Friday, August 3, 2012

What Marriage Is

Marriage between humans is potentially the fusion of the genetic interests of two individuals, the formation of a gift-relationship community in which each may act altruistically, and each reaps substantial rewards.

However, there is also the possibility for competition and exploitation in marriage, both in the formation state and at any point after formation. We would expect humans, as embodied reproductive strategies, to have emotional, physical, and cultural means of dealing with competition and the risk of exploitation, but allowing for the formation and maintenance of marriages under auspicious circumstances.

The environments in which humans adapted (EEAs) include other co-evolving organisms, such as dogs, parasites, and prey species. Similarly, human EEAs include co-evolving cultures. If the culture in which we evolved suddenly changes, it may wreak as much havoc as if the species we evolved to eat (or which evolved to eat us) suddenly disappeared.

I believe the norms surrounding marriage are such cultural elements. We evolved in cultures with certain norms surrounding marriage; these varied between cultures, but not arbitrarily. Our culture has changed drastically - exponentially - in recent years, and the elements of culture relating to marriage have been some of those that have changed the most.

One way in which culture has supported marriage is through coercion: once married, societies enforced ongoing duties between the pair. Parties to a marriage were forced to make the best of their one marriage, as they likely would not get another shot. While this would force some to remain in bad, even abusive, marriages, it probably benefited most by encouraging couples to form and maintain good marriages. It's a sort of spike on the steering wheel. As generally occurs in human institutions, a few unlucky folks are thrown under the bus for the good of the other monkeys.

But culture has also supported marriage by providing norms for mate-finding and marriage practices that helped our ancestors maintain marriage communities that accomplished their purposes.

Parties must choose whether to form a marriage. Even if you're a woman in a nasty EEA and get sold by your parents to your 70-year-old uncle or whatever, you still must choose whether to cooperate or defect within the limits of your power. Not just at the inception, but throughout the marriage, each party constantly faces the choice to cooperate in the marriage (a good strategy if the marriage is a good one, as marriage has substantial health, fitness, and happiness rewards to offer) or defect (a good choice if the marriage appears to be a bad one for various reasons).

However, defection is not all-or-nothing. If things aren't great, a minor reduction in commitment ("shit test," you might say) might be more appropriate than an outright defection. But a reduction in commitment can either trigger increased commitment by one's partner, or trigger a counter-reduction. In the latter case, the marriage community spirals out of control into a defection cycle.

What are the ancestral behaviors that might promote a happy marriage? What cues might indicate a sinking ship? We'd all like to know that, and I don't pretend to be an expert on marital behavior. But what follows is my best guess as to some behaviors and triggers that either reinforce or erode a marriage community.

Behaviors that Reinforce Marital Harmony

  • Nutrition sharing. Human couples seem to have evolved to form hunting/cooking partnerships. Division of labor by sex is on the list of human universals. Norms often treat men and women in possession of food differently, reflecting different sense of property rights based on the existence of a marriage community. Even if you don't buy the gender stuff, co-eating seems to be an extremely important ancestral method of reinforcing a pair bond.
  • Regular, exclusive sex.
  • A mutual mental commitment to indefinite future cooperation (being "all in")
  • Mutual mental modeling from frequent interaction
  • A 5:1 or greater positive:negative interaction ratio
  • Co-sleeping (and co-living in general)

These behaviors were once common, even socially obligatory, between married couples. How common are these behaviors now?

Defection Triggers

What behaviors might trigger our evolved defection responses? For the most part, these are the mirror image of the above reinforcing behaviors:

  • Failure to share nutrition, cook, or eat together
  • Treatment of the marriage as a market relationship
  • Lack of regular sex
  • Sex outside the marriage
  • Close friendships with members of the opposite sex who might threaten the relationship (opportunities to jump ship)
  • Evidence of low mental commitment to future cooperation
  • Crankiness (lower than 5:1 positive:negative interaction)
  • Lack of interaction or mutual interest resulting in poor mental modeling
  • Irregular co-sleeping or co-living

Even though modern couples may have solid reasons for engaging in the above triggering behaviors, it is not necessarily the case that we can control our ancestral responses to such behaviors.

A triggering behavior is likely to at minimum trigger a reduction in commitment from one's partner. If the response is not a reevaluation and recommitment from the "offending" partner, but rather no response or a negative response, an escalating cycle culminating in outright defection is likely.

The maintenance of the marital community - keeping the cooperative strategy operational, while preventing the defection strategy from being triggered, and certainly preventing it from triggering a defection cycle - is one job human culture used to do. It would be nice if modern independent, individual humans were able to take up the slack, but that is not a job our brains and bodies evolved to do. Those who manage to create lasting, happy marriages are fast becoming the minority. In addition to the broken-hearted marriage refugees themselves, the biggest losers are the children, brought into the world without their consent and denied their ancestral privilege of growing up in a functioning marital community.


  1. That's a pretty darn ahistorical position on the subject. You seem to be acting as if the institution of marriage just sprang out of existence five minutes ago.

    I would bring up the P word again, but I know you won't accept it. You've got some kind of memetic disease...

    1. I don't know what you think a 'historical' position on marriage is, but since this isn't a historical discussion your reply is a retarded non-sequitur.

      Sister Y, this was an excellent post, and have to say it's refreshing to see you challenge liberal shibboleths as well as conservative ones.

    2. Oh for fuck's sake, Francois, chill out already. I don't know if I've ever met a more confrontational person on the internet.

    3. How would you define "memetic disease" in a way that would exclude the concept of patriarchy?

  2. I continue to wish that we were living in a time when a couple could live on one person's salary... I can't say I give a rat's ass whether it's the man or the woman, but I think it would take the strain off a lot of partnerships if SOMEBODY had enough free time to keep the home refuge cozy. During the day, one person does the housework while the other does the outside work, and then everyone sits around all evening screwing and chilling. Sigh.

    1. Eh I'd say it depends on whether housework difficulty = difficulty of job. If it does, then everything works out fine (almost). If it doesn't, then one party is going to have major resentment issues. Working party: resentment issues as doing too much. Housework party: resentment issues as not respected how hard it is by working party or by world in general.

      I'm never going to get married (I don't believe love works that way - unless I get evidence to the contrary that it doesn't just fizzle out that I see all around me), but if I did, I'd try to find some way in which we could both work, but one or both of us would work part time.

    2. Ideally, you'd take turns... and although love may fizzle out, only a fool turns out a good roommate! (Most people are a pain in the ass to live with whether you have loved them, never loved them, or currently love them.)

    3. In my experience, it doesn't take 8 hours/day to manage a household once the kids are off to school. Which leaves plenty of time for idle hands to find trouble

  3. I've been struggling with this lately:
    Is there even such a thing as love a romantic, unrequited sense?
    Or is it all simply an interconnected set of needs/wants (physical, emotional, financial, societal) that we then label as love once all of those are met to our satisfaction?

  4. Blame me when your medicines you use to heal break me
    You don't see their poison effects on my body
    Blame me and leave me alone to suffer
    Blame me as crazy mad depressed
    For you don't want to see the damage you medicines had done to me
    For it's your job and you think you know best for my body
    You put your poisons in me they break me and then I get the blame
    For you are a doctor and you think your medicines heal , but all they do are destroy
    You have destroyed my health with your medicines
    I am in your claws and now so broken no escape from you
    All there is to offer is more poisons medicines to make things worse for me, they are the only thing for me as you say I need help ,but once in you web of deceit I am trapped in the spiders web to be injected with more of your medicines
    If you read this then you will come at take me away and that will be the end of me.
    Labelled as crazy mad depressed doesn't want to help herself or be helped, by a world controlled by medicine and law
    Who destroy you and blame you when they break you and you can no longer take care of yourself
    That what happened to me you world of medicines where deadly for me.
    How many other broken people who you destroyed are labelled crazy mad depressed like me?
    I wish I was crazy mad then I would know or care what was happening to me
    I am neither I am angry destroyed I know whats happening to me for your medicines destroyed my body and left my mind to know and fear trapped in a broken body .
    So maybe I am crazy in that way you destroyed me crazy with anger rage cheated
    Took all the good away from me left me in pain and sickness that I wouldn't be in if I Had not had your medicines in me
    So now I cant take anymore where does that leave no escape for my mind just memories of how it should be don't want to die shouldn't be broken but I have no escape and will get the blame
    I will get the blame for not getting or wanting help waiting to long when I didn't want to die and know anymore of your medicines would kill me
    How can anyone believe me that me body is to broken to take anymore of your poisons no they don't for they are not broken like me.
    Your medicines have killed me broken my body beyond repair I am dying due to your medicines and get the blame for being beyond repair

  5. Why have you given the link for the discredited study and also made it part of your point?

  6. Congratulations! God bless you today and for the rest of your married lives

    Christian Marriage

  7. <-- I couldn't agree moe, Curly


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