Thursday, February 12, 2009


Sex happens, typically followed by, and sometimes even preceded by, pair bonding. It seems a natural human inclination to pair off in twos, with both parties emotionally attached to each other in the same way a child is bonded to his mother. It's not something that you have to have, but it can be USEFUL at times. You can potentially gain another set of eyes and ears on the world through the close communication that pair bonding fosters.

What you DON'T NEED is a public contract stating that the bond is permanent. Nor do you need a legal merging of your finances that erases the economic boundaries between you—i.e. marriage.

I'm not saying that a pair bond can't become permanent of its own accord. I'm just saying that you shouldn't declare contractually that it will be, because as soon as that happens, the relationship ceases to be a free-will choice. Are you there because you want to be, because the relationship continues to prove itself on a daily basis, or are you there because you have to be, because the practical costs of breaking the contract are so high. With the outside contract hanging over you, you can never really be sure.

Legally, marriage is primarily a financial agreement—essentially an incorporation. It is saying that your separate economic lives have ended and have been replaced by a single "community". Henceforth, any assets your spouse obtains are also your assets, but any debts and liabilities he incurs are also yours.

In theory, it sounds nice to share everything you have with someone special, but in practice, marriage suffers from the same problems as Communism: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Whenever this arrangement is implemented in the real world, it usually ends up that one party starts taking more than his share, while the other party has to give more to compensate.

A marriage might coast along nicely as long as there are plenty of resources to go around and no big changes, but whenever the going gets tough, it seems much easier for one or both parties to fall back on the community to solve their problems rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.

A "joining of two hearts" seems harmless enough, and if you want to have a ceremony and hold a banquet to celebrate your relationship, that's fine. It's the "joining of two pocketbooks" that is really destructive. Unfortunately, that's the legal essence of marriage in every jurisdiction, even if you maintain separate bank accounts after the wedding. Money will always be an important part of each person's identity in the world. It is a measure of one's labor and of control over one's own life. If you erase this essential boundary between people, then you may have pushed intimacy too far.

In our interactions with others, we must always balance two opposing forces. One is loneliness, or the urge to merge with others. The other force could be called "engulfment," or the unpleasant loss of personal control to others. No one wants to be alone, but it can be equally painful and damaging to have lost control of your own destiny to outside forces, even to someone you love. Young people who are just starting a relationship can only see the benefits of merging; they don't yet grasp how quickly the pendulum can swing in the other direction: to where you feel trapped in a relationship because you have given up too much of your own discretion.

The most essential tool in maintaining this balance is negotiation. You need to negotiate, on a case-by-case basis, what you are going to share and what you are going to keep separate. This can be awkward sometimes, like when deciding who should pay for dinner, but this kind of interaction is really the essence of what a relationship is: "Ongoing negotiations." If you give it all away in a single "I do" you may also be inadvertently giving up the very life and substance of your exchange.

If you ask divorced people when their relationship started going bad, their answer is often, "On the day we got married." This is not surprising, since the boundaries that people have known all their lives have been instantly erased. Now you may think you have "security," but every student of history knows that security is a double-edged sword. Always there is a loss of individual liberty, sometimes much greater than the perceived threats that security was meant to address.

Are many married relationships successful? Sure, but I contend that it is in spite of marriage and not because of it. These people have established healthy boundaries and productive negotiations within the bounds of the traditional structure, but perhaps they would have done so regardless.

More often, if you look closely at real marriages, you see dysfunction. One partner becomes the child and the other the parent—or maybe they BOTH regress to childishness. What could they have become without each other? They can't imagine it themselves, but we can. Sometimes, marriage just isn't healthy for the personal development of either party, even when the marriage lasts.

Clear boundaries between people are an essential part of our healthy functioning in the social world. We would be unwise to give them all up with a single wave of a magic wand.

1 comment:

  1. You forget about an important point: marriage makes a lot of things much easier for a couple. Whether it be taxes or making critical decisions when your loved one is in a coma in a hospital - marriage can be real useful.

    It smacks of immaturity when you speak of relationship ceasing to be "free-will". No one forced you to get married. But yes, IF you do, it will be harder for you to split up. It's similar to a lot of other decisions, such as, say, having kids: no one forces you to make that decision, but once you have made it, you're obligated for years (in this case, to take care of your child). In fact, that's what differentiates an adult from a child: being able to take responsibilities (including long-term responsibilities) for your decisions.

    Saying that marriage suffers from the same problem as Communism is pretty ridiculous. In truth, Communism is a great thing, it's just that it can't be made to work on a large scale - not given the present development of the human race, anyhow. However, the beauty of individual relationships (and even tribal relationships, if you go to more traditional societies) is that the main principle of Communism CAN be made to work. It provides very important safety net and gives one a feeling of belongning and security. Yes, in exchange you have to sacrifice some of your own independence. But you yourself can decide how much you're willing to sacrifice and what you want to get in return. No one is saying that you should get married, but for some people it's definitely a very good solution.

    P.S. For the record, I am not married, and have no intention to get married.