Traditional Marriage - In The Era of Modern Relationships

Traditional Marriage and the institution of marriage have significantly changed. To be clear, this is not a critique of gay marriage or same-sex relationships. There are plenty of articles out there that talk about same-sex couples and the supreme court cases. I’ll let the more vocal people concerned with same-sex marriage write those articles.

This is a cultural critique of modern heterosexual relationships and the state of modern marriage. And how to survive in a culture where there is a different form of marriage for Christians.

One way in which church teachings on the sexes and traditional marriage have fallen short is that they do not fully grapple with the changes to the social landscape in which relationships and marriages are formed. The modern relationship landscape is fraught with issues.

In the west, there was a history of men and women who were not in religious vocations, getting married for life. It was socially and economically difficult to be single, though of course, some were. While certainly, pre-marital sex was not a rarity, there was a focus on chastity in society in many eras. Also, sexually transmitted diseases were a serious danger.

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For married couples, it wasn’t an easy task to get divorced.  And doing so came with very high social costs. While it wasn’t always “till death do us part,” it was still a much more stable environment than today. Even just prior to the advent of the legal right to no-fault divorce in 1969, divorce was not a slam dunk and carried social if not legal penalties. Since the advent of no-fault divorce, divorce rates have sky-rocketed.

Because of this, there was a lot of focus on making a good lifetime match. In Masc #17 I drew the distinction between male Alpha characteristics (power and status, confidence and charisma, physical appearance, and resources/money) that drive attraction and Beta characteristics (godliness, commitment, conscientiousness, fidelity, reliability, etc.) that make for a good long term match.  Families and communities encouraged young women to marry men – or even arranged marriages to men - who exhibited good Beta characteristics.  They understood that the men with high Alpha characteristics would be more attractive in the short term, but without the requisite Beta characteristics, a marriage would be a disaster.

Also, they understood the attractiveness curve, and women held most of the cards while young, but that reversed with time. They also had lower life expectancy and also understood the strong relationship between youth and female fertility. So they encouraged an early marriage both to avoid sin and to take advantage of their daughters’ marketplace leverage.

Men themselves were encouraged to develop the Beta characteristics that marked them as good long-term traditional marriage prospects, and then to marry and obtain the respectability that this status brought them. Men often couldn’t marry until they established themselves and could prove they had the means to support a wife and family. So they had an incentive to get their act together and make things happen.

The result of all this was to make Beta characteristics important in traditional marriage and thus encouraged men to develop those characteristics. And it also led to reasonably early marriage and equal protection of all parties involved. (It is important to point out that the very early marriage ages of the 1950s were themselves unusual.  In the late 19th century, men married at age ~26.5 on average and women ~23.5, higher than in the 1950s.  Today that has increased to around age 29 for men and 27 for women.)

The Neoliberalization of Sex

This obviously isn’t a complete picture, and the traditional marriage pattern was not universal, but certainly held to a far greater degree than it does now. Today, the situation has radically changed. Not only are divorce rates much higher, but there are homosexual marriage and attacks on monogamy with the polyamory movement. The definition of marriage has radically changed in the United States.  Consider the following characteristics of our society and how things are different:

  • The 1943 discovery of penicillin as a cure for syphilis led to a major increase in promiscuity.
  • Thanks to the sexual revolution, premarital sex and non-marital cohabitation are socially accepted, so one need not marry to obtain socially acceptable sex.  Technological change (e.g., Tinder) created a ready forum for obtaining sex.
  • Reliable birth control and abortion on demand radically lowered the risk of unwanted pregnancy resulting from promiscuous sex. The cost of childbearing can be easily side-stepped.
  • Divorce is now easy to obtain and socially acceptable, lessening the importance of making a good marital match.
  • Women and men are under far less social constraint and pressure to marry.  It’s possible to retain a high-quality status in society without marrying.
  • Women have largely been emancipated from previous constraints that bound them to dependency on husbands and fathers. They are legally independent and financially self-sufficient. Where they do have financial problems, a panoply of public and private sector aid programs are there to assist them.
  • Families, churches, and other social actors are far less influential than before. Hence we see a rise in civil unions. Public education also downplays the role of traditional marriage.

Most people today see all or most of these as positive developments. But as one would expect, these changes had a profound impact on the marriage market. One key effect was to disaggregate the traditional marriage market into the multiple relationship markets that exist today: the sexual market, the dating market, and the marriage market.  Men and women today can engage in a relationship of free sex (i.e., hooking up) that used to only be readily available via prostitution. They can date, casually or long term. And they can get married. People are free to move from one marketplace to another at any time, though once married it is still difficult to freely engage in outside sex (the rise of polyamory and polygamy means this is increasingly no barrier either, however).

These and other changes have created a relationship landscape far different from the traditional one. For example, in the novels of Jane Austen, the focus is on finding the right match for a marriage contract. After the wedding, the story is over. Today, making it to matrimony changes little. Everyone remains exposed to the relationship marketplaces. No matter how committed to traditional marriage you might be personally, there’s absolutely nothing you can do if your spouse decides to walk away from your marital relationship.

Churches frequently teach that traditional marriage is more than a contract (that it’s instead a “covenant.”) But marriage today is less than a contract, you used to be able to enforce marriage laws. People today can never have the reflexive security in their marriages that my grandparents’ generation did.

But that’s the least of it. The net result of all of these changes has been the neo-liberalization of sex and relationships. My use of the term “marketplace” above was deliberate because that’s what it is. Today, sex and relationships are commodities.  If your partner becomes unsatisfied with the “product” you are providing, you are out of luck. People can switch sexual, dating, or marital partners like switching apartments.  Traditional marriage used to be a union of a man and a woman. Now, it’s like leasing an apartment.

One man who has best revealed the hellscape that is the modern relationship marketplaces is French novelist Michel Houellebecq. In his bleak 1994 debut novel Whatever, he notes that “sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.” And in the book’s central and most famous passage his protagonist observes:

I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.

(The literal translation of the book’s French title is “Extension of the Domain of the Struggle.”)

The upper-middle-class by and large is still able to get and stay married. In this, as in many other things such as buying organic food or “ethically sourced” goods, they are prone to congratulating themselves for being enlightened when in a fact a big chunk of their lives are simply a product of having won in the marketplace.

For the less educated or working classes, who have unstable marriages if they marry at all. For them, life is more likely to be a sequence of failed romantic attachments, often with out of wedlock births and/or multi-partner fertility. The strain of child-rearing further puts these people behind(Robert Putnam illustrates the contrast well with personal stories in his book Our Kids).

Others deliberately attempt to exploit the market, or otherwise react against what they perceive as the injustice of it. Pick-up artists simultaneously revile and revel in the degeneracy of modern culture. Men’s rights activists rail against the injustices of the system and long for gender roles. A group known as MGTOW (mig-tao, or “Men Going Their Own Way”) seeks to convince men to opt-out of the system and forgo romantic attachments.

Another group are the self-identified “incels” – “involuntary celibate” men like the Toronto van attack perpetrator who feel denied sex and companionship with women. (The ever prescient Houellebecq included an involuntarily celibate character in Whatever, one whom the protagonist fantasizes about radicalizing into a killer).

For their part, various feminist groups simultaneously argue against traditional structures in the marriage debate, while likewise complaining about the fallout from the neo-liberalization of sex, such as men failing to develop the Beta characteristics (education, child care, career, etc.) that would make them better candidates for marriage. Today Alpha characteristics rule the roost. That’s great for when women are in the fun phase, but not so great when they are looking to settle down.

Few people, not even in the church, have any sympathy for men who cannot find women but fail to realize that the women who can’t find men are the flip side of the same phenomenon. Every man exiled from relationships and marriage means a woman likewise exiled.

How to Live in The Non-Traditional Marriage World

How to respond to this is a very difficult question, and one I don’t see that the church has seriously grappled with.  I will share a few thoughts and principles though by no means consider this complete.

1. Christians must personally practice chastity. Chastity is a broad concept but at a minimum means abstaining from the sexual marketplace prior to marriage, remaining faithful afterwards, and staying married to the extent that it depends on you. Not only is participating in the sexual marketplace far more personally damaging than people tend to recognize, especially over the long term, it actively perpetuates the system that produces all these negative outcomes.

2. Marriage is normative for Christians and the vast majority of Christians are not called or suited for a celibate life. Among other things, the consequences of being single, particularly into and beyond middle age, are severe. The church is by and large not leveling with people about this. Single people literally die younger than married ones, along with other negative life effects.

What’s more, the “fun times” of youth, especially when the opposite sex is involved, rapidly fade and even disappear – and it happens faster than you think. Again Houellebecq, this time from The Elementary Particles:

[W]omen who turned twenty in the late sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit forty. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond—whether warm or abject—whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who—more than any before—had proclaimed the superiority of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in turn, were despised by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with an intensifying disgust for their own bodies—a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others. The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position, yet this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At forty, they continued to pursue young women—with a measure of success, at least for those who, having skillfully slipped into the social game, had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For women, their mature years brought only failure.

In short, unless you are a man who happens to be either wealthy or a celebrity of some sort, life after 40 is not good when it comes to relationships. If you think you’ll find solace in your career, this is also the time when most people hit their career ceiling. Some time in people’s 40s is when they generally discover to their chagrin that they are now expendable in the office too.

3. Play “Moneyball for Marriage.”  Because marriage is intrinsically fragile today, it’s critically important to select a partner with an eye towards permanence.  As I noted in Masc #11, women initiate around 70% of all divorces. It’s critical that you assess the divorce risk of any woman you are contemplating marriage to and pay attention to what it tells you.

Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane used statistical methods to select players that were superior to traditional methods based on intuition, a technique described in the Michael Lewis book Moneyball. Similarly, there are many and well-documented factors that statistically correlate with divorce. You should make it your business to know what they are and understand them. It’s eminently possible to marry a woman with a low (less than 10%) risk of divorce, statistically speaking(hint these women generally don’t live in New York).

4. Recognize that after age 21 the number of high-quality marriage prospects continuously declines, and your risk of personally becoming a poor marriage prospect continually increases. I say age 21 because earlier marriage is associated with various risks and it’s a threshold age policy researchers cite for when you should start looking for marriage if you want to avoid poverty. But after that, the odds of someone’s marriageability level increasing is much lower than of it decreasing. For example, I noted in Masc #7 that sexual partner count is heavily correlated with divorce. Over time people’s partner count can only go up, never down.

Also, people get married, which permanently removes them from the pool of high-quality potential spouses. Generally speaking, educated professionals who follow the traditional path of having fun in their 20s, then getting serious about marriage around 30 do seem to find someone, but a material number of them don’t.

I did not personally marry young, so will not argue that you should. I feel like was very fortunate, however, and got bailed out by grace. That doesn’t happen for everybody, so you need to understand the dynamics of life in making decisions about how to live it.

In short: Stay chaste; get married (or at least give serious consideration to what a lifetime of singleness means), to someone with a low divorce risk; understand the likely runway you have to land the plane to marriage. Again, these four principles aren’t the entirety of a response. They are only a start. And they don’t address the system at all, merely how to live within it.

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