Alivox on Marriage

The intent of this page is to make the following simple point : If you'd like to be part of a durable and fulfilling marriage, you're well advised to modify the traditional terms.

Hardly an earth-shattering observation - many would call it obvious, along the lines of "If you'd like to look your best, don't buy off-the-rack clothes" or "If you really want to see Paris, you have to get off the tour bus and explore it on your own". And yet many people who wouldn't dream of driving the same car or wearing the same clothes as everyone else become very conventional when it comes to their love lives, as if there were a magic formula that guaranteed success. "Almost no one is foolish enough to imagine that he automatically deserves great success in any field of activity; yet almost everyone believes that he automatically deserves success in marriage" (Sydney Harris). Quite the contrary : as we'll see, a traditional marriage is almost a guarantee of failure!

This essay is about 16 pages long. For those of you who don't have the patience or interest for that much reading, I offer a Condensed Version of a few paragraphs. For those of you who are returning, here's a link to the Newest section.

For those who want the full dose, I'll start this discussion by considering the State of the Marital Union and a reminder of its History to put it in perspective, followed by a few digressions. Then I'll discuss three of the main problems with traditional marriage under their own headings. After the bad news, we'll discuss the good news for while. We'll follow this theoretical discussion with some Questions to Think About. Finally, I've also set space aside for your Feedback, so please don't hesitate to contribute.

A note on terminology : by marriage, I mean any long-term romantic relationship, although the statistics refer only to legal marriages. I take it as obvious that a marriage license or a church wedding will neither ruin a good marriage nor rescue a bad one. By traditional marriage, I mean a marriage with the three key features of fidelity, commitment and adherence to a standard; in my opinion, these three features are the biggest problems with traditional marriage, and the presentation that follows is intended to support that contention. And my term for a marriage based on the principles I'm espousing is a serious marriage. Is that meant to imply that other marriages aren't serious? It sure is.

This essay is dedicated to seven female friends of mine, my Seven Beauties. All of them were in their 40s when I wrote this, attractive, intelligent, successful, single and unsatisfied with their love lives most of the time. All but one are ex-lovers, and my disdain for traditional marriage was a strike against me for all of them - that supplies some of my motivation. But now that we're just friends and confidants, I've also been struck by how much pain and frustration they suffer trying to fulfill their modern high expectations within an old- fashioned form - I know our forefathers crossed the oceans in sailing ships and the prairies in covered wagons, but we don't travel that way any more!

Illustration by Stephen Schildbach I'm in my fifties now and I've never been married. If you think that disqualifies me from offering marital advice, you're right! I'm not looking to persuade you of anything on the basis of my qualifications, and I recommend you listen to anybody else with the same skepticism : nobody has been married enough to be an expert on that basis.

However, I am an avid collector of people's stories, and I'm a smart guy who likes to think about things. I've noticed that most of the marriages among people I know are failures, and most of the people I know who think about romance in traditional terms have superficial and dispassionate love lives based around role-playing and denial. The statistics seem to bear me out on this point, so much so that I can confidently assert that if you believe that traditional marriage is a reliable route to satisfaction and fulfillment, there's something wrong with you!

That isn't to say that traditional marriage never works, or that all married people are unhappy - those statements are clearly untrue. But maybe those people would have been just as happy unmarried. Maybe they simply have good relationships that weren't ruined by marriage. If the best we can say about traditional marriage is that it sometimes doesn't ruin a good relationship, that's faint praise. We should hold marriage to a much higher standard - it should improve a good relationship.

Either way, clearly some people are happily married, or at least happy and married, and in fact the cynic in me notes that the happiest people in our society are those who marry eagerly and divorce just as eagerly : they enjoy being married and don't mind switching partners every few years. That approach may be a successful strategy in our throwaway culture, but this essay is written in the faith (and I chose that word carefully) that serious marriages are worth the extra effort.

Condensed Version top

It is not a controversial statement to assert that traditional marriages don't work (which is not to say that they never work, or that they never used to work). If you are still attracted by the belief that the mate of your dreams is going to show up, feel the same way about you, and the two of you are going to live happily ever after, then you need to read the full version.

The rest of us should all be wondering "if the traditional type of marriage no longer works, what other models can we look to for guiding principles on how to structure our romantic relationships?" My answer is to consider marriage as a type of friendship, borrowing also from the world of long-term customer relationships, like the one you have with your favorite restaurant. In both friendships and customs, three principles obtain :

  1. Neither of you is bound by obligation - the relationship lasts because each of you understands that you must keep the other party happy.
  2. Your friends can have other friends, and your favorite restaurant can have other regular customers : jealousy, possessiveness and ownership are not appropriate.
  3. Neither of you cares whether your friendship or custom conforms to some traditional model. If you leave a too-big tip, or run a tab, or help bus the table, that's between you and them : there is no "should".

Incredibly, just these three small changes to your approach suffice to raise your chances of success from very low to very high!

The State of the Marital Union top

How bad is it out there? We hear all sorts of statistics - I was surprised at the range among reliable sources. The fraction of marriages that end in divorce seems to be in the range of one-half to two-thirds : 50-70%. The average duration of a marriage that ends in divorce is about seven years (the seven year itch), and second marriages are significantly shorter and more likely to end in divorce, which is surprising. And the fraction of married people who report being happy in their marriage is below 40%.

All this despite a huge drop in the marriage rate itself, over the course of my lifetime. People love each other, live together and even have children together without marriage at a much higher rate than ever before. You might think that if the only people who marry are those who really want to marry, not just do those other things, then married people would be happier. The drop in marriage rate should have reduced the divorce rate, but it didn't : just the opposite.

The March 2006 issue of Scientific American cites a US study refuting the myth that marriages recover from the end-of-honeymoon drop in happiness. The study (VanLaningham et al., Social Forces Vol 79 Num 4 ) shows that "happiness declines more or less continuously throughout the lifetimes of married couples". Bear in mind that the data, which shows happiness continuing to decline sharply even after 40 and 50 years of marriage, excludes the presumably already unhappy couples who divorced before then!

Statistics are also available which demonstrate the correlation of divorce with age, age difference, income, race, children, geographic location and dozens of other variables, but I didn't get much out of them. As I contemplate the many divorces in my immediate circle, and compare them with the undivorced couples I know, I think I can make two generalizations.

First, stability in marriage seems to go along with stability in other aspects of life. For example, only two of my best friends are still on their first marriage, and those are the same two that are still living in their hometowns.

One of my housemates recently celebrated her parents' 40th wedding anniversary, for which she tacked up photos and other memorabilia from their decades together. As I studied them, I was struck by how few turns their lives had taken. They are a direct extrapolation of their high-school-sweetheart selves : they live in the same town they grew up in, have the same friends, vacation on the same lake, etc. But most of us aren't vouchsafed that kind of stability, and cannot afford to bet our love lives on the rest of our lives never changing.

My second generalization is to note that the people I know in long marriages tend to be the pessimists. They're full of talk about "compromise" and the need to "work things out", and they quite often concede that they'd really rather that the situation were different in some respects, but there you have it : in exchange for stability, they've made sacrifices. I know life isn't always a bowl of cherries, and all of us are wise enough to make an investment in our futures by paying some price now in order to secure a future benefit. This is standard cost/benefit analysis, and we all do it at some level, as we should.

But crucial to that calculation is an evaluation of the alternatives. Optimists tend to see the unknown as full of possibilities, while the pessimists stick with the known, convinced that even with its disappointments, it's preferable to the unknown. They're also slow to write off their investments, prolonging a bad situation, and it's very common to hear from people recently divorced that it had been bad for a long time before they gave up. So don't they wish they had bailed much earlier?

This brings me to another point : divorce isn't the only way marriages fail, and in fact divorce, painful though it is, is actually an expression of hope that life can be better. Many of the undivorced marriages are not raging successes; quite the contrary, they represent resignation and despair. Marriages fail when they don't fulfill their participants' goals and needs, whether or not they pursue divorce as a consequence of failure. As an obvious example, suicide (or homicide) doesn't make a marriage successful! Other common failure modes include :

There's no statistic that measures what fraction of marriages fail along any of these lines (without divorce), but it's obviously between 0% and 30-50%, since the rest divorce. Both extremes seem unrealistic, so I'm going to assume for purposes of this discussion that the correct figure is somewhere in the middle, about 20%. Taking also the middle value for divorce, that implies that around 80% of marriages fail.

But the exact number doesn't really matter. The traditionalists among you are free to believe that every marriage that doesn't end in divorce is a success, but that only lowers the failure rate to 50-70%, still a high number. Meanwhile, the misery-loves-company crowd may assert that all marriages are failures, whether or not the participants admit it. That sounds to me suspiciously like those of my gay friends who tell me that we're all really gay, if we only had the courage to admit it - I don't think so! So I'm going to stick to my 80% figure.

Illustration by Stephen Schildbach These stats are no secret, but I've found that a lot of people seem to think they don't apply to them - they're different! One of my seven beauties and I went over the ten marriages closest to her, friends and relatives, and sure enough, all but two of them were failures by her standards. Yet she believes that "there are a lot of good marriages out there", and she wants a traditional marriage enough to give up a lot for it. Her current boyfriend is divorced, and she has convinced herself that his failure won't repeat itself because he loves her much more (after three dates over the course of a month) than he ever did his ex-wife. There seems to be no explanation for her faith except denial - believing what you want to believe - and a desire to view the world in very simple terms. No wonder so many marriages are train wrecks.

One of the triggering events for this diatribe was a fortnight in which I chatted with six of my seven beauties, and was struck by the "coincidence" that most of them were going out with divorced guys. Most 40ish guys have tried marriage, so that's probably nothing surprising, except that some of these guys had been married two or three times, and one of my beauties told me she'd dated a guy who'd been married five times (although he'd only told her about his three divorces, omitting mention of the two annulments)! Another has lived for the last year with a great guy, only to find out recently that he neglected to mention his third marriage and another five-year relationship. A third is dating a guy who was married for almost twenty years, with five children, but now says he "never loved his wife".

So what struck me was not just that all these guys were divorced - the seven beauties themselves boast six divorces (one's a widow) - it was that none of these guys had anything nice to say about any of their ex-wives : they all turned out to be "crazy bitches". And the seven beauties accept that explanation; after all, none of them is on good terms with an ex-husband, either : they all turned out to be "lousy bastards". I understand that most of that reflects the pain of splitting up, and they can all be forced to concede that these losers must have had some redeeming qualities - why else would they have married them? (They all say they "made a mistake", as if that were explanatory.) But it also reflects an underlying unwillingness to face the truth.

When your marriage breaks up, there are only three possible categories of explanation :

  1. There's something wrong with you.
  2. There's something wrong with the other person.
  3. There's something wrong with marriage in general.

Nobody likes the first category, and since most people aren't willing to admit the third as a possibility, they're stuck demonizing their ex. This also protects them from learning anything - after all, if your partner was the problem, then changing partners is the solution - so they go out and do it again. Sometimes that works - I know several solid second marriages - but as the stats show, marriage is even less likely to work the second time around.

Many people would propose a fourth category of explanation : that there's nothing wrong with you, your partner, or marriage in general, but that you just weren't a good match for each other. Of course this is often true, and it's certainly a nice thing to believe after a marriage fails, but I would argue that it isn't really an explanation. A traditional marriage is not about two people who hang out with each other as long as they happen to be going in the same direction - that's the kind of relationship you have with the person in the adjacent seat on an airliner. Traditional marriage is about journeying through life together, wherever that might take you. If you feel that's too high a standard for marriage to meet, you're already in the third category above.

Something to bear in mind as you contemplate the fact that for most people, marriage turns someone you love into someone you hate, is that no matter how badly your ex behaved when things started to unravel, the underlying problem is that at some point, at least one of you wasn't happy in the marriage! Even crazy bitches and lousy bastards want to be happy in life, and they married you hoping that would make them happy, and it didn't! They probably put up with it for a while, hoping it would change or that it wouldn't bother them that much, but as time passed they got less and less happy, until they finally did something (cheated, lied, broke a promise, lost interest, fell out of love, whatever) that was the proximate cause. But that wasn't the underlying cause, which was that the marriage failed - it failed to give them what they wanted in life.

A Brief History of Marriage top

Humans are a type of chimpanzee, adapted to the savannahs of eastern Africa. And like other chimpanzees, (including bonobos, adapted to the dense jungle south of the Congo river), our natural mating pattern is wildly promiscuous. In promiscuous species, including our two closest relatives, women sleep with lots of men, and the paternity of infants is uncertain. In the case of chimpanzees, this protects infants from adult males, who are apt to kill children they don't think are theirs. In the case of bonobos, who resemble us more, sex plays a far greater role in society than demanded by the needs of procreation; among bonobos and humans, the ratio of copulations to pregnancies is in the thousands, unusual among animals.

For those of you who are skeptical of the truth of this assertion - those who would prefer not to believe that polygamy is natural - read Sex At Dawn , by Ryan & Jethá. Our genitals and sperm show lots of adaptation to this pattern. However, it's not our only mating pattern : another one to which we are adapted is harems, where powerful men monopolize the women. As more and more men get harems (and the number of women per harem declines), the harem pattern becomes what we think of as monogamy (although true monogamy involves mating with only one partner for life).

It's interesting to note that the last woman ancestral to all living humans lived about 180,000 years ago, while our last common male ancestor lived only 45,000 years ago, at about the time language evolved. This fourfold ratio arises because, in each generation, almost all women have children, while only a fraction of the men do. It's estimated that 40% of men father 40% of children, as would be expected, but that the other 60% of the children are fathered by only 20% of the men, leaving 40% of men childless - and that situation is still true today. The result is much stronger selection pressure on men than on women. More correctly, a mutation that gives a woman's sons an advantage has a much greater impact on her overall long-term fertility (how many progeny she has in future generations) than one that gives her daughters an advantage.

When food is abundant, as was the case during the expansion of modern humans from Africa all over the world from 50 to 10 thousand years ago, the promiscuity pattern dominates. There is very little conflict with other groups, and although there is some trade, there is little exogamy : each tribe is somewhat isolated. Women in these societies may collect multiple fathers for each child, not only for their support but also for their qualities : to produce a tall, smart and funny child, they sleep with the tall guy, the smart guy and the funny guy. Children are raised by the whole group, so it makes little difference who the paternal father actually is. And when a hunter returns with game, everybody in the tribe eats well.

When food is a limit, our mating pattern changes to the harem-monogamy system. Exactly where on that scale depends on how much food is gathered by women and how much is provided by men. Counterintuitively, when women are more important, the pattern tips towards larger harems, since women can choose the best sperm-donor over the best food- provider. When men have more power, they favor monogamy, since that raises the status of lower-ranking men. But the two extremes of this scale are more similar than they are different.

Within the last dozen millennia or so, since the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, we've spent more time at the monogamy end of the scale. That's because agriculture was historically a male activity (as opposed to foraging and gardening, which were female). The sedentary agricultural lifestyle also creates property - things that have future value, like land, water rights, crops and tools - which in turn raises the question of inheritance and thus paternity.

Freud (I think) calls this the beginning of civilization. Groups of bachelors ganged up to dethrone the bulls and take their harems, but they had to agree to share the women, with each male taking some for himself. This "property" attitude values women for the (male) heirs they produce, and the institution of fidelity evolved to ensure that those heirs were, in fact, sired by her owner/husband. Meanwhile, women wanted to make sure someone was around to support and protect them and their children from other men, and that is the origin of the notion of commitment. Note that there's no particular value in a woman making a commitment - after all, she has no power anyway - or a man being faithful, and sure enough the Bible, the New Testament and the Qur'an, for example, are all full of men with multiple wives and childless women being cast away.

Saint Augustine, about midway in time between us and the Bible, wrote a book about marriage. In his era, the Church had not yet gotten into the wedding business, and in fact still railed against the elaborate Roman (pagan) weddings. In his eyes, marriage was about lifelong fidelity and children, although he did think it was good for society to give women an outlet for their uncontrollable sex drives (back in those days it was women who were considered the sex maniacs). He himself abandoned the mother of his child after fifteen years together to marry a richer woman, then felt so bad about it that he inflicted fifteen millennia of guilt and shame on Christian women. Ever since his time, sex and love have been unwelcome side-effects in Western marriages, and it was not until 1965 AD that the Vatican approved of the expression of love as a valid part of sex, and then only alongside procreation.

So Phase I - nature - featured promiscuity, and Phase II - agriculture - featured women as property, with laws regulating marriage and sex. This latter was the pattern all over the world until about a century ago, and is still the situation across most of the world today. I recently read an article ( In Sudan, 'a very happy family', International Herald Tribune, 23-24 December 2003) about a Dinka tribesman with 76 wives, 38 of whom are pregnant. While polygamy is the norm there, he has more wives than most because he realized that he could pay for more wives (with cows) by having more daughters to sell (for cows). "At around the age of 30, I suddenly decided to use all my cows to marry more and more wives," Akot said. "With the marriage of every daughter, we would get back cows.". According to the article, one wife is worth about 100 cows.

Although Akot loves all his wives (and all his 65 sons and 86 daughters), he still sees women as some kind of talking super-cow, and I imagine that all his wives and all his cows are happy to be taken care of by such a clever and wealthy man. Any of you who think your own traditions are far more sophisticated should reread the Bible and Celtic folklore. Even in enlightened America, brides are still "given away" by their fathers, women still want to be "taken care of", and alimony is still paid by men to their ex-wives, for whom they are held responsible regardless of fault (since women, as property, can't be responsible).

We should not underestimate the advantages of this system, even though it no longer suits our needs, nor should we fail to appreciate the hidden dangers of untested alternatives. For example, one less visible advantage of monogamy is that it provides wives for low-status men that, in a polygynous society, they wouldn't have. Bachelors are a dangerous group in any society, least committed to the status quo, and historians can show that nations with lots of (unmarried) young men are most likely to go to war - a sobering thought considering the gender imbalance in modern China and India resulting from selective abortion. (Interestingly, societies with too few men relative to the available women, like modern black America, suffer the same problem, possibly because the men are not incented to succeed to attract women.) In Akot's society, this problem is solved by having his sons sleep with his wives - perhaps therein lie the seeds of a modern solution.

Romantic love has a completely separate history, which until recently had nothing to do with marriage or sex. For the ancients, women weren't worthy of love, which was restricted to young men in the flower of youth. Love was almost completely absent in Europe during the Dark Ages when the church ruled (Héloïse and Abelard are the exception that proves the rule). Finally, the troubadours developed the idea of romantic love, the ideal being a worthy knight who dedicated himself to a highborn and unattainable lady (who was usually married to someone else, e.g. Lancelot and Guinevere).

Only recently have ordinary women been deemed worthy of being loved, or to be precise only recently has love come to mean what it now does for us. Now people have come to expect it in their marriages, and to feel that something's missing if they're not in love with their spouse. Bollywood (Indian) films are a good chance to see a society in transition between the two cultures, between "women as property" and "women as love objects".

How recently did that change occur? The first nation in history to consider that the opinion of the bride and bridegroom were at all relevant to marriage was England, during the Industrial Revolution. In 1700, Mary Astell's book Reflections upon Marriage asked "If Marriage be such a blessed State, how come it, may you say, that there are so few happy marriages?". The situation got so bad that elopement became a major problem (for the upper classes, who had enough property to worry about its disposition). The solution was the Marriage Act of 1753, which for the first time in history involved the state in marriage, oddly enough by requiring weddings to be perfomed in a church. The first divorce followed soon after (just as the first gay divorce happened shortly after the first gay marriage).

Think about that for a minute. Most of us imagine that marriage is a time-honored tradition representing an integral part of our cultures - far from it! Most of us don't even consider couples married unless they're legally married. But all that - legal marriage, church marriage, marriage for love, choosing your own partner, and the crazy idea that you're supposed to be happy in marriage - those are only a couple centuries old!

In other words, "traditional" marriage is an experiment among one tenth of humanity over only the last couple of centuries, and it has failed about as completely as it could have. Marriage has always been an economic institution with inheritance as its goal, and our attempt to freight it with the emotional content of romance has sunk the whole ship, carrying the economic, parental, social and romantic cargoes to a watery grave. You can try to fix it if you want - after all, that's what I'm doing!

If you don't want to fix it - if you just want a traditional marriage like your grandmother had, it's not that hard. Four simple tricks will do it :

  1. Don't choose your husband yourself - let your father do it
  2. Don't expect your husband to be faithful - because men simply aren't
  3. Don't expect to be an equal partner - expect to be your husband's servant
  4. Don't expect to be happy - that isn't what traditional marriage is for

If you don't accept these four rules, then you're a test pilot, too. Welcome to the club.

In my opinion, feminists (myself included) have been asking for the wrong thing. Instead of demanding that the property orientation of marriage be made reciprocal - in other words that men be faithful and women committed - we should demand that property concepts be banned altogether from our love lives, and that men and women deal with each other just as men have always dealt with each other, as peers, not objects.

Poetry Pause top

Monogamy is for the Birds
© 2008 Rhiannon Jones

Monogamy is for the birds
and three percent of mammals.
It never should be mandated
for bunnies, folks or camels.
Societies of humankind
are sometimes of the sort
That leave a bit of wiggle room
for people to consort
with more than one or two or more
at once or in succession
without demand to flog oneself
or spill it in Confession.
Monogamy's not natural :
"Until death do us part"
is rarely the reality.
So maybe it's not smart
to follow norms that set us up
to promise, then to stray.
It's only by dishonesty
a heart can be betrayed.

Dependence top

But transcending a property orientation is not enough. Let me digress...

Among many mammals and birds, children are cute : they have oversize eyes, oversize heads, a small nose, round features and a host of other cute traits. As Konrad Lorenz showed half a century ago, this cuteness is an evolutionary adaptation to promote adult care of children. Children are the archetypes of dependency : babies are almost helpless, especially human babies. The only thing a baby can do - the thing it has to do to survive - is to attract somebody to take care of it.

But what's in it for the adult? Not the survival of the species : that's not how selection works. Not self- interest : caring for a baby offers you no immediate tangible benefit at all, and in nature (Phase I, above), parents don't live long enough to be supported by their children.

In Phase II societies, the goal of having children is to provide for oneself in old age. That's why, for example, in patrilocal societies like India and China (where sons stay in their family, while daughters move to their husband's family), nobody wants to have daughters : they're a wasted investment. In Phase III societies, the dependence of old people on their children is less economic, but having children and grandchildren is still considered a benefit to old people.

Regardless of whether parenthood is an eventual benefit, it's never an immediate benefit. But we still do it! That's because we humans have developed an intangible mechanism that rewards parents now for taking care of children : love. This parental love is created by its object for its own benefit - for the baby, this isn't about some intangible emotional benefit; it's about a warm tit in your mouth.

We call both of these feelings "love", but there's a huge difference between them. The love that a parent feels for a child is altruistic : its only benefit is emotional. But the love that a child feels for a parent is self-interested, and thus it's dependent on the receipt of the benefit : it's contractual. If you aren't nice to your children, they won't love you, while parents, especially mothers, are famous for loving their children no matter what they do.

This imbalance is not restricted to parent-child relationships; it's a factor in all asymmetric relationships, those where one party is more dependent than the other. For instance, it dominates our relationship with pets, and dependent dogs love us more, but more selfishly, than independent cats.

Now you can see where I'm headed with this digression. Historically, women have been much more dependent on men than the reverse, and that is still largely the case. And lo, women are much cuter than men! They have rounder features, bigger eyes (enlarged by makeup), high childlike voices and a host of other cute traits.

So we shouldn't be surprised that women and men feel love for each other completely differently. For men, love is emotional, while for women, it's contractual : it's dependent on the man living up to his obligations. Of course, it's not entirely sex-linked : higher-status women are less dependent, and thus able to consider love from an emotional perspective, while lower-status men are obsessed with love's contractual sides. In general, contracts exist to protect the weaker party (assuming the enforcement authority is stronger than the counterparty). And that's as true in romance as it is in other domains - jealousy is for losers.

Here's a thought experiment, from the point of view of the mother of a teenaged son. He's in an unpleasant phase of life : surly, disobedient, moody, etc. He's not as loveable as he was as an adorable infant or a cute toddler. But does she still love him? Of course!

Now imagine that she comes home early from work one day and, not realizing that he's home, bursts into his room without knocking. There, she sees him on his hands and knees between two big guys, with one dick in his mouth and the other in his ass. She later learns that they are prostitutes whom he has paid by selling a piece of her jewelry. It's her worst nightmare come true! But does she still love him? Of course!

Now imagine that it's her husband, instead of her son. Does she still "love" him? No way! He's history, toast, a scumbag. So did she ever "love" him? Well, you can call it "love" if you want, but it was contractual, dependent on his fulfilling the role she chose for him.

The love that a man feels for a woman is like the love that a woman feels for a child, while the love that a woman feels for a man is like the love that a child feels for a parent. As Alice Thomas Ellis said, "There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters." Folklore has it that men love women because of their past together, while women love men because of their expected future together.

Folklore also holds that men are only interested in sex, while women are interested in "love". They say that for men, sex leads to intimacy, while for women, intimacy leads to sex. (They also say that women want one man who will satify their every need, while men want every woman to satisfy their one need.) But what most men call "love" - the feeling - is a lot closer to sex than it is to what most women call "love" - the relationship. In almost every language, the phrase "to make love" (faire l'amour, Liebe machen, hacer el amor, etc) means "to have sex". Our forefathers understood that the physical relationship leads to the emotional relationship, NOT the other way around. But when a woman talks about love, she is usually talking about being loved, not about loving - she's talking about receiving the benefits of someone else's feelings.

There is no single definition of the word "love" - everybody is free to use it however they wish. The original meaning referred to the actual emotion, visible on an MRI in the same part of the brain where we feel anger or fear, that we now call "being in love" or "infatuation". And sure enough, sex is a good way to engender that emotion. But nowadays we denigrate that kind of love as not being "true love", since (like all emotions) it doesn't last.

But one thing we all agree on - in theory, at least - is that "true love" is given freely, NOT in exchange for something else. Of course, it has causes : s/he's good-looking, witty, sexy, etc. But there is a big difference between loving someone because they're sexy and loving someone because they agree to have sex with you! The latter is an exchange, and it's not "true love".

Here's a short list of things that people have exchanged for "love" :

And here's the corresponding rule of thumb : if your love is dependent on receiving any of the above benefits in exchange, then it's not "true love". If you want something back, it's not love! if you think you love someone, ask yourself whether you would still love them if they didn't give you back anything on the list above.

There's an even easier test : if you care what the object of your love thinks, it's not love. Think about it : you would love your children no matter what they think, right? Of course. The other kind of "love", the kind which wants the other person to play a role in your life, depends on you creating and maintaining a feeling in them.

One of the reasons that traditional marriages are failing so often these days, and one of the forces driving the evolution of serious marriages in their stead, is that women have become much less dependent than they were even a century ago. And not only does this trend appear likely to continue, but (as I mention below in Fulfillment), the same is true in other types of relationships, too, for example in the workplace. The benefits of contractual relationships - of receiving a promise - decline in proportion to the availability of alternatives.

However, it's not enough that we no longer need the opposite sex. We also have to learn how to have fulfilling relationships with the opposite sex that are not based on need. And to do that, we need to be able to see the opposite sex as people, not just solutions to our problems.

Making a Sale top

Imagine that you walk into a shoe store, and a sales clerk offers to help you. You may or may not care what she thinks - of you and whatever shoe you might be buying - but if you do, it's because you think she might have good taste, or you just want somebody else's opinion. But she is not one of the people whom this purchase must please : she's not a stakeholder, like your boyfriend and/or girfriend. The person whose opinion counts the most is YOU - you want to be pleased by this purchase.

The sales clerk, on the other hand, does care what you think - in fact, that's all she cares about. She doesn't care if she likes the shoes you're looking at; she only cares if you like them. And she's probably ready to tell you what she thinks you'd like to hear, even if it's not completely true, to advance the sale.

Superficially, those two roles seem similar enough. After all, both of you are looking to exchange something for something else that you value more : money for shoes. Both of you are free to walk away from the deal; neither of you really needs the other, both of you are there voluntarily, and you may even like each other and enjoy the interaction.

But that superficial similarity masks a profound difference between you. The shopper is looking to satisfy some inner desire (even if she badly needs the shoes), while the clerk is just trying to make a sale. That asymmetry is present even if it's the shopowner instead of a clerk, or if the shopper wasn't even thinking about shoes until she walked past the display window.

All this to be able to say that these two roles are also present in our heads : we call them the ego (clerk) and the id (shopper). The part of you that cares what the other guy thinks of you is your ego, trying to make a sale. I want you to ignore that part of you, and pay attention only to your id (at least in love). Be selfish, and take responsibility for your own happiness.

And in general, in life, try to be the shopper, not the clerk. Ladies, imagine that you're at a restaurant with some girlfriends, and there's a tableful of attractive guys not far away. You notice you've gotten their attention. Do you think they're wondering whether you'll like them? Whether you might be interested in bearing their children and doing their housework for the rest of your lives? Not at all! They're wondering what your breasts would feel like in their hands and mouths, and about those thighs... So stop worrying about what they think - stop primping!

Reassurance & Status top

Everybody acknowledges that, in the past, marriage was exclusively driven by economic forces. Women tend to express that by saying that, in the past, women weren't free to marry whom they chose, but that isn't quite correct : the women of that era saw marriage in economic terms as much as men did, and they married the rich old merchant in preference to their handsome young lover because they wanted to live comfortably and raise their children in a secure setting.

Nowadays, at least in the developed world, women don't need a man at all to live comfortably and raise their children in a secure setting, and in fact we're seeing more and more single mothers. These women don't have to marry to have sex, since we live in societies that accept extramarital sex and even lesbianism. Nor do they need to marry to love and be loved, since they can have children and pets. So why do women want men in their lives at all?

That's a legitimate question for men, too. Gloria Steinem made famous a witticism by Irina Dunn that says "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", but it works in both directions. Now that the former basis for relationships between the two sexes has lost most of its importance, we need to find new common ground on which to meet - or not to meet, as the case may be - because men and women live in different societies.

In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of motivation that is still widely held. Briefly, he notes that people focus on the lowest unsatisfied need in a hierarchy - an ordered list. At the bottom, if you're not breathing, nothing else is important, but once you're breathing, you forget about it and start to feel thirst, then hunger, then the need for sleep or shelter, etc. There is no definitive list of needs, and that has led some detractors to claim that there is no hierarchy, but we clearly prioritize some needs over others.

Coming back to relationships, we can claim that people are looking to satisfy social needs in their relationships because nowadays their economic needs - the ones that used to drive marriage - are satisfied. And another way of expressing what I'm saying on this page is that you will only begin to address your emotional needs once you have moved beyond the need to satisfy social needs in your relationships. In other words, in my view it is our social needs that are the problem at this stage of our evolution.

And what do I mean by the phrase social needs? The desire to please others, to live up to their expectations and gain their approval, and to satisfy your internalized versions of those "other people", which we call our self-image : how we see ourself and how we imagine others see us. How many people do you see who seem clearly to be choosing their partners as proof of their own social standing : the trophy wife, the rich husband? An even more subtle case is the devoted spouse, in which case it's not the social standing of your spouse that counts, it's your standing in their eyes. When someone says "I'm not that kind of a girl" or "I can't believe I did that", it's their self-images that are at play. And being forced to confront a dissonance between our image of ourselves and the reality is a blow to the ego.

This need for reassurance or status is the mark of a social need. Reassurance and status are in a sense two sides of the same coin. Both are means of demonstrating your own social value, on the one hand to yourself and on the other hand to others. But they have different symptoms.

When people talk about the failures of past or potential relationships in terms of honor, respect and insults, they're stuck on the need for reassurance. (It makes me think of an ex-lover of mine who told me flat out and proudly that she didn't see any point in putting up with any of her numerous admirers unless they felt she was the center of their universe.) When people talk about the failures of past or potential relationships with phrases like "we grew apart", "s/he changed", he's not good enough for you", "you can do better", it's more the status side of the coin they're focused on.

And it's not the same with the two sexes : while men need just as much reassurance and status as women do, they are far less likely to look for it in their romantic relationships. For men, women are a nice thing to have around, while women feel ashamed, almost naked, if they have to admit they don't have any men in their lives. Because of this imbalance, women accept worse relationships than they should, put up with more in them, and focus on unimportant stuff (as I describe below).

Many women - especially older women - finally do get to that stage. The problem is that then, they are no longer motivated to have romantic relationships with men! That's why the fraction of divorced women who remarry, especially older divorcees, is so much smaller than the remarrying men. For them, once you remove the social need to have a man around, they can't figure out what to do with one! The sad fact is that many interests are not equally interesting to both sexes.

The long-term solution is for all of us, men and women, to stop looking to each other to provide the lower needs in Maslow's hierarchy : the physical, economic and social needs. We all need to solve those problems on our own - to be able to earn a living, maintain a household, and hold our heads high in polite society - before we're ready to have a serious relationship with someone else, one based not on need but on friendship, shared interests and good company.

Fidelity top

Of all the aspects of traditional marriage, fidelity makes the least sense. If you prevent your spouse from sleeping with anyone else, you gain nothing except their resentment. Most couples also find that their sex lives suffer - after all, both sexes need mental stimulation for arousal, not just physical : the brain is your most important sex organ. And explicitly linking sex and love only devalues them both : do you really want someone to love you because you have sex with them (instead of because of your many fine qualities and your history together), or to have sex with you because you love them (even when they don't want to)?

What's really odd is how abundant examples of "unfaithful love" are in our lives. Few of us feel that loving one child prevents you from loving a second, or that loving one parent prevents you from loving the other, or that loving butter pecan ice cream prevents you from loving maple walnut. And yet people feel that if you sleep with someone else, you must not love your spouse! "That's different!", they say, and they're right : what they feel for their children, parents, siblings, pets and butter pecan ice cream is love, and what they feel for their spouse is mere possessiveness : their spouse's genitals are "mine, mine, mine", and nobody else can play with them. Fidelity is a way of turning your spouse into an object, and of building up your ego by measuring how much someone else had to give up to get you.

Illustration by Stephen Schildbach And all this talk doesn't even prevent infidelity : 50-80% of men and 30-50% of women still cheat. The latest study claims that 12% of men and 7% of women per year are unfaithful. A fair fraction probably get caught, or continue until they get caught, and then it traumatizes the marriage. The cuckold feels betrayed, deceived and humiliated, and may also worry that they've failed to "satisfy" their spouse sexually, or that they no longer interest them sexually. It's fair to assume that infidelity is a big factor in a lot of marital breakups, and even the suspicion of infidelity can ruin a marriage. Even spouses who don't cheat pay a price : they still feel sexual attraction for other people, but they've given up that pleasure for you, so now you owe them, and it just adds one more cost to the cost/benefit analysis.

And for all this trouble, worry and danger, what do you get by demanding fidelity or being faithful? Not much! It doesn't make you love your partner more, it doesn't help your sex life, and it definitely doesn't make your marriage more secure. It's true that people in open marriages are at greater risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, so learn how to take precautions, be careful and use some judgement, just like you did when you were single. And if the two of you really don't want to sleep with anyone else anyway, then there's no reason not to make that voluntary!

But what about your reputations? What if your kid comes home from grade school and reports "Mama, Billy Bob says you're a slut"? What if you want to die from embarassment when your husband makes a clumsy pass at that cheap tramp with the huge chest who works down at the supermarket? Frankly, I'd be surprised if any of you are worried about stuff like this - most trailer homes don't have internet access.

Am I recommending harems, promiscuity, swinging, or free love? No, serious marriage is none of those things. In fact, it's really not about sex at all; it's about being honest, disenfranchising jealousy, transcending role-playing, and treating your partner with respect - as a person, not a possession. The facts that it also makes life more enjoyable and perks up your sex life together are side benefits! And who would you rather be with, a partner who plays Inquisition if they ever catch you flirting, or a partner who knows that no matter where you eat lunch, you always come home for dinner?

In many ways, pledging fidelity in a marriage is like sleeping with a loaded gun in the bedstand drawer : you may think it makes you safer, but it actually makes you much less safe. Serious marriages may be more stable simply because a traditional marriage has a vulnerability than a serious marriage lacks. To put it cynically, people in serious marriages have to find something else to argue about.

Commitment top

There are two senses of the word commitment. The first, synonymous with resolution, refers to a commitment you make to yourself : to lose weight, stop smoking, or the like. You may enlist the help of your friends in keeping your resolution, but in the end you're only responsible to yourself. Another way of referring to this is a commitment to try : it represents hope and intention, but no obligation. It would be nice to think that everybody starting a marriage has at least resolved to try to make it work, even though hopes and intentions are much less important than we think. People like to hear about the Olympic athlete who won or the cancer survivor who lived because of sheer force of their will, but we don't hear about the ones who failed despite even greater hopes and intentions.

But when people talk about commitment in relationships, they mean the word in a different sense, synonymous with promise. A traditional marriage is a contract - another concept inappropriately borrowed from commercial law. When you make a promise, you undertake an obligation. You don't need an obligation to do something you want to do, so you understand that fulfilling that obligation may involve doing something you don't want to do. You promise to do something even if you don't want to do it, in exchange for your partner undertaking the same obligation. And you accept that, for them just as for you, fulfilling their obligation may involve doing something they would otherwise not want to do!

Think about that. You don't need a commitment to stay together when you both want to. Making a commitment means promising to stay together when at least one of you doesn't want to. Is that really what you want?

Commitment sounds like such a good thing, evoking images of partnership, responsibility and a happy future together. But if you think about it, you realize it has three huge flaws :

I'll explain.

As we now understand the word, love refers to an emotion, like anger, grief, or joy. In fact, a recent study showed that love is felt in the same part of the brain where hunger and fear are felt - it's a very basic emotion. You can't decide to be angry or joyful, and if you act like you're angry when you don't feel it, it's called pretending.

When you tell somebody that you love them, it's supposed to mean that you feel passionate love for them, not that you have decided that they're The One, or that you think they'll make a good father/provider or mother/homemaker, or that they'll impress your friends and parents, or that you want to get into their pants. If you don't feel that passion, you're only pretending.

Now how can you promise to love somebody "until death do us part"? Obviously, you can't promise how you'll feel (unless you're promising to commit suicide when you stop feeling it). So what could people possibly mean when they promise to love somebody in the future? Nothing - it's just words.

Illustration by Stephen Schildbach I know a couple who are very traditional, although they're both on their second marriage. If you ask them about commitment, they'll both tell you all the right things : how important it is, how serious theirs is, etc. If you then ask them why they didn't live up to their commitments in their first marriages, you'll hear several amusing rationalizations ("that was different", "it was only a starter marriage", etc.) intended to reassure you that contact with reality hasn't altered their convictions one bit. All with a straight face!

They don't have a bad marriage - in fact, I think they have a pretty good marriage. But what they don't have is a commitment, beyond what a judge would order in the way of child support. Does it matter? No : not now, and not even later if their marriage fails. So why pretend?

80% of marriages fail, and all those marriages begin with expressions of love and commitment, usually sincere (no matter what they say later). When things get bad, many of the sincere ones try to honor their commitments, but they do no better than those who don't try, because you can't force yourself to feel an emotion. So why pretend?

But imagine for a moment what it would be like if your spouse really managed to honor their commitment to you, staying with you because they promised to, even though they don't love you any more. Do you think they could fool you (if they even bothered trying)? Would you be happy if they did? Is that how you want them to treat you? Are you prepared to do that for them? The evidence suggests that, no matter what you answered, you won't stay with them if you're unhappy and out of love. So why pretend?

You can make all the resolutions you want; just don't make any promises you can't keep, and don't accept any promises if you'll be bitter when they're broken. Why pretend?

Tradition top

The third problem with traditional marriages is the worst : the fact that the terms are dictated by society, not by the two people involved. Not only is a traditional marriage a contract, but it's a standard contract, and one that everybody knows well. It's so standard that many people view any desire to renegotiate it as an attempt to "get away with something". One of my female friends even thinks it's "slimy" to tell a woman you love her but don't want to be faithful to her.

You might think a standard contract wouldn't be so bad; after all, we use standard contracts all the time. Aren't standard contracts standard because they've been honed to perfection over the years? Only if we learn from our mistakes - this page is that kind of honing.

The problems with the standard contract are not just the terms :

Here's a test you can take to see if you have fallen into this trap : think of the last reproach you directed at a lover, and ask yourself whether you would have made the same reproach to a friend. Many of us, unconsciously or not, feel that our boyfriends and girlfriends assume obligations that adhere to their role in our lives. For example, I have an ex-girlfriend who recently dumped a boyfriend because he had taken a job that required him to be in a distant city for two months without consulting her. She didn't object to his absence, or to his decision per se - she objected to his right to make that decision without consulting her! But if a friend had called her up with the same announcement, she would have been very supportive - her idea of friendship does not include the obligation to be consulted on decisions like that. In other words, she feels that her love for him and his role in her life impose obligations on him that don't apply to her friends. She has yet to understand that "love" doesn't mean "own".

Worst of all, the world is full of people who are out there looking to get married, instead of looking for a fulfilling and serious relationship. Central Casting is running around with a script, and everybody is auditioning to be somebody else's movie star : big tits, fast car and sign on the dotted line.

There is a resemblance between this kind of obsessive pursuit of fairy tale "true love" and drug addiction. It feels great to be in love, to play house, to sleep together, to collect the social approval of being in a couple. And it's great to feel that you're now living one of those stories you've heard so much - the ones that end "and they lived happily ever after". The problem is that those feelings often lead you astray. Many of us love chocolate, and it does taste good, but we've almost all learned that letting that good feeling dominate our decision-making leads to obesity and a sore stomach. We have to learn the same lesson as it applies to love, too. Not that too much love is a bad thing, but that letting our romantic decision-making be dominated by those great feelings that "true love" engenders leads to a broken heart.

Love top

What these folks seem not to understand is that marriage is an external relationship, while love is an internal relationship . By that I mean that marriage is a social institution, having to do with how you fit into society, but it has nothing to do with love - they're completely unrelated. Of course some couples have both marriage and love (that's what the word unrelated means), and it's considered proper these days to marry someone you love, which is also good. But they're two separate things, love and marriage, and if you don't know the difference you probably can't succeed at either one!

There's nothing at all wrong with seeking an external goal - with doing what you're supposed to do - and in general I exhort everybody to do what's best for society. The problem comes when external goals takes precedence over internal goals like emotional fulfillment. The sages and philosophers of all cultures are virtually unanimous in teaching that it's the inner goals that count. The Buddha taught a renunciation of material entanglements, Jesus taught that following the rules doesn't make you a good person, and the Taoists, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all say the same thing in other words. (Confucius is an exception, as are the Roman gods, past and present, who want you to please them.) This has been said so many times in so many ways, not just because it's true but because it needs saying so much : it's hard to resist social pressure.

Ironically, those who focus on the inner goals often achieve the outer ones, too, while those who focus on the latter get neither. That's as true of work, friendship and parenthood as it is of romance, but it's especially evident in romance. Both sexes are guilty of this, but the worst offenders are women, including my seven beauties. Tell them that you've noticed that traditional marriages don't work very well or very often, and you've written yourself a one-way ticket to derisive oblivion. But tell them that you're sure your marriages failed because your ex-wives were crazy bitches, and that the experience hasn't daunted your faith in traditional marriage one bit, and you can have your way with them to a degree that is frankly beyond comprehension : you would not believe what these women put up with! It's almost as if they've all been hypnotized!

One of the root problems in modern romance is that unfortunately, we still live in a society in which women judge themselves and each other by the men in their lives, to a far greater extent than men are judged by their trophy wives. For most women, the key to status and respect is to have a man, and then children, and nothing else really counts as much. We all know lots of women who stay in terrible relationships, putting up with unbelievable dissatisfaction and unhappiness, rather than return to the ranks of the unwanted women at the bottom of the social status totem pole. Now you understand why : these women were focussed on the external goals (marriage and status), and achieved them at the cost of the internal ones (love and fulfillment). Nor will they achieve the internal goals until they prioritize them - only people who are secure enough to dismiss the external goals can achieve the internal.

One of my seven beauties has really been jerked around by a succession of guys, most of whom don't deserve her. Yet she gamely gets back on the horse after each fall, looking for Mr. Right. It seems clear to me that her agenda is the problem, and I try to get her to focus on the present, not the future. But she notes that all of her girlfriends are in "big-R relationships", so she wants one, too. The funny thing is that all of her girlfriends are in terrible relationships, not only in my opinion and hers but in their own opinions : they complain about their boyfriends constantly. But my friend is still envious!

How can a man tell which goal a woman is focussed on, the external or the internal?

And how can a woman tell whether a man is only interested in sex and not the other things she has to offer? That's even easier : just sleep with him and see if he goes away!

Why should an attractive person, one who has many marital opportunities, accept any "less" than the standard deal, for instance giving up fidelity and commitment? Here's the shocking answer : in order to make the marriage work! It's the same reasoning that leads smart businessmen to pay decent wages and prices, even if they could get labor and materials for less, because smart people realize that relationships last longer if they work well for the other guy, too.

But if you're out there waving around the same old script as everyone else, you'd better be prepared to be judged on your boobs and your car.

Honesty top

A side effect of traditional marriages is how difficult they make honesty. One often hears a cuckold explaining that it's not just the infidelity that hurts (admitting that would just cast them in the role of poor loser) but the breach of trust. And they could maybe see their way to accepting an apology for the actual deed - after all, to err is human - but they're not sure they'll ever be able to trust their wayward spouse again.

I'm not going to defend dishonesty, but I urge you not to accept someone else's dishonesty as an excuse for failure. The goal we all share for our love lives is to succeed at them, not just to blame our failures on someone else. So the proper approach to the problem of dishonesty is to understand it and to disarm it, not just to declaim it with an air of superiority.

People are not dishonest by nature or because it's so much fun - they choose not to be honest on occasion in order to achieve a goal or avoid a problem. If someone you love, or are considering loving, is being dishonest with you, it's because they don't trust you enough to be honest with you. If you want them to be honest, you have to earn their trust. If they feel that you won't use anything they tell you to hurt them, they'll tell you everything.

For example, why would someone lie to you about being rich, or single, or younger, or blond, or looking for a long- term relationship, if they knew that you would still go out with them even if they weren't? If you wouldn't go out with them unless they lie, then you're ruling everybody but the liars out of your life! If you are going to reject someone if they're honest, then it is unreasonable for you to expect honesty. Honesty is something you'll only get when you prove you can handle it.

Of course it can be difficult to admit your flaws when you're trying to impress someone - no wonder so many people choose the easy route. Life is too short to explain yourself all the time, so we dissimulate. Most people can rationalize a small embellishment, and the really talented can convince even themselves that they are what they claim to be : mythomania. But almost all of us are in enough denial to justify portraying ourselves in our own flattering terms, especially to ourselves (the cynic in me suspects that this is the sole function of the conscious brain).

If truth be told, most of us probably prefer a little dishonesty, which we call Romance. We want to believe that he's a Prince, because that makes us a Princess. We want her to join us in our fantasies, not to drag us into her mundane reality. There are a lot of us out there who just want to hear someone say they're going to love us forever, no matter whether it's true or not. And who am I to tell you that's so bad? As long as you know it's only Romance, it's not. The problem is when people take it seriously.

So what does this have to do with the difference between traditional and serious marriages? After all, if you're lying to yourself, what does it matter what the lie is?

Here's an interesting quote (by Dr. Frank Pittman, the author of Private Lies : Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy, Norton 1990, quoted in Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of Fidelity, by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times , 27 October 2008) :

I see a changing landscape in which the emphasis is less on the sex than it is on the openness and intimacy and the revelation of secrets. Everybody talks by cellphone and the relationship evolves because you become increasingly distant from whomever you lie to, and you become increasingly close to whomever you tell the truth to.

In other words, honesty leads to intimacy. For example, partners in a traditional marriage promise never to sleep with anyone else, and at the time they make that promise, they may sincerely believe they never will - but that doesn't make it true, and when they are confronted with the reality of a desire to sleep with someone else (or the fait accompli), they are forced deeper into denial (Bill Clinton : "I never had sex with that woman") or forced to rationalize their actions by blaming their partner.

But partners in a serious marriage can learn something about themselves, even if it's not flattering. One can say "When we got married, I honestly thought I would never want to sleep with anyone but you, but now I do", and the other can respond "Yeah, me too - waddaya know" without jeopardizing the relationship. Instead of living a lie, they become more self-aware.

Although I chose fidelity for the example above, that's not the only playground for dishonesty. For example, Japan is famous for salarymen who dress in a suit every morning and head off to "work" for years, never telling their wives that they've lost their jobs. Stories of people who conceal their bad habits (drugs, gambling, pornography), their depression or their health problems are legion all over the world.

I know two couples that had discussed having children in the vague future of "someday", but the men would have preferred to wait until they were prepared to settle down - men simply mature later than women (which, by the way, makes them more mature, not less ). So in both cases, the woman took matters into her own hands, successfully rationalizing the deception. And I have to admit that, in both cases, the couples are still together - but that doesn't make it honest!

I also know a couple that had an open relationship - he was even allowed a weekly "date night". But he knew that his proclivities were being tolerated, not accepted, and so he was less than 100% honest about the extent of his activities, even to himself! Being in denial, he wasn't as careful about the unintended side effects of sex as he should have been, and when the shit hit the fan, he discovered that partial honesty can leave someone feeling even more deceived than complete dishonesty : she felt betrayed, and (taking advantage) blamed it on the openness of the relationship! So now he's a triple loser : his little "problem", his "deception" and the loss of his "privileges".

What's the moral? Not just that honesty is a Good Thing - everybody agrees with that. But as Thoreau said, "It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak and the other to hear". If you aren't ready to hear the truth, your partner can't be honest with you. Everybody needs to accept themselves with their flaws and idiosyncracies, and to trust their partner to accept them that way, too. And that can't happen if both parties are trying to live up to someone else's ideals.

Thinking and Talking top

Some of you are silently congratulating yourselves, secure in the knowledge that your relationships are always honest because you talk about your innermost feelings. And after all, you only go out with intelligent, self-aware people of the "evolved" persuasion. I wish I could tell you you're going to have better relationships ... but I can't, honestly.

The problem is that real relationships don't involve the conscious brain much at all. They aren't joint ventures to which the two parties subscribe; they aren't negotiated partnerships, they aren't couples therapy. They're just people who get along well with each other, whose moments together leave them both feeling better. Your Inner Cat, whom I'll describe below as the final arbiter in your relationships, just keeps a tally of the net of Good Moments (petting, playing, feeding) minus Bad Moments (fighting, scaring, yelling). Relationships work when the balance is high.

So what role does your conscious mind play in this? You certainly can't talk yourself or the other person into feeling something they don't feel. At best, you can think about yourself and your life and mature as an individual, and that's a prerequisite to a good relationship. And if you and your lover enjoy providing each other with a sounding board, that's great - they're a real friend. But don't expect to correct each other, or to make a problem go away by explaining it.

The same is true in love. You can't make a bad relationship work by trying harder! That isn't to say that we can't affect our relationships at all with our conscious brains - of course we can, by following the advice on this page for example. But not by thinking or talking about what we feel and why - that's just color commentary, with no effect on the players, your subconscious minds.

So do intelligent people do better in love? Does therapy help? Can people get along better if they deeply understand why they don't get along? We all wish it were true, so that we could convert our desires to love and be loved into reality. We wish it were true ... because it isn't.

Actually, there is an important role for your conscious mind to play - shut up! Many people talk themselves out of decent relationships because they don't fit their idea of what they want. Do yourself a favor : don't think about what you want, at all - just live your life, try to get along well with the people around you, and if you feel love, don't hold it back.

Shopping top

In the Honesty section, I noted that if you wouldn't go out with someone unless they lie - unless they tell you what you want to hear - then you're ruling everybody but the liars out of your life. It seems so obvious when it's expressed that way, and yet people (especially people of the distaff persuasion) often test potential mates for the opposite trait, a willingness to say the "right" answer.

For instance, let's say you're shopping for a husband on your favorite internet dating site, and your ad says you're looking for an LTR - a Long-Term Relationship. You've picked out a likely victim and you're inspecting the merchandise before purchase, as any savvy shopper knows to do : he's across the table. You ask about his intentions ; there are 3 possible responses :

  1. He's needy and insecure, so he reassures you that you'll want to dump him long before he wants to dump you.
  2. He says to himself "I can make this lovely lass happy AND have my way with her for as long as I'm interested, just by telling her what she wants to hear."
  3. He says "Relationships don't last long because of the participants' intentions, hopes or beliefs - they last long because they work well. So I'm looking for a good relationship, not a long one." Bzzz - wrong answer, bye bye!

In the same vein, there are a few other obvious truths that are rarely expressed :

I know many, many attractive and successful women who end up bitter and alone after ruining more than one good relationship, and of course it's not their fault! Yet it usually doesn't take more than half an hour's conversation to uncover several episodes in their lives when they ruined a good relationship by insisting on something stupid. Of course, they have every right to insist on whatever they want - after all, it's their lives - but then they have no right to be bitter when it doesn't work out.

Romance top

I mentioned Romance a few sections back, as a type of dishonesty. And it is dishonest, even when it's sincere. But it's not always a Bad Thing - in fact, most women need it to feel aroused.

Freud famously asked "What do women want?", in frustration, and in the 50+ years since then, we still haven't answered his question definitively. But progress has been made, and one recent finding (see "What do Women Want?", in the 25jan09 NYTimes magazine) seems to clarify what arouses women sexually, not in physiological terms like clitoral stimulation, but in subjective terms, that is, in their imaginations. The answer seems to be that women are wired to be aroused by the desire of their partners!

If you find that obvious, then you didn't understand it. Men are easily aroused, by the sight of breasts or buttocks (the former having evolved in humans to evoke the latter), by smells, by feelings of power, triumph or transgression, and so forth. But the sight of male buttocks doesn't arouse women. What DOES arouse them is the perception that their partner finds them attractive : HIS arousal. Sometimes, even rape victims are aroused (and then ashamed). In other words, men are aroused by pornography, and women are aroused by romance novels.

In these days of evo-devo just-so stories, it would be easy to explain that in evolutionary terms, but I'm not sure whether it's biological, genetic, cultural or something else. Yet it seems clear that if horny men were all it took to arouse women, there'd be a lot more sex. Maybe preventing sex is the real role of all the social baggage, except that it's a phenomenon that predates humanity by a long shot. Even Darwin studied sexual selection, the phenomenon that drives ever more elaborate peacock tails and elk antlers despite their cost and danger, in fact BECAUSE of their cost and danger.

And that's what Romance is : the human form of sexual selection. Of course, human women still judge suitors by their wealth, their social standing, their looks (as trophies, not as sex objects), and other tangible measures of fitness and success. But marrying a rich man isn't interesting unless you share his wealth (I know a rich widow who doesn't need any more money, but still refuses to go out with rich guys who wouldn't marry her, and certainly not with poor guys altogether). And the substance of Romance revolves around how much a guy would give (up) to have you. If he tells you that he loves you madly, will love you forever, would give you the sun, the moon and the stars, will die if he can't have you, then the point isn't that all that isn't true - of course he's not going to give you the sun! - it's that he really really really desires you.

And without hearing that, women can't get excited about a guy.

Dogs and Cats top

I'm going to digress here to present my model of human behavior. Feel free to skip this section if you don't find me fascinating.

A Princeton psychologist named Julian Jaymes once wrote a book called "The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", in which he claims that even as recently as Homer, only 3000 years ago, we humans were aware that our motivations were subconscious (specifically, in the right brain, inaccessible to our conscious left brains). He notes that events in the Iliad are always described along the lines of "After Hector slew Patroclus, Athena filled him with wrath". Achilles wasn't capable of being angry at the death of his lover until Athena put the wrath in him! Jaymes and I think that Athena is a personification of a part of our own subconscious.

Like Homer and Jaymes, I also see our conscious brains as mostly dedicated to rationalizing or justifying what we do for other reasons, kind of like the press secretary of the Bush (Jr.) Adminstration, who knew nothing more about what was going on than the reporters, but still had to go out there and answer their questions (by just making stuff up). There's another famous psychology experiment in which they attach electrodes to a man's arm, then make him, say, put his finger in his ear. Then they ask him why he did that, and he comes up with a reason : it itched, or there was a fly.

We like the idea of free will, and it's a hard blow to our egos to accept that everything we think and feel has a cause; our brains are machines. But we all recognize that OTHER people's thoughts and feelings are only the results of causes, like where they're from or where their interests lie. How many times have you seen a mother say that her three-year-old was only throwing a tantrum because he was tired or hungry? Or a pet owner explaining that his dog only barks because he's scared, while the dog thinks he's barking because of the intruder.

So where DO our motivations come from? From subconscious parts of our brain, which are like other people living inside our own heads. I distinguish two of them, which I call your "inner dog" and your "inner cat". Serious people call them your ego and id.

Dogs are pack animals, and your inner dog is the part of you that cares what the other dogs think, and that sees itself through their eyes. Your inner dog is concerned about your social status, and about doing what the other dogs expect it to do. That's why dogs are such faithful and obedient pets : they want to please their masters, since they see themselves through their master's eyes.

Cats are famously independent, and unconcerned about what you or anybody else thinks. All they care about is themselves! But that doesn't mean they don't love us as much as dogs do; in fact, their love is less venal, since they don't need our approval like dogs do. Of course, both love us because we feed them, care for them and play with them, but cats don't ALSO need the reassurance. Likewise, your inner cat just cares about being fed and petted.

Humans are social animals, like dogs, and our inner dogs often bark more loudly than our inner cats. So we often do things that are contrary to our own self-interest, even our enlightened long-term self-interest, to gain the social approval of our peers. And this essay is written with the goal of empowering you to resist that urge, and to act more in your own self-interest, to engage in marriages than please YOU, not others.

So, in my model, you are like a small company. Your inner dog is your salesperson, who wants to keep the customers happy and will promise them anything. Your inner cat is your accountant, who wants to make money, ar at least make ends meet. And your conscious mind is your engineer, who has to make all this happen, somehow.

We'll talk more about how this applies to marriage in the next section. All you need to know is that "external" goals please your inner dog, while "internal" goals please your inner cat.

Fulfillment top

Most people work, and our jobs offer us two classes of benefit. On the one hand, we get external benefits like pay, health insurance and the respect of our fellow citizens. On the other hand, we can get internal emotional satisfaction from the work itself, from a job well done, and from socializing with our coworkers and clients. Most people balance both types of benefit, but the saddest are those who take a job only for the external benefits and derive no satisfaction from their work. For them, a job is just a job, and they die a little each day.

At the other extreme are people who follow their hearts, who do what they want to do in life, damn the risks and results. As fate would have it, those people are often not only happiest, but most successful by the external criteria as well! There's a clear moral to these examples : Choose to favor the external criteria, and you'll get neither; choose the internal, and you'll get both!

Our love lives are no different. There are people out there who only care about the external aspects, and who think it's a waste of time to go out with someone who doesn't want to get married, have a family, make a commitment, be faithful and in general play the role society has assigned them. Then there are others who don't care about any of that stuff - for them, it's about emotional satisfaction, intimacy, passion, fulfillment and similar internal considerations. As with work, the wise choose the latter path and get everything, while fools choose the former and complain that "life isn't fair" when things don't work out.

Since we're talking about work, let me give you another work analogy.

Not that long ago - back in the era when women were considered property - bosses also considered workers their property (and in fact they often were slaves, serfs or indentured workers). Back then, the relationship between a boss and his workers was clear : the boss told you what to do, and you did it.

But that attitude no longer cuts the mustard in the modern world. Workers must be convinced, incented, consulted and made part of the team. Bosses must now be leaders, not just commanders, and employees are now "associates" or "partners". And we're all far better off for the change.

Likewise, the world of romance has changed, for the better. The traditional division of roles into superior husband and subordinate wife is no longer tenable, and husbands must now consider wives as partners.

In the workplace, that evolution is continuing past employees-as-partners all the way to employees-as-vendors (we call them subcontractors or consultants). In that model, what was once a relationship regulated by contracts and obligations now becomes a reciprocal-client relationship : the customer is free to choose another vendor at any time, and the vendor is free to seek other clients at any time. There is less security, but more satisfaction.

And that's where marriage is headed, too.

Serious Marriage top

Most of you who've read this far must be pretty bummed by the discussion above. After all, the ideal of traditional marriage is one that we've all grown up with. I understand that my point of view is not an easy one to accept, and that even those of you who have experienced firsthand the pain and frustration of traditional marriage would prefer some other explanation, no matter how fanciful.

I don't expect to trigger your enlightenment with an intellectual discussion - this topic is much too entwined with fundamental beliefs for that - but I can hope to point out a hitherto unnoticed path leading you out of the thicket of failed relationships, false hopes and despair. It looks perilous, but pain makes us courageous! If you're happy now or hopeful, it's easy to dismiss my warnings, I know. But when you lose hope, those of you wise enough to pause and think before trying the same old thing again and again may find this path leads you to a better place. This section will describe that better place.

Illustration by Jeff Koegel The good news is that serious marriages aren't that hard! In fact, if you just toss out the three burdens described above, you'll do much better than most.

It's funny to reflect that many traditional marriages are preceded by a delightful courtship (else why would they marry?), which often lasts longer than the happy part of the marriage. In other words, many couples already had a good relationship which they replaced with a bad one. So one easy solution is just don't get married! In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Trying to make a good relationship last longer by marrying is like trying to make a beloved pet last longer by having it stuffed by a taxidermist.

But if you're one of those people (disproportionately of the distaff persuasion) who view courtship as the distasteful effort necessary to catch a mate, there isn't much hope for you. Until you can accept yourself as you are, single or not, and until you have finished growing up by replacing your drive to live up to others' expectations with a drive to take responsibility for your own happiness, fulfillment and success, you're just not ready for a serious marriage. From my perspective, it's one of the strongest confirmations of the validity of my conclusions to hear myself preaching that your success in marriage has more to do with your own maturity than it does with your relationship per se.

But even people who accept wholeheartedly the need for a new paradigm can wonder what to do, and how to guide their actions. One suggestion is to model your marriage on the other successful long-term relationships in your life, no matter how humble.

For example, let's imagine that you have been eating regularly at a local restaurant for many years. Does the proprietor get mad if you eat anywhere else? Do you get jealous if he serves anyone else? Are you committed to coming in on a regular basis? Are you obligated to order the same thing every time you come? No, no, no, no : there's no commitment and no fidelity involved, and yet the relationship has lasted a long time. How can that be? Simple : both of you give the other something he wants - that's all it takes.

OK, love is not exactly like food (although they're more similar than acknowledged). So consider your oldest friendship with an unrelated friend of the same sex. Have you ever asked your friend for a commitment? Are you jealous if they have other friends? Would you ever imagine that a contract would improve the friendship? So why would you think those things improve a romantic relationship?

It's that kind of reasoning that can guide you through a marriage, as well. People often say "My spouse is my best friend", but they don't usually mean "I treat my marriage like a good friendship". But they should! Friends help each other, but don't hold each other responsible for failures. Friends all recognize that we can't be everything to everyone all the time, nor must we share every interest or every free moment. And the fact that your friends could walk away at any time keeps you from taking them for granted.

Here's another maxim to love by : abjure obligation. Fidelity, commitment, and adherence to tradition are all forms of obligation - they result in someone feeling they should or must do something. That's appropriate in some situations, but not for romance. Rely on the carrot, not the stick.

Some of you might be underwhelmed by my advice. "That's all he wants us to do is stop the role-playing, treat marriage like friendship, and stop telling our lovers they have to do something?" Yep, that's most of it. It's ridiculously simple!

Step One top

That's the theoretical underpinning. But how do you implement this in practice?

For men, it's relatively easy : just stop telling women what they want to hear, and tell the ones you like that you would love to have an affair with them. Most of them will be horrified and insulted - those are the ones who aren't ready for a serious relationship with anyone. Of course, if you really do just want to sleep with them, then go ahead and tell them whatever it takes, as long as you realize that means it will never go any further. If they're the same ones that rejected the affair, then you're not losing anything anyway.

For women, it's more difficult, because the problem is inside you - you have to overcome your habits, your instincts and the disapproval of your friends. Here's what you have to do : as you go through life, keep your eyes open for men you like, and let them know you'd like to have an affair. Be as direct as you need to be, but no more direct (usually, it doesn't take much). Not every fling leads to a serious relationship, but every serious relationship starts with a fling. Every one! So if you refuse to have affairs, you will never have a serious relationship.

By "affair", I'm not talking about just sex, either : I'm talking about a relationship that is dedicated to fun, with no promises and no obligations. Yes, it does have to include sex, because sex is the only road to intimacy. But it should also include laughter, good times, interesting conversations, shared interests and a general joy of life. You should feel alive, multiplied, excited, even food should taste better! I'm not talking about adolescent infatuation here - no lovesick notes or mooning over each other. If you want to talk on the phone each night from different beds, that's your egos talking! I'm talking about really enjoying the time you spend together.

And "the ones you like" should be as broad a group as possible : don't restrict yourself to beautiful people of the same age. "Beautiful" is often the opposite of "interesting", and attractive people already have so many suitors that they won't value your attention. And don't restrict yourself to people who are "available" : first of all, because there's usually a reason they're available. More importantly, if they're in a serious relationship, you will only improve it for them, and if they're not, it won't last long anyway.

Don't be too selective, either, because you will select out the successes much more than the failures. As you go about executing this program of flings with interesting lovers, you have two goals :

  1. Have a good time, enjoy yourself!
  2. See how far each one goes, and be open to one or more of them becoming people who will be important parts of your life for a long time. In other words, be open to success in your quest for serious relationships!

Will Wright quoted a study in which two groups of students were making ceramic pots. One group was told to make the best pots they could; the second was told to make the most pots they could. The second group produced the better pots! That lesson can be extended to our love lives, as well.

And what about your friends, who will call you a "slut" or a "womanizer"? Bear those epithets with pride : the alternatives are "lonely old maid", "dirty old man", "bored housewife", "promise breaker" and "bitter loser".

Questions to Think About top

I agree, more or less, with everything you've written, but if I admitted that to the women I go out with, they wouldn't go out with me.

I read that open marriages are no more successful than traditional marriages.

I'm happily married, and my example proves you're wrong about marriage.

I love my spouse very much, and have no desire to sleep with anyone else.

I really want to settle down and raise a family.

Why should I get married at all?

I hope this exposition has stimulated some reflection on your part, even if only to formulate your objections. I'd certainly like to hear your ideas on the subject.

Thank you for reading this far, and thanks in advance for passing the link on to those of your friends who might be interested.

And good luck in your love life!

Feedback top

Please send me your comments, suggestions, corrections, questions, testimonials and invective. If I feel they're of interest to my audience, I'll post them here (without identifying you). I reserve the right to edit your contributions for length, language and clarity.

From a never-married woman in her 40s :

Just read your rant on marriage - thank you, thank you, thank you! I thought I was the only "weirdo" who had these leanings.

[Actually, there is a] polyamory site, an extension of the magazine Loving More , which discusses the joys and trials of non-traditional relationships. I've also attended one of their seminars, and it was heartening to see people building the relationship model that works for them, no matter what form it may take. When I talk about my polyamory to friends, I refer them to the site because it can provide a better description than I can off the cuff, especially in answer to the usual response : "That's just being a slut." And what's wrong with satisfying an appetite?

One other point : I think it may be even more difficult for a woman to espouse the non-traditional marriage viewpoint, as she is then branded with those charming epithets reserved for non-exclusive women. It is too easy to be blind, to not understand why one is unhappy when one follows the expectations of society, family, friends. To take your life into your own hands and become responsible for your own happiness - ceci n'est pas evident , unfortunately. But oh, the rewards are great - and, to me, life isn't worth living without them.

From a twice-married man in his 70s :

Just finished reading your essay on marriage which is very well organized and thoughtfully expressed. You could, however, substitute the word job for marriage. There are numerous institutions which strike a compromise between individual satisfaction and societal goals in which the former is paramount early on but gradually loses ground in conflict with the latter. For that matter you could substitute the words tennis or golf ... or scuba diving. All begin as a splendid romance and end in lonely divorce.

Here are some [made-up] statistics for you. A new internal combustion engine has an efficiency of 18% which falls to 12% after 8 years. Marriage produces satisfaction with an efficiency of 20% after 7 years falling to 5% after 30 years. Jobs are satisfying with an efficiency of 10% after a decade falling to 0.5% after 30 years. Scuba diving has an efficiency of 50% after the first decade falling sharply to 3% after three decades.

I fear marriage in some form is here to stay. Whether traditional, open, monogamous, polygamous, homosexual, liberated or feudal makes little difference : I, for one, would not get into an argument over which is better. Marriage has a better record than working, scuba diving or the internal combustion engine, all of which are here to stay.

From a twice-married woman in her 40s :

I have just finished reading "Marriage." I have only to compare my first marriage with my marriage now to appreciate your insight. I remember during my first marriage having difficulty determining what was going wrong, whether it was due to marriage in general or this relationship in particular. I was 28 and old enough to know the difference, to say nothing of two previous lengthy relationships and a lot of short ones that should have taught me more! It took me seven years--yes, the proverbial seven years--to realize that the relationship was not providing what either of us needed, and that the marriage concept made it all the more complex and frustrating.

From a divorcing woman nearing 50 :

Boy, are you on target. My opinions on the subject rarely coincide with that of my female friends. They tell me I have too much testosterone. I think it's the gray matter, personally.

[My husband] and I were together for about 25 years. We had what you would call an open marriage. It worked well when things were good between us; it only became a "problem" when our main relationship with each other started to rot. Nobody believes me when I say this. I liked being with someone whom other women found attractive. (Of course, I only liked this when we would leave the party together : in other words, when I "won". Not that he was much of a prize...she says now).

The thing about infidelity is that most people are "against" it in principle but (as you point out, backed up by statistics), it happens. Anyone who denies that it's a natural thing is in denial against reality. It happens : look around you. I could go on, but I don't think I have to (there I go preaching to the converted again). Some of us just do what everyone else is doing and admit it; others do it and pretend it's not happening.

From a married mother in her 30s :

In my limited experience, sampling from other plates has only, in the long term, brought me closer to my husband and made me happier with him and my life, and likewise for him.

From a self-described "Alivox groupie", another married mother in her 30s :

I either "somewhat agree", "agree", "strongly agree" or "begrudgingly agree" with all of this. I have read it several times.

I used to pull Bill Clintons all the time, defining "cheating" as having vaginal penetration by a live penis with someone other than my partner for, say, at least 1.5 minutes. Regardless of what else went on, only that would count. It was all in a futile effort to achieve "monogamy" and hence be a good person. But I got older and much less willing to apologize for being me. And much less willing to follow guidelines put forth by society/religion telling me what is good and what is bad. It pisses me off that everybody does it, and that's "bad and all", but if you plan on doing it, you're "super-duper-baaaaaaaaaaaaaad". How can I take that seriously? I cannot.

Making the conscious decision not to be monogamous was life altering to me. I felt liberated. It did not change what I did. Just how I felt about it. Monogamy made me miserable. Made me feel like I already knew everything I would ever know. Having what mainstream America would consider an open marriage, has helped me know that the grass is not greener on the other side. It's just different.

I also enjoy knowing that my husband can be desired by other women. I like the new tricks he learns. And him tapping other pussies/asses/mouths makes him hornier for me. It improves the quantity and quality of our sex. I like the danger, the unknowing. It makes things more unpredictable, which is good in a long-term relationship. And let me preach this to the choir : men will love you more, not less, for "letting them" sleep with others. And besides, I would never want my husband to be with me out of duty. I don't want pity-fucks. I want him to be with me because he wants to be with me. I want him to fuck me because he wants to fuck me. Nothing less is worth having.

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