I was married by 24 and had my first child at 25. By the standard of my parents’ generation, 24 was normal—my father married at that age—but by my generation’s standard (especially within my Northern California subculture), it was peculiar to get married so young. My firstborn child is eight years older than those of my two older brothers.
I wasn’t precocious; it was circumstantial. I was living on a commune, but we weren’t doing the usual free love thang. We were 1500 hippies the press referred to as the “Technicolor Amish” because of our combination of tie dyes and traditional values. We were sexual conservatives. No sex if you weren’t engaged. No dating nonmembers or anyone who had been a member less than six months. Marriage is sacred.
Some of what motivated us was philosophical. We were feminist, pro-life, and compensating for the sexual lassitude that had created so many irresponsible hippie parents.
A lot of what motivated us was practical. We lived close-packed with each other. We didn’t come and go. Members planned to stay on the commune forever. Dating a member of the commune was like dating someone from work. If anything went wrong you wouldn’t be able to steer clear of each other. Promiscuity in close quarters is chaos.
And we were busy doing everything for ourselves the old back-to-the-land, labor-intensive way and so were too busy for a lot of romantic and sexual mischief. And besides, of the 1500 commune members, 700 were children and most of the rest were married. That left maybe 20 eligible singles per gender.
I spent most of my early twenties celibate, not by choice but because my life didn’t afford me the opportunity for anything else.
Given the circumstances—scarcity, close quarters, lots of collaborative work, an emphasis on baby-making, nowhere to escape to if you broke up with someone—marriage came naturally. Given how much circumstances drove me to it, I lucked out marrying such a wonderful, kind, generous, considerate woman. We stayed together 17 years and are still friends.
My father cautioned me against marrying a non-Jew. I told him I was marrying into my tribe. My commune had “spiritual beliefs” and “tribal ways,” and my wife was as committed to them as I was. We both assumed we would live our full lives on the commune. We agreed about everything and reveled in our profound compatibility.
We were so in sync that the idea to leave the commune struck us both simultaneously. Fifteen years later we broke up over irreconcilable differences. Now we revel in the liberation we granted each other in the divorce. She’s better off free of our constraints and I am likewise.
In the throes of our divorce, I took it as an embarrassing failure and wondered anxiously whether the fault was hers, mine, or ours. I remember toward the end calling our marriage a failure to her face. My soon-to-be ex-wife said, “It didn’t fail. It lasted 17 years.” Around that time I confessed to an acquaintance that we were getting divorced. She asked how long we lasted, and when I told her she said, “Wow, 17 years... a good long run.” These comments were a comfort.
“A good long run” is a pleasantly optimistic way to reflect on any sincere effort that doesn’t quite succeed. That 17 years was considered a good long run also reveals shifting cultural attitudes. My 17-year marriage still impresses people occasionally, as though we were an exception in the moral wasteland of casual noncommitted partnerships.
My friendship with my ex also impresses. We both eventually got over the question of whose fault it was. Hers, mine, and ours? All three, but there’s a fourth factor as well.
It’s “ours” writ large—the social, economic, and cultural context that constitutes the terrain upon which we form relationships, romantic or otherwise. That terrain has changed radically in the course of my lifetime and explains, I believe, a lot more of what breaks couples up than we give it credit for.
To appreciate the context, look at things like a social scientist, setting aside what you think people should do for long enough to look at what people are likely to do given the tangible costs and benefits of the options they face. Think like an economist, for example.
Bonding for the long term in marriage or otherwise is a bit like partnering in business or hiring each other as employees. People are risky investments. We get sick, we change our minds, we become unreliable. In business we see a trend toward automation and outsourcing as alternatives to hiring long-term employees and providing full benefits. Robotics, automatic payroll systems, offshore tech support services, RFID chips (the little devices that will soon eliminate thousands of check-out clerk jobs)—the market has no way to resist inventing and absorbing labor-saving innovations that cut reliance on unreliable human resources.
We may lament our precipitous decline in loyalty, but in business, loyalty comes second to profitability and efficiency, so at least within the system we have, the trend is inevitable. Businesses can’t afford to leave profits and efficiencies on the table where other businesses will grab them. Blaming a particular company for divorcing its employees may be therapeutic, but it’s focusing at an unproductive level of analysis.
The outsourcing and automation trends are affecting marriage as well. Think of how many of the traditional glues that bind a marriage together are now outsourced or automated.
A cook? Microwaves, preprocessed foods, dishwashers, takeout.
Company at home at night? TV, movies, video games, online chat, the Internet, pets.
Romance? Romantic movies and novels.
Someone to take care of us when we get old? Insurance, retirement homes.
Engagement that extends us into the world? A vast expanding array of leisure activities and hobbies.
Child-raising? Preschools, lessons, and schools.
Sex? Match.com, porn, vibrators.
Some scorn these alternatives as if they don’t or shouldn’t substitute for the real deal. The fact is, they do. Not completely and not exclusively—sometimes the substitute makes you crave the real deal all the more. Still, to the extent we are able to reliably substitute automated and outsourced products and services for those that partnership provides, it reduces the reasons to stay together.
But aren’t there other reasons to stay together? Indeed, and our habits of bonding for the long term lean ever more heavily on these for their justification. We become increasingly obsessed with finding true love, getting and sustaining ego-affirmation, maintaining hot marital sex. We need these or else a voice whispers, “Why bother? I can outsource most of the rest.” Invention is the mother of necessity. Our inventions satisfy some needs, putting pressure on other needs to bear the whole weight of the bond. In the old days you needed to stay married. Your survival depended on your collaborations. What are the collaborations these days? Dinner out? Working on the relationship? Seeing movies?
Reasons to stay together are harder to find, but if the compatibility is strong enough that shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, an erosive circumstantial force is active on that front too. Culture has become so heterogeneous it’s harder than ever to find someone who is and will stay compatible. My marriage, for instance—we went from perfectly compatible to perfectly incompatible in 17 years. What are the odds of that happening in this day and age? Very high. Statistically the more states two things can be in, the lower the probability that they will stay in matched states. The same is true for lifestyles. Compare our pastime options to our parents’ options. It’s simply statistically more likely that over time we’ll drift from being mutually supporting to mutually disappointing in our pursuits.
My wife and I had less and less to talk about as our interests diverged. We simply chose radically different pursuits from the overstuffed pantry of options. Neither of us chose bad things, but the things we chose drew us away from each other. It’s not that we didn’t try to appreciate each other’s interests. Seventeen years, remember. We had a great run but eventually ran out of willingness to compromise.
But what about the children? Aren’t couples as likely to find each other and stay together for the kids? Isn’t there some age-old biological imperative driving us, or at least the women among us, to bond?
For 3.6 billion years the only game in town was baby-making. Biological reproductive success is life’s overarching goal and all persistent behavior that evolved served that goal either directly or indirectly.
Human cultural, technological, and symbolic capacities evolved originally in the service of making children, but by now they have taken on a life of their own. We now have two games in town—making children and making brainchildren, or more accurately propagating children and brainchildren, since we don’t produce either from scratch. We propagate children through our genes and our parental care, but when we work, go to church, read books, play music, watch TV, and engage in countless other adult activities, we’re also propagating brainchildren, regardless of whether the activity enhances our prospects of biological reproductive success or not. Indeed, for the past few thousand years brainchildren have competed with children for adult attention, and brainchildren are gaining ground.
In the information age propagating brainchildren can make you money. In many marriages today, both partners make an income in the brainchild trade, and are thus no longer as dependent on each other for income, either.
Around the time my wife left me, I noticed a trend among some married women of my generation. I called it Mid-wife Crisis. Midway through the time they expected to be a wife, they wanted to mid-wife themselves into a new identity, beyond mothering children and back into mothering brainchildren. As young women they’d been as likely as young men to be drawn to proliferating brainchildren, but then, for some, the shift to baby making became a biological or cultural priority. Mothering beckons, women succumb, and with the wife distracted during the early years, the husband more often than not gets away with spending a lot more time in the brainchild arena than the wife does. That is, until the kids are old enough, the maternal hormones subside, and the brainchildren beckon with a vengeance. But by then there’s a huge imbalance. The husband doesn’t show enough respect; but the wife isn’t culturally engaged enough to be interesting. Maybe the husband wanted to keep her down, but maybe she shouldn’t have allowed it. So whose fault is mid-wife crisis? His, hers, or theirs? Again, a lot of it is circumstantial—new circumstances to which we have yet to adapt.
People have countered my argument here by saying it’s callous and insensitive to draw parallels between love and economics. Love is what counts. They have a point, but it’s one of two. I find it equally insensitive to ignore the parallel to economics. By ignoring it, we end up blaming our partners and ex-partners for behaviors that made sense given our radically changing collective socioeconomic circumstances. Ignoring the context in which we love forces us to personify the problem we encounter in love. It’s him; it’s her. Ironically, that makes it even harder to hold a marriage together.
Which is kinder, holding out for the eternal constant ideal of true love and blaming ourselves and others when we fall short, or recognizing that love is context-dependent and forgiving ourselves and others at least a little for responding to the changing contexts?
In their purest forms the two alternatives represent two different definitions of love. One is romantic fundamentalism: Love is this pure indefinable magical essence that renders all material matters moot. The other is romantic pragmatism: Love is what we call it when all material matters configure so as to make us feel a certain way. Like the way I felt at 24 when my hormones were popping and I hadn’t been with anyone in three years and everyone else was married, and this lovely woman seemed interested in me—I think that WAS love, even if—after a good long run—circumstances changed and we went our separate ways.
Check out this useful article from this week's New Yorker on this subject:
And here's a song Sherman wrote to convey much of what's in this article: