Unsolicited Advice on The Institute of Marriage
Normally when I talk about individual writers on the blog, it’s - as the blog’s name indicates - to disagree with them. And to the extent I talk about anybody, I’m very likely to talk about Scott Alexander. I don’t read nearly as much as you might think, but I do consistently read his output, which I notice I disagree with him more often than anyone else.
This results in a situation where there’s this writer I broadly like and who I’ve read for years and who has been polite to me on several occasions who I end up just, like, bagging on all the time. For the most part I’ve sworn off talking about his work for just that reason, but today is a bit special: he got married, and even I’m not enough of of a bastard to disagree with someone for that.
In the entire world there are few people who are bigger proponents of marriage than me. I’m the old lady crying in joy at weddings for distant relatives, a familiar priest counseling people towards the bliss of holy matrimony and the dad from Pride and Prejudice trying to get rid of his excess of daughters all rolled into one. Right now I’m sitting around knowing a bunch of people are married and I’m warmed by that abstract knowledge; here, knowing someone just now got married, I’m as happy as a toddler in a play-pool full of kittens.
To that end, I’m motivated to do something that probably nobody wants; I’m doing a full-download of all the limited wisdom I’ve accumulated over 14 years to the kind of woman who makes people as enthusiastically into marriage as I’ve described above. Mostly she’s been handling things, but this is everything I know.
The usual disclaimers apply here; I’m talking from the perspective of a very specific religious background, and particularly from the experience of one (somewhat odd) couple, so pick and choose as you please and give my words whatever weight you find appropriate.
I’m regularly asked why I don’t move away from the desert (which I dislike) to a place with better access to fresh produce (which I love) and my answer is usually the same; here, I have the kind of support structure where when I have to move house, over a dozen people show up to help. And when asked why they do that, I have an explanation that has a little to do with religion but just as much to do with how people work: we’ve been fulfilling obligations to each other for a really long time.
Relationships as viewed from a very dry level are built on a series of tests; I don’t mean the kind of tests you manufacture to make sure someone is solid, but the kind that pop up just because life is hard. The tests vary in intensity, but they range from the basic “wanting to hang out sometimes” to the infinitely more costly “will pick you up from the airport really early in the morning” to the even-more-difficult “would take a bullet for you”. Each test passed is a reassurance for both parties - you know you will do it for them, they know you will do it for them, and vice versa.
I’ve found this concept of debt-and-obligation-as-a-positive within a relationship to be surprisingly (to me) controversial. I often find there’s a certain revulsion against the idea of acknowledging that when we do something for someone we often do it out of obligation, or that anybody doing anything for us should build an expectation of reciprocity.
I think I partially understand why; there’s often a revulsion against the purely transactional mixing with the rightfully personal; I think I’m poking at a subject that for some people triggers a response we’d associate more with prostitution than a positive reinforcing cycle of norms. This makes intuitive sense until you look at what happens when the cycle is broken; it’s never good.
I hate relying on “how would that make you feel” scenarios, but I will here because with relationships there’s almost nothing else to rely on. If you often picked your friend up from the airport at odd hours of the night and found the one time you needed it they had no desire to reciprocate, how would that make you feel? I’d wager hurt or angry in a way appropriate to what you probably would think of as a minor betrayal.
This isn’t a spreadsheet-precise accounting, but get the balance enough out of whack and suddenly everyone knows how much debt plays into relationships. “He only calls me when he needs something” is a trope that doesn’t just indicate an imbalance in a friendship; it indicates a friendship that’s already dead. A romantic partner who works hard for their partner’s sexual satisfaction without reciprocating effort feels bad in ways that go far beyond the physical satisfaction itself; they feel that the very foundation of the relationship is being fundamentally undermined. They are right.
To put it another way: If we found a relationship where one partner will do anything for a person who won’t do anything for them, we wouldn’t be shocked when the same relationship fell apart. If it didn’t fall apart - if the person kept giving and giving while their spouse kept taking and taking without ever reciprocating - many of us would consider that an abusive relationship, something clearly twisted away from what’s right.
But when it all works - when the norms are fulfilled and the obligations are repaid on both sides - it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. If all I’ve said so far seems transactional and dry, if it’s still twigging your prostitution revulsion, it’s because I’ve left something out. I’m talking about what relationships are built on; the obligation is no more the entire relationship than the foundation or framing are a whole house. I know my wife will do anything for me, which makes it easy to do anything for her. She knows the same about me. Everything else we have - the love, the friendship, the liking a lot of the same TV, the kids - is built on that.
What I described above is a feedback loop driven by obligation; as each party in a relationship indebts, is indebted and repays they build trust and confidence in ways verbal assurances can’t and don’t. But if you think about that system, a simple but real problem emerges: who gets that system going? Sometimes the “initial loans” of a relationship aren’t small, and by definition are happening in an environment where no trust has been built. Without assurance they will be safe doing so, who takes the initial risk?
While debt is for some a dirty and controversial concept to include in discussion relationships, duty is infinitely worse. While the first implies you give in a way that creates a debt, the second asks you to consider yourself obligated to give without considering repayment, doing what you are supposed to do without considering whether turnabout is on it’s way. The real killer part is that it’s something you are supposed to do in some absolute sense that speaks to abstract meaning and morality that not everybody buys or likes.
Whether or not you buy duty-as-an-abstract as a reason to believe you have and believe you should fulfill duties, there’s a utilitarian argument to be made for it here.
I’ve been talking about the obligation/trust building aspect of relationships like they are a 1-to-1 exchange, but that’s rarely the case. Marriage involves two different people, often with very different personalities and gifts. It often involves two very young people, and often two people who have very little concept of what it means to adjust themselves and their lives enough to sustain a relationship measured in decades instead of months.
In that scenario, it might be that one spouse needs a lot more patience from the spouse as they adjust to their new life, and the other spouse is forced to pick up the slack in an “unfair” way. It could be that one spouse goes through mental health issues that make them unable to properly care for themselves, let alone another person. Libidos bottom out. Moods swing. Depression hits. Over 50 years, it would be weirder if all of these things didn’t happen.
There are almost guaranteed to be times when one spouse or the other is paying into the marriage in ways that are never going to be paid back; I’ve seen multiple marriages fall apart during troubles entirely because of how bad the short-term effects feel. It’s understandable, but it comes with a choice: do you do what you are supposed to do, the thing that leads to the best chance of a return to healthy homeostasis and deepened trust? Or do you measure the risk without thought to any of that, and stop paying into the relationship?
I want to be really clear here: I’m talking about doing what you should even when other people aren’t, and the potential exists for you to be really hurt in the process. And yes, the other party should be doing that too; but understand that if both of you are fulfilling duty in this sense only if the other person is, neither of you are.
Religious people tend to be more acclimated to abstract “supposed to” duty; the concept of pursuing abstract good exists strongly as a concept in a lot of belief systems. but absent that I don’t think anyone would do any of this except that most of us either understand the potential payoff of the risk or have seen it firsthand. If we hear stories of someone who held their spouses hand and cared for them through hard times, we admire them a lot but envy their relationships more; you just get what that would mean for trust, what it means for proven commitment once the smoke clears and they step back into the sun.
Transformation, Terror and Success
A man was walking through the woods and in time came upon a ravine. Near the ravine was a man who, after a few moments, ran full-tilt at the ravine and leapt into the void over it as if to clear the entire gulf in one mighty jump.
But as the man observed the jumper, he also noticed that he was dragging a parachute; this slowed the jumper’s running as he approached the ravine. As the Jumper leapt, the parachute filled with air, stopping his forward motion completely. He then fell into the ravine; the parachute slowed his fall enough to make sure he wasn’t seriously injured, but he still scraped and banged against the sides on his way down.
The man watched as the jumper climbed back out and attempted the jump again with the same results. He approached him and asked “Why are you doing that?”. “Because I want to jump the ravine”, the Jumper replied. “No, I mean - why are you using the parachute when it keeps you from being successful?”. The Jumper looked at him like he was insane, and replied “That’s to minimize the damage from the fall.”.
In a lot of martial arts, there’s a concept that is usually called something like guard hand or passive defense. The idea is that when you suspect trouble might come, you get your hand somewhere between your face and the other guy and return it to that position every time you aren’t actively using it for something. If you don’t do this there’s nothing stopping the aggressor from getting close and controlling you, whether that’s by grabbing you or knocking your teeth loose.
I don’t think he meant it exactly the way I’ve read it, but in his article Scott says this:
Once you’ve had enough bad experiences with someone, your prior solidifies until you start interpreting even neutral or good experiences as bad ones, and every time you interact with them you just get angrier and angrier until it’s a giant black hole.
For some reason neither Ozy nor I ever wondered about the opposite phenomenon. Is it possible to like someone so much that the positive emotion builds on itself, grows stronger and stronger with every interaction, until it’s one of those blue supergiant stars in the galactic core?
Just to ask the question is to answer it: I’ve seen lots of couples in this position. Not all, maybe not even most. But some family members. Some friends. And after two years of dating my now-wife, I can viscerally sense the possibility. Like a slope I’m just beginning to roll down, gathering speed as I go.
Obviously this is terrifying. Brain knobs and dials aren’t supposed to get turned all the way to 100%; that’s why you stay away from fentanyl. Certainly you take lots of precautions before stepping out on to a slope like that. We’re getting married, and doing a prenup, and we’ve worked out some more complicated edge cases just between the two of us. Will it be enough? I don’t know; I’m not sure anyone can know at this point.
Read a particular way, this seems to indicate that Scott views marital happiness as a threat, something that’s meant to be guarded against. The first and simplest way someone might think this is that they are especially worried about a loss of autonomy. If you are used to being a single entity with complete control over who you are and what you do, the idea of becoming part of a unit with broad duties and influence over each other can be terrifying. I’ve found this to be the case even with people who don’t particularly like who they are; the fear of loss of self is a primal thing.
Read another way, you could see this as a worry that all this liking each other very much is itself a danger, something that has blinded you to the horrible truth of the other person. For some people, especially younger people, this is a real risk. I have friends who have failed to separate how much they liked being in a relationship from very clear warning signs about the person they were marrying.
If Scott were to read this, I’d remind him that he’s known his bride for two years, that he is a 37 year old man who is widely thought to be one of the most thoughtful men in America, and is also (by my own unconfirmed read on things) a sort of nervous type of person. As real of a risk as this might be, it’s probably not a big one for him.
There’s also a theoretical version of thinking being too happy is a risk that would work more slowly - that you’d become happier and happier with the other person until you lost all judgement. I have a friend, a powerlifter, who talks about how he often has a conversation with women who want to lift but are afraid they will become muscular in an unattractive way. He finds this funny because, as he says, “nobody gets jacked on accident.”.
Happiness of the kind Scott is talking about comes as a result of years of mutual work and trust-building. Should he get to the point where he lost all his judgement in regards to his spouse, it would almost certainly be in a situation where that was a blissful positive. I say this in context of Scott, but it’s true of everyone: being too happy in your marriage is a success state, not a failure. It’s not a “good problem” because it’s a not a problem at all.
Another reading gives us an idea of marriage as coming with real threats of its own, whether one finds themselves happy or not. I broadly agree with the latter; during my marital counseling, my pastor advised that getting married was like handing someone a loaded revolver, pulling back the hammer and then having them press the muzzle to your temple for the rest of your life. Nothing in my experience gainsays this; he’s right. It’s the most power over themselves that people regularly give away, and is a tremendous risk.
On the other hand, consider this three minute video of slow-motion long-jumpers:
Having watched that, how much caution did any of those people approach their jumps with? The correct answer is “none”; every part of every motion is 100% optimized for jumping as far as they possibly can; there’s zero other considerations in play. The athletes consider jumping a long way worthwhile, so they do all the things that make them jump as far as possible and nothing else.
Our generation almost pathologically ignores the size of the reward in risk/reward calculations. If there’s one thing our kids will hate us for, it’s that we would sacrifice any upside, no matter how large, to avoid any downside, no matter how small. The idea of taking a real risk in pursuit of greatness is more and more foreign. But if we were to consider any reward worth pursuing in that full tilt run, no parachute, both-feet-fully committed way, it’s this; I am against all odds one of the blessed and can confirm that with very few exceptions there’s nothing nearly so worth going out on a limb for.
I don’t expect everyone’s views on matrimony will line up 100% with mine; it’s possible that nobody’s will. But in terms of what I can give to people who are considering this, it’s very simply put this: Be willing to spend all that you have, be prepared to give all that you are, have the commitment to betray anyone else and the courage to risk literally anything. If that seems like too much of a risk, I would suggest that this is because you have not yet tasted the sweetness of the reward.
To Scott and Scott-wife, congratulations; I am one of probably hundreds of thousands of people who are happy for you and wish you the best. Have fun!
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