[Epistemic status: I predict everyone except me will respond to this with “Duuuuuuuuh”, but I found it changed some views of mine]
I recently did couples therapy with two gay men who’d gotten married a year or so ago. Since then one of them, let’s call him Adam, decided he was bored with his sex life and went to a club where they did some things I will not describe here. His husband, let’s call him Steve, was upset by what he considered infidelity, and they had a big fight. Both of them wanted to stay together for the sake of the kids (did I mention they adopted some kids?) but this club thing was a pretty big deal, so they decided to seek professional help.
Adam made the following proposal: he knew Steve was not very kinky, so Adam would go do his kinky stuff at the club, with Steve’s knowledge and consent. That way everyone could get what they wanted. Sure, it would involve having sex with other people, but it didn’t mean anything, and it was selfish for a spouse to assert some kind of right to “control” the other spouse anyway.
Steve made the following counterproposal: no. He liked monogamy and fidelity and it would make him really jealous and angry to think of Adam going out and having sex with other people, even in a meaningless way. He argued that if Adam didn’t like monogamy, maybe he shouldn’t have proposed entering into a form of life that has been pretty much defined by its insistence on monogamy for the past several thousand years and then sworn adherence to that form of life in front of everyone they knew. If Adam hadn’t liked monogamy, he had ample opportunity to avoid it before he had bound his life together with Steve’s. Now he was stuck.
Adam gave the following counterargument: yeah, marriage usually implies remaining monogamous, but that was all legal boilerplate. He had wanted to get married to symbolize his committment to Steve – committment that he still had! – and he hadn’t realized he was interested in fetish stuff at the time or else he would have brought it up.
Steve gave the following countercounterargument: okay, this is all very sad, but now we are stuck in this position, and clearly only one of the two people could get their preference satisfied, and given the whole marriage-implies-monogamy thing, it seemed pretty clear that that person should be him.
So then of course they both turned to me for advice.
The rules for psychotherapy are a lot like the rules for Aaron Burr: talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for. This last principle is generally known as “therapeutic neutrality”, and it demands that we not take sides in our patients’ disputes or dilemmas. Instead, we try to remain an impartial discussion facilitator, teasing out our patients’ true values and concerns until they are able to come to a conclusion on their own.
On the other hand, their friends probably don’t have the same scruples and are going to be offering them advice. And I wondered what advice I would give, if I were their friends and not stuck in metaphorical Switzerland.
Assume Steve’s analysis is right; this is a zero-sum game and there’s no way for them both to come out of it happy. Which side do we choose?
A quick retreat to a simpler situation: suppose Adam really wants to keep all the windows in the house open all winter with no heat on, so that the inside temperature is 10F and the house is full of snow. Steve does not want to do this. Both of them want to stay together for the sake of the kids, but this do-we-freeze-our-house thing is really getting in the way.
This problem is easy. Adam, you’re crazy and your preferences are stupid and don’t count. Suck it up and keep living with Steve at normal-person temperatures.
Another retreat in the other direction: suppose Adam wants to sometimes take a shower, but for some reason the thought of Adam being in a shower pisses Steve off and he refuses to allow it. Once again, both of them want to stay together for the sake of the kids, but this can-Adam-take-a-shower thing is really getting in the way.
This problem is also easy. Steve, this time your preferences are stupid and don’t count. Suck it up and let Adam take a shower.
A third new situation. The one Unit of Caring recently discussed on her blog. A transwoman wants to have Christmas with her family, but her family doesn’t believe in transgender and insists on calling her by her original male name and male pronouns. Both her and her family don’t want to “ruin Christmas” by refusing to get together as a family or making a big deal of this. Who is in the right? Unit of Caring writes:
Anyone who does not respect their siblings enough to call them by the name of their choosing does not then get to go “oh! you not wanting to let me repeatedly hurt you is breaking apart our family, how unreasonable of you!” If you want people to spend time around you, call them by the names they chose. If you wouldn’t repeatedly slap your siblings in the face, don’t deliberately misgender them either. (And if you would repeatedly slap your siblings in the face, then you shouldn’t have to look too far to figure out whose behavior ruined Christmas.)
If it doesn’t bother you that you’re hurting someone, then you don’t get to act wronged when they decide you’re not worth spending time with.
I agree with this assessment, but only because I agree with Unit about the object-level issue of transgender. It seems like if you wrote in the same question to your local priest, they’d say the trans woman was being unreasonable. I don’t think there’s any good way for Unit and the priest (or the woman and her family) to resolve their differences except by one convincing the other of their position on the object-level issue of transgender.
(well, if you really really really understood utilitarianism, you might be able to say you should take the highest-utility solution, but no one understands utilitarianism that well)
This seems to be true of my patients’ problem too. Unless we can decide whether wanting to go to a fetish club and have sex with people besides your husband is a reasonable request, we can’t solve Adam and Steve’s disagreement. I mean, Steve’s argument about the contract isn’t bad, but if it were something we disagreed with – let’s say some old-timey marriage contract where the woman vowed to always serve and obey her husband, and now she’s a feminist and wants out – we would probably be pretty sympathetic despite the precise wording of what she’d “agreed” on.
I come to the table with personal baggage. I come from a very permissive subculture. I’ve had some very happy open relationships and wanting to be open seems like a reasonable request. I’ve had some friends who are very kinky, and wanting to be kinky seems like a reasonable request too. I’m not personally very good at feeling jealous, so wanting your husband to never go to a club, even if he doesn’t tell you about it, or make you think about it, or even agrees only to do it when you’re away on a business trip in another city – seems a bit odd. Honestly I would be tempted to take Steve aside and ask him whether he’s sure that he couldn’t deal with Adam going to this club, and whether maybe he wants to give it a chance, and whether maybe he just wants what’s best for Adam even if that makes him a little uncomfortable.
But go back two hundred years and ask the people of that culture, and this choice is a no-brainer. Fetish clubs (or the closest 19th century equivalent) are weird, vile, sinful things, and Adam’s desire to go to one is totally beyond the pale. He should never even have made the request. But since he did, we can strongly and clearly tell him that this is morally wrong, that he should apologize to Steve for the trouble he put him in, that he should realize there’s more to life than kinky sex, and that he should want what’s best for Steve even if that means he can’t satisfy his libido quite so much.
If Adam and Steve were in the traditional culture of the 1800s there would be no debate. If they were in some ultra-permissive sexually-open subculture of the 2100s, there would also be no debate. The culture would tell one of them that they were wrong, just like someone who wants to make the other live in a 10 degree frozen house is wrong, that person would grudgingly agree, they would stay together, and that would be that. The problem only comes when they’re in a culture with a lot of different subcultures that haven’t made up their minds yet. Like ours.
We all hear the stories of the economists who start by assuming perfect rationality, and then add in deviations from that assumption when they come to them. I kind of like to start from a liberal assumption of perfect atomic individualism and add in deviations when I encounter them. And, well, this is the latest one I encountered.
Adam and Steve’s individual personalities and situations will help resolve their conflict, but the tiebreaker vote is always going to be cast by the culture around them. Realizing this has made me more open to activists who are trying to change the culture – and, symmetrically, to conservatives who are trying to prevent the culture from being changed. People with unusual sex lives like to say that what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom doesn’t hurt anyone else – neither breaks their nose nor picks their pocket – but the fact is that the partial social acceptance of fetish clubs and of open relationships is what gives Adam a leg to stand on. And some religious conservatives like to talk about how they only want to defend their own right to practice and express their beliefs instead of being forced into the broader cultural revolution all around them, but the fact is that their beliefs are what’s supporting Steve. My sympathies will always be with the atomic individualists who want to come up with some clever Adam-Steve contract that solves their problem on the meta-level as long as all actors are rational, but I am starting to worry the culture warriors have a point here.
UR said that “the sovereign is the one who sets the null hypothesis”. Once you’ve let the culture set a default – going to fetish clubs is a reasonable request, going to fetish clubs is an unreasonable request – then given sufficiently good liberal norms people who want to deviate from the default can absolutely do so, but as soon as a conflict springs up the identity of the default option still matters a lot.
I’m not suggesting a total war of all against all, and there’s always the Archipelago option, but I guess sometimes culture wars do need to be fought beyond the point where you just leave people alone, if only to shift the default in your direction.
Speaking of culture wars, an apology to gay people. I always obfuscate details about my patients to disguise their identities, but I feel particularly bad about making this couple gay because it reinforces the stereotype of gay people as hypersexual and bad at committment. I made them gay anyway, because when I tried to write them hetero, their gender seemed to skew the problem too much to one side or another – for example, when Steve was a woman, he was the poor innocent wife wronged by a horny husband who insisted on thinking with his crotch. I worried that if I made the couple hetero, my readers for one reason or another would bring their own baggage and wouldn’t be able to see it as the difficult and evenly-balanced problem it seemed like when I was in the office with them.
Which itself says something about how our culture sets default hypotheses.