The evolution of marriage

Mark Oppenheimer has a semi-profile of Dan Savage, semi-critique of modern marriage in the NYTimes Magazine this weekend. Savages suggests that as we begin to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples (as NY did last week and RI sort of did yesterday), we might also want to decrease our expectations around fidelity.

Interesting quote:

“In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women ‘the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,’ we extended to men the confines women had always endured. ‘And it’s been a disaster for marriage.’ ”

Savage argues that before feminist movements sought marriage equality, men ran around with concubines and mistresses and it was mostly accepted. While this is a rather sweeping generalization, it is interesting to think about what would have happened if marriage had become more egalitarian in the sense that women were allowed to pall around, as opposed to men now being held to higher standards.

My interest in the subject is less on the benefits of nonmonogamy, and more on how a culture of “working through” cheating would affect divorce rates and children.

A number of papers in economics have recently tried to tease out the effect of divorce on children, but the trend, as Savage suggests, is towards advocating stability over monogamy. It’s not that he’s saying nonmonogamy for all, necessarily, just “the cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.” When most of these papers talk about stability, they often refer to the mother having more than one partner or the father moving in and out of the picture multiple times, but the divorce brings a lot of trauma regardless of whether the parents ever remarry. The negative affects appear to be amplified when you add in new boyfriends and step-parents.

My research, however, shows that some of the negative effects may be in place whether or not the couple ever divorces. A lot of the economic reasoning behind the findings suggests that people are forward-looking and adjust their behavior (particularly investment in children) in anticipation of divorce. So, if we create a culture whereby sticking it out is the norm, we essentially raise the costs of divorce by increasing public admonition or shunning by peers or some other means. We could think about retreating from no-fault and unilateral divorce laws, but let’s say we don’t want to return to those dark ages, either.

We raise the costs of divorce and if we succeed, we keep more marriages intact. But if negative effects are in place before, or even in the absence of, divorce, and can be attributed to something other than anticipation of divorce, then we don’t really solve the problem of hurting kids. We maintain stability, in some sense, as a parent or parent’s lover isn’t walking in and out constantly, but kids aren’t stupid. Especially older children will likely notice something is amiss, behavior will change and we’ll still likely see negative effects. Will they be measureable? Will they be significant enough to observe? Perhaps not on average, but I don’t think asking parents to stay together, unhappy, solves the problem.

The other large problem with raising the costs of divorce is differentiating between socially acceptable causes for divorce and not socially acceptable causes. If we say that one-night stands should be overlooked, what about a weekend fling? Or a two-week fling? Or a month-long tete-a-tete? Where do we draw the line? Savage realizes the Schwarzeneggers, for instance, were doomed, but what’s in the middle? And the intersection of cheating and intimate partner violence is much larger than I think Savage realizes. Infidelity is often a tool of abuse and while a culture that overlooks a fling might seem a big leap from a culture that overlooks a slap or controlling money or a broken arm, I think we’re far enough down that road already.

To his credit, Savage advocates each couple figuring the process out for themselves. Monogamy, he says, still works for some couples even if it doesn’t work for all. Keeping it together for the kids may seem like a noble goal, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all goal, and the associated negative externalities could be large.

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