it.

Another thing I think you are underestimating is the fact that until a generation ago, in these traditional societies (and I come from one) you didn’t actually ‘hang out’ with the spouse. Between the seven kids you had together,the multiple generations living in one house (including elderly people who needed a lot of care and attention), the lack of a fridge (think 3 fresh meals prepared daily from scratch), the insane amounts of socializing that seemed the norm, the spouse was more a logistical partner than your best friend. In my family, most couples didn’t even have a room dedicated to themselves alone. All the things I’ve mentioned have disappeared and the job description of a spouse is completely different now than it used to be. Emotional compatibility needs to be valued now because for most people that relationship is the only non-superficial relationship they’ve got left. You can always earn your own money.

And I disagree with the commenters too. Marriage is necessary because in long term relationships huge decisions get made on the understanding that the partner will be around (kids, career moves, social decisions etc). People think differently than they do when they are on their own.

Pessimist: I’ve had similar thoughts. Marriage used to be about (if you’ll allow me to broadly stereotype and stereotype broads) men bringing income to the table and women bringing necessities of life (cooking, cleaning, etc). There was a division of labour that kept couples firmly locked in the marriage. In “Collapse”, Jared Diamond makes the argument that Norse settlers in Greenland never integrated with the Inuits, in part, because both cultures had clearly defined gender roles (and a mixed marriage wouldn’t have the skills necessary to survive in that climate).

This has certainly changed (people of both genders can more easily make money and take care of themselves these days), which is a good thing but, as you say, if marriage is still necessary for long term relationships that means we need to rethink how to replace this force that kept couples together in the past (or, accept the incredibly high rate of divorce we have).

In the Millionaire Next Door one of the factor involved was the fact that spouses stayed together and worked towards a common goal.

Having been involved in breaking up I can assure you that the emotional toll this takes on you is also expensive. While you’re healing, you’re not fully focused on your career or what you are doing. You make stupid decisions. If there’s kids involved the financial consequences are bad too.

I can definitely see it.

> we need to rethink how to replace this force that kept couples together in the >past (or, accept the incredibly high rate of divorce we have).

I’m a pessimist. I look around and see how few friendships (which are agendaless for the most part) people seem to have and I don’t rate the chances of a complicated (and ever changing) relationship full of obligations/agendas all that highly. But I hope I’m wrong.

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