The Frontal Cortex

Is Marriage Passe?

In the latest Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh argues (with her usual panache) that the institution of marriage is passé, and that it’s time to cast off the antiquated concept of eternal monogomy:

Sure, it [marriage] made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?

This post isn’t about whether Loh is right; I’ve only been married 9 months, so I’m not qualified to hold an opinion on whether or not the institution is hopelessly retrograde and really does, as Loh suggests, lead to sexless misery. But I did want to point out that the scientific evidence Loh trots out to defend her thesis (and it’s really an unnecessary reference, since she’s making a cultural argument, not a biological one) is bunk. She uncritically references the anthropologist Helen Fisher, and quotes her thusly:

Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love–and falling out of love–is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely through infancy.)
Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:

The Explorer–the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder–the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director–the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator–the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Chemistry.com. Explorers made up 26 percent of the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa.

She fails to note that Fisher is a paid consultant to Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com which uses these vague neurosciency profiles as a selling point. While Fisher has done some interesting work on romantic attachment in the past, it’s worth pointing out that there’s exactly zero evidence that people have “dominant” or “operative” neurotransmitter system, or that being exposed to oxytocin in the womb makes us touchy-feely. (There is evidence, however, that various polymorphisms for specific receptor subtypes, such as the DRD2 dopamine receptor, do correlate weakly with attachment style.) As Vaughan Bell smartly notes in a MindHacks critique of Fisher, his “dominant chemical is caffeine”. This time of year, my dominant chemical would be ethyl alcohol, preferably in the form of a pale ale or rose wine.

Of course, such neurobabble is only the latest (pseudo)scientific evidence used to critique the institution of marriage. Before testosterone and dopamine, there was the Freudian id, followed by the misapplication of strong versions of evolutionary psychology. This doesn’t mean that Loh is wrong; maybe marriage really deserved to die with the 19th century. But that’s an argument about property rights, the legal system, childcare, etc. It has nothing to do with dopamine.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynda C
    June 29, 2009

    It certainly seems that most people who argue against marriage have a self serving bias. As a mental health counselor, I deal with the fallout from humans who disregard the tenets of marriage and/or simply live a life with no regard as to the consequences to our children. Those children grow up to be confused adults who continue a destructive process.

    There are no guarantees that even if we do everything “right” that our children will be perfect, lead perfect lives, and continue a lineage of perfection. But it is clear that if we drag people in and out of their lives, leave them confused as to their parentage, and disregard the need for stability in their lives, we have perpetual chaos.

    My disclaimer is that I was married for 10 years and have been single for the past 6 years. My only agenda is hoping that we as a society provide a better future for our children than it currently appears that we are.

  2. #2 Donna B.
    June 29, 2009

    No sex at 40? Methinks these women are lacking some sense of something! Perhaps their husbands are too.

    But I am so sick of the whining. Please stop whining and just get on with your smugly self-centered middling boring lives without involving me.

  3. #3 Sacha Y
    June 29, 2009

    I agree that biology has nothing to do with the institution of marriage; history (both ancient and modern) has shown that marriage is not a requirement for reproduction. If I were to speculate just on the notion of marriage (or coupling) over time, I would argue that its purpose is one of community; the family being the smallest form of community. The model provides a template of structure and, in its earliest manifestation, a form for the division of labor and cooperative development (regardless of who assumes what roles). Marriage, to ponder further, is contractual; two family units joining together for the good of all. Marriage is a relationship that goes beyond love and feelings; it is a means of building partnerships for strong and connected communities, and for (hopefully) prosperity and growth. Perhaps our neglect or absent memory of the purpose of this (at one time) fundamental institution, can help explain in part why so many partnerships (and communities) fail. “Personal feelings” and “self-fulfillment” seem to matter more than community and the “good of all”…it is easier to move on than to work on. (I would add the caveat that when a marriage is destructive, ending such a marriage is for the good of all.)

  4. #4 Meaghan
    June 29, 2009

    I’m so glad you pointed this out. I found that article to be rather childish. I just got such a “my marriage didn’t work so NO ONES CAN” vibe. If macaroni and cheese and spongebob squarepants are things you complain about perhaps you shouldn’t have had children, and maybe the marriage would have worked?

    This part irked me too “But as we all know, the Sexually Open Marriage fizzled with the lava lamp, because it is just downright icky for most people.” Actually I didn’t know that…I thought there were still some people it did work for!

  5. #5 Art
    June 29, 2009

    IMO the idea of marriage has changed. Originally people only lived to forty and marriages a shorter period of time because one party died. Marriage for life was a much more short term commitment.

    Lifespans are much longer. Marriage for life has gone from less than thirty years on average to sixty years or more. Somewhere along the line the institution of marriage started to ask too much. Forcing a choice between the institution meaning less or being stuck in a lacerating relationship out of dedication to an obsolete concept.

    Perhaps what is needed is more than one version of marriage.

    Type-2 marriage would a limited time agreement, say seven years and would maintain the civil law of division of assets and civil commitments. Divorce would be a fairly simple affair. After the set amount of time assets would be divided according to common law or established agreement. If both parties wished the marriage could be extended for another term. Re-up enough times and it can be a lifelong commitment.

    A type-1 marriage would be structured for creation and raising of children. It would last for the duration of pregnancy, until the kid is eighteen, and a margin of safety. Divorce would be more complicated and set up to protect the children.

    A type-2 marriage would automatically shift to a type type-1 if the woman becomes pregnant and an established type-1 marriage contract would be extended until all the children were of age. Keep having kids and you have a lifelong marriage.

  6. #6 Janne
    June 30, 2009

    If by marriage you mean “Monogamous cohabitation”, then many people who don’t marry in the legal sense practice it and still take it seriously even without the registration papers.

    If you mean “legal arrangement”, then there’s places like Sweden that legally recognizes cohabitation and partnership and extends the same legal rights to unmarried couples. There’s been zero problems stemming from this practice, showing that it’s a socially viable alternative to the traditional form.

    If you mean “religious ceremony”, then that’s something religious people should feel free to practice as they want, and non-religious people can likewise freely opt out of. It has nothing to do with the practical or legal aspects of marriage above.

    I married a few years ago, in my mid-thirties, after cohabitating for a couple of years. I’m pretty sure that had I married someone in my early twenties, that marriage would have ended long ago. I’m not the same person at 40 as I was at 20.

    Will our marriage continue indefinitely? Yes, I expect it will, since we are older and less likely to change a lot over time by now. Also, a couple of years of cohabitation is an excellent way to find out whether you’re really willing to stay with this person for the indefinite future.

    “Marriage” the word and the concept will not disappear. But it will (is, already) diminish in importance to one option among others for organizing your life. That a bad thing? No.

  7. #7 Meredith
    June 30, 2009

    Four basic personality types…hmmm. They actually read as the four humors of Elizabethan times. I love progress.

  8. #8 Alan
    June 30, 2009

    Everbody’s experience in relationships is going to differ over time. It’s impossible to make a credible categorical statement about how marriage does or doesn’t work. To do so is to spout ideological nonsense. Maybe some people are too analytical and reductionist in conceptualizing their relationships, and perhaps they get what they deserve. By the way, John Gottman has written good material on marriage–and making it work–and seeing that featured somewhere would be refreshing.

  9. #9 Anon>9000
    June 30, 2009

    Sanford – just one more Republican on oxy.

  10. #10 catgirl
    June 30, 2009

    I agree that marriage is passe (although I would do it for the legal benefits). I also completely agree that Loh’s and Fisher’s statements are mostly nonsense. I completely agree that this is a cultural issue and not a biological one.

  11. #11 Ray Ingles
    June 30, 2009

    One important point about marriage is that it’s not just a contract between two people – it’s historically served a social function. The point of a marriage ceremony and such is not just that two people (or more?) commit to one another – it’s that they do it publicly, that other people are explicitly made aware of that commitment. Hitting on someone you don’t know is married is awkward but isn’t a social faux pas. Hitting on someone you know is married, on the other hand…

    Now, society can change, and the meaning of such commitments can change and perhaps even become irrelevant. But marriage and cohabitation are distinct socially because of this ‘shared public information’ aspect.

  12. #12 Bruce
    June 30, 2009

    As Meredith notes, doesn’t seem like four basic personality types represents a whole lot of progress. Of course, now it’s more scientific. If you dump any battery of attitudinal questions into a software package with a cluster analysis algorithm, more often than not you get four conveniently almost-the-same-size clusters. Add the cute names, and off you go. That’s progress.

  13. #13 Meryl
    July 1, 2009

    quote from post :

    “She fails to note that Fisher is a paid consultant to Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com which uses these vague neurosciency profiles as a selling point.”

    Unquote.

    How impartial can her arguments be if she has quoted someone whose motivations should be questioned on basis of partiality?

    It looks to be a whispering rant.

    Statistics of marriages and divorces should be studied against social/legal (etc.) policies, specific cultural practices, any demographic anomalies, etc.. within the same time periods to ascertain possible patterns of the what’s, how’s, Oh-I-see’s, and hopefully some insights can be glimpsed as to the why’s.

    My philo is – Love is not required to marry. But Love is required to make the marriage work.

  14. #14 Shiznik
    July 1, 2009

    I certainly can’t comment on other peoples’ marriages, but I’m a very happily married man, and I’ve been married to the same woman for 19 years. I’m 44, have two sons, and my wife and I have a great sex life. Never cheated on her, and don’t intend to. Sure, it takes work–I find plenty of other women attractive, and they seem to find me attractive as well. It takes work on her part as well, I’m quite sure. So what? I’m not about to do something that’s going to mess up my relationship. I’ve got a great life with my wife, and I don’t think I’m missing anything by being monogamous.

    Maybe I just got astonishingly lucky, but I’ve been with the same woman since I was 18, and I’d be happy to be with her for the next hundred years.

  15. #15 Saionce162
    July 1, 2009

    I believe that the institution of marriage has changed as societal adjustments are happening. Marriage is more of a function of our engagement to society and its needs. As a young, single man in today’s dating world I have noticed the changes of society and really am not absorbed into the idea of getting married.

    Satisfaction takes on many forms and it is not worth the effort to live up to, as a man, other people’s satisfactions in our young stardom, get money through generational contributions, or quick rich with low moral or no strong work ethic kind of society. Females are more demanding of men and influenced by too much media to have realistic expectations. Therefore upon have an unrealistic expectation perspective, if the man can not provide as “expected” … she may find someone else who “may” have the potential to live up to these “expectations” but all too often the perspective is one in which the “idealism” of the iterated man doesn’t come to fruition either. Finally after some trial and error, and a few additions of alimony checks, the female potentially “settles” but not satisfied as society has influenced her perspective in such a way that a coke rush is experienced at the very root of her psyche. Much like this stimulant, if abused … there is no good ending only repair and reprisal. This is ultimately the destructor of the institution of marriage, in my opinion. Females unrealistic perspective and the low moral of most men to not institute a strong ethic of self without thinking of the economics involved. We get money to turn on the “attractor” switch to lure women in because this is how they think. It destroys men and confuses women!

    To clarify my statement, marriage is an economic institution that benefits women during and after the fact. I am happy to see that there is some energy devoted to the idea of the disillusionment of this institution but even happier to know that I won’t be getting my paycheck cut!

    Good luck everyone …

  16. #16 Roblin
    July 2, 2009

    You make an excellent point about the psuedo-scientific move Loh makes to critique marriage. Her article reads as if she’s fumbling for a larger cause of her particular failure (a natural impulse). Too bad her argument weren’t more credible, given that it really is a (complicated) puzzle why we’re so committed to marriage yet so many marriages end in divorce.

    Along with the power of pseudoscience, her article — and the degree to which it’s been discussed — also says something about the persistent power of “boxology” (i.e., you’re a “Director” and I’m a “Negotiator”). We look so hard, whether in the stars or in hormonal levels, for a box to fit in. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the boxes keep changing.

  17. #17 Dacks
    July 3, 2009

    Thanks for the most useful critique of her article that I’ve read. It should have been a personal essay, not an attempt to generalize her own experiences into an axiom.