Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Marital Models

     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:

Equality of the Sexes is a Myth.

     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:

The key to effectiveness and efficiency is Concentration.

     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.)

4 comments:

  1. Been married now 44years. We agreed on the old basics of marriage. Works well enough. Our kids have been married 20 plus years as well. Seems it works well enough for them too.

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  2. Concur, with a caveat.

    My wife and I met in 1976. Although I'd graduated college, been to 'Nam, lived on my own and had a steady job with good prospects, I really didn't know what I wanted (except not to be poor.) If I had read this post back then my reaction would have been, "uhhhh. . . "

    I'm not sure how to say it, but on all three points you make, I was really not mature enough to know what I knew or didn't know, what I wanted or how to get it (except a job, so as not to be poor.) And I believe in many cases, it's even worse for the current generation of young adults.

    Is it TV? Mass media? Neighborhoods that aren't neighborly? Somehow, by the time I was 26, a template of what worked in personal and communal life had not been imprinted on me - at least not enough that I had the slightest clue of how to deal with or even *think* about the issues your post raises.

    I was rational, but emotionally immature. In fact, I think I still am. But Lynn and I "went together" for 8 years before we bought a house together and then had our daughter. The "arrangement" we've worked out would probably have Fran running out the door screaming and blessing his good fortune that we're on the other coast. But we're still together 41 years later. However, had I been prepared to consider Fran's points in this post, I think Lynn, our daughter and I would be happier and more at peace now.

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  3. Disjointed thoughts:

    Re: It works satisfactorily - "Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change" variously attributed to Viscount Falkland, Edmund Burke, and perhaps, the late Mrs. du Toit.

    Ideal roles: concur.

    New roles: Albert Nock wrote in 1931-ish some essays, A Word to Women and A Further Word to women, which speculated that women, in pursuing equality with men in men's roles gave up some uniquely women's roles to the detriment of the happiness of society as well of men and of women. I think he had something there.

    Equality of the sexes is a myth: Concur. Not just physically, but in more intangible pursuits like manners, beauty, society, etc. We have different strengths, and they're all important. When women try to be "equal" to men, they abdicate the areas where they are stronger. We all lose.

    The key to effectiveness...: re: "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." You just described my ideal day vs. my all-too-frequent actual one. I lament my unavoidable interruptions.

    "... the immutables tend to be set early in life, after which they become unalterable." In that same vein, I've long held that a person's pool of suitable spouses shrinks as he ages and becomes less malleable and more set in his ways. I think younger married partners can adapt to each other more readily than older ones can. A young tree can be trained to a shape more easily than an old one.

    " The above probably strikes many readers as harsh and unsparing. Facts can be like that..." Preach it, brother! We'd have a less unhappy world if more people could accept that.

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  4. Add to some of the problems noted above that fact that there are many beta males. My experience is that women want (really deep down) an alpha male. However, many insist on being 'equal'.
    Also, with the loss of roles there is a great potential for loss of knowledge. I was very fortunate to have a father who maybe saw the future and ensured I was trained in the domestic arts. However, I was also trained in the manly arts - how to fix things, how to be a gentleman with class, etc. Far too few were raised that way or have allowed themselves to be betaized (neutered?). My wife often wants to decide on things firmly in the manly arts realm - with no prior knowledge of what said activity entails but because she has been told she is 'equal'. This caused many problems until I said enough and started, gently and with love, to push back and stand firm with those pesky facts. We have been happier since.

    Men also need to be men and stop this 'sharing responsibilities' claptrap in its tracks. When we lived in a condo many of the man jobs were taken care of by the association so I helped with domestic tasks. For sometime after we moved to a house my wife was frustrated that I did not help nearly as much with domestic duties. My point was finally made one day when the question was, "When is the last time you helped with dinner and the dishes?" to which the response was, "When was the last time you did yard work or repaired or maintained something on the house?".

    We each have our strengths. A good marriage will use these differences to advantage to increase efficiency. To do otherwise is foolish. There is a reason why a military has a land, air, and sea component.

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