Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love is...not the same as marriage

A Valentine's Day working of the imaginary tales part of this blog. And don't get titillated. It's not that kind of imagining. Sheesh.

Not that long ago the topic of the Twilight series came up in this blog, which eventually lead me to comment that I don't believe in that true love, one person for life kind of thing. Jim said I should do a post on that, and I thought it was more a book length topic, but my day's coming up on Valentine's Day, so what the hell? Here are some truncated thoughts on the topic.

Now, I've been with the same woman for 22 years and two kids, with no side dalliances whatsoever, so don't go thinking I'm trying to justify any lifestyle for myself here. Like most, I have my middle aged dissatisfactions with the marriage at times, but on the whole it's a good thing, and I like it. Still, I think that the whole marriage to one person for life thing is unrealistic and a product of romanticized views of the institution.

For most of European cultural history (which includes the Middle East origins and the various English speaking inheritors of the former British Empire), marriage has been a very practical affair, if largely one sided in providing all the power in the thing to the male. Of course, it's also been entirely heterosexual, but that's another issue. Marriage was designed to cement power relationships and provide societal stability. As befitting it's one sided nature, affairs by the man were no basis for a divorce, but a woman's affairs were, or even rather slight things like failing to bear children. To encourage and foster the institution, tales developed of finding true love, a la Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and really, the whole Disney pantheon of animated princess movies, which severely edited the original fables (just see Vertigo's Fables to get more information). As the class structure boundaries weakened from the 19th to 20th centuries and on into the 21st, the tales of true love for life remained while the power structure within marriages became more equal. More marriages were entered for romantic reasons rather than practical reasons.

Not surprisingly, this one-two combo meant much more divorce. Why stay in a marriage when the love is gone, or at least less, and each party is perfectly capable of supporting itself (English really could use a good pronoun that covers male and female without making them seem less human)? What we have now is a marriage system based on the flawed premise that a man and a woman will fall in love, get married, and never love anyone else, unless the spouse dies, in which case it's perfectly fine to love someone else.

Human beings are not going to just love one person for their entire lives. I love my wife. Doesn't mean I didn't love anyone before her or won't love anyone after having met her. Now, I can choose not to act on being in love with someone else, post relationship with my wife, but that doesn't mean I won't ever fall in love with someone else. It also doesn't mean I'd stop loving my wife. There's no reason to believe that each of us can't love more than one person at the same time. In fact, it's down right odd that we expect it in romantic love. We teach our kids to love their neighbors; to love strangers, in fact, when it comes to giving to those in need. We teach them to love their parents, grandparents and siblings equally. Some people even go so far as to teach kids to love pets as if they were co-equal to people. That's a lot of love going around, without one diminishing another. Why are we teaching them that they should only have one romantic love? Aren't we setting them up for a conundrum and confusion that's likely to lead them to failure in a one spouse marriage for life?

Going into my marriage, and the 5 years of dating before the marriage, I had no illusion that my wife was the only one in the world for me. I could have decided to go to a different college and never met her, falling in love with someone else entirely. In fact, there have been other women I've known since knowing my wife that I've been very fond of. I didn't stop loving my wife and didn't ever become more than friends with any of those women. But if I didn't have the marriage to my wife, I could have fallen for more than one of those other women just as easily. Somehow, I don't think I'm the only one. The divorce and extra marital affair rates certainly seem to back me up, as well as showing that a lot of people have less will power (or sense) than I do.

Yes, marriage can provide stability, but there's no de facto that it will. There have been tumultuous marriages throughout history. Just because there was no divorce allowed during those times, or very limited divorce, doesn't mean things were better for the partners or, the ever favorite justification for marriage continuing regardless of the partners feelings about it, the "good of the children". (Which leads to another discussion for another time about the inherent invalidity of studies saying marriage is better for children than divorce, as the comparison ought to be unhappy marriages to happy marriages, to amicable divorces to contested divorces.)

Of course, about the same time marriage started changing in its power balance, children started becoming less a commodity and more objections of affection. Which is not to say that our ancestors didn't love their children. Probably no more or less than now, they did love their children. The harsh reality that large numbers of the children would die before reaching adulthood, and the imminent need for children to make a business, household or farm work and continue after the deaths of the parents also commoditized children. With childhood survival being what it is now, and children not being early contributors to household income (really, a huge drain on household income now), having children is mostly to continue the genes and/or for a love of children generally. Oh, some shaping the future of the planet/species goes in there, too, no doubt.

But I digress. Love and marriage. To quote the old Sinatra song, "go together like a horse and carriage." In my mind, marriage, as currently designed as a life long affair, is just as useful as a horse and carriage today. In fact, I'd suggest two alternatives, both with origins in sci-fi. Well, my knowledge of them originates in sci-fi, anyway.

First, there's plural marriage, something interestingly explored in the otherwise none too memorable Star Trek Enterprise. The ship's doctor on that show was an alien who had three wives, who in turn each had three husbands, and so on. That seems a little convoluted, but I'm not opposed to people having more than one spouse, as long as all involved are amenable to it. I'm not in favor of the fundamentalist Mormon version because only the males get multiple spouses, and it's used as a method of power and control in an insular society. In European cultural instances of plural marriage, that tends to be the norm.

Still, even in plural marriage, the way it's been looked at so far involves the same sort of life long marriage. That seems to be the crux of the problem of divorce, if one views divorce as a problem. And even if you don't view divorce as a cultural problem, it's still a financial and child rearing problem.

The second idea would address a lot, if not all, of that. Earth 2 was a sci-fi show that lasted only 1 season, '94-'95. Most people probably don't remember it at all. I'm not going to get into the premise of the show because it's irrelevant, but among the characters was a young married couple with no children. Their marriage was an actual contract. It had a set period of years to it, with terms and conditions. At the end of the period of years, they could decide to renew the contract for another term of years. The show didn't have to address what would be done about rearing children because of their childlessness, but like any good separation agreement, child rearing could as easily be addressed in a contract going into the marriage.

A smart couple would set a short term to start, thus allowing for decisions on extending it prior to the arrival of children. As time went by, if they agreed, they could contract for longer terms. When children were in the picture, a new contract could delineate what would happen if the marriage was not renewed at the end of the contract. It wouldn't be practical to have the contract spell out each detail of what each partner would do in the household or to bring income to the household, though couples could do that if they wished. I'd like something a bit more open to interpretation, but that's me. If people go into marriages with reasonable expectations and defined points where the marriages could be renegotiated, there'd be no need for divorce, except in circumstances involving abuse of some sort. If the marriage contract were violated prior to its term ending, then the contract could be dissolved without the need for a divorce.

Obviously, a lot of additional thought needs to go into this (a book, perhaps), but that's my Valentine's Day proposal. Run with it people. Run with it.


  1. Thomm, first of all... I disagree. I think you can find one person that you fall in love with forever and there is never anyone else who means as much as they do. My grandfather just had his 90th birthday and has been married for... well longer then I have been alive. And then some. And he still talks about my grandmother as if her were just falling in love with her. You can absolutely love more than one person. People love in a lot of different ways. But for me, I always believed I'd know when I found the right person for me. And I did. And I believe we will be in love with each other for the rest of our lives and that we won't find anyone else we love more (in a romantic sense).

    As for your proposal - there is actually a similar ritual. I think it's called handfasting.

    People all love differently and I think for some a contract type of thing (such as you are proposing) could work well. But for me I'm fine with a life long promise.

  2. Quite the romantic :(

  3. Gwen, that's the beauty of my proposal. If you want a lifetime contract, you could do that. But, if you want to take a more caustious approach, that works, too. Unburdens the courts of some, if not all, divorce proceedings, too.

    Jim, no one will ever, nor ever has, confused me with a romantic. In the immortal words of Popeye, "I y'am what I y'am."

  4. Red Dog, thank you VERY MUCH for posting this article. For a long time now, I thought I was the only one with the same thoughts. When a system/institution(marriage) has a 50% failure rate(divorce), that system needs to be recalled and fixed. However, whenever I propose this, people look at me like I am crazy. The idea of marriage has been so ingrained, that it is on the same level as there is only one god in the sky. Mention anything else about marriage, and you will be labeled a heretic.

    Marriage in the current form is outdated. Originally, marriage is a tool used by government to control/organize society/civilization. Marriage provides food/shelter to woman(when they are not allow to go to school/work). Marriage brings next generation into the world(when there was no birth-control). And of course, marriage was a political tool to cement relationship and dynasties between kings and queens. There is nothing about Love in marriage.

    However, I have to disagree about a "contract". Currently, we have a pre-nuptial agreement. But it is not a good model. I have the following proposal. Marriage should not be a legal/civil code legislated by government. Two people can come and together and go as they like, and there will be no license needed. This removed a lot of the nastiness of breakup. The only contract is between the parents and children(if any exists).

    And finally, to Gwen, you are the exception, rather than the norm.

  5. Anonymous, just having people come and go as they please is already valid within the system. People can live together and have kids or not have kids as they please. The marriage institution provides very distinct legal advantages, though. Marriage affects inheritance, health decisions, taxes, custody, property ownership and a plethora of other things.

    I think it's in society's interest to promote stability in relationships, which is why the contractual marriage idea appeals to me. It has the benefits of the current marriage institution and tries to eliminate some of the pitfalls of ending marriages when at least one of the parties doesn't want to be in it any longer. I'm not looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    And no digs at Gwen. I don't think she's in the minority, either. Pretty sure I am, as usual, and which you verify in your opening paragraph by noting how you're in the minority (heretics usually being a minority).

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