In a passage from Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning (and most obsessively cited) novel, an instructor in History and Moral Philosophy asks a student to provide the practical reason for continuing the system of government in force on Earth at that time. After allowing the student to fumble for a minute, the instructor smiles and says, “I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system of government is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: it works satisfactorily.”
The sense of cognitive expansion I experienced upon first reading that passage was overwhelming. I remember it more vividly than experiences most others would regard as critically formative. The wisdom of it is unchallengeable. It applies to the great majority of human decisions. Yet a huge amount of human action is premised on the exact opposite: Yeah, it’s working well, but maybe we can do even better.
Human nature being what it is, that’s a bet against the odds. I submit that this is nowhere more dramatically demonstrated than in our departure from the marital model that served our grandparents.
For innumerable generations, marriages among Americans were predicated upon the following assignment of roles:
- He would be the breadwinner, physical protector, and head of the household.
- She would bear and nurture their children, maintain their home, and tend their community relations.
- In any disagreement or matter involving external relations, his decision would be final.
There were other strictures, of course: fidelity, both sexually and to the family unit; privacy about the family’s internal affairs; discipline in financial matters; and the cultivation of bonds to the family’s chosen region of residence. But none of these things was quite as important to the model as the role assignments above.
Above all other considerations about this distribution of authorities and responsibilities, we must note this: it worked satisfactorily. Marriages endured. Children were born, properly reared, and grew to become mature, responsible adults. In their declining years, parents could count upon their children to care for them, and children could count upon their parents to assist in caring for their grandchildren. Family fortunes – both monetary and of less tangible varieties – tended to increase over time.
Yes, there were exceptions of both kinds: conventional marriages that didn’t work out and unconventional ones that did. Also, we must note that though frowned upon, spouses of both sexes occasionally had extramarital involvements that were about as likely to relieve pressures internal to the family as they were to sunder the marriage. Yet the great majority of marriages were both conventional and acceptably successful.
So after about 1970 we threw the whole shebang in the dumpster and went the other way:
- No breadwinner or homemaker roles: both spouses are expected to contribute to both functions.
- Diminution of the importance of children and community as things that impede “mobility.”
- A presumption of “equality” between the spouses in all matters.
This new model for the American marriage is in failure mode, even catastrophic failure mode. I submit that it cannot be otherwise. And I will tell you why.
First, the proposition that will outrage the women and shock the men into thinking that either I’ve gone mad or they’ve been had:
Indeed, not one iota of evidence exists for it. A human being is a vector quantity, composed of many aptitudes, abilities, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Those things differ point-by-point between the sexes, such that in virtually no regard are men and women “equals.” It should follow that attempts to act on the opposite premise are likely to fail. Even temporary success is against the odds. American divorce rates, fertility rates, trends in the health and happiness of children, and the radical decline in families’ geographical stability bear this out.
And that’s just the first part.
Second, the proposition that nearly everyone accepts outside of marital relations but few think to apply inside them:
One who is allowed to concentrate on what he’s doing – i.e., on one and only one task at a time – has a far better chance of completing it swiftly and satisfactorily than one whose attention must be distributed over many tasks. If he must perforce take responsibility for several things simultaneously, it’s imperative that he stabilize that list, such that other items cannot spontaneously appear on it or be removed from it. That permits the assignment of priorities and concentration within that structure.
The application to the family could not be clearer. Let each know his duties. Let each attend to them without interference or complaint. The alternative is confusion, dissipation of attention and energy, and the nagging suspicion that “he’s not doing his part” regardless of what “his part” was agreed to be. The attendant dissatisfactions and corrosive sense of resentment have doomed many marriages.
Third and last for today’s tirade: the importance of a priori agreement on common directions has been understated for far too long. If I may, the notion that “we can work it out” has not worked out.
Spousal compatibility isn’t something a couple can “work out” over time. This might seem counterintuitive at first; after all, most problems in human relations will yield to sustained effort over time, if the parties to the contretemps are both persons of good will. Unfortunately for the contemporary marital model, when it comes to marriage that’s simply not the case. There are immutables involved: values, goals, and certain priorities. These must be consistent between the spouses from the outset. Why else would we court our potential spouses rather than select them from a list?
More and worse, the immutables tend to be set early in life, after which they become unalterable. It isn’t possible to “persuade” a candidate spouse to one’s vision of those things. There may not be a One True Love, but there are many, many Untrue Loves: members of the opposite sex who’ll simply never see things your way about children, money, hearth and home, in-laws, or place of residence. If he isn’t at least as interested as you in advancing the family’s prosperity and security, there’s no point in admiring his biceps. If she doesn’t agree with your priorities on homemaking, children, and community bonding, it won’t matter how good she looks in Spandex® and stilettos. Also, religiously mixed marriages have troubles unique to them. Unless one spouse converts sincerely to the other’s faith – and how often does that happen? – it’s almost impossible to deal properly with child rearing.
No, you can’t “work it out over time.” Deal with it.
The above probably strikes many readers as harsh and unsparing. Facts can be like that, especially facts we’ve gotten into the habit of wishing away. Nevertheless, I claim that the evidence around us bears me out.
A parting note: Please don’t think I’ve known this lifelong. I have a failed marriage in my past. It failed almost entirely because I wished away what I’ve written here. My current marriage nearly failed before I “wised up.” Moreover, it took a lot of damage that’s proved difficult to repair since then.
I await my Gentle Readers’ thoughts.
(See also this article, which illustrates an important sub-variety of contemporary marital malaise.)