The Irrationality of Marriage

Why we think the divorce statistics won't apply to us

Posted Aug 06, 2017

Source: MasterTux/pixabay

More than 40% of American marriages end in divorce.  The percentages are even higher for second or later marriages.  Surely most of these couples had some idea of the statistics, but believed that they would be amongst those who manage to stay the course. 

Perhaps there are some people who walk down the aisle (or into the town hall) with a clear-eyed intention just to give it a good shot.  But this isn’t just unromantic, it seems to undermine the very point of a wedding – to make a sincere, whole-hearted commitment to stay together for life.  The promise we make to our beloved in front of friends and family is not just a promise to try hard to love, honour and cherish.  It’s a promise to succeed.

In more everyday situations, we cut the size of our promises to suit the cloth we have available.  Imagine you are invited to join a group of your friends for dinner, but you know you may have to work late, or might struggle to find a babysitter.  Then the responsible choice is not to promise to be there regardless, but to explain the situation, maybe promising to call ahead, or reschedule.  Promising without taking account of mundane obstacles is a kind of moral recklessness, which can undermine relationships.

So why don’t we advocate that kind of cautious hedging when it comes to marriage?  Philosopher Berislav Marušić, of Brandeis University, has thought long and hard about this question.  He reminds us that a key obstacle to keeping our marriage vows is temptation.  This might include sexual temptation.  But it also includes the temptation to give up our efforts to nurture and prioritise each other through the inevitable vicissitudes of life.  Willpower is not the only thing needed to keep a marriage alive, and sometimes circumstances can be overwhelmingly bad: avoiding divorce is not always a matter of just trying harder.  But trying certainly helps.

In this way, points out Marušić, a marriage promise is a little like a commitment to train for a marathon, or to quit smoking (or social media).  We know there’s a strong chance we’ll be tempted to stray from the plan.  Yet there seems no point making these commitments unless we do so whole-heartedly, believing that we’ll be stronger than those average weaklings who quit when things get tough.  Indeed, he argues, our promises are unethical – insincere – if we don’t believe we’ll be able to buck the statistical trend.

This helps explain why many people can appreciate the sensible logic behind pre-nuptial agreements – but for other people, not themselves.  Agreeing a recipe for divorce whilst planning an unlimited loving commitment is just too much to hold together in our heads.

So how can we reconcile the all-or-nothing nature of big life commitments with the sensible pragmatics of protecting ourselves against risk?  After all, if we completely discount the possibility of temptation, then we may be all the more prone to it – forewarned is forearmed.

There is no formula for deciding whether to marry.  But if we’re lucky enough to have good friends and family around, they can help keep us grounded.  Loyal friends wish us well, and may be able to take a clearer-eyed view of our chances of success.  In the end however, each of us has to decide for ourselves whether to take the plunge, either into marathon training or – more seriously – into marriage.


Professor Marušić discusses his book in a fascinating interview at 3am Magazine:

Marušić, Berislav (2015): Evidence and Agency, Oxford University Press.