My last post veered off course of what I intended. The change in direction came naturally as I thought about what I was writing. I imagine that my subconscious kicked in when I noticed that I was oversimplifying something more fundamental.
The basic goal of the discussion was to attempt to explain why it is that marriages are becoming less common over the past 100 years: first marriages are occurring later in life, marriages end relatively quickly with relatively more minor reasons (I get it, people grow apart, but this certainly was the case when people married in their late teens), and now many people never marry at all. Some, like myself, hardly made an effort to try to start a relationship.
For many years (decades even) people have noticed this trend and offered numerous explanations. I have read or listened to many explanations, and found them to answer part of the problem. Some of the explanations overlap with each other in contradictory ways. But, more importantly, the totality of explanations seem to leave gaps in not being able to explain many circumstances where a relationship could have started but didn’t or where one started by didn’t end up in marriage, or the marriage failed shortly after it started.
I don’t have any answer to the general problem. I certainly haven’t studied the sociological data about the topic so don’t expect any expertise from me. However, I do think about how it relates to me, a man who was sold on the idealized concept of a marriage at a very young age but never managed to find someone to marry. Even as I consider just this one case, I can identify contradictory explanations.
The best I could come up with is that I was sold on the abstract concept but rejected the particular circumstances of each specific opportunity. This is well documented by others as a case of needing individual coaching or guidance: to be more realistic in expectations, more willing to compromise and work at a mutually rewarding relationship, or to simply be more mature about what to expect from a partner.
These recommendations come from many directions ranging from proponents of the benefits of a healthy relationship to the warnings about the destructive tendencies that have been defined by evolution. On the warning side, there are those who advocate a complete avoidance of the project, but there are some who say it is a necessary risk but one taken with as full knowledge as possible of the risks.
I can imagine that I probably could have been better coached into taking the chance and getting involved in a relationship. I didn’t go out of my way to seek such guidance, and I think that is significant. I didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to overcome my tendencies to sabotage a potential relationship. Instead, I felt justified in avoiding the specific opportunities. A life coach would probably say that he hears this all the time.
I don’t think it is a matter of standards are expectations. I’ve met plenty of women who I felt comfortable in their company and desired to get closer. Yet, I successfully resisted the temptation to take the initiative to go further.
Deep down, while I was sold on marriage or some comparable version of a long-lasting committed relationship as being a necessary part of a healthy life, I debated the meaning of the terms. In particular, I doubted that such relationships are actually possible in my circumstances.
Perhaps it is a consequence of growing up in a more rural setting distant from any urban setting, but then spending my adult life in an urban setting. Part of the image I built of marriage was more than a marriage to an individual but also a marriage to a community. The value of marriage was more than what is shared with the partners, but extended to the shared community. The partners would share in common a familiar with a common community beyond just immediate friends, something that is almost inescapable in small towns. In a city, even a long term relationship would involve just a narrow common overlap of the worlds of the two partners, and that intersection would not be coherent in the way a small town community would be.
Much is said about evolutionary explanations of human psychological and social behavior. To the extent this is true, then there is the explanation of the bulk of experiences of human ancestors consisted of life long participation in small tribes or tightly-integrated communities of tribes sharing much in common. It was from that environment that we developed the definition of what pair bonding entailed: it was in context of a broader shared community. That’s not really feasible in modern urban environments where partners are participating in globally dispersed communities that are virtually impossible to share among the partners.
Another barrier is presented by the combined problems of both partners having careers that are specialized and compartmentalized in such a way that it is impossible to appreciate what the other partner actually does for the paycheck. Given the lack of ability to fully recognize the achievements of the other, the partnership reduces the value to the size of the salary taken home. The respect and admiration comes solely from the ability to spend money for something that may be entertaining or rewarding, but that is outside of what is more important to the individual’s life: what they are doing for a living.
Certainly there is always some limitation as to how fully one partner can appreciate the work done by the other. In a simpler village, a wife of the village’s blacksmith may not come close to appreciating the skill and experience of the blacksmith, but she can still see (or hear) him doing his work and more importantly see the appreciation by the customers even if she were not part of the business as a book keepers or sales person. The work and the served community is accessible for the partner to observe and that observation could strengthen the relationship through a growing respect for the value the partner actually offers to the community.
That does not translate at all to the modern workforce. Even if the partners work in the same basic field, they will likely work for different employers or different departments of a larger firm. Unless they are working on the same projects, they will need to specialize in different sub-areas with different communities of practice and stakeholders where each partner is too busy with his own practice to invest in the time needed to get a reasonable understanding of the other’s practice. There may be some familiarity but that familiarity would not be as extensive as what our distant ancestors experienced. All of this is compounded when the nature of work involves confidential information that can not be shared, but it is this confidential part is where the achievements are most noticeable.
In the world of modern specializations that require extensive effort to remain relevant in a field and yet compensate at a level requiring partners to both have jobs, there is a relatively narrow window of opportunity for a marriage that can result in offspring. That window is in the first decade of work after achieving the credentials to work in a field (typically involving college degrees at a minimum). At this point, the work may be challenging, but there is still overlap in understanding the partner’s life through the more accessible appreciation of the academic achievements and of the more visible advancement through promotion from entry level positions. Eventually, though, they will become increasingly specialized, engaged in more difficult challenges that at best result in minor raises in salary or even just the privilege of continuing employment. Other than the money brought into the household, there is little to view to gain an appreciation for what the other person is doing. The best that can be shared are interpersonal grievances and discussing these are unlikely to gain respect especially if the resolution involve merely coping with the problems in order to concentrate on the more important less visible challenges.
At least in a two career marriage, there seems to be a natural time limit to a first marriage starting in their mid-20s. That limit is about 10 years: enough time to start a family but not enough to see the children reach high school. The continued relationship becomes a distraction to the necessity of continuing an increasingly specialized career without any benefit of appreciating what the partner is accomplishing.
There are structural reasons why long lasting marriages are impracticable in the modern age. I don’t need explanations such as selfishness, desire to seek novelty of new relationships, or inability to compromise. There is truth to the concept of growing apart, their lives necessarily take different paths where there is no longer any perceived benefit for staying together. In this scenario, there is the persuasion of making the relationship work for the benefit of the children and some of the evidence is very compelling. I don’t think that argument outweighs the necessity of continuing ones own goals where that continuation is hampered by continuing the relationship started a decade or more in the past.
In the context of the modern careers, the utility of a marriage has a natural expiration date. I described above the marriage that started early in life. I could also describe my own career experience in mid-career where I had a particular occupation that could have supported a relationship, but that occupation bears little resemblence to my current one. In particular, what qualities of my work that might have gained respect from my partner no longer exist. I’m talking about my actual work. Had I married at that time based on respect for what I was doing, there would inevitably be the strain from disappointment at how things actually turned out.
So long as careers need to be maintained and yet do not grow in a way consistent with earlier achievements, there will be a consequence on the feasibility of continuing a relationship built upon earlier circumstances. It is inevitable that the partners would grow apart. Perhaps the growth is in different pursuits, one is pursuing a career while the other is pursuing some interest such as travel. The result is the same as discussed above. Eventually, there will be no point in continuing the relationship, even if children are involved.
I suspect this idea has always been at the back of my mind as I contemplated the opportunity of starting a relationship. Even at a young age, I recognized that the project could not last the duration, and the concept of marriage sold to me is defined by going the duration. I was sold on something that I realized is something no longer available to purchase.