John Gottman is a legendary figure, and the legend is told best by John Gottman. He describes wading into the field of marital counseling as a young psychology postdoc, only to find it was a total mess:
When we began our research, the wide range of marital therapies based on conflict resolution shared a very high level of relapse. In fact, the best of this type of marital therapy, conducted by Neil Jacobson, had only a 35 to 50 percent success rate. In other words, his own studies showed that only 35 to 50 percent of couples saw a meaningful improvement in their marriages as a result of the therapy. A year later, less than half of that group — or just 18 to 25 percent of all couples who entered therapy — retained these benefits. A while ago, Consumer Reports surveyed a large sample of its members on their experience with all kinds of psychotherapists. Most therapists got very high customer-satisfaction marks—except for the marital ones, who received very poor ratings. Though this survey did not qualify as rigorous scientific research, it confirmed what most professionals in the field already knew: in the long run, marital therapy did not benefit the majority of couples.
Gottman decided the field needed statistical rigor, and that he – a former MIT math major – was exactly the guy to enforce it. He set up a model apartment in his University of Washington research center – affectionately called “the Love Lab”, and invited hundreds of couples to spend a few days there – observed, videotaped, and attached to electrodes collecting information on every detail of their physiology. While at the lab, the couples went through their ordinary lives. They experienced love, hatred, romantic dinners, screaming matches, and occasionally self-transformation. Then Gottman monitored them for years, seeing who made things work and who got divorced. Did you know that if a husband fails to acknowledge his wife’s feelings during an argument, there is an 81% chance it will damage the marriage? Or that 69% of marital conflicts are about long-term problems rather than specific situations? John Gottman knows all of this and much, much more.
Using his mountain of data (the legend continues) Gottman became a Divorce Prophet:
After years of research…I am now able to predict whether a couple will stay happily together or lose their way. I can make this prediction after listening to the couple interact in our Love Lab for as little as five minutes! My accuracy rate in these predictions averages 91 percent over three separate studies. In other words, in 91 percent of the cases where I have predicted that a couple’s marriage would eventually fail or succeed, time has proven me right. These predictions are not based on my intuition or preconceived notions of what marriage “should” be, but on the data I’ve accumulated over years of study.
…which is pretty interesting. But predicting destiny is only an intermediate step – as another legend once said, “the point is to change it”. So, science in hand, John Gottman resolved to fix marital counseling. And apparently succeeded:
We found that at the beginning of our workshops, 27 percent of couples were at very high risk for divorce. At our three-month followup that proportion was 6.7 percent and at nine months it was 0 percent. But even couples who were not at high risk for divorce were significantly helped by the workshops.
Twenty years later, the legend has spread to every corner of the world. He has received glowing praise from The New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Washington Post, The New York Times again, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, Time, and The New York Times a third time. He has published over two hundred scientific papers, some of which have been cited thousands of times. He has been voted one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. His Gottman Relationship Institute, founded together with his wife Julie Gottman, has become a marriage counseling empire, trained hundreds of therapists in the Gottman method, and operates a referral network that can find you Certified Gottman Level 3 Therapists from Australia to Uruguay. After a long life of helping save countless marriages, his one regret is that he is so great he can no longer find an adequate control group for his studies:
When we sat down to write the first edition of this book, we were excited to share the results of laboratory research into relationships but we knew we’d face some skepticism. Could scientific study of something as intangible, idiosyncratic, and personal as romantic love deliver useful advice to couples in the real world? Well, more than fifteen years and millions of readers later we are happy to report that The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has done just that. Countless readers across the globe tell us that the book’s strategies have enhanced, shielded, or saved their relationship. We have received thank-yous from every imaginable type of couple, including newlyweds, traditional spouses, two-career partners, devoutly religious spouses, military couples, cohabitants, same-sex partners, not-yet-marrieds, divorced people looking toward the future, and counselors who work with all of the above.
It is a great source of satisfaction and pride that we have been able to help so many people. We’re also gratified that research continues to confirm what these readers consistently tell us: The Seven Principles can have a powerfully positive effect on your relationship. In fact, a randomized clinical study by John and his coresearchers (Julia Babcock, Kim Ryan, and Julie Gottman) found that married couples who simply read The Seven Principles and worked through the quizzes and exercises on their own (but received no additional professional aid) were significantly happier in their relationship, and these effects lasted when assessed a year later. Simply reading this book proved so successful that it actually bollixed the research: the original experiment had been designed to use these “book-only” couples as a control group to test marital therapy techniques!
Sounds like some book! And God knows we need good marriage therapy. The world needs it. And I need it in particular. I am a psychiatrist. I am trained to treat depression and schizophrenia and nice simple things like that. But somehow, I keep getting patients who need help with relationship problems. I am totally unprepared for this. In the past, my advice has been “go find someone trained by John Gottman, I hear he is some kind of living legend”. But at some point, I figured I should finally read his book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide From The Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, so that I could have an informed opinion on this and maybe try helping people directly.
This is a review of that book. It starts with a summary of Gottman’s marital counseling techniques, continues to a discussion of the evidence for and against them, and ends with some random thoughts about marriage.
The secret to a happy marriage is that you should like your spouse.
Maybe this doesn’t sound especially secret, when put that way. But part of the Gottman legend is that the old school of marriage therapists kind of missed that part. They were really into solving conflicts and having good communication skills and things like that. But over his years of monitoring hundreds of couples in real-world situations, Gottman found that this was overrated. Plenty of couples had atrocious communication skills and got in conflicts all the time, but loved each other very much and had no real marital problems. Plenty of other couples had finely-polished communication skills and always used “I statements” and things like that, and still ended up divorced. Communication skills are good, and you should definitely try to have them, but you’re putting the cart before the horse unless you focus on liking your spouse.
I totally believe this. I remember my grandparents used to fight all the time. Any time my grandmother said something, my grandfather would disagree with her, and vice versa, and the ensuing argument would (to my young ears) sound absolutely vicious, and then they would laugh it off and forget about it and continue being wonderfully and obviously in love. So fine, focus on liking your spouse. But how do you make that happen?
Seven Principles excels in its selection of worksheets, activities, and games. There is a seven-week program of talking about one nice thing with your spouse every day, a “Building Your Love Maps” game, and a list of questions you and your spouse should answer together one by one. The underlying principle seems to be that to know somebody is to love them. If you get a really good mental model of where your spouse is in their life, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their daily toil, then it’s hard to not have at least some fondness for them. One activity is a quiz, with questions like:
1. I can name my partner’s best friends.
2. I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing.
3. I know the names of some of the people who have been irritating
my partner lately.
4. I can tell you some of my partner’s life dreams.
5. I am very familiar with my partner’s religious beliefs and ideas.
6. I can tell you about my partner’s basic philosophy of life.
7. I can list the relatives my partner likes the least.
8. I know my partner’s favorite music.
9. I can list my partner’s three favorite movies.
The more you know, the more likely your marriage is to make it.
Along with knowing the big things, you should also know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. You should conspicuously make sure to know it. Apart from whatever other exercise you’re doing each day, Gottman recommends a ritual of checking in after work and exchanging stories about your days. This time is a Designated Support Zone, no criticism allowed. You take your spouse’s side whether you secretly disagree with them or not. If your spouse gets angry that a police officer gave them a ticket for driving 110 mph through a 25 mph school zone, you are obligated by the terms of your marriage contract to shake your head and say “I know, cops these days have no respect.”
Gottman is slightly less strict in other situations, but he still thinks it’s very important that you take your spouse’s side in conflicts. He especially highlights a common dynamic where your parents are always trying to cause trouble between you and your spouse, and your marriage will be in danger until you commit to side with your spouse whenever this kind of thing comes up:
At the core of the tension is a turf battle between [the wife and the mother] for the husband’s love. The wife is watching to see whether her husband backs her or his mother. She is wondering, “Which family are you really in?” Often the mother is asking the same question. The man, for his part, just wishes the two women could get along better. He loves them both and does not want to have to choose. The whole idea is ridiculous to him. After all, he has loyalties to each, and he must honor and respect both. Unfortunately, this attitude often throws him into the role of peacemaker or mediator, which invariably makes the situation worse.
The only way out of this dilemma is for the husband to side with his wife against his mother. Although this may sound harsh, remember that one of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of “we-ness” between husband and wife. So the husband must let his mother know that his wife does indeed come first. His house is his and his wife’s house, not his mother’s. He is a husband first, then a son. This is not a pleasant position to take. His mother’s feelings may be hurt. But eventually she will probably adjust to the reality that her son’s family unit, where he is the husband, takes precedence to him over all others. It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about this, even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality.
This is not to suggest that a man do anything that he feels demeans and dishonors his parents or goes against his basic values. He should not compromise who he is. But he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle
A final method of making yourself like your spouse: just explicitly and consciously focus on their good qualities. One of the worksheets lists a bunch of good qualities and asks you to pick some you appreciate in your spouse and explain why. Another asks you to reminisce about the old days, on the theory that presumably you liked your spouse back when you decided to marry them. This isn’t always true – Gottman finds that couples who are really far gone will export their present hostility back into the past and talk about how they always knew it was a bad idea. With typical statistical precision, he notes that “94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.” But it’s usually true enough to get both partners warming up to each other a little.
But okay. You’ve done all this stuff and you like your spouse at least a little. Now what?
Now you can start learning communication skills.
Gottman’s communication skills work focuses on what he calls “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These may seem obvious, though Gottman takes some of them in non-obvious directions – “couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (colds, flu, and so on) than other people”. Avoiding the four horsemen is vital, especially in the crucial “startup” phase of a conversation. How do you do it?
Some tips are very small in scale. Use I-Statements like “I have trouble dealing with how messy things are sometimes” instead of You-Statements like “You never clean up around here”. Be polite. Try to make “repair attempts” – conflict-ending attempts that can be anywhere from “Hey, you’re yelling at me” to “You are right and I am wrong and I am sorry” to “Oh my god, listen to us, let’s get a drink and never speak of this matter again”. Accept your spouse’s repair attempts when offered.
Others are more general. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Monitor your physiological arousal, and if you start to notice the signs – fast heartbeat, tense muscles, shallow breathing – call a time-out, go somewhere else, and use meditation or deep breathing or whatever to calm down.
This is especially important for men. Gottman has strong opinions on gender. He uncritically accepts the feminist view that men feel entitled because of patriarchy and that if they feel angry or upset it’s probably just their entitlement flaring up again. He flirts with saying that men should generally yield to their wife in a conflict (presumably because, thanks to patriarchy, everything will always be biased in favor of the man and so the wife is usually right). In the end, he softens this to a statement that men should “accept influence from” their wives, but also heavily implying that a man who doesn’t give in to his wife must not be accepting her influence – for example, an exercise on page 118 asks men to describe how they would accept their wife’s influence in various situations, and includes an answer key where the right answer is always to say she is right and do what she wants. You might object to this, but sorry, it is Evidence Based According To Science. Gottman tells us that only 35% of husbands are emotionally intelligent, and that “when a man is not willing to share influence with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct”.
But Gottman’s most controversial views on gender involve physiology. He proposes an evo psych explanation for why men can’t handle talking about problems:
This is not because of some lack on the man’s part. The reason lies in our evolutionary heritage. Anthropological evidence suggests that we evolved from hominids whose lives were circumscribed by very rigid gender roles, since these were advantageous to survival in a harsh environment. The females specialized in nurturing children while the males specialized in cooperative hunting.
As any nursing mother can tell you, the amount of milk you produce is affected by how relaxed you feel, which is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. So natural selection would favor a female who could quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stressed. Her ability to remain composed could enhance her children’s chances of survival by optimizing the amount of nutrition they received. But in the male natural selection would reward the opposite response. For these early cooperative hunters, maintaining vigilance was a key survival skill. So males whose adrenaline kicked in quite readily and who did not calm down so easily were more likely to survive and procreate. To this day, the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress […]
This gender difference in how physiologically reactive our bodies are also influences what men and women tend to think about when they experience marital stress. As part of some experiments, we ask couples to watch themselves arguing on tape and then tell us what they were thinking when our sensors detected they were flooded. Their answers suggest that men have a greater tendency to have negative thoughts that maintain their distress, while women are more likely to think soothing thoughts that help them calm down and be conciliatory. Men, generally, either think about how righteous and indignant they feel (“I’m going to get even,” “I don’t have to take this”), which tends to lead to contempt or belligerence. Or they think about themselves as an innocent victim of their wife’s wrath or complaint (“Why is she always blaming me?”), which leads to defensiveness.
Obviously these rules don’t hold for every male and every female. But after twenty-five years of research, I have noted that the majority of couples do follow these gender differences in physiological and psychological reactions to stress. Because of these dissimilarities, most marriages (including healthy, happy ones) follow a comparable pattern of conflict in which the wife, who is constitutionally better able to handle the stress, brings up sensitive issues. The husband, who is not as able to cope with it, will attempt to avoid getting into the subject. He may become defensive and stonewall. Or he may even become belligerent or contemptuous in an attempt to silence her.
The problem is, men are just too flighty and emotional! They need a rational, hard-headed woman to take care of them and keep them grounded!
Sorry. To be more serious, he thinks that because women are emotionally stable and men aren’t, women tend to bring up long-standing problems that need to be solved, and because men can’t handle this level of stress they panic or shut down or blow up or otherwise start a conflict in order to avoid having to deal with it. “More than 80 percent of the time it’s the wife who brings up sticky marital issues, while the husband tries to avoid discussing them.” The solution is for men to learn calming techniques so they don’t stop the conversation as quickly.
Okay, so now you like your spouse and you know how to communicate. Now you can prepare to actually solve some conflicts.
But not all of them. Gottman divides conflicts into two types: solvable and unsolvable. Solvable conflicts are simple, specific, and about the thing they seem to be about – for example, the husband is supposed to take the trash out after work, but work has gotten really stressful lately and he keeps forgetting, and now the trash is overflowing and the wife is annoyed. The solution here is to use normal problem-solving techniques. Put a sign in the bedroom saying “DID YOU REMEMBER TO TAKE THE TRASH OUT?” or something. Whatever.
Unsolvable conflicts are temporary manifestations of deep psychological issues. The particular thing that sparked the fight this time is irrelevant, but both spouses will fight to the death because it represents something important. For example, the husband is late to dinner one night because he went out to the bar. The wife yells at him and says he doesn’t care about her. He yells back that she’s a control freak. Here the problem will not be solved by coming up with a compromise where he can go to the bar half of nights. The problem is that she secretly worries his drinking buddies have a closer connection to him than she ever will, that he doesn’t love her anymore, that he goes to the bar to escape her. He worries that he’s lost his freedom, that he’s become emasculated, that he’s become some boring old person who is never allowed to have fun. If the bar burnt down tomorrow, they would find some other excuse to fight over this dynamic.
There’s no hard line between solvable and unsolvable conflicts. One couple’s solvable problem might be another’s unsolvable one. Forgetting to take the trash out becomes an unsolvable problem if it represents how the husband is irresponsible or the wife is too controlling. Staying out too late at the bar is a solveable problem if it’s just that dinner is getting cold and neither of them has any problem with the husband eating leftovers. But usually couples can figure out whether their particular issue taps into deeper roots.
Gottman suggests dealing with unsolvable conflicts by making the underlying “dreams” explicit. He recommends both partners talk about what the dream driving their side of the conflict means to them. So for example, the husband who stays late at the bar might say “When I was young, my dad was so poor he had to work twelve hour days. Then he would come home, do some chores, go to sleep, and start all over again. I told myself that if I ever ended up like that, I might as well just die, because it seemed like such a crappy and joyless life. To me, getting to go have fun with people means that I’m successful enough that I don’t have to end up like my dad.” While one spouse (the “dreamer”) is describing this, the other spouse has to be completely supportive and try to understand them, without pointing out ways they’re wrong.
Once both partners feel like they’ve been heard and that they understand each other, they discuss the absolute minimum they would need in order to feel like their dreams were being respected, versus the beyond-minimum things that they’re willing to be flexible on. Then they both agree to a compromise that gives both of them their bare minimum and splits the difference on the flexible parts. What if the two bare minima are mutually exclusive? The book doesn’t say. Probably you got a defective dream, and you should go to the dream factory and ask if they take returns.
The last part of the book is maybe the least actionable, but also my favorite. It discusses couples as almost miniature cultures, with their own rituals, in-jokes, ideologies, and systems of meaning. Partly it’s about how to create these things, partly it’s about how to acknowledge these things, and partly it’s just John Gottman’s love letter to the concept of couplehood. It’s really heart-warming. Don’t make the same mistake I did and read it when you’re feeling lonely.
Okay, but can John Gottman really predict divorce with 91% success rate and do all the other things he says he can do? Haha, no. All of that stuff is totally false.
Richard Heyman published the definitive paper on this in 2001, The Hazards Of Predicting Divorce Without Crossvalidation (kudos to Laurie Abraham of Slate, the only one of the journalists covering Gottman to find and mention this, and my source for some of the following). Heyman notes that Gottman doesn’t predict divorce at all. He postdicts it. He gets 100 (or however many) couples, sees how many divorced, and then finds a set of factors that explain what happened.
Confused about the difference between prediction and postdiction? It’s a confusing concept, but let me give an example, loosely based on this Wikipedia article. The following rule accurately matches the results of every US presidential election since 1932: the incumbent party will win the election if and only if the Washington Redskins won their last home game before the election – unless the incumbent is black or the challenger attended a Central European boarding school, in which case it will lose.
In common language, we might say that this rule “predicts” the last 22 presidential elections, in the sense that knowing the rule and the Redskins’ record, we can generate the presidential winners. But really it doesn’t predict anything – there’s no reason to think any future presidential elections will follow the rule. It’s just somebody looking to see what things coincidentally matched information that we already have. This is properly called postdiction – finding rules that describe things we already know.
Postdictive ability often implies predictive ability. If I read over hospital records and find that only immunodeficient people caught a certain virus, I might conclude I’ve found a natural law – the virus only infects immunodeficient people – and predict that the pattern will continue in the future.
But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, especially when you’re using small datasets with lots of variables, you get predictive rules that work very well, not because they describe natural laws, but just by coincidence. It’s coincidence that the Redskins’ win-loss record matches presidential elections, and with n = 22 datapoints, you’re almost certain to get some coincidences like that.
Even an honest attempt to use plausible variables to postdict a large dataset will give you a prediction rule that’s a combination of real natural law and spurious coincidence. So you’re not allowed to claim a certain specific level of predictive ability until you’ve used your rule to predict out-of-training-data events. Gottman didn’t do this.
In his paper, Heyman creates a divorce prediction algorithm out of basic demographic data: husband and wife’s education level, employment status, etc. He is able to achieve 90% predictive success on the training data – nearly identical to Gottman’s 91% – without any of Gottman’s hard work. No making the couples spend days in a laboratory and counting up how many times they use I-statements. No monitoring their blood pressure as they gaze into each other’s eyes. Heyman never met any of his couples at all, let along analyzed their interaction patterns. And he did just as well as Gottman did at predicting divorce (technically he predicted low scores on a measure of marital stability; his dataset did not include divorce outcomes).
Then he applied his prediction rule to out-of-sample couples. Accuracy dropped to 70%. We have no reason not to think Gottman’s accuracy would drop at the same rate. But 70% is around the accuracy you get if you predict nobody will divorce. It’s little better than chance, and all of Gottman’s claims to be a master divorce predictor are totally baseless.
The first question on Gottman’s FAQ is whether he is doing this. He says he did this once, but that 6 of his 7 studies have been properly predictive. But Wikipedia notes that this claim uses “a non-standard definition of prediction in which all that is required is that predictive variables, but not their specific relationship to the outcome, were selected in advance”. Heyman and Abraham specifically criticize the 6 studies that Gottman calls genuinely predictive as being postdictive. I cannot find all the relevant studies, as many of them are in books, but contra the FAQ it looks as if he is still postdicting.
It’s hard for me to dismiss this as an honest mistake. Gottman constantly plays up his credentials as a mathematician and statistician, saying that:
In the beginning, Dr. John Gottman’s research was devoted to the discovery of reliable patterns in observational data. He wanted to see if there were indeed patterns of behavior, or sequences of interactions, that could discriminate happy from unhappy couples. It was not at all clear that these patterns existed. Dr. Gottman and his colleagues began developing the math for sequential analysis, which now is a well-developed methodology.
Anyone smart enough to invent new mathematical methodologies should also be smart enough to know you can’t validate your predictor on its training data, so he must know exactly what he’s doing. And it would be so easy to fix if he wanted to! All he needs to do is take one of his predictors, apply it to data that wasn’t its training data, and tell us how it does! How could this be an innocent mistake‽
And speaking of things that an MIT mathematician should know better than to do, what’s up with claims like “when a man is unwilling to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance his marriage will self-destruct”. Obviously you can replace 81% with any number you want by operationalizing “unwilling to share power with his partner” differently. This sentence as written is totally meaningless. It could potentially be part of a good study, where Gottman investigated different forms of power-sharing and how they affected marital stability – but only because the study would carefully explain its methods so that the end number meant something. Outside the context of that number, it communicates nothing. Yet Gottman put it in a book and expects us to be impressed by it. It feels like he’s just trying to dazzle us with mathematical precision, and hoping we don’t think about it long enough to realize that it doesn’t make sense.
But the most important statistical question is – does Gottman marriage counseling work? Gottman cites a bunch of different studies proving that it does, but he conducted or oversaw all of them. I randomly chose Shapiro and Gottman (2005) for further analysis. It is typical of this genre: it takes couples who have just had a baby (a particularly perilous time in a marriage), gives half of them a Gottman workshop, and the other half get nothing (no placebo or alternate method here!). The study evaluates husbands and wives separately (was this a preregistered decision?) on several established marital tests and subscales of marital tests (was the choice to keep some tests whole and take subscales of others preregistered?) and finds a significant quadratic effect of their program on marital quality.
I had to look up what a quadratic effect is. It means that the effect approximates a parabola. That is, things start by getting worse, then get better again, in a parabolic pattern. If I’m understanding the study correctly, then if you just do normal linear tests (did the couples’ marriage get better or worse, overall?) there was no significant effect. Gottman writes that:
Our best guess as to why the quadratic pattern occurs is the following. With intervention, things get worse at first because the immediate effects of the interventions are to increase the amount of conflict that the couple experiences. Our interventions encourage couples to honestly face and discuss their conflicts, particularly potential or actual inequities in housework and childcare, conflicts that they would naturally avoid and which they do avoid in the control group. This early increase in the amount of conflict in our intervention group probably causes temporary discomfort, which is reflected in lowered marital quality and increased postpartum depression. However, because the couples in the intervention group learn the communicative skills to cope with these issues, the conflicts get dealt with to some degree, and thereafter marital quality and postpartum depression both improve, whereas in the control group, because these conflicts have not been dealt with, things get worse over time.
This is fine, but the abstract just sums it up as “results showed that, in general, the preventive intervention using a psycho-communicative-educational format was effective”. No! If you didn’t preregister that you expected a quadratic effect, you are lost in the Garden of Forking Paths and you should give up and start over. Also, I feel like probably Gottman advertises to his clients that their marital happiness will improve. But even if we accept his argument here, the only thing he can say with confidence is that their marital happiness will increasingly approximate a parabola over time, which is not really what I think most people go to therapists looking for.
I might be misinterpreting this, and maybe I’m being overly harsh. But I am predisposed to be overly harsh because the whole “predicting divorce” thing makes me think Gottman is out to get me, and so I am less forgiving of unusual polynomials than I might be otherwise. Also, if you’re running the study of your own method, you ought to be on extra good behavior, and this does not really seem all that extra.
What happens when people who aren’t Gottman evaluate the Gottman method? A large government-funded multicenter study testing a Gottman curriculum as well as several others found no effect of any on marital outcomes; control couples actually stayed together slightly more than ones who got marriage counseling. The Gottman curriculum seemed to do worst of the three curricula studied, although there were no statistical tests performed to prove it. I have no explanation for this. Maybe the parabola is just really big, and the divorce is the low point of the parabola, and later on they’ll end up super-double-married. But I am not optimistic.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Gottman here. Rigorous psychology studies are murderous. Things that we know basically have to work, like Alcoholics Anonymous and SSRIs and psychotherapy in general, end up showing no or minimal effects. Heck, zoom out a little bit and we have twin studies showing that parenting itself, in full generality, has no or minimal effect. I find all of this very suspicious, and it would not surprise me if there’s something really wrong here that makes studies biased towards false negatives. All of this stuff about learning to respect and appreciate your spouse and negotiate conflicts in a calm loving way seems like the sort of thing that should work, and for all we know it might work in some population or situation other than the ones being studied.
But for the guy whose whole legend centers around how he’s evidence-based, it’s not a good look.
I really wanted Gottman Marital Counseling to work.
I wear a psychiatrist hat and a therapist hat. I love the psychiatrist hat. It is blue and pointy and has little glowing stars and moons on it. When I wear it, then with sufficient knowledge and understanding I can give people substances that release obsessions, calm fears, and brighten sorrows. Sometimes I can help people solve their unbearable hopeless problems, and it’s the best feeling in the world.
I hate wearing the therapist hat. I put it on as rarely as possible. I don’t advertise myself as a therapist, and if people ask me to therapy them, I try to refer them to someone else. But if someone wants to talk about their problems in a session, you can’t just say no. And so they tell me about being trapped in an abusive relationship, or haunted by guilt, or trapped in a dead end job with no prospects for improvement. And then they expect me to be able to say something that makes it all better. I know that the textbook response is something about how therapy does not solve problems per se, but by sharing them with someone else it makes them more bearable and adds perspective. Unfortunately, my patients didn’t read that textbook, and they put hope in me, and as often as not I betray it.
I think every therapist feels this way. I once talked to an important professor of therapy, who admitted to me something like “even at my stage, I feel like in the end we only have five or so techniques”, and I got really excited and blurted out “wait, what are the other two?!”
Desperation breeds gullibility. Patients with terminal diseases, however smart they used to be, turn to homeopaths and charlatans rather than face the dismal truth. Therapists are desperate – being confronted with some of the most sympathetic people in the world, day in and day out, having the burden of helping them placed on your shoulders, and knowing that your armamentarium isn’t up to the task will do that to you. And so they become marks. Gullible, gullible marks. Realistically it’s going to be really hard for me to stop recommending Gottman marital counseling to people, because they need something so much. And this is something. And it sounds so good. And I can’t just let their marriage keep falling apart. And surely there’s still a chance it might work, right?
(don’t worry, eventually I’m going to look into some of those forms of counseling that outperformed it in that study)
Bad marriages are so, so bad. They’re so bad it’s shocking. The first time I saw one, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to figure out some of the root issues, so I asked my patient something about his wife, and he immediately launched into a tirade about all the things his wife had done recently, and why she was in the wrong and he was in the right. I tried to redirect him, and briefly succeeded, but after a second or two the new line of conversation shifted to how unfair his wife was and how she was in the wrong about everything. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and say “for the love of God, just put this aside and move to the meta-level and let’s talk about some of the places we can go from here!” but he was just incapable of this mental action. I wish I could say this was an isolated case. It isn’t.
My ex-girlfriend Ozy writes a relationship advice column. Probably taking relationship advice from an ex-girlfriend is some kind of classic mistake, but I read it anyway. They describe five kinds of relationship problems – stupid problems, basic incompatibilities, problems that are actually a different kind of problem, terrible people, and horrifying soul-sucking messes. For some reason, this taxonomy has stuck with me when all the supposedly evidence-based taxonomies I hear the social workers talk about have failed. And the horrifying soul-sucking mess category sticks with me most of all:
A problem of one of the previous three types was badly managed, perhaps for years. Now, every time you have a minor argument, you bring in everything wrong that happened for your entire relationship. You don’t feel like you can trust your partner. All the quirks you used to find charming drive you up the wall. You hate even your partner’s most innocuous actions. You avoid every topic that leads to a fight, and rapidly find that you can’t discuss anything except Marvel movies and the weather. You’re defensive whenever your partner says anything that sounds like even a minor criticism. You’re sarcastic and you call them names. Somehow, when you remember good things about the past– the time you saw Hamilton together or your birthday present or being the best man at their wedding– all you can remember is the long lines at intermission, the poor wrapping job, and their incredibly rude drunk aunt. If asked to name a good trait of theirs, you draw a blank, but you can go on for hours about their flaws.
I guess it might be in theory possible to fix a horrifying soul-sucking mess with a lot of hard work, but to be honest every time I’ve seen a person in one of those relationships they were a lot better and happier and stronger as people as soon as they ended it.
A lot of my patients are horrifying soul-sucking messes. I wish there was something I could do about it, but instead I just sit and listen as they spend forty-five minutes describing every way their spouse has wronged them.
I’m terrified of this. How did it happen? At some point these people must have loved each other. How does any human relationship get this bad? Could it happen to me? Could I marry a great person who I love a lot, and then five years later sign up for therapy just so I can start talking about all my grievances without letting the therapist get a word in edgewise?
Unlike my ex, I don’t write a relationship advice blog. I write a blog about other things. One of them is politics. And whenever I hear people talk about relationships, I hear weird echoes of political problems. People who hate their spouse have an outgroup of one. A unified polity has devolved into partisanship. Social trust has been broken; a defect-defect equilibrium is in place. Gottman thinks of couples as a two-person culture, and some of those cultures are decadent and fractious.
Theodore Adorno’s right-wing authoritarianism scale asked a lot of questions about marriage and child-rearing; his thesis was that people who want top-down government will control their families the same way. Certainly there are authoritarian marriages. But it also seems like there are marriages that are nationalist in a more positive sense – one where the couple has built itself a strong mutual culture and identity, subsumed both individuals into it, and come out stronger on the other side. There are liberal marriages, where both spouses do their own thing, occasionally come together for mutually beneficial exchange of affection, and then go back to doing their own thing. There are even social justice marriages, where both partners are obsessed with how they are being oppressed by the other, interpret all discussion of compromise as hostile attempts to excuse the oppression, and have no strategy beyond proclaiming their victimization louder and louder in the hopes that their grievances are recognized.
…I’m making fun of that last one, but maybe they have a good point. Gottman’s marital counseling – and every other kind of marital counseling I’ve read – is basically mistake theoretic. It assumes that two decent people who both want to live with each other are unable to because they don’t have communication skills or problem-solving skills or some other skill that lets them fulfill their mutual aims. That model seems to accurately describe most of my patients. But Ozy’s taxonomy is more thorough, including a category for terrible people:
One or both of you just sucks. This category includes abuse, but it certainly isn’t limited to it. This is the category from which advice columnists get all their pageviews: we love viewing a train wreck. Your partner has had a suicidal crisis every night at 3am for the last month, and you’re up all night comforting them, and they refuse to find anyone else to talk to or ride out their suicidal crisis on their own. Your partner cheats on you constantly. Your baby is eighteen months old and your partner has never changed a single diaper. Your partner has demanded that you keep your relationship secret from everyone. You asked your partner to clean up dog poo from the floor, and it is three days later, and the dog poo is still there. If you have found yourself in a committed relationship with a terrible person, you should DUMP THEM.
In marriage, as in other forms of politics, sometimes exit > voice. Which is probably not something marriage counselors want to think about very much.
I’m a liberal, and my advice usually follows liberal principles. Have meetings involving all stakeholders, agree on general rules based on deep principles, and then follow the rules even when it’s hard, since that ensures a minimum of conflict on specific issues. I tell patients to have a consistent weekly meeting with their spouse, maybe a Saturday date night. During the meeting, each of them has to say one nice thing about the other, and then one problem that they want to work on. The other person thanks them for the nice thing and then they brainstorm a solution to the problem. If they both agree to the solution, they have to stick with it at least until the next relationship meeting. A lot of my patients have said this really helps them, have continued the meetings long after the immediate crisis passes, and probably expect the technique was invented by some clever person like John Gottman. I will never tell them that actually I picked it up from a different ex-girlfriend, not even the one who writes relationship advice columns.
In conclusion, I have no idea what makes marriages work, and I am not convinced John Gottman does either. Sometimes marriages are horrible in ways I never could have imagined, and other times they are amazing and I am infinitely jealous of them. Also, the very existence of a next generation of the human race is dependent on people having them and making them work for nonzero periods of time, which is a pretty terrifying prospect. Honestly I’m surprised we’ve lasted this long.
“Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson is one of the best books I have read. I’m still only half way through it because it can be fairly difficult to read (due to the emotional content, not the writing style), but I’m confident enough in the content so far that I can say that. It describes “EFT”: Emotionally Focused Therapy. I recommend reading this book: not sure whether EFT was one of the alternate methodologies you came across.
Belatedly delurking to address the many people in this thread who have claimed or argued that divorce can be a successful outcome of marriage counseling (more plausible) or of a marriage (entirely untenable), or that marriages that end in divorce are not “failed marriages.”
There are two obvious objections to this view: the needs of children and the nature of a promise.
The children affected by divorce have been brought up below. There appears to be disagreement, surprisingly, about whether divorced parents are associated with negative outcomes for children. This is a question for data, not anecdote. https://slatestarcodex.com/Stuff/divorce_paper.pdf I suspect that well-adjusted children of divorce are likely to come from affluent families, where there are financial and social resources to fill in the gap, and where the social norms among children’s peers and neighborhoods discourage destructive behaviors.
In a stronger argument, several object that not all marriages involve dependent children, and those in which there are no dependent children—especially if the couple has chosen to be deliberately child-free—have no reason to be bound by the expectations and norms developed for couples in other circumstances. Here we run into a philosophical disagreement. Personally, I think that something which has a telos (a purpose for whose sake it exists) should be defined and evaluated in terms of that telos, and that in general when we reason about norms for a class of things we should primarily think about the normal or central case, not the unusual or deficient case. In historical perspective, it’s obvious that marriage was designed for a purpose: ensuring that mothers and children have the support of fathers within stable family structures. However, I’m not optimistic about persuading anyone on this point.
Where I really want to contribute is in thinking about promises. I was talking to a friend about my frustration with this thread, as well as some mutual incomprehension in a conversation about break-ups with another friend, when it suddenly came clear to me—”These people who think divorce is no big deal aren’t moral monsters who want to destroy all that is holy; they just, quite literally, don’t have the concept of a promise. They’re going around using the words ‘promise’ and ‘vow’ when they actually mean ‘contract.’ We’re in the realm of mistake theory, not conflict theory.”
What is a promise, or covenant? It’s like a contract, in that you agree to do something at a future time; it’s unlike a contract, in that it is unconditional and irreversible, and it can be unilateral. That is, in a covenant, even if one person breaks his side of the agreement, the other person is not released from hers. (In cases of abuse, of course, it may be right to dissolve aspects of the marriage bond, like shared housing or combined finances, to protect oneself or one’s children; divorce in these cases may be a tragic best of bad options, but that’s not what most people here seem to be talking about.)
To put the matter in different terms, I see in the arguments that divorce is sometimes a successful end of marriage an ethical framework of consequentialism: if both parties will be happier and better off without the relationship, they should dissolve it. But the very nature of a vow is anti-consequentialist; it binds a person to an obligation regardless of the outcome, or indeed anything else. There’s room in the world for multiple modes of ethical evaluation; for example, I’m not a consequentialist, but I find utilitarian approaches really useful for evaluating certain kinds of problems, like deciding where to spend money allocated for charity. Conversely, surely even consequentialists should be able to admit that there are cases in which law, duty, or virtue should come under consideration in ethical decision-making—and surely if these considerations are appropriate anywhere, they should be in the case in which a person has solemnly and publicly declared, “This relationship is unconditional; I will never again take any costs or consequences, no matter how serious they may be, into account when considering this commitment” (roughly paraphrased).
Making this kind of promise may land someone in tremendous suffering—not just being stuck with someone who has no sympathy with her dreams or won’t do his share of the housework. An example: my mother is mentally ill. She had always been high-functioning until she developed a severe depression six years ago. Right now, in her second major depressive episode, I think that she hasn’t left the house and yard without my father accompanying her for more than a year. She has panic attacks; she gets into anxiety loops; during the worst depression, she refused to shower; basically, not fun to be around. She has resisted treatment and had to be compelled to see the doctor and take pills. If it weren’t for my father, honoring (with his own flaws and failings) his marriage vows, she could easily have ended up homeless.
Vows are a very bad deal for the people who make them: risky benefits, potentially infinite costs, no escape clause. But a society in which people honor their “for-better-or-for-worse” obligations—promises made to spouses, friends, and coreligionists, and the unchosen “for-better-or-for-worse” relationships between parents and children—is a society in which many of our most vulnerable, including those whom it is difficult to like, are taken care of by specific people who know them and have shared history and affection with them, not by faceless institutions or no one at all. Making a marriage vow is an act of outrageous hope—not a couple’s oxytocin-blinded optimism that they, unlike everyone else, will stay in love, but the boldness to stake one’s life on a gamble, determination to pay any cost personally to do what is right for a greater collective, hope for a world in which sacrificial love protects the vulnerable and supports the weak.
It’s also, coming back to less extreme cases, a world in which people have to learn how to get along with each other as they change over the years, make compromises when their interests diverge, forgive each other for sins and debts and minor annoyances; in other words, in which they develop maturity. Living with people bound by an unconditional commitment is a tremendous school of virtue; it disciplines us to develop qualities we really want, like patience, self-mastery, gentleness, generosity. Speaking as an unmarried person, I feel uneasy in my freedom when I think that there’s not a single person I couldn’t distance myself from if they became too much trouble. I am irrevocably bound to my family of origin, of course, but my parents are across the country, so I don’t do much in the way of daily, practical acts of kindness and forbearance. I wonder if it’s possible, even, to become entirely an adult without making vows that place us in this kind of close, unconditional relationship—whether to a spouse or to a communal institution like a monastery. I’m no longer a dependent child, but I don’t have anyone who depends on me; this in-between state feels to me like a prolonged adolescence, drifting among possibilities without setting down the roots necessary for growth in interpersonal virtue.
That was poetry.
Yes, it was well said. But I still feel that I need to push back a little in favour of divorce, no matter how silly (in a non-poetic sort of way) I think I sound when I talk about this sort of thing; after all, I’ve been happily married for 18 years now and have two teenage sons, and I’d never even have met my wife if she hadn’t left her first husband. Nor do I think her first husband, had they not separated, would have been willing or able to care for her when she became unwell some years ago; she’d have been left dependent on her parents or the state healthcare system.
@Telifera, it seems to me that you are conflating the marriage bond with the promise that ceremonially represents it. The marriage bond isn’t really something you can just choose to have or do, it is more like a gift from the universe – or at least that’s how it feels from the inside, so to speak. You can’t just choose to have it, nor can you easily choose to ignore it when you do have it. It isn’t the same thing as being “in love” and it isn’t the same thing as the love you might feel for a parent, sibling, or friend, nor is it quite the same thing as the way you love a child. It’s just .. there. Or it isn’t, as the case may be.
I’m not saying that the promise isn’t important. It may be ceremonial, but ceremony is important. We would be much worse off without it. But the promise represents something that already exists, or perhaps represents a hope for something that might come to exist; it can be a magic feather but it isn’t a magic bullet. By itself, it isn’t enough, and it isn’t the thing it represents – the map is not the territory.
I also concur with chridd’s and Aapje’s comments.
I absolutely agree that what’s really important to guarantee the benefits I’m talking about is not a ceremonial promise, but that which it represents and is meant to reinforce—the actions that fulfill the promise. I think I disagree about the nature of the marriage bond, although I may not understand what you’re saying and of course you, speaking from inside the institution, have a better epistemic vantage than me.
You say that the marriage bond is a gift from the universe, not something you do, and can’t be willed into existence. But bringing home a paycheck and making compromises about how to spend it is something I can choose to do; so is getting up in the middle of the night and changing diapers; so is sexual faithfulness; so is speaking gently even when frustrated; and on and on. If there’s something else in excess of the concrete actions of love, how much does it really matter? Of course I would feel sad and lonely sometimes if I had a spouse who did all the right things externally, but we didn’t feel the affection and friendship for each other that people hope for in marriage. But, crucially, I would be hugely better off in this relationship than if I were trying to raise a baby by myself on a single paycheck. On the individual level, we might hope for the kind of love that’s received as an inexplicable gift; on the social level, it’s vitally important that people “just choose” to do right acts, even if they lack any deeper bond. After all, in historical perspective, most marriages have been pragmatic economic arrangements, but they made the same kinds of vows and performed (or failed to perform) the same kinds of duties to fulfill them. The territory is the acts of love, not its feelings.
I’m sorry, I culpably failed to consider the metaphor I was adopting. Map and territory smuggles in the assumption that the speech-act in question is descriptive. Description does appear to be a common element when secular people write their own “vows” (and in TV weddings? possibly a causal relationship?), narrating the course of their past relationship and hopes about the future. But of course the promise or vow is the paradigmatic instance of a performative speech-act: it doesn’t describe something that already exists, but brings something new into existence, like God saying “Let there be light.” So the better metaphor is that vows are a blueprint and the actions of love the building constructed after its pattern. There can still be an awful mismatch between representation and reality, but the reality consists of things to be created and done, not passively observed.
We’re getting out of my depth, philosophically speaking, but I have a few further comments for what they are worth.
I don’t think I agree that most historical marriages were mere pragmatic economic relationships; I think marriage exists as a reflection of something that is natural to humanity, I suppose instinctive. (Which in itself must serve some pragmatic purpose or it would not have been selected for in human evolution, but evolution’s purposes are not ours; there’s something in the sequences about that, if I remember rightly.)
… granted, marriage has often been perverted into serving political-economic ends, whether that’s forming alliances between kingdoms or ensuring that a family’s wealth remains intact, but I do think that was a perversion and not something representative of the original telos.
Your observation that it is ultimately actions that count is a very good one, and leads me to wonder whether I am typical-minding here. But speaking solely from my own perspective I don’t think that seeking to keep a promise as an ideal of virtue would be sufficient motivation to help keep a marriage functional under pressure. (I have a vague feeling that the thrive-survive spectrum comes in here somewhere, but I can’t quite nail that thought down into a solid form.)
When it comes to society as a whole, I suppose I’m taking a purely consequentialist position, and a personally biased one at that, but it seems to me that the somewhat nebulous-sounding potential benefits of viewing marriage vows as naturally irreversible don’t come close to outweighing the very concrete harms that it would do, and has done in the past. But I do appreciate your perspective.
a part of it, which a lot of men don’t understand, is that there’s a substantial social status benefit to women for being married. And it doesn’t wholly go anyway if the woman divorces. A woman who managed to convince a man to marry her and then for some reason it didn’t work out is viewed more positively than a woman who is perceived to be too ugly or incompetent to get a man to marry her in the first place.
When talking generally, we need to consider all cases, not just common cases; otherwise we end up harming people whose circumstances and goals are unusual or non-central, and such people tend to already be disadvantaged from other people not taking their cases into consideration. Unusual cases exist, and recognizing that they exist is important.
Considering non-central cases is particularly important in the context of marriage counseling, for one because knowing things about marriage is something that seems like it would be an important part of their job, and part of knowing about something is knowing what exceptions various general rules can have and what unusual things are possible; and for another, because I’d expect cases that are atypical in how bad they are, and thus atypcial in how good breaking up is, to be overrepresented in the cases marriage counselors deal with.
This seems like a weird definition of a promise.
Suppose, for instance, that you promised me to take me to the airport on some particular day. If it turns out my flight is canceled, or if something comes up where I can’t go on my trip, I don’t think anyone would think you’re still morally obligated to take me to the airport (at least, assuming there’s enough communication that we both know there’s a change of plans). More generally, I would expect promises to be reversible at the very least if circumstances change or new information becomes available that the beneficiary of the promise no longer benefits from the promise being kept. None of this necessarily has to do with people on the other side holding up their end, and doesn’t even depend on there being another end, so there’s still a difference from a contract.
In the case of marriage, if we look at it as a promise, there will be some cases where both/all parties involved (at least, assuming there aren’t children) say, “I know you promised me these things, but given the circumstances/what I know now, I don’t benefit from what you promised me”; it seems like in those cases there’s no reason not to divorce.
Also, I think promises can be thought of in purely consequentialist terms. Going back to the airport example, breaking the promise has the obvious negative consequence that I don’t get a ride to the airport, but also you making a promise to me has the consequence that I won’t make other arrangements and will be more likely to wait for you if you don’t show up; if you don’t follow through with your promise, that’ll put me in a worse position—have worse consequences—than if you hadn’t made the promise in the first place. That’s why it’s bad to break a promise. There’s also the negative consequence that if enough people break promises, people will stop trusting promises, which prevents the good outcome of people not having to make backup plans. But none of this depends on promises being completely irreversible, just on having more limited circumstances in which a promise can be reversed.
I don’t know that it’s a good assumption that all married people have made this promise. I’d expect the sort of people who think divorce can be a successful outcome of a marriage would make a different, weaker, promise when they get married.
(I’d also consider the promises the people in a couple make when discussing the matter with each other more relevant than the ceremony, if they just use a standard set of vows for the ceremony.)
The thing we really want—the thing I really want, at least—is for people to be able to live good, satisfying lives, and to be able to accomplish their goals, and to be able to avoid suffering when possible. Virtues are just a means to that end. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad, but it means that we need to make sure our means of becoming virtuous don’t end up harming the end goal of people having good lives, and being in a horrible relationship for the rest of one’s life can harm that end goal more directly.
(…I’m also somewhat skeptical of claims that unpleasant things can make people virtuous…)
Chridd, thanks for your reply; you’re right that I overstated my claims about promises in general, and the airport example is really helpful.
On the more philosophical point about normal and unusual examples: there are certainly specific circumstances, or purposes for discussion, that require us to focus on edge cases, but I maintain that when reasoning about the definition, purpose, or norms for a class, or when talking about them. For example, a dog is a four-legged animal. There are plenty of three-legged dogs, even some two-legged dogs, but it doesn’t make sense to define a dog as “an animal that may have anywhere between four and zero legs” or hold that “it is impossible to know anything about the leggedness of dogs.” It’s better for both philosophical and practical purposes, in my view, to hold fast to what we do know and treat the numerous, yet unusual, counterexamples within that frame: a three-legged dog is a four-legged animal that is suffering a privation. Likewise, marriage is a covenant unto death—the extremely numerous counterexamples are deficient or failed marriages.
Marriage counseling, of course, focuses on the edge cases of marriage. It may sometimes find that divorce or separation is the best of bad options. My objection is to the move that mobilizes the existence of exceptions and aberrations to overturn the validity of general definitions. Saying “a marriage can get to the point at which a separation is better for both parties” is like saying “some dogs have three legs”; accurate and occasionally useful as an observation about deficiency or privation, but obtuse and counterproductive if allowed to define the class or used to deny that definition is possible. But of course it’s worse, because talk about marriage participates in its cultural construction and has the potential to affect the reality described. No one, as far as I know, is going around looking for justifications for dog mutilation, but lots of people are looking for excuses to break their promises and leave their spouses. If we understand divorce, abuse, adultery, and the like as defective or failed marriages, we can retain a useful, commonsense definition of marriage that provides conceptual clarity for everyone, a warning to people considering marriage about what they’re getting into, and encouragement and an appropriate sense of shame to help married people stay committed even when going through hard times—which ultimately strengthens protective structures for vulnerable people.
On promises, you’re right that people now have different understandings of what they are promising when they get married. To defend my position, then, I would have to make two distinct arguments: 1) people who intend to make an irrevocable promise, or covenant, are indeed bound by it; 2) people ought to make this kind of promise, rather than a weaker and more conditional one. I don’t think I can completely or persuasively make either argument now, but let me give a less rigorous account to point in the direction I would go.
Is the promise that constitutes marriage indeed irrevocable? You’re right that in the case of casual promises like a ride from the airport, it’s generally possible for the promise to be dissolved, whether because it is impossible to perform, the promised action no longer fulfills its intended purpose in changed circumstances, or one person simply releases the other for her own reasons. The first occasion I admit; it seems that marriage promises do cease to bind under circumstances in which their performance is impossible—for example, a spouse cannot live together with someone who has abandoned him (this does not, however, seem to invalidate other promises, like sexual fidelity, that can still be kept). Regarding the other two, I contend that marriage vows are critically unlike this kind of casual promise because the (typical) intention of the promisers and the terms of the speech-act itself exclude casual release or dissolution due to a change in circumstances.
Everything about marriage—its (historical) legal status, the social expectations surrounding it, the way that it bundles sexual, reproductive, financial, domestic, emotional, etc. considerations together, the public spectacle of vows laden with all the ceremony and solemnity a given culture can muster, and (most importantly) the content of those vows explicitly declaring that the relationship is not conditional on any surrounding circumstances or outcomes and that it will endure until death—seems designed to elevate it to a kind of unbreakable super-promise, a covenant. (In the West, this elaborate apparatus accumulated over time; I think of it as a technology that’s been collaboratively tested and developed.) The seriousness and irrevocability of the promise involved, abundantly signalled by the ceremony and (until recently) the generally understood definition of marriage, excludes the possibility of simply releasing a promiser.
In order to release someone from a promise because the promised action no longer fulfills its purpose, we have to ask, what is the intended purpose of marriage? Intuitively, happiness for its members; but the vows themselves say “for better or for worse,” which includes happiness and unhappiness, excluding this rationale from consideration. I think that getting married, from the perspective of the spouses, means elevating “seeking this particular person’s good and sharing life with him/her as faithful sexual and domestic partners” into a kind of end in itself, valuable not because of any benefits it yields, but for the sake of “virtue” or “being a promise-keeping person.” This might seem like a senseless thing to do, but the people who have done it have willingly cut themselves off from other recourse.
(From the perspective of society, of course, getting people to treat “staying married” as an end in itself serves a phenomenally important purpose: as many children growing up in a stable family with at least two adults taking care of them as possible, to alleviate the suffering of the helpless and raise new generations. Because many people desire sexual novelty, constantly get irritated with the people they live with, are bad at communication and compromise, and excel at excusing and justifying whatever they want to do, the bonds between parents can’t be merely rational and thus constantly open to excuse-and-justification-mongering; they have to be sacred and unquestionable. In a world where marriage is a sacred value, some unhappy childless couples will suffer needlessly from taboos on divorce, but the unhappiness of these adults—who made their own decisions about getting married in the first place—is a reasonable tradeoff for improved welfare of many children.)
People who make a different sort of promise, without this sacred irrevocable quality, which they both understand to be soluble in case of mutual agreement or unilateral unhappiness, are cohabitating and calling it “marriage.” It seems disingenuous for them to make solemn, public vows of faithfulness or call their relationship by a name that implies those vows; they would be extremely unwise for them to have children together if they can help it; the state has no particular interest in recognizing or incentivizing their union, or the wider culture in honoring it, unless doing so would ameliorate the situation for the children such unions will generate. In these cases, confusion about definitions allows free riders to enjoy the benefits of customs and institutions without paying the costs necessary to maintain those institutions, thus drawing down public resources and undermining systems that primarily benefit, once again, vulnerable people who are dependent on others and cannot defend themselves.
On your final points about virtue, it’s funny how much intuitions differ. I would be exaggerating, but I think I’d be closer to the truth, if I said that it’s only possible to develop virtue that you know is virtue—as opposed to generic pleasantness to people who don’t happen to annoy you, or going along with what most other people of your class do as long as it doesn’t inconvenience you—through unpleasant experiences. In the long run it’s probably impossible to disentangle virtue and happiness—would it make sense for me to say that I prefer virtue to happiness because, while acts of virtue often lead an individual person into suffering, a world in which most people prefer being virtuous to being happy will be happier than the reverse?
I don’t know much about three-legged dogs, but in the case of one-legged humans, knowing that “humans have two working legs” isn’t universally true is definitely important when considering norms; norms about things like having elevators and ramps that wheelchairs can go up depend on understanding that unusual cases exist, as does making sure norms requiring people to stand up aren’t applied to cases where people can’t physically stand. That’s the sort of thing that I’m worrying about when I object to making generalizations without considering the exceptions. (Also this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to know the leggedness of humans or anything; just that we should say “humans usually have two legs” rather than “humans have two legs”, etc.)
I think I care more in general about the harm bad norms can do than about free riders (bad norms can cause much more widespread and inescapable damage than anything most individual people can do). “This is sacred and unquestionable” and arguments to tradition are things people can easily use as an excuse to continue doing things that hurt people. Regarding relationships specifically, if I were in a relationship, I’d likely worry more about being stuck in a horrible relationship than I would about my partner leaving me (for various personal reasons specific to me, including the fact that I’m asexual I’m not sure I’d want a relationship in the first place… but it’s possible there are other people who feel the same way for different reasons); and if someone was bad I don’t think I’d want their punishment to be being forced to stay with me.
I wonder if there’s some “All Debates Are Bravery Debates” stuff going on here… like, maybe some people are in communities where people just leaving their partner when they have kids or when major problems come up is a thing that happens a lot, so they think strong anti-divorce norms are justified, and others are in communities where that doesn’t happen so much, but maybe other problems that divorce would solve, like abusive relationships or horrible unfixable messes or major incompatibilities, are more common. (It seems not unlikely that there would be some people who tend to be incompatible with most people and others who tend to be compatible with most people…)
Also, I might be a bit idealistic in saying this, but… it seems like if people leaving marriages that the other person wants them to stay in is common enough to have norms preventing it, maybe that’s a symptom of some deeper problem and we should focus on solving that problem rather than forcing people to stay in marriages they don’t want to stay in? Problem solving, rather than enforcing norms or promises…
…like, if there are people who desire sexual novelty… maybe we should be figuring out how to let people get sexual novelty without harming people who want a committed partner instead of just saying “no, you can’t satisfy this desire”. Or if people tend to irritate each other and have problems with communication… maybe solving these problems would make it so people didn’t want to divorce so much. And norms strongly encouraging monogamy might make these problems worse… if admitting that one wants to be nonmonogamous is acceptable, then people who want nonmonogamy might be able to find others who want nonmonogamy and not end up marrying and then divorcing someone who cares a lot about their partner being committed. Or maybe if incompatible couples were encouraged to divorce early (before they had children or developed old-age–related health problems), that could prevent divorce later when it’s more of a problem.
(…I think my last sentence of my previous comment might have been poorly worded. The point I was trying to make was that the thing I quoted sounded a lot like a sort of tough-love, be mean to people because it helps them learn to deal with things type of attitude. That’s the sort of thing I’m skeptical of, at least when imposed by someone else.)
I think that contract-based marriage can offer the same things you attribute to vows. Arguably, vows are actually the same thing as a contract (implicitly) written in a specific way.
I would argue that the real issue is that many people don’t believe in contracts anymore, but in ‘fairness’ or in ‘win-win.’ If the (implicit) contract says that Bob should do X to the best of their ability and Mary does Y to the best of their ability (where X may be equal to or have a lot of overlap with Y), then Mary doesn’t break the contract if she gets ill and can no longer do Y. Bob is then still obliged to do X, as Mary never violated the contract. Similarly, if circumstances change or if Mary changes so the deal that was agreed becomes less pleasant to Mary, she is then still obliged to do Y, sticking to her end of the deal, as Bob never violated the contract.
IMO, this is what ‘for better or worse’ used to refer to.
I think that many people today no longer believe in this, but believe that they deserve close to the best possible deal that is available at any particular time and/or are only obliged to do things if they aren’t excessively hard or even mutually beneficial. From that point of view, if you start to get really irritated at a trait that your partner always had, you should divorce. If you stop feeling horny for your partner, you can stop having sex with them, even if they still want sex.
This kind of attitude inherently undermines trust, since it greatly increases the chance that your partner won’t hold up their end of the deal, even if you hold up your end and no force majeure strikes your relationship. This lack of trust then undermines the advantages of mutual dependence, as you can’t build on your partner in a high trust way.
Then with society being relatively high trust compared to the past (but still much lower than relationships can achieve), but relationships becoming lower trust than they were, a logical outcome is that people treat relationships as relatively low trust arrangements that you don’t invest too much into, because it can be taken away so easily.
I agree with you that this creates a freedom that is stifling and unsatisfying to many.
You can compare it to capitalism. Capitalism demands personal development and sacrifice, coercing people to learn and to do things for others, but hopefully with a reward in return. However, trust fund babies and people who get welfare typically don’t seem more happy or well-developed for being relatively free from capitalist obligations.
Thanks for this clarifying explanation—it’s interesting to consider that the benefits of vows might also be achievable by a (well-written) contract. I’m inclined to think that, even if a vow and a contract required the same things on the same terms, the vow would be more psychologically effective in establishing a high-trust relationship or contributing to a high-trust society because vowing activates a sense of honor and integrity, often draws on the respect and fear invested in sacred things, and excludes consideration of costs and benefits. As I think through this (see above, reply to chridd), I’m surprised by the extent to which I want people to refuse to think rationally about marriage! If you just do the calculations, greater freedom usually seems like much the better option to maximize one’s own short-term happiness (at least if one is not subject to the chance of becoming pregnant and being stuck with a baby)—and yet high-trust environments and long-term social functionality require lots of people to make decisions against their own self-interest, whether because they’re blinded by affection or because they accept certain words said in a house of worship as sacred and inviolable. A contract doesn’t have the sacral quality that reinforces trust.
There are substantial advantages to a standard contract, rather than a custom contract. For example, it is unrealistic to have people remember that Bob & Mary promised each other this and Jack & Anna promised each other that. People also police both community norms and interpersonal norms, so if these match, you get far stronger enforcement. So the logical result of great tolerance for different vows/contracts is that people also become more tolerant of people violating them.
However, this is independent of whether the promises are vows or contracts. In fact, vows have become far more varied and often less demanding.
Arguably, the ship has sailed and your belief in self-policing shows that you’ve also adopted this modern mindset where you cannot depend on community policing, so the only feasible choice is to find a partner who voluntarily commits to high standards.
However, IMO the very point of traditional marriage was that this is extremely unreliable, especially because the incentives are to promise a lot and then demand that your partner uphold their deal if it becomes imbalanced in favor of you, while not upholding the deal yourself if it becomes imbalanced in favor of your partner.
With urbanization, it’s not like people who act like this tend to punished by a huge reputation hit that makes them unable to do this again to a new partner.
So I would argue that actual contracts are really the only way to enforce it in a society that refuses to have a strong single set of norms. Although the very people that worked hard to destroy a single set of norms will fight the enforcement of such contracts with all their might and they hold the positions of power.
Re: “even at my stage, I feel like in the end we only have five or so techniques”
What are the five techniques?
From my anecdotical experience, to side with your wife against your mother NO MATTER WHAT IS THE MERIT OF THE ARGUMENT is absolutely essential for the fate of your marriage.
How far does this extend. What if your wife doesn’t want to vaccinate the kids, and you feel strongly that they should be vaccinated. Do you have to change positions and agree that the kids shouldn’t be vaccinated the moment your mother chimes in that she also thinks they should be vaccinated?
Substitute a less inflammatory position at your leisure (maybe private school vs. public school, or play sports vs. join mathletes).
You should DEFINITELY not bring your mother’s opinion into an argument between you and your wife. You should alert her that you and your wife are in disagreement about this and her opinion is not even slightly helpful.
That would be probably the stupidest possible way to try win an argument.
I’m not saying you ask for your mother’s opinion. I’m saying what happens if she injects it, invited or not.
People offer all kinds of unsolicited opinions all the time. It’s okay to say, “I hear you,” and then proceed to do whatever you and your partner have decided is best (speaking about how to deal with a parent’s opinion about what you are doing in your own marriage or with your own kids).
We basically teach something like this in our class to expectant mothers. Once you have a baby, everyone will give you their opinion on how you are doing things wrong. You pretty much have to hash it out between you, or at least not object to the other parent’s methods. With other people, not only do you not have to comply (badges aside), you don’t even have to argue!
Sure, but neither of your points address “always side with your wife against your mother”, which at least implies that in the event that your mother does chime in on some topic in favor of your position (against your wife’s) that you are supposed to then reverse course and tell your wife she was right all along so that you can both be united against your mother.
I definitely agree that “tell your mom to but the hell out” is usually correct. I’m not here to advocate for overinvolved/overbearing mother-in-laws. “Always tell your mother to mind her own beeswax if she tries to get involved in decision making/disagreements within your marriage” would be much better advice than “always side with your wife against your mother” which has so many obvious holes in it that it seems borderline worthless.
Loudly and in front of your wife tell her that her opinion is neither welcome nor needed here.
That would be “siding with your wife”.
Then go off and in private tell your wife she’s an idiot to not vaccinate your children and get it done.
This is true of every absolute, of course. Phrasing it as such is a way to communicate the importance of the principle, but all rules in life have exceptions.
Interesting how many people fall over the yielding/accepting influence thing. When I read the book ages ago, that seemed pretty reasonable to me, but I may have been typical-minding more than I thought I was.
In my marriage, I’m more consensus-seeking and my husband is more prone to independent action. That doesn’t mean I’m better than he is, just that whatever we want plays out differently.
When either of us wants to disappear to play video games, he’ll just say ‘I’m off to play video games’, with the unspoken implication of ‘come find me if you need anything,’ while I’ll look for a good moment and then say ‘I’d like to go play some video games; is there anything you need right now?’
When either of us notices the floor needs vacuuming, he’ll just grab the vacuum. I’ll notice he’s doing something that vacuuming is annoying for and check in how long that’s going to take and ask him to let me know when he’s done so I can vacuum.
I tend to facilitate while he tends to challenge, so when he wants or doesn’t want something (even if I don’t care at all or think it’s mildly unreasonable), I’ll go ‘sure, let’s make that happen’, while if I want or don’t want something (even if he’s all in favor but definitely if he doesn’t care at all or think it’s mildly unreasonable), he’ll first pick the whole thing apart and THEN facilitate.
And we’re talking about a good man who is very committed to this relationship. The dynamic does end up getting him what he wants much more than it gets me what I want, and we recently had a big fight about this when I really wanted something for a change, and the compromise ended up not even being worth it to me. He doesn’t WANT to win, but he wins anyway.
Our relationship is pretty decent but would be much better if he ‘shared influence’ a bit more easily. (Or if I learned to just play hardball like he does, except he does it innocently and with no enmity in mind, while I’d only be able to do it with gritted teeth. Not helpful.)
This seemed to be a pretty male-female pattern, but apparently it’s much more a him-me pattern.
Thanks, interesting insight. I wonder if the handsome mid-budget writer-directors with good hair like Noah Baumbach and Alexander Payne form a type?
I’ve exclusively breastfed two babies and I never noticed the amount of milk produced being related to my psychological state whatsoever, so I take issue with Gottmann’s claim that “any” nursing mother can tell you this.
And scientifically it just seems a bit backwards; nursing *releases* oxytocin in the brain, which *helps* you feel relaxed – looks to me like he’s got causation reversed here. It’s not that being relaxed helps you produce more milk; it’s that producing more milk helps you feel more relaxed.
This might be more unique to you than you think, or perhaps you always had plenty of supply. Especially for people who use breast pumps and are struggling to keep up supply, it’s often recommended to sit in a dim room, look at pics or video clips of the baby and even bring worn baby clothes to smell to help trigger the let-down reflex. (Having been one of those people, I definitely noticed a difference.)
Plus: oxytocin nose spray works like a charm – one huff and the milk almost gushes out. If oxytocin production was downstream of lactation, it wouldn’t work like that.
That’s certainly plausible, but being around baby could very well be a trigger for reasons other than relaxation.
In reality there’s probably a complex interplay of psychological factors that effect different women in different measure.
I should add that the male feminist Michael Kimmel supports some of his claims on Gottman. Kimmel was until recently very popular among academic feminists all over the world, because he said just what these feminists wanted to hear a man say. When Gottman claims that to make a marriage last, the man should subject himself to the wife’s influence, then Kimmel goes on to say that there is a very good reason for a man to do as his wife says: the more the man obeys his wife and does what she asks of him, the more sex will he get. Now, in reality Gottman has not demonstrated such a thing. But it is used by Kimmel to make men accept feminists´ demands.
The reality is the opposite. The more the man takes upon him the chores in the household, the LESS sex does he get. That is the result to be read in this paper:
Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines, & Katrina Leupp (2013): Egalitarianism, housework, and sexual frequency in marriage. American sociological review 78(1) 26–50.
Laura Doyle argues that if the wife constantly wants to `help ‘her husband to improve, then it quickly develops into grouse and criticism, which makes the husband defiant and contrary and makes him lose the desire to participate in the household. If, on the other hand, the wife shows respect to the husband and relinquishes to correct him, then the husband’s confidence and warm feelings for the wife will grow. He will want to do things in communion with her and tries to remember what makes her happy.
John Gottman says almost the opposite. In his book, he says that if marriage is to thrive, the man must accept the influence of the woman. He must `share the driver’s seat with her ‘. What goes wrong is that if the wife comes with a slight negative criticism, then the husband reacts against her and escalates the negative mood. The man refuses to listen to what she is saying and to get into her feelings. This means, in Gottman’s opinion, that he refuses to be influenced by the wife’s influence.
Unfortunately, Gottman is respected as a scientific authority, whereas Doyle is just an ordinary housewife. So people tend to believe Gottman and not her. This is a shame, because Gottman poses as a very clever expert, when in fact his postulates are a fraud. He writes that statistically, if a man is unwilling to share his power with his partner, there is a likelihood of 81 % that the marriage will dissolve. First, to cite a figure of 81 % is absurd. NOBODY can predict something like that with such precision. I guess that the precision is made to impress the crowd. Second, it is quite outside the reach of any realistic event that you could predict something like that with an accuracy of more than 80 %. Third, the figure itself is not founded on the type of data that he claims.
It would be nice to know, where does the figure of 81 % originate? Unfortunately, his book, Seven golden rules, does not give any reference to where it comes from. However, by looking elsewhere, one can find an article from the year 2000 where the figure of the 81% risk of divorce occurs (1). But what predicts divorce risk here is quite another thing that concerns both the woman’s and the husband’s behavior, and e.g. is about whether they say “I” or “we”. There is also another article, from 1998, which states that couples therapy must shift the balance of power towards the greater acceptance of the woman’s influence (2). Here, the figure does not appear to be 81%, but it does appear that the stability of marriage depends strongly on whether the husband rejects the influence of his wife. What is actually registered, however, is something else. What is recorded is the tendency that if the wife makes an angry remark, then the husband reacts with even more acidity and escalates the negative mood. It is no wonder that such a tendency contributes to marriage not lasting. But this is something else than the man rejecting the wife’s influence. All in all, there is no evidence at all of what Gottman repeatedly emphasizes.
On the whole, there are many things to criticize in Gottman’s article from 1998, and this has led to extensive disputes (3). Among other things. some colleagues have submitted a lengthy letter to the same journal in which they have reviewed a lot of criticisms of his article (4). One of these criticisms is precisely that what Gottman has measured, is not the husband’s willingness to accept the wife’s influence, but rather something else. Gottman and colleagues respond (5) that they do not accept any of the criticisms of their article.
As for the question of accepting influence, they defend themselves in this way: A study has also been made of relationships where the man is violent. In these relationships, any criticism on the part of the wife leads to a violent escalation of aggression on the part of the husband, at the same time as the man is physiologically quite calm and not excited. That is, the aggressiveness is not due to the man getting angry, but rather to his cynically holding the wife down. Another employee has examined the balance of power in these matters more closely, and concluded that this is a power struggle in which this is the man’s means of intimidating the wife. Then Gottman and co-workers perform the same balance of power analysis on their non-violent marriage material, and here they find the exact same pattern – the man behaves in the same way. Therefore, they conclude that the husband in these marriages deliberately holds the wife down and denies her influence. That is, by transferring experiences of chronically abusive men to all men, they come to the conclusion that if the husband becomes angry with the wife’s criticism and responds negatively, then it is in fact a cynical attempt on the part of the husband to keep the wife down and deny her influence. In Gottman’s interpretation, the husband denies the wife influence. This is a rather dubious interpretation.
The reality is that Gottman has not at all measured the extent to which the man accepts the wife’s influence, and therefore has no basis at all for the claim he emphasizes so strongly.
(1) Sybil Carrere, Kim T. Buehlman, John M. Gottman, James A. Coan & Lionel Ruckstuhl (2000): Predicting marital stability and divorce in newlywed couples. Journal of family psychology 14: 42-58.
(2) John M. Gottman, James Coan, Sybil Carrere & Catherine Swanson (1998): Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of marriage and the family 60: 5-22.
(3) McArthur Hafen Jr. & D. Russell Crane (2003): When marital interaction and intervention researchers arrive at different points of view: the active listening controversy. Journal of family therapy 25: 4-14.
(4) Scott M. Stanley, Thomas N. Bradbury & Howard J. Markman (2000): Structural flaws in the bridge from basic research on marriage to interventions for couples. Journal of marriage and the family 62 (1): 256-264.
(5) John Gottman, Sybil Carrere, Catherine Swanson & James A. Coan (2000): Reply to “From basic research to interventions”. Journal of marriage and the family 62 (1): 265-273.
Sadly, Gottmann is a deceiver. He has a feeling for what people want to hear him say, and then he says just that. By doing so, he manages to earn a lot of money to his institute. When he makes impressive claims about what proportion of events he can predict, he does that to impress the crowd. He has been called out by peers in his profession on the non-reliability of his figures, but he ignores the criticism. He has been in public dispute with Laura Doyle about the principles based on her book “The surrendered wife”. Doyle´s principles do work, as far as I can judge. But they go against what Gottman says, and so he has subjected her to scathing criticism, even though he lies and she speaks more-or-less the truth. I will give som more details in the next posting.
No, you’re not being harsh enough. Obviously the significant (non-preregistered) quadratic result was p-hacked.
I’m so sorry, Scott Alexander. This post makes me want to give you a hug. There’s such a tired hopelessness in the lines.
When deciding whether to get married, my now-husband and I discussed all the worst-case scenarios. I fully expected marriage to be the most difficult thing I’d ever done, and I half expected to regret it thoroughly. In the end, we decided that even if marriage was a horrible thorny path full of agony and regret, we’d rather do it together than alone. It’s the biggest gamble of our lives, but here we go and we’ll make the best of whatever happens. Someone once told me that was a rather stoic attitude to take, but my husband reminded me that it was written right there in the marriage vows: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… You stand up before everyone to say loud and clear that you don’t know how this will go, but the two of you are in it together.
I think the idea of finding the right person is mainly important when you’re distinguishing between a horrible abusive monster and an ordinary Joe. After that, I think it’s more about being the right person yourself. In your deepest heart, you know whether you’re really being loving or selfish.
Marriage is tough, beautiful, powerful, demanding, and rewarding. It’s difficult, yes–but so is being single. Chin up, Scott Alexander: you will find a suitable partner. You will make ten thousand mistakes and so will she. You will forgive each other and build your own cozy little culture. And when people come to you for marriage counselling you will be able to look them in the eye and say, “It’s very difficult, but it’s worth doing. Let’s figure out how to make it happen.”
My scientifically validated experience is that we should NEVER mistake WHAT works in real life for WHY it works. Moreso it’s critical to make sure you only accept the specific “What Works” part and more or less ignore the supposed “Why”…
The things that work do so because they work.
And the corrolary to this is that just because it works for a professional doesn’t mean it will work for anybody…
But it’s not good enough for us to just accept that a thing works in the hands of a professional – we The Consumers want a proper credentials hanging on the wall and scientific sounding mental model to correspond to something..
But the truth of it is that none of this Explanation actually matters. The Marriage Counselor or Plumber can believe in all sorts of superstition, incantation, and fairy dust…. But so long as they accomplish the right things – The professional accomplishes the intended results. The fellow is paid to accomplish the task at hand – and doing that hard work is what we pay professionals to do.
And so I would expect that same thing here – Gottman’s things that work do work…. But like everything else – it’s not magic that works in a vacuum devoid of professional experience….
When I was a kid and would view these adult marital dramas I would think to myself “hey, why can’t they just act reasonably?” Looking back on it now it’s possible I was just a kid and that there was something about the situation I was not understanding. Maybe there’s still something I’m not understanding, I’ve never been married. Yet there’s still this nagging question in my mind, “does this problem need to exist?”
Throughout human history a common pattern was the clan war. Montagues and Capulets, Hatfields and McCoys, ect. If you were to time travel to one of these societies and tell them that in the future these would not exist, that there would still be individual acts of violence but that they wouldn’t lead to extended families going to war, you’d be laughed at as a head-in-the-clouds intellectual. And yet look what happened.
One of the ways we got rid of clan war was by formalized codes of law. We drew a line and said “these actions justify a violent response and these actions do not.” Thus society responds violently when you steal something or set something or fire; it doesn’t respond violently when you call somebody a son of a whore. You still have disagreements on whodunit, you don’t have a lot of disagreements on whether “it” was or was not a crime, particularly when you’re talking about the everyday world rather than, say, law on corporate mergers. Thus if there’s a dispute between two members of two families it’s much easier to objectively answer “who started it” and pressure the party that did start it to stop.
Can we try something similar for marriage? Imagine a world is which there’s still conflict over whether someone is doing something, are you cheating or not, but not much conflict over the question “is this behavior acceptable or not?” It’s true you can’t formulate a rule for every possible subject of fighting. But when you hear about these fights, it’s often the same ~20 subjects over and over and over again. Consider:
Haven’t we all heard this before? It doesn’t need to be a one-size fits all rulebook. People disagree on values. So you get marriage counselors and you have them come up with 150 of the most common causes of fighting. You present these as a ‘test’ to a couple considering marriage, the questions being of the form “is this a reasonable thing to demand of your spouse?” The two will fill them out, compare answers and if there is disagreement will reach a collective decision for later reference.
Why don’t people do this? One reason is the human tendency to push difficult decisions into the future. If you’re looking to get married you aren’t going to be confronted with arguments about child-rearing for some time. So you leave those arguments to future you to deal with. Another reason is because doing this would be a negative signal. Our culture tells people that if they fear their marriages will fail then this fear will cause them to fail. It’s one of the reason marriages in our culture so often fail. Imagine applying this belief to academics or business success. People wouldn’t worry, they wouldn’t take precautions. Finally I think for a lot of people fighting is often used as an end in itself. You start a fight to see if you can get your partner to give something up, in order to see if they really care about you. These people will say my proposal is treating people as if they were robots. I’m ignoring in the human side of it…
Pre-Cana counseling in the Catholic church does much of what you’re describing. Maybe there’s someone on here who has gone through that to say whether they think it helped them avert conflict. The Quakers have a marriage clearness committee process. I gather research on the efficacy of this kind of faith-based premarital counseling is difficult because of selection bias.
Why don’t we? Because we do whatever is easiest given our current reality.
So for example – when marriage was required for social status and VERY difficult to get out of – there were a LOT more “Social” coping mechanisms baked in…. Say for example – many of us had “Old” relatives where the Husband and Wife slept in different rooms, had completely different friends, clubs, and mostly lived independent lives including having lovers – yet they did the “Family” thing when socially required (visiting other family, going to church, etc.). As kids – we never recognized that for what it actually was until we got older and married… It was how they coped with staying “Married” when perhaps things weren’t really going all that well..
Now – society tells us that we ought to be narcissistic and do whatever seems right this instant.. So divorce has become the popular option… I think if most people could honestly and soberly tally the *Actual* financial and family-destruction cost of divorce – they would just stay “Married” and live semi-independent lives
The Hatfield/McCoy feud is mostly mythical. There was an election day fight at which three members of one family badly injured one member of the other. The latter’s relatives seized the three, waited to see if their relative would die. He did, so they executed the three.
Five years passed. At that point, the new governor of Kentucky, who was a friend of someone sympathetic to the McCoys, sent a posse into West Virginia, without permission from its government, to arrest Selkirk McCoy, considered a Hatfield supporter — the families were much less distinct than usually imagined.
That set off some more violence, in which a group of Hatfield supporters killed two McCoys. All killing after that was done by members of either a Kentucky or a West Virginia posse. Most of the people involved were neither Hatfields nor McCoys.
In summary, the feud had ended, with one person killed on one side and the three responsible killed on the other, until it was revived by the state government of Kentucky, and most of the killing thereafter, although not all, was done by people acting on behalf of one or the other state governments. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which held that the Kentucky raid had been illegal but that there was no recourse — once people had been kidnapped from West Virginia to Kentucky, the Kentucky courts could try them.
I know less about the Capulets and the Montagues, but I believe their conflict was part of the Guelph/Ghibbilene conflict, basically between supporters of the Pope and those of the Emperor, but more complicated than that.
FWIW, I am married and think this all the time about other people’s problems.
Don’t worry, I’m pretty good at keeping my opinions to myself, present medium excluded.
Typo: “let along” -> “let alone”
This is technically true, but extremely misleading. The Soviet Union basically abolished the entirety of the old Tsarist legal system and created a new one from scratch. The supposed repeal of the prohibitions on divorce and homosexuality were mere oversights, not intentional policy decisions. No one in power at the time actively sought to promote promiscuity, divorce, or homosexuality, nor was there much popular support for those things; both the general public and the ruling Communist Party elite were vehemently opposed to such behaviors. And while it’s true that the USSR as a whole didn’t go back to the Tsarist positions on divorce and homosexuality until the Stalin era, that had more to do with the fact that the early Soviets took more of a “states’ rights” approach and tried to avoid having the federal government micromanage its member republics. It’s telling that most of the individual republics that comprised the USSR made it hard to divorce again and re-criminalized homosexuality almost immediately after the Soviet Union’s establishment.
As for the broader thesis that leftists tend to be more supportive of sexual freedom, it really depends who and what you define as “leftist.” And in any case, I’m hard pressed to find a definition of “left-wing” where that thesis wouldn’t either be provably false, or true but only tautologically so.
I liked the post, but found the ending missing something, maybe my problem with the post is a more general problem with couples counseling. The observation that some relationships aren’t meant to be, and that sometimes the best option is to end the relationship is important, and kind of obvious in retrospect. However I think ending the post with that fails to account for another cliche that a relationship doesn’t end when the relationship ends. Often times people will have to continue interacting with their ex’s and some of those times these couples will get back together. If these relationships workout we can call the end of the first relationship a success, but often times the new relationship is just as bad as the old one which suggests that the end of the first relationship was not a success. In another post (Looked for it, but couldn’t find it maybe radicalizing the romanceless?) you mentioned a friend who would constantly go out with terrible people, and at some point admitted that they knew this was the case, but couldn’t help it. The end of these relationships are not successful, because your friend would repeat the same mistakes (choosing the same type of person) over and over. So it’s not enough to simply correctly recommend ending the relationship, since afterwards the now separate couple needs advice more than ever. For the end of the relationship to be successful both parties need to have learned something from the relationship. At the very least they need a post mortem.
When I think about things that go wrong in relationships, it seems like there are three sources of trouble — the level of skill/coping capacity of each individual, the way those and other individual ingredients play out between the two people, and the shared level of experience in the partnership to navigate relationship challenges.
1. What the individual struggles with: So a person with a lot of trauma may bring mistrust, fear, anger, impulsive coping, or other things that can create challenges in a relationship. A person with anxiety or depression or substance abuse or a terrible stressful job can bring challenges to a relationship. Often those issues need to be addressed at the level of the individual, even if it may also involve the partner sometimes.
2. Differences between the individuals: There are problems that are sort of an emergent property of the combination of the two people — different communication styles, temperaments, values, priorities and so on.
3. Relationship skills: Most of us don’t come to relationships with really good skills for navigating difficult conversations — for being aware of and communicating feelings, seeing and taking responsibility for what’s our part, knowing how to listen well, etc. Those skills mostly have to be learned on the fly while simultaneously building a life with someone and navigating the rest of life (and sometimes also raising children). Hopefully a person learns some of those in the first few committed relationships and those skills improve but often it takes the safety of a really solid relationship to get to practice those skills well and many of us didn’t get that in the first few relationships that were more turbulent and ended.
The first and third pieces of work here, in my mind, are work that any person needs to do regardless of what relationship they’re in, regardless of whether the relationship in front of them needs to end. The second piece of work belongs mainly to the current relationship one is in and may not manifest at all the same way in a different relationship. Though even then, some of the experience in that second arena — of grappling with differences in needs, styles, values, etc between you and another person — applies generally to the next relationship because there will be different differences there, even if hopefully ones that are more workable.
When I work with people around their relationships I’m often helping them identify their needs/goals in all three areas. For people who want to make sure they’ve tried their best to make a relationship work before ending it, they work very hard to see how much progress can be made in the first and third areas before deciding that the differences in the second area are just too big to ever be workable over the long haul.
A lot of this work can happen without couple’s therapy, can happen with one or both people in individual therapy, or can happen with no therapy if people are disciplined and willing to work on their own and together at it. I know a lot of couples who have had good success with Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want books or with the non-violent communication resources. It takes two fairly healthy, motivated, and organized individuals to pull off that work without any outside help, but it’s totally do-able.
Couple’s therapy often becomes necessary because the individuals in the partnership aren’t doing learning in any of three areas above and so of course their attempts at communication make things messier rather than better. And when stressors come along, the system breaks down even more. And the individuals’ coping repertoire entails turning away from each other and avoiding the conflict because they have no sense of how to get out of the mess they’re in and it feels overwhelming.
This is quite a good taxonomy! I think the third category is more a solution (or lack thereof) to the second problem than it is a problem of it’s own, though I can see why you would list it separately — a lack of solution is a problem. One could imagine a platonic relationship where both parties have no personal problems, and have perfectly compatible personalities and interests where no relationship skills are formed since no problems ever come up. Relationship skills make you more compatible with people who are not so similar to you. With that in mind I think there is another way you can work on problem number two, Introspection. I think learning more about your own personality can help you better predict which potential partners you are more likely to get along with.
All of the problems you identified can be applied to non-romantic relationships just as much as romantic relationships, and when considering potential partners, context matters. Your personality might mesh very well with another in a romantic context, but fail completely in a business context. Being able to predict this is a skill you can work on just like the other two problems.
Addendum: I wanted to add a brick laying metaphor, but I didn’t have confidence in my writing ability to integrate it to the original response so I’ll add it here. Sorry if It’s way to cliche. The context of your relationship makes up the structure you are trying to build, you and your partner make up the bricks of the structure. Your personality, and struggles make up the composition and shape of your brick. Your interaction corresponds to the how your bricks fit together — Notice that depending upon how you orient your bricks they can fit better or worse. Also notice that some shapes don’t self tessellate (you can’t build a house of just circular bricks). And your relationship skills correspond to mortar that can help smooth over differences in your personality.
I like your brick laying metaphor!
From my perspective, the arena of skills that I refer to in number 3 are not just for when there are problems but rather how one takes care of a relationship, just like how brushing one’s teeth is how one takes care of one’s teeth. It sounds like you’re thinking of these skills more like the dentist who has to be sought out to fill a cavity when the teeth aren’t brushed.
I believe there’s a whole arena of skills that most of us come into adulthood lacking but that are essential for mental well-being and having healthy relationships of all kinds. These include the self-introspection skills you mention, as well as active listening, clear communicating, calm self-assertion and healthy boundary-setting, naming and tending to one’s own feelings, not mistaking thoughts for reality, healthy self-soothing, non-avoidance, and so on. So for me, this stuff is foundational, not something you turn to after other things haven’t worked.
I also believe that no two people are perfectly compatible, that some amount of conflict is unavoidable, and that life stressors will strain a very strong relationship even when people are very compatible. Life is hard, we need tools.
I think we are in agreement, but I am identifying problem more broadly. I was interpreting any mild disagreement as a problem, where as (if I am understanding you correctly) you are identifying a problem as something more severe. So I agree that any successful relationship that exists outside of our imagination will necessarily have relationship skills. Whether or not a non-existent imaginary perfect relationship requires these skills is probably enough of a counterfactual to make it a moot point for further discussion.
I really like your list of relationship skills. I’ll have to keep those in my back pocket to think about in my day to day. Can you elaborate on healthy boundary setting? I find that I for the most part make an effort with the other listed skills maybe without having previously explicitly named the skills, though I can’t recall a time I intentionally set a boundary with those close to me. I’m sure this skill is more culturally specific than the other skills listed, but I’m curious as to what you would consider healthy and unhealthy boundaries to be.
I suspect all relationship skills and ideas about them are pretty culturally bound and I can see how maybe the “healthy boundary setting” one might be especially so. I try as much as possible in my own work with people to let go of my pre-conceived notions of what I think is “healthy” for me and to hear from them where they are getting stuck and where they want to go.
So the way “boundary problem” might show up is a client who says “I’m upset because my partner keeps eating sugar even though sugar is a risk factor for diabetes and I don’t think they should be eating sugar and I’ve talked to them about that and they just won’t listen to me” and so on.
So here’s a person who is voicing anxiety and having relationship conflict because their partner won’t change a specific behavior that they have decided they need their partner to change. They are suffering because their repeated attempts to control their partner’s behavior are not working.
We most of us live some of the time in a semi-delusion that we have more control over other people’s behavior or over outcomes generally than we do and it can cause us a lot of anxiety and lead us to be controlling over other people. And that can cause conflict in a relationship.
So it’s not for me to say necessarily, “you’ve gotta stop insisting that your partner change their behavior; that’s not appropriate,” or whatever. It’s more to examine with them how their current set of expectations is working for them and to assess how much control they really have in various situations based on their experience.
In my own mind, in my own relationship, when I engage in those kinds of controlling patterns, I think of myself as having a boundary problem in that I think the solution to my anxiety is to control my partner’s behavior. There are obviously no generic rules about this because for some person eating sugar may be life-threatening and for another person it’s a matter of a mildly less optimal diet, so I’m talking here more about the latter case than the former.
There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I’ll stop there, thinking that gives you a general idea of what I think about when I think about boundaries in a relationship.
I’m a psychologist (Australia) and I never hesitate to counsel someone that divorce is a better option than staying unhappily married if that’s the case. This notion that the “success” of marriage/couples counselling is tied to the proportion of couples who stay together is absurd.
I’m also relatively recently (18 months ago) divorced. My ex-wife and I are both much happier people now, and better (separate) parents to our daughter than we were when we were living together.
I have a question about this that perhaps someone can help me understand.
It seems that Gottman has identified certain measured factors that are associated with ‘marital stability’.
I agree with the objection that his claims are not predictive and do not seem to have been applied to a predictive context.
Nevertheless it seems that certain factors are more correlated with marital stability than not. Is this not interesting? Does this not urge us to look at those factors and dedicate ourselves and others toward improving our relationship(s) along those factors?
I’m asking this because Gottman’s principles are often used as training materials in my workplace, separate from a marital or romantic context, and rather is used for framing our culture and community in the workplace. I’m wanting to be clear on the implications of his work to make sure we’re informed.
Someone observes that ‘people who are X don’t divorce’.
X can be ‘liking each other’.
Then someone else comes along and notices this has no predictive power.
Let’s actually unpack that and translate it to ‘people who like each other aren’t less likely to divorce than people who don’t like each other’.
Then someone else comes along and notices ‘methods based on the principle [get people to like each other] work less well than these two other therapy forms’.
Let’s actually unpack that and translate it to ‘getting people to like each other is a waste of your time, when you could be spending it on other things.’
I come away from all this thinking his work has no meaningful implications, beyond being a ‘nice story that is fun to read and talk about.’
Yep. I imagine this can be a result of two mistakes:
Failing to notice the counter-examples; e.g. you notice that the couple that stayed together for 50 years are really nice to each other, but forget about that other couple that was also really nice to each other for a long time… until they suddenly stopped being nice and divorced.
Reverting the causality; e.g. “liking each other a lot” can be a consequence of both partners being healthy, sane, and sufficiently rich to avoid the kinds of conflicts that happen as a consequence of poverty. Deciding to smile at your partner more often or reminding yourself of their nice traits won’t fix any of these problems in your relationship.
In better case, using Gottman’s principles at a workplace is a result of uncritically believing in them. In worse case, it is some kind of manipulation… something like blaming all bad outcomes on people who didn’t follow the principles properly.
Hm, thanks. I think that I understand a little better now.
It would be useful for me to have a better understanding of explanatory models (postdiction) and prediction. I’ll be looking for resources…
While I agree that conservatives are more likely to restrict sexual activity to the prevailing form of marriage in their culture, I don’t see that the discussion of exogamy vs endogamy follows. I can readily think of examples of conservative societies practicing exogamy. Nouvelle France (which had a structure that was basically feudal) had the Filles du Roi (orphan—iirc—girls sent across the Atlantic when they reached marriageable age to help even out the gender imbalance in the colony). In parts of India, exogamy is common—even with arranged marriages—which lends significance to the holiday of Raksha Bandhan, as a woman would want to be sure her brother would continue to look out for her safety even after she’s moved away from her home village.
I haven’t read Reich’s book or studied the topic much first hand. What I know about marriage traditions in India comes from my girlfriend (it’s her cultural background). She said that they make strong efforts to avoid marrying cousins (in contrast to e.g. Pakistan where cousin-marriage is a deliberate approach). Looking on Wikipedia just now, it appears that the concept of Gotra is relevant here. Also, in traditional arranged marriages the bride and groom might never have met before the wedding, implying some degree of separation of their kin circles. I’ll take your word for it that marriages were normally within the same jati, but my understanding is that they would have typically been outside the clan and village.
Scott, several thoughts:
1) Your last statement is incorrect. American nuclear-family marriage is not very traditional, and thus the human race doesn’t depend on it. For example, my friend from Cameroon described how her grandmother got tired of dealing with her grandfather, so she told him to get a second wife, and they stayed contentedly married, and this was perfectly normal and no big deal.
2) You said that people in a bad marriage must have loved each other at one time. No. The most we can say is that getting married seemed like a better option than the alternative. Maybe they were attracted for an unhealthy reason. Maybe the alternative to marriage was to be a single mother. Maybe their families arranged the marriage.
3) I’m hearing an assumption in this whole marriage-counseling discussion that there will be a “one size fits all” solution. Maybe there are several fundamentally different reasons why marriages go bad, and different counseling techniques are required.
4) In a field with no answers, maybe don’t start with hypotheses to check, like “Gottman’s marriage counseling practice is better than placebo.” Maybe start with some natural-history type data gathering.
For example, case studies. Ask a wide range of people, “Has your marriage ever been majorly improved by a marriage counselor?” and “Has your marriage ever been made worse by a marriage counselor?” If they say yes to either one, write up a case study that includes the presenting problem, the interventions used, and the outcome – but maybe not the theory behind the interventions. If possible, talk to the counselor and get their side of the what-happened story.
When you have 100 case studies, share them with a small diverse group of curious people and meet once a week to talk about them for six months. At that point, you might possibly be ready to form and test useful hypotheses.
5) I see an assumption that the point of marriage counseling is to save marriages. Question that. I once gave someone really effective counseling when she was about to break up with her boyfriend. She stayed three extra years. In hindsight, she should have left him when she first wanted to. As Snape says in HPMOR, before you give someone wise advice, be very certain that you have all the context.
Scott, Scott, you know three? Pretty please, do tell!
(here should come a link to that blogpost about therapy and how the techniques are “could you say more about it” and “silence”, but i can’t find it sadly)
Oh, but i think he was trying to say there what’s HIS fault in the process…
(that’s bitter on my part, but also partly true)
Ozy’s description sounds eerily the same Gottmann would call ‘not liking each other’…
Yes, you could. It happens when your dreams, promises, expectations are disregarded for years, but not every time.
I honestly thought you’re just seriously and candidly describing the soul-sucking one.
Was that her original invention? Because i suggested that to my SO 4 months ago (and they refused, yes, it’s kind of the soul-sucking one), and… did I come up with it myself?
I think we need to distinguish between conflicting preferences/desires and disagreements about matters of fact. I’m willing to concede a great deal to satisfy the preferences of someone I care about, but I could never be with someone who required me to assert that two plus two was five. Bring on the rats.
Maybe I have a wildly optimistic view of relationships, but this ‘yielding as often as possible’ advice doesn’t make sense to me. If we can condition on ‘liking your partner,’ surely we can go a step further and condition on ‘caring if they’re happy.’ Like, I mechanically cannot enjoy *anything* if my girlfriend is unhappy. And vice versa. And we more or less value each other’s happiness as much as our own. So what works is to just…speak as clearly as possible in ways the other understands about what we want and why, and then go with whoever’s preferences are stronger, yes even if that creates an imbalance in the long run. I do have some older coworkers who love their wives and believe strongly the answer to any conflict is ‘yes honey I just didn’t think about it hard enough’ and swear by it.
Responding to some sentiments I’ve noticed in other comments, which can be summarized as “success for some marriages is to just end them”:
I think in the case of marriages where there’s clear abuse, this sentiment is probably always correct. Maybe also chronic infidelity, to whatever extent the latter happens independently of the former.
But as someone who from age 6 onward grew up effectively without a dad because of my parents’ divorce (after which I saw my dad less than once every few years and talked to him on the phone once every few months at most), I am reluctant to support the aforementioned sentiment as whole-heartedly as many others here seem to.
In the short-term after the divorce it was nice not having to witness my parents scream at each other or throw each other around the room on a weekly basis, but in the medium-term I grew resentful of my father, and in the long-term I realized I had been set back a lot by not having a stable father figure around during my formative years.
Being a kid it was also difficult for me when my mom would bring home boyfriends, or when I found out my dad had remarried. I think it might have wrecked something in me that other kids with married parents had intact, though I can’t name what it is.
By ending their marriage both my parents experienced the severe loneliness and uncertainty of being single in middle age. (The woman my dad remarried to left him amicably after a few years.) Maybe that’s not as bad as the loneliness and uncertainty of a turbulent marriage, but I don’t know.
I know I shouldn’t discount the suffering of my parents when they were together and unhappy, but they’re also adults who could have figured how to deal with or at least tolerate their situation. They could have gotten help. They could have tried to make things better. Instead they chose to do what many commenters here apparently think is the best course of action in certain marriages. So while my parents were adults and could make that decision, my brothers and I were just small kids, and our parents’ divorce was something they did to us.
I’m sorry, that sucks. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, but just to be clear: I didn’t write that for pity points. I wrote it to make the case that it might be better to keep a marriage together even if it seems like ending it is the most “successful” option, because I think divorce hurts kids more than is being taken into account.
I agree that divorce often hurts kids a lot and in ways that we don’t yet fully account for. What follows is just me thinking about this same question in light of my own experience. None of it is to contradict any part of your experience.
It seems to me divorce is really half a dozen different things and the harm to children may hinge more on how all of those things are handled than on the fact of the divorce.
There’s the physical separation when parents move to separate living quarters; there’s the task of co-parenting and how well that’s negotiated; there’s whether kids get used as pawns because the parents have bad emotional boundaries; there’s how well the parents show up for for their kids’ needs despite the stress of adjusting to divorce; there’s how well the parents manage their own lives in the wake of divorce (economically, interpersonally, etc); and there’s often some economic/logistical fallout that can affect kids. Probably more things I’m not thinking of.
My parents divorced when I was young and my dad did minimal parenting after that, and all the parenting he did do was very destructive. That wasn’t a product of the divorce but of his own impairment which was part of what precipitated the divorce. In my case, it was a good thing he was less involved in my life, and the divorce spared me even greater harm that my older siblings were not spared.
My husband divorced when his child was the same age as I was when my parents divorced. Both parents showed up for parenting and both parents managed their own issues pretty well; could have been better, but it wasn’t awful. This child of divorce (now a grown person) shows far fewer let’s call them “attachment injuries” than I did.
I have a friend who told me as I was joining with this divorcing partner that she was grateful her mother divorced because she felt like it modeled for her a grownup who could navigate difficult change and who turned into a person who was much happier than she’d been before. My friend felt that she benefited more from being raised by a mom who was happy than one who was miserable. I feel this about my situation as well, though perhaps not as strongly — and that’s mainly because of the loneliness I associated with my mom even though she was awesome in many ways. I don’t attribute that loneliness to the divorce but to her own difficulty with emotional intimacy generally. So like my dad’s issues, my mom’s issues were really about her and not the divorce.
I haven’t looked at the divorce impact on kids research in a while but my memory is that it includes nuance in terms of what custody arrangements, gender and age of the kid, whether there were siblings or other protective factors, etc. It seems to me it would also be helpful to look at outcomes in terms of the multiple things that need to go right or that can go wrong when parents divorce and to be clear what we’re comparing that to — which harms would have occurred anyway (parents with issues) or were just substitutions of a different harm (absent father vs present, abusive father, in my case, for instance).
A lot of my psychotherapy practice is with young adults and I would say it’s about evenly divided between children of divorce and children whose parents are still married. The childhood experiences that people register as adversity (from just bad to traumatic) seem equally distributed between divorce and still-married families. I think of the list of parent-induced stressors — sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, intense criticism, substance abuse, criminality/legal system problems, etc — those things register for my patients more than the fact of divorce or not. Some of those traumas happened because divorce didn’t happen when it was actively considered.
The absence of a parent leaves its own injury, different from the one that the presence of an unhealthy parent leaves. It would be hard to make a general statement I think between whether a kid is better off with the legacy of a parent’s absence or the legacy of their presence if the parent is a crappy parent (as my father was). I do wonder about my older siblings whether they would be more functional as people now if they’d had absence rather than harmful presence.
So the message I take away is that some divorce is inevitable and that the task is to improve all the parts around it so kids weather the change well, rather than that people ought to stay in unhealthy marriages for the kids. I have doubts about whether there’s a real “for the kids” benefit to be had once the parents have decided that they absolutely don’t want to be married to each other.
The only situation I’ve seen where staying together for the kids worked is one where the parents moved into separate rooms and became friendly roommates, but then that situation was so amicable I’m not sure a significant amount of harm was prevented because all the other good ingredients were going to be there whether the parents lived down the street from each other (as they did some years later) or in the same house.
My sense is the parents who could stay together well “for the kids” are the same parents who could manage a divorce and all its consequences well; and conversely, that the parents whose staying together would be destructive to kids in various ways would also do a fair amount of harm to them through divorce. So the bigger factor in my mind isn’t divorce but how skillful are the parents at managing whatever they manage and what can any of the rest of us do to help parents manage better.
I seem to always have a subset of patients who wrestle with the sense that their parents, still together, are “living a lie” in the sense that they don’t appear to like or respect each other. I have seen this cause a lot of distress and complication for young adults who are working to build their own economic and relationship foundations and find the unhealthy model presented by their parents to be complicating for them. These kids fervently wish their parents had gotten divorced and still as adults actively wish for that. I’m not advocating for that outcome, I’m just noticing that’s an experience I see too.
In the same way it seems your experience leads you to want parents to maybe stay together more, I think my experience leads me to want grownups to have to get some better skills on board before they’re allowed to become parents. I know that’s a hugely loaded thing to say and I’m not arguing for any policy around that. It’s just where my emotional reaction leads me. Both the Catholic church and the Quakers have prenuptial counseling and that seems a good thing and I wish it happened more widely.
I really wish I had the time to write up a better pitch for this but I don’t. I’m studying to be a therapist currently and have a resource that I think is utterly brilliant and provides precisely the kind of theory you’re looking for.
Several years ago I attended a CFAR workshop ran by Anna, Critch, Kenzie and some others. They themselves had just finished attending a workshop run by The Arbinger Institute. An organization that publishes books, does hr consulting, trains life-coaches/therapists, and conducts peace summits between Palestinian and Israeli leaders in the middle east. Their theories are based off the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, Kierkegaard, and their founder a professional philosopher named Terry Warner. A book by Warner is one of the only non-science based books recommended on CFAR’s website where they review it as, “An interesting take on how reinforcing patterns of self-deception disrupt relationships, and what to do about it. Grounded in religious philosophy rather than cognitive science, but several of us found it life-changing.”
Basically, their work is about “the problem of self-deception”. You know how all those people in bad marriages you talk about spend all their time blaming the other person for being the problem, when sometimes it’s apparent that they’re at least half of it? Warner calls that self-deception, one form of it anyways. It plays out in politics too. Their books are some of the very few I’ve ever read where I actually feel myself being a better person when I’m reading them and remind myself about them.
For a brief summary of their philosophy, this paper does good job. For a bare-bones explanation of their work, “The Choice”(It’s their work boiled down to probably just a few thousand words as aphorisms). For the barebones plus some kinda hokey stories to flesh them out(the format is a story about someone attending one of their workshops) check out “The Anatomy of Peace”. For a little more depth and the principles presented with more real stories check out “The Bonds that Make Us Free”. For an in-depth rigorous philosophical treatise, you’ll want “Self-Betrayal and the Crisis of Self-Misunderstanding”. All of which are available here, but some are on Amazon too.
+1 for The Arbinger Institute as something worthy of a second or third look.
I thought the point of the cited study was that although within a particular sample of people you could find a combination of education levels, employment statuses, etc. that had a 90% correlation with the outcome, once you took it to a different sample you only got 70%, and that 70% is (nearly) the same as what you’d get if you just said “nobody divorces”. That is, the 90% is overfitting (you’ve modeled the people in your study not some general truth about humans), and the 70% that does generalize is as good as the intuition that “marriages mostly succeed”. Do you have some (other) evidence for the theory that you can find a combination of education levels, employment statuses, etc. that’s meaningful for a general population, not just the experimental group you trained on?
My wife and I take a “preventative maintenance” approach to our marriage: we started seeing a marriage counselor before our wedding, before major life events (job changes, moves, having kids), and sometimes just because we haven’t done it in a while.
One reason why we did/do this: to remove the stigma associated with seeing a marriage counselor. Most couples only go if they’re in trouble, so scheduling an appointment means admitting that there’s a problem. By the time they finally see a counselor, things might not be salvageable.
Another is this: knowing that you’ll eventually talk with a counselor has an effect on conflicts. Thoughts like: “I feel strongly about this disagreement, but if I had to defend it to a neutral third party I would look bad” and “Rather than quarrel about this now, I’ll bring it up the next time we go to the counselor” help to de-escalate disputes.
There are also placebo effects to be exploited: (1) Spending resources on maintaining the relationship helps demonstrate that it is valuable. (2) Saying positive things about your partner in front of a high-status person (the counselor) helps demonstrate your sincerity.
Obviously this costs money, but going once or twice every few years averages out to a couple hundred dollars annually. I think it’s an under-used strategy!
My wife is very grateful we did a lot of pre-marriage counselling. I tend to think we’d be fine anyway, but this is not an example of something that is worth arguing.
I’m not sure if that grace was learned or innate.
Chinese traditional wisdom strikes again!
As the nation is a reflection of the family, the family is a nation in miniature.
An additional comment…
“Gottman is slightly less strict in other situations, but he still thinks it’s very important that you take your spouse’s side in conflicts.”
As someone whose marriage didn’t work out, I am perhaps wrong on this, but…being on someone’s side is not the same thing as agreeing with them.
You can criticize me almost endlessly if you hug me while you do it and tell me you love me anyway. Because being on my side has very little to do with constantly agreeing with me. It means wanting me to be happy and successful in the same ways I do, and being willing to support me.
Likewise, telling me I’m right when you think I’m wrong does not make me think you support me. It makes you question the times you DO tell me you support me.
If you are on my side, you will try to love me, like me, and support me. But “you’re with me or against me” is poor international diplomacy, and it’s poor marriage dynamics too.
I hear what you’re saying. And in my relationship we have a strong purity norm around always being honest. But it does suck in the short term sometimes when one person is insecure. Not everyone is as emotionally mature as you, in the sense of feeling counterfactually, and most people have at least some moments where hearing anything that can be misinterpreted negatively, is.
I mean, hell, I have those moments all the damn time. But “ignore reality” isn’t a great solution to it, and it make me rather skeptical of the rest of the advice the book proposes. Which is odd, because I get the impression I agree with almost all of it.
I read all this way and registered to make a comment because of one of the little gems in the article. His ex-girlfriend’s advice to dump the toxic people reminded me of Dan Savage’s regular invoked advice of DTMA.
He’s good at recommending ways for people to resolve issues, but sometimes you simply need to dump the motherfucker already.
> What happens when people who aren’t Gottman evaluate the Gottman method? A large government-funded multicenter study testing a Gottman curriculum against several others found that Gottman’s program actually underperformed the other two and had negative effects, with 59% of Gottman couples remaining together compared to 70% of control couples, which was statistically significant at the 0.01% level.
What citation is this?
Sorry, I should have included that. Now *I’ve* lost the original one I used, but https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/bsf_36_mo_impact_report.pdf has most of the relevant information.
Thank you, good citation.
I appreciate how simple and honest that statement is. I think the secret reason so many marriages have trouble is that a lot of married couple don’t actually like each other that much. They like having sex, they like having a childcare partner (if they have kids), they like not being alone, they like the social status of being married, they like the living arrangements. And maybe they liked each other when they first met. But they don’t actually like this person enough to really enjoy spending so much time together with them.
Agreed. That’s one reason conflict starts easily and is hard to fix – they don’t like their partner, so they don’t feel an intrinsic motivation to side with them, and they don’t find their partner’s problems relatable/sympathetic/etc, so they don’t engage with them effectively.
Then a potential solution can also be to spend less time with them (and probably also making the time they spend together ‘quality time’). Supposedly, a lot of relationships go bad when people retire and suddenly spend way more time with each other.
If spending time together for 6 (or 4 or 2 or…) hours a day made for a good marriage, then why should the couple feel obliged to spend 16 (or 6 or 4 or…) hours together? Is spending all that time together an actual need/desire, or is it a delusion that this should make them happy? If so, getting rid of that delusion can (partly) fix the relationship.
According to another famous pop psychology book, Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, women tend to react to relationship problems by getting closer and spending more time talking it out, while men react by trying to get away and spend more time alone. That… creates some friction.
I think it makes sense that retirement would cause a lot of relationships to go bad, and it’s that simple for a long time married couple to just… not spend time together.
The prior problem being that often people don’t really like themselves or treat themselves kindly.
Historically, it seems that spouses didn’t spend a lot of time with each other (other then when in bed) and weren’t expected to be each other’s best friend. As barbara Ehrenreich once write:
This reminds me of the story of the doctor, the lawyer and the economist (all male) who are out at the pub having a pint together. The conversation turns to the merits of a wife versus a mistress. “You should have a wife,” the doctor proclaims. “the evidence is that married men are healthier and live longer.”
“No, you should have a mistress,” the lawyer argues. ” No risk of losing half your assets in a divorce.”
“You should have both!”, the economist pronounces.
“Both?” the doctor and the lawyer both ask, somewhat surprised.
“Yes, then when the mistress thinks you’re with your wife and your wife thinks you’re with your mistress, you can go to the office and get some work done.”
It’s a funny joke. But usually even the most overbearing wifes will let their hubby spend time at work. The hard part is getting time to do anything else, like going to the pub for pints with your male best friends. That’s time that could have been spent watching TV together with your soulmate, don’t you know!
People are pretty open about this, and it’s fucking dark. A boyfriend’s purpose is to make you feel high-status by being rich and buying you expensive experiences and things. A girlfriend’s purpose is to include you in the umbrella of her conspicuous high status. A spouse is a symbol, a life goal, a filial obligation, the next thing on the agenda.
Personality can’t be too off-putting, and you need to like the services that the other person performs for you, but actually caring about each other or liking each other as people doesn’t enter into it. You certainly wouldn’t be friends outside of a romantic context, nor are you motivated to ride through any kind of difficulty or loss of status together.
This is how a number of my mid-20s peers see dating, and it honestly makes me shudder.
So according to Gottman, emotional intelligence in men is that they always submit to their partner.
Also, for some mysterious reason, men who seek out Gottman have a tendency to not bring up any issues and to want to shut down discussions initiated by their partner.
I mean, it’s almost as if they are expecting that they can only lose out in such a discussion! How absurd…
What if you feel this way about people in general? Isn’t that the ‘complex PTSD’ that was discussed here earlier? Are people in these bad relationships also suffering from complex PTSD?
Ha! My thoughts exactly. Of course we’re going to avoid discussing issues if it always, inevitably, leads to us losing and having to surrender the issues. The only winning move is not to play.
If women are conditioned towards self-abnegation, they may be yielding to men quite frequently by default, to the point where if the men do not intentionally yield a significant fraction of the time, the situation becomes dangerously imbalanced.
I don’t see much difference between this and “innocent until proven guilty.” Clearly this vastly privileges the defense over the prosecution by creating a lopsided burden of proof. To the man who says “I’m sure he did it but I can’t prove it beyond that jackass’s idea of ‘reasonable doubt!” it’s a painfully unfair situation.
But without such a rigorous burden of proof placed on the prosecution, realistically the state would be able to convict pretty much anyone they wanted. No one would be better off in the long run, then.
If you want a society where men can assert themselves contra women in important domestic arguments, accept a society where women can safely and feasibly assert themselves contra men in all arguments.
Even if this is true, it doesn’t automatically make the woman’s demand reasonable, but merely something that she really cares about. That doesn’t mean that it’s something that the man doesn’t care strongly about, nor is it obvious that a compromise solution can’t be much better for both parties in the long run.
It’s also not obvious that (only) the man needs to change in this situation, rather than have the woman (also) be more assertive. Gottman argues that women are badly conditioned and women aren’t, but to steelman him, you seem to abandon that to argue that women are badly conditioned (as well). At that point, it is not obvious that it is merely men that have to change.
If this conditioning doesn’t actually exist in some women (and/or men), or not so much that it is fair to have the man always yield, then Gottman is effectively grooming those men to be abused and/or telling women that their abusive behavior is normal.
Innocent until proven guilty is not a proper comparison because it is meant to counter the biases of an arbiter to favor the initial complainant, as well as the imbalanced power of the prosecution. In a domestic argument, there is no arbiter and the woman is actually the initial complainant (at least, in Gottman’s narrative).
In modern Western society, I also believe that if anything, it is the woman who has typically more power, if she tries to use it.
Are you alleging that all men are prone to use domestic violence (or other domestic abuse)? Because I think that a very large number of women have no reason to be fearful of their partner, while plenty of men do.
If plenty of women can safely and feasibly assert themselves (which I actually see happening a lot), then why should their partners be told to yield and those women be told that the man should yield to them?
“but merely something that she really cares about”
In relationships it seems to me something is worth considering merely because your partner really cares about it. There’s not really a separate, outside “reasonable” standard to be applied. There’s only what you need, what they need, and what you each are willing to do for yourselves and each other.
My point was that just because she cares about it a lot, that doesn’t make it necessarily critical to her or otherwise non-negotiable.
Accept an inferior position and in some distant future you’ll have the chance to be treated equally… Just trust the people who totally have your interests at heart…
Unless there is some reason why the sexes should make unreasonable demands at significantly different frequencies (can’t think of an obvious reason why), then the issue still arises- women automatically deferring to men can only be offset by men deliberately deferring to women.
With that said, you’re not wrong that a compromise solution is healthier than “man defers 100% of time when conscious that the issue has arisen,” unless the man in question has married PHENOMENALLY well.
On the other hand, it may, cynically speaking, be closer to the optimal solution than is “man defers at the rate he thinks is a reasonable compromise.”
In my own experience, by the time a man understands his wife well enough to be a reasonably good judge of when he should and should not defer to her wishes deliberately… Well, if he still loves her, he will be doing what she’d want him to do a large fraction of the time by default.
A man who regularly tells himself “but my wife is wrong dammit” has either married poorly, is not valuing his wife’s welfare and happiness sufficiently, or does not understand his wife well enough yet to be a good judge of how important things are to her.
The feminist’s syllogism:
“That never happens. And if it happens to you it’s your fault for choosing the wrong woman.”
I just want to point out my interpretation of what you have here, which might not reflect what you intended. When a man marries a woman who is always right you describe this as having married phenomenally well, but the only allowance I see for a woman marrying a man who is always right seem to be characterized by him having married poorly.
No, it typically cannot be offset that way.
This is actually a rather common frustration I have with a certain class of progressive solutions & the related arguments. When groups behave differently, you typically can only produce equal outcomes by making the groups behave the same.
However, I often hear the claim that ‘offsetting’ solutions will do this, even though they at best (partially) equalize one measure of inequality, but often at the expense of another measure of inequality (and when this other measure harms the outgroup, it can be argued that there is no offsetting, but just the transfer of harms to the outgroup).
A solution where a women is always assured to get her way on an issue that matters a lot to her, but a man is never assured to get his way on an issue that matters a lot to him, is not equality and can be extremely unfair.
That is fully premised on women being fairly consistently encultured to only ask for things at a reasonable level, where putting 100% of the power in the relationship in the hands of the woman mostly results in reasonable solutions.
Are women that perfect? Are women that similar? Are women never abusers? If power corrupts, then won’t this solution corrupt the woman?
Also, such a norm doesn’t actually take all power away from the man, because in the very first comment in this thread I noted that men can fight such a norm by refusing to listen. Of course, Gottman seeks to take this defense mechanism away from men, which seems like grooming for abuse to me.
I also challenge your premise, because I think that it is largely false that men can today get away with a completely unfair rate (or at least, no more and probably less than women can).
Doesn’t this have the rather misogynist implication that women should never get to marry a more capable man that helps them make better decisions than they could make on their own, while men can have a better life than their own decision making ability would result in, if they marry well?
Furthermore, it wastes complementary decision making skills, so presumably it is going to harm even couples that operate on a similar level, but who don’t occupy the same intellectual ground.
Frankly this is, in this case, a healthier solution. It is better if women are not acculturated to be self-abnegating, are not expected to constantly take a stream of emotional hits for men, or at any rate are not acculturated to do so more than the reverse is true. Then you don’t have to worry about adding poorly calibrated “trim weights” in a rather improvisational attempt to establish something vaguely resembling balance.
The problem is that to do this you need to change a lot of social norms and expectations. You need to actively exhort people to think along different lines.
You need your society to make sure that women are rewarded for outspokenness at rates in line with those for men. You need your society to be equally accepting that it can be both “womanly” and “manly” to express concerns, negotiate openly, and seek equitable outcomes. When there is a concern or complaint shared by many women, you need formal or informal institutions to rally to raise that complaint openly rather than letting it get swept under the rug, just as you would certainly hope that such institutions exist for common male complaints!
You need society to exert pressure on people who push back against these reforms aimed at creating a situation where both sexes are acculturated to handle “trying to get their way in a reasonable, constructive manner” equally well..
And all of those alterations can get condemned by people accustomed to the old order as “feminism run amok” just as easily as “husbands should defer to wives’ preferences” can.
There is no royal road, in other words.
I think that there are a lot of women who wear the pants in the relationship or who share decisions. I don’t recognize this society of yours where pretty much all women rarely dare to say what they want.
This includes a lot of societies that are a lot more patriarchal than mine, where I still hear a lot of comments by men that their wife makes most decisions.
No, he’s saying that they should submit to their partner because women have more emotional intelligence. You’re basically reversing cause and effect here. (I strongly disagree with him on this, but let’s not misinterpret this admittedly bad advice).
I think in his view, really caring about something is enough to make it a reasonable demand in the context of a romantic relationship. It’s clear that in other instances, he applies this line of thinking to both parties and not just the woman; for instance, “always take your partner’s side in arguments” could just as easily apply to a woman as a man. (Again, I personally find this to be terribly bad and misguided advice, but I still think interpreting his point as “women good, men bad” is highly uncharitable.)
I assumed they mean that, the emotionally intelligent thing for men to do was to submit to the superior emotional intelligence of women.
Is he arguing that men and women both want the best for their partner and have no selfish bias, but that men don’t understand what their partner wants, but women perfectly do?
If so, it is indeed not (directly) sexist, but merely idiotic.
Yes, that’s basically what he’s saying.
Agreed, but a lot of his relationship advice seems idiotic to me. “Always take your partner’s side, no matter what” seems like a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. I certainly wouldn’t want a partner who pretended I was right about everything all the time, and I don’t think I’d even be capable of doing the same for someone else.
Might only be indirectly related to this topic, but what helped me most in my marriage so far is “The 5 love languages” by Gary Chapman.
Basically, the idea is that loving your spouse is a good starting point but doesn’t do much if your spouse doesn’t feel loved. The book helps to be able to communicate your love in a way your spouse understands. (This is completely unrelated to communication skills like “using I-statements” and more about speaking the right language, hence the title)
“I felt the time was come to explain things to George.
“In married life,” I said, “the man proposes, the woman submits. It is her duty; all religion teaches it.”
George folded his hands and fixed his eyes on the ceiling.
“We may chaff and joke a little about these things,” I continued; “but when it comes to practice, that is what always happens. We have mentioned to our wives that we are going. Naturally, they are grieved; they would prefer to come with us; failing that, they would have us remain with them. But we have explained to them our wishes on the subject, and—there’s an end of the matter.”
George said, “Forgive me; I did not understand. I am only a bachelor. People tell me this, that, and the other, and I listen.”
From Three Men on the Bummel, first published 1900. Of the three men, the two married ones spend most of the first two chapters trying to find a way to sneak off for a vacation without their wives objecting.
The dynamic discussed of who is in charge in the household has been complicated for a very long time.
Or Charles Dickens:
I read this book a few years ago. Most of the information in it has become this slurry of unimportant and questionable details I can’t remember anymore, but one big idea stuck with me. The author seems to think that relationship satisfaction is roughly the impact of good experiences minus the impact of bad experiences. That seems to be true about my marriage – but in any case, if that’s true, it occurs to me that positive experiences go a long way without an upper bound while there’s an upper bound on how much value you can get by minimizing bad experiences.
It seems to me that most mainstream relationship advice I’m familiar with puts too much of a premium on minimizing the negative, such as avoiding conflict or identifying a perpetrator who needs to be reformed. And if someone’s mentally ill or abusive, maybe reducing the bad is what needs to be focused on. But for a mentally healthy, laid back person, their problem may not be occasional maturely handled conflict with their gal/dude, but that they need to be better at putting significant positive experiences on the table for that person.
It seems to me like the significant positive experiences happen naturally early in a relationship thanks to chemistry, but 10+ years into a marriage, they require/justify significant deliberate effort. But everyone has some negative experiences, so if they don’t keep the positive experiences flowing, it’s like choking the oxygen out of that marriage/relationship.
This may be obvious to people who dissect relationships for a living. It’s not my wheelhouse.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what you say.
Importantly, the positive experience can come from–perhaps come best from–negative experiences in the life of the couple that stress to the relationship. Unemployment, sickness, accidents, etc. Working through hard times together will strengthen a relationship more than a cherished vacation or insightful seminar.
As a couples therapist who reads the blog, I feel like I ought to have a good response…. let me see if I can put something together:
This post expresses the same sentiments I have had about the field recently. I read Gottman’s stuff before I was into rationality and before I was into the research on what makes psychotherapy work. It’s an ongoing project which I’m planning on figuring out and sorting through publicly on my own blog.
Gottman’s postdiction of divorce is like every other claim about the success of one treatment style in therapy – fast and loose with the data and uncritical in regards to methods. Even the study in his FAQ which he claims is the one that’s truly predictive admits it’s a post hoc analysis in the abstract. It’s another frustrating instance of scientists wildly overstating their claims in public statements while being forced to make more reserved statements in the text of the actual paper that will be scrutinized by their peers.
As an aside, it’s funny to hear him talk about the husband needing to always side with the wife rather than the mother. That’s old school Structural Family Therapy. Strengthen the marital dyad! I actually like Structural Family Therapy but IMO you don’t need to be as dogmatic as Gottman’s suggestion.
The Heart and Soul of Change: Developing What Works in Therapy has a chapter on what works in Marriage and Family Therapy. I’ll have to pull out my copy later to remember exactly what it says on the subject. But it’s certainly the case that Gottman’s particular principles are not listed as a definitive element of effective marriage therapy. It seems the Building Strong Families Program would also suggest that the elements described by Gottman don’t, as a general rule, necessarily generate a positive impact on couples.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. It is what we should expect from any form of therapy. Spending a lot of time focusing on The Great Psychotherapy Debate, I’m tempted to say that effective couples therapy follows the same principles outlined in that book. That is, therapy works not when we have specific ingredients for certain disorders (eg. exposure for PTSD, response prevention for OCD, challenging negative cognitions for Depression, reducing negative cycles for Marital Conflict) but because of an alliance in a relationship with a healing figure who agrees with you on your goals, provides an adaptive explanation for the problem that is accepted by the client(s), and clearly delineates where the client can put in effort towards making a positive change. See Wampold’s article on effective therapists for the briefest statement on what effective therapy should be.
From what I’ve gleaned from The Great Psychotherapy Debate, I feel like I have a better model (better at making predictions about outcomes) than I did in the past. I would bet on the claim that specific ingredients (eg. Tackling the Four Horsemen) or adherence to a treatment protocol (eg. Oppa Gottman Style) are not predictive of outcomes in couples therapy. So, in my view, it won’t be a particular model that you can recommend to your patients. I would bet on the claim that the couples’ rating of the alliance (eg. “I feel heard, understood and respected by the therapist”), goal congruence (eg. “we talked about what is important to me”), and approach (eg. “the therapist’s explanation of the problem and way of working on it make sense to me”) will be a significantly better predictor of outcome. So, in my view, it means there will be particular therapists that you can recommend to your patients.
Does this mean that anything works in individual/couples therapy? No, we do need a clearly defined model and method to explain and work on the problem. But other factors are much, much more predictive of outcome than what model/method we choose. Does the ambiguity there mean we are taking in gullible marks? Does it mean we’re just giving placebos? I don’t think that’s the right way of looking at it (and if it’s true it may “prove too much” about medicine in general). I think a better way of looking at it is “we are in the business of encouraging the process of healing and change. How can we improve our ability to foster that in our patients?”
I may have more to say about this in a few weeks after attending my first workshop by Scott D Miller, who focuses on research coming out of what actually accounts for outcomes in psychotherapy.
I look forward to hearing more thoughts.
Speaking as a therapist who mainly works with individuals, I’ve had some interesting experience in the last few years doing couples counseling, referring couples where I’m working with one or the other person, and referring clients to multiple different couple’s counselors and then getting to hear their very detailed feedback about these various therapists and watching how the results of the counseling did or didn’t ripple through the couple’s life.
From this I have a few random non-scientific observations:
1. Couple’s counseling is harder than individual counseling and as a result there are fewer really good couple’s counselors and so the therapist’s skill is perhaps a more determining/limiting factor to outcomes than with individual therapy. Many couple’s counselors only do it as part of their practice which means they are still mainly working with individuals from an individual frame and the bulk of their training and clinical experience is in that context. Less of that experience is transferable to couple’s counseling than one might think.
2. A lot of therapists have trouble holding neutral ground. Because many therapists are women, this does seem to sometimes lead to siding with the woman unconsciously; other times it seems to lead to the opposite. Either way, not-siding is hard for therapists working with individuals and harder for therapists working with couples.
3. A lot of therapists have trouble just wrangling sessions with couples — bringing enough structure to the conversation so that it’s productive. In my limited experience, couple’s counseling requires a lot more structure than individual therapy, but a lot of therapists who do couple’s counseling have had limited training at it relative to the clinical skills developed for individual therapy. Also it seems to me some of the dispositional characteristics that attract a person to the therapy profession are not the ones that make for good couple’s counselors. It takes a much firmer hand than most therapists have, perhaps.
4. The people who are really good at it have a mix of rare talent and a lot of extra training. A therapist who just works with individuals can skate by to some extent with fewer skills on board and there’s really very little room for skating in doing couple’s work without it becoming evident very quickly.
5. Finally, I’m not sure how much the Heart and Soul of Change analysis works for couple’s counseling in the sense that relationships in conflict are themselves alliances that have broken down based on incompatible stories. My inclination is to say that outcomes are much more dependent on the skill of the therapist though alliance and shared story still matter to some degree. I have seen very good outcomes from couple’s therapy with therapists who do not do much alliance building or shared story-creating, but who are firmly facilitating a process between the couple that they are largely outside of, and that’s a pretty different thing from how individual therapy works.
I don’t know, what do you think?
Okay, I’ll take your comments one point at a time (and get around to what I found in The Heart and Soul of Change at the end):
1. Couples are tough. It is definitely a specialty. To work well with couples you need to be confident in your ability to assess, interrupt and discuss the dynamics of the dyad in real time. I don’t think people who have just done ‘a little couples counseling on the side’ are the right people to refer couples to.
2. I hear uncertainty in this comment – there’s equivocation in your writing about whether female therapists would be biased when working with heterosexual couples. I find it pretty easy to remain neutral considering I view problems in a dyad as invariably A. part of a dynamic of the system, where B. both couples play a part in reinforcing the dynamic, and C. “bad” behavior is viewed as the result of historical trauma and/or presently hidden fears.
3. Yes! in general, I try to elicit, accept and enact feedback from my clients about what they would find helpful from me in the room. I’m a more directive therapist to begin with but for some clients I sit back a lot and with others I lean forward. With couples, I find it is necessary to take up a lot of space in the room. Generally that means interrupting to point out something that’s being enacted. But it can also mean catching a couple in the middle of a conflict where they are both physiologically aroused. You need to notice the arousal, interrupt and distract them by discussing a tangentially related topic for a few moments. Then point out the tactic, discuss physiological arousal and return to the topic with a gentle startup (lol, Gottman). It’s definitely “a firmer hand” in that it’s directive, interrupting, and much more talking on the part of the therapist.
4. Unfortunately, there are a lot of subpar therapists out there. There was a study, which I can’t find at the moment, which looked at the number of clients who would benefit from therapy if only they were switched from a low-performing therapist to a high-performing therapist.
Re: Couples work taking extra talent… I really hope I have extra talent. That would be nice. I’ve had a lot of supervision from couples therapists I respect, I’ve been in really good couples therapy in my own relationship, and I continue to consult with good couples therapists. But what I’d like to do is figuring out how to get into deliberate practice for couples therapy where I video tape myself in session and get feedback from the client and other therapists. I’m hoping to find or develop a community associated with the ICCE to help me do that.
5. I went through the chapter on marriage and family therapy in my copy of The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering What Works in Therapy last night (the following quotes are from there). It’s the second edition that was released in 2010 so all of the research cited is pre-2010. However, it makes a similar conclusion about comparative effectiveness as The Great Psychotherapy debate, stating, “A critical review of the differential efficacy data demonstrated few exceptions to the dodo verdict when allegiance is considered, comparisons are fair, and bona fide treatments are contrasted, eroding claims of differential efficacy and giving credence to the claim that all have won prizes.” (p.365)
Allegiance effects are a significant issue in psychology studies comparing treatments. “Allegiance is the researcher’s belief in and commitment to a particular approach… can exert a large influence on outcome in comparative studies.” The Great Psychotherapy Debate has a whole chapter on the problems of Allegiance in studies comparing psychotherapies.
Typing this up, I was going through Scott Miller’s blog. I noticed a reference to a recent paper by Norcross showing that patients prefer more directiveness than therapists would prefer to give. If we want our outcomes to get better, we need to take client’s feedback on their preferences into account.
I also wanted to provide a citation where you can read more about feedback. You can figure out why I keep repeating “feedback” – it’s our best bet for improving our outcomes as therapists. Check this Scott Miller blog post on it.
Thanks for your thoughts here.
I’m pretty familiar with Scott Miller’s feedback tools — I get blast emails from him it seems like almost every day. Busy guy. I loved the book when I read it but was not thinking in terms of how couple’s therapy differed at the time.
I was equivocating about what I think it might mean for couple’s therapy that most therapists are women. Maybe more male therapists proportionately do couples work?
I’ve seen and heard not great stories about women therapists who don’t specialize in couple’s therapy “siding” with the woman in a heterosexual pair. I’ve read articles exhorting therapists to work harder to “keep men engaged” and I’ve seen women perhaps overcompensating by siding with the man in the effort of keeping him engaged. And then it just seems like twice the countertransference to deal with and that each point of countertransference risks tipping the scales where in individual work it’s more just a factor that can enhance or undermine the alliance. So, yes, none of that is particularly clear in my head beyond “fraught.”
I think the piece about people in general wanting us to be more directive is interesting and I’m not sure what to make of it. Like part of what we all want as humans is more certainty and part of the work of therapy as I see it is getting a bit more comfortable with uncertainty and clarifying one’s own priorities, so while we may *prefer* more guidance, I’m not sure more guidance is what yields the best results always (separate from couple’s therapy). But how to play that out has to be judged case by case and moment by moment, I think. There are people who cannot make good progress without more structure and then there are people who would just prefer to have more structure, even if it’s not really the way forward for them. But then, who are we to say?
There are different ways of siding.
1) ‘Mary, Bob works very hard so you can afford a nice house and such, so you should cut him some slack for not helping in the house so much. You have to accept that it is fair that he does less, if he compensates that in other ways.’
2) ‘Mary, Bob doesn’t help in the house so much because of his toxic masculinity, which is not really his fault, but a societal failing. You have to accept that he can’t just get rid of decades of indoctrination.’
The latter kind of ‘siding’ is consistent with politics that is considerably more common among women, so the feminization of the profession can make this more common (and not necessarily just among women, but male therapists may also become more prone to copy the politics of the majority or filter out if they don’t match those politics).
In general sentences that start with “you should” and “you need to” are not so much what therapists do. So the siding plays out in a different, though perhaps equally problematic, way.
It’s funny how the same text that Scott reads as biased against men I, as a feminist, read as biased against women. Men just get so angry! It’s physiological, so they can’t help it and we can’t expect them to control their emotions. Women have to tiptoe around their husbands’ anger. Make sure not to bring up problems at the wrong time or in the wrong tone Don’t make him feel too bad about the bad things he’s done. Remember that it’s always the woman’s responsibility to be reasonable and tactful and conciliatory.
Bias is symmetrical in nature, when you think about it carefully.
“Men are better at math”, for instance. You could read this either way, when you notice the implications with regard to what that entails (men being expected to do the taxes, for instance).
And asymmetrical solutions just create a new bias, which will be symmetrical, and thus perpetuate the problem.
Nope! You can make babies (and perfectly happy, healthy, well-adjusted ones) without ever marrying your coparent.
Yes indeed! Seeing lots of wonderful instances of that around me.
9. I can list my partner’s three favorite movies.
I can’t even name my own three favorite movies!
Seriously, one place that I think that Gottman is absolutely right on is in saying that that for a marriage to work, your spouse needs to come first in your life above outsiders. (Once children enter the picture, though, it becomes more complicated.) Regarding liking your spouse, I’d say the critical bit comes down to something narrower: that you should give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Unless the marriage has already broken down to the extent that the partners are trying to spite or hurt each other, then ambiguous or unclear things – which will happen all the time – should be read in an innocent way, not as evidence of hostility. Because if you respond with hostility to what you think is hostile but isn’t, you’ll sure enough cause a breakdown.
I believe that there are situations where it is right to prioritize a spouse over a child, or another relative over a spouse.
However, these are the “on desperate ground, fight” situations of human interactions, cases where phrases like “I love you but I’m not willing to go to jail for you” come up.
Outside that, yeah, you have to prioritize children > spouse > everyone else.
But what does it mean for your spouse to come first?
I’m imagining a cheesy soap opera situation, where like both my wife and my mother need a kidney transplant, and I’m the only compatible doner. OK, in that case I guess I’d give it to my wife and let my mother die. But in real life it manifests more like, can I occasionally visit my mom for christmas, or do I have to cut her out of my life 100% because my wife doesn’t like her? How do you prioritize something that’s your wife’s small annoyance vs someone else’s strong desire? And does it even matter what I want, or should I just not even think abou that?
The devil is, as always, in the details.
I think what it comes down to is that you should strive to marry a spouse who is reasonable enough not to ask other people to sacrifice their strong desires to spare them a small annoyance… But also bear in mind that you are not always the supremely qualified arbiter of what is slightly annoying versus seriously unacceptable.
Sensitivity to context is critical here. If everyone involved is being a good person, the difficulties won’t be insurmountable. If your relatives are being bad people, you side with your spouse against the relatives (and even more importantly if it is THEIR relatives who are being bad). If your spouse is being a bad person and forcing you to side with them against your relatives when you shouldn’t have to because THEY weren’t being bad people… well, then the correct answer is to not stay in a relationship with a terrible person.
Should we even by trying to save most marriages? Why not just go get a different one? There’s a heavily implied bias that marriage counseling needs to fix marriage. What if marriage counseling actually needs to actively break up way, way more marriages?
Liking the other person is a very low bar, because it’s easy to like people. Maybe it’s harder to like someone you’re so intertwined with, but “like” isn’t the same thing as an intense level of caring or commitment. This almost feels a recommendation you motte-and-bailey yourself into justifying your marriage.
My criterion for a loving relationship is even simpler. It’s that you actively care about the other person’s happiness. If you are describing a conflict, and prioritizing your SO’s happiness does not even enter into the dynamic, my eyes glaze over. You may be in an amicable, comfortable, and financially stable relationship, but you are not in a LOVING relationship. And if you’re not in a loving relationship, then the only thing keeping you together is pragmatism and how annoying it would be to find another similar person, move your stuff out, bla bla finances etc.
Maybe that’s enough. But there’s an implied pressure on every couple to say they’re in love, to say the other person is special, etc etc. My position is that most of the time this is a total misrepresentation. Most partnerships are between normal people with normal traits who don’t particularly care about each other.
I know this sounds overly dismissive, but love is rare, and people finding it annoying or difficult to find a new apartment is much more common. It’s just embarrassing to admit that the only reason you’re with someone is because it’s easier to continue being with them. So I guess that’s what we have marriage counseling for – to sustain the lie that your marriage is actually based on passionate intimate love that just shouldn’t be thrown away except in extreme circumstances.
I think it’s worth distinguishing between loving someone and being in love with her. The former is an important ingredient to a successful relationship. The latter is a form of temporary insanity which you should not expect to last, although you may encounter something very similar when you have children.
The fact of the matter is that marriage counseling is not covered by insurance but takes a lot of money and hassle (especially if there are kids, so you need to a get a babysitter for every session) so customers usually only come because they hope it is a better/cheaper alternative to divorce. The entire field is built around this economic incentive.
That’s a new perspective to me.
Lots of couple’s counseling is covered by insurance in the U.S., speaking as a therapist who files insurance.
I do think many couples wait until things are really dire in their relationships before trying counseling as a last ditch effort before taking the more costly route of divorce. This says more to me about human nature than about economic incentives built into the field of counseling.
The therapists I know who do mainly couple’s counseling (I am not one) have way more work than they need, long waiting lists, and move people through faster than most therapists who work with people individually. They have no need to do anything extra to gin up more work for themselves. Couple’s counselors are not getting rich, it’s incredibly stressful work, and there are many many other career options that pay better and are less stressful.
So why don’t you charge higher rates? Because insurance wouldn’t cover those?
Here in Germany, relationship counseling is not covered by insurance. My wife is a therapist who also does couples, she also says there’s much more demand than supply here. I’m glad you have a better situation insurance-wise.
Yes, that’s right, if you want to file insurance, then you have to stick to the “contracted rate” for that insurance company. If you want to charge more, you have to get out of the contract with the insurance company and be “out of network.” In practice, many therapists go out of network for insurance companies that reimburse poorly and keep a few that reimburse well enough. If there’s enough demand for your services in your market, that works fine, and is what I do.
If I did more couple’s counseling, I would go out of network and charge a lot more because for me, even double the reimbursement rates don’t come near to compensating for that kind of stress. But for other therapists, they love that work so much they’d do it for cheap. Still others charge a huge amount of money (relative to therapists, not relative to lawyers) and only work with affluent people. It kind of depends on the sense of social mission that the therapist has to provide accessible care to more people.
Am I the only one fascinated by Scott’s goal of releasing obsessions?
I mean, I would have thought that the aim would often be to subjugate them.
I think the intended meaning is along the lines of “make the obsessions less confining”?
“…release the grip of obsessions.”
My boyfriend and I went through Eight Dates, one of his books for couples that guides you through the training experience, together. When you find the other things that performed better in that study, please post about them?
There were several bits that were new to me. One big one was the “69% of conflicts were unsolvable” one that you quote; the takeaway for me was both 1) the relationship isn’t going to die or be miserable just because you persistently disagree on something and 2) the Circling toolkit should come out early rather than late in disagreements. [That is, trying to get to the emotional source of things, and staying on the level of “what are we feeling? What’s the story we’re telling about this?” instead of the level of “how do we solve this problem?”]
I think the biggest one I remember as “always be curious about your partner; you’ll never have fully gotten to know them.” It’s like the ‘beginner mindset’ thing, where you’re always open to something new / them surprising you and so are observing carefully instead of assuming or ignoring. This was a big shift from what I had hoped long-term relationships would be like, which is people looking at each other, saying “yes, I want to ally with you forever,” and then flipping the “allied” bit to true and not having to worry about it or carefully manage their relationship with the other person, because it was already settled and both parties could condition on the other’s continued support.
We definitely had some of the ‘parabola’ thing, where many of the dates were basically scheduled fights with scaffolding to make them go better than they would have otherwise. (And I think it was really helpful to be able to point to tips in the book and say “huh, I think we’re doing the negative dynamic they suggested we not do.”)
Also agreed with other comments that sometimes divorce is the right call, and it’s not obvious that you should measure marital counseling by its divorce rate.
That said, he should have predicted that it would ‘quadratic’ or ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ and doing so after-the-fact is sketchy statistically.
The patriarchy teaches men to not have emotions and we are confused about why men don’t do well with conflict?
I strongly think that ‘patriarchy’ should not be given an article. That implies it is something akin to an organisation.
“The patriarchy” as a noun with an attached article is shorthand for something like:
“The components of society which govern gender relations and tend towards granting primacy to that which is male and masculine.”
“The patriarchy” is not a sapient agent, nor does it have a formal organization or a plan. But then neither is “the water cycle” or “the transportation infrastructure” or “the high society of New York City” or “the social justice community.”
In each case, the people using the term are pointing to a specific interlocking network of phenomena and processes. The network’s effects make themselves felt in the real world. The network’s internal interactions and dynamics can be analyzed and traced.
In each case, the network has connections and interfaces with things that are not-the-network, and sometimes the boundaries of the network are a little bit fuzzy (are auto mechanics part of “the transportation infrastructure?”). The network itself is not sapient and has no central decision-making node that controls everything that happens, at least not directly. You cannot point to “the water cycle” and say it is in a specific physical location. You cannot fill a teacup with the concrete material thing that is “New York high society.”
And yet in each case, the network is, in some meaningful sense, real.
There may be disputes over exactly how it works or what is and is not included within it. But it’s real and can reasonably be talked about as a singular noun. If nothing else, this is a practical necessity, in order to have meaningful non-circuitous conversations about it.
I think some people grate at the term “the Patriarchy” because it seems a bit partisan. Going by your definition the Patriarchy obviously exists: yet you could just as easily say the Matriarchy exists too by defining it as “The components of society which govern gender relations and tend towards granting primacy to that which is female and feminine.” That obviously exists too, but I imagine if I went around saying things like “The Matriarchy teaches men that they must always yield to women in disputes” many people here might object to that wording as well.
Imagine a nation where:
1) 25% of the legislature is male and this is some kind of record. Almost all the male legislators are in one of two roughly equally powerful parties; the other party is like 5-10% men, tops, at the top levels of authority. Otherwise? It’s ladies all the way up to the top.
2) Well over 90% of leadership figures of major corporations are women.
3) Every single president of the United States in all of American history was a woman. The current president, who defeated the first man to ever be nominated for the presidency by a major political party, has been caught on tape joking about kicking men in the crotch and how it’s perfectly fine and she can do it when she wants because of what a big celebrity she is. Weirdly, men still voted for her.
4) Multiple times in the past decade a woman has grabbed a weapon and tried to kill a dozen or so men, and women who have close dealings with men, specifically because they are men and she hates men. And there is still an active if not widely respected Internet movement that praise the women who do this when they think no one’s watching.
If you were transported to such a society, you would probably not like it (I gather that you are male). Things would probably strike you as unfair. It might even seem unnatural that some of (1) through (4) are true, when the converses are not and never have been.
The phrase “miserable castrating bitchtopia” might come to mind, for instance.
Now, in this environment, you would have good reason to talk about The Matriarchy, and it would seem a little silly to talk about The Patriarchy. To the point where if someone DID talk about The Patriarchy, you would suspect their motives.
You might speculate that, like the president seems to, the people talking about The Patriarchy in this society have… disagreeable hidden motives. Such as a lingering yen to find some poor bastard and kick his balls up between his ears for giggles because they think they can get away with it.
Or more charitably, you kind of have to admit that if they are STILL going on about The Patriarchy with all of (1) through (4) being true… they are on some level rather complicit in the creation of this miserable castrating bitchtopia of a nation.
The problem is, we don’t live in that society. We live in the Rule 63 gender-swapped version of that society (I had to swap out “kick in the balls” for “grab by the pussy,” but let’s not pick nits here).
As such, it is difficult for me to say with a straight face that there is a capital-M Matriarchy in the sense that there is a capital-P Patriarchy. When you look at the commanding heights of power in society they seem rather unbalanced, until you go well out of your way looking for evidence that it’s the other way around.
I hate to say motte and bailey because, on this site at least, its an extremely cliche thing to do but…this seems like a textbook motte and bailey.
HomurusSimpson objected to someone saying “The Patriarchy” because it sounds like an organization. You replied by providing a definition: “The components of society which govern gender relations and tend towards granting primacy to that which is male and masculine.” This is quite reasonable: nobody reasonable could deny that there are components to our society which govern gender relations and tend towards granting primacy to that which is male and masculine. However it is also obvious that there are components to our society which govern gender relations and tend towards granting primacy to that which is female and feminine. If all you mean by the Patriarchy is what you defined, then it is equal reasonable to discuss the Matriarchy when referring to gender roles that grant primacy to females and femininity.
Yet when I point out that people might find such language objectionable, you reply with a series of statements about male leaders, male criminals, and a sense of whether things are fair or unfair based on gender balances. None of that has anything to do with whether gender norms in our society ever favor one gender over the other, at least not specifically. So it kinda seems to me that when defining the Patriarchy you define it as minimally and defensively as possible, but in actuality you see that Patriarchy as something far broader and more, well political. It seems that the Patriarchy consists of more than just gender norms, but also on outcomes.
If we want to talk about outcomes I could point out that in our society 51% of homeless people are single males, while only 24.7% are single females, or that 92.9% of our federal prison population is male, or that 97.99% of people on death row in 2019 were male, or that females have made up the majority of college graduates since 1980 or that while it is difficult to find laws still on the books that specifically favor males over females, it is typically that case that our legal system favors females over males when it comes to awarding parental rights in divorces, among other things. But I really don’t want to. I don’t think there is some societal conspiracy to keep men down or something like that.
I list them only to point out that, by your original definition, it seems there are definitely components of our society that tend towards granting primacy to what is female and feminine. And I have no problem admitting the same is true of males, and I make no judgment at this time about which is more prevalent that which. But it seems obvious that you don’t particularly care whether there are gender norms that favor women in our society. In fact you specifically end your reply to my comment not be referring to gender relation societal norms, but instead say “When you look at the commanding heights of power in society they seem rather unbalanced, until you go well out of your way looking for evidence that it’s the other way around.” But what do the commanding heights of power have to do with your original definition of the Patriarchy? It seems that your true definition of Patriarchy is far larger than the one you provided.
Personally I think we should taboo terms like “the Patriarchy” because they are unproductive and invite this sort of motte and bailey definition. I don’t think it’s useful except as a partisan battle cry. It seems to make the statement “women are unequal in our society, men are unjustly favored by our society, men are more important than women in our society, etc” (see your reply). Yet when pressed people retreat into a far more defensible definition.
Anyway, to answer your question, I don’t know whether I would like living in such a society. If it literally was just a gender swapped version of our current society then I wouldn’t mind one bit. I don’t care what gender the president is, and in the course of my working career I’ve almost entirely had female bosses. If literally everything else besides gender balances flipped, I’d be fine with that.
99% of management and leadership positions are thankless, shitty jobs with twice as much work and three times as much stress facing constant criticism. Men are more happy to put up with that crap because leadership positions get you laid.
As Oscar Wilde said, everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.
If you want to stop men from climbing the ladder, tell the women of the world to stop being attracted to men at the top of the ladder. And if you want to see more women in leadership positions, convince all men that women with power are attractive. Since both tasks are impossible, if you ever see a society in which 50% of leaders are women, you know that men are being discriminated against.
That’s probably an added perk for some men, but for the most part, I think people seek leadership positions because they tend to pay significantly more, which is a motivation that applies equally to both sexes. Also, some people simply like the feeling of being in control and having power over others, and thus view a leadership position as its own reward.
That’s not an added perk for some men, it is an added perk for nearly all men. A perk that is entirely absent for women. And it is a perk that speaks to the most imperative biological imperative there is!
Even a happily married man who will never cheat on his wife gets the perk in the form of nicer attention from both his wife and other women.
There is also a drive to have power over other people, and I would suspect that is more of a male hard-wired thing as well.
You think Jewish over-representation in positions of power is entirely warranted by their superior intelligence and/or diligence, right?
That’s a valid point. Still, money is something that appeals to both sexes equally, and that’s likely to be the number one reason for someone to take a high-stress position. Anything else is, as you acknowledge, an added perk. So on the basis of financial success alone, you’d expect to see more women in leadership positions.
Well, if a lot of men in that society are masochists who like getting kicked in the crotch by powerful women… Trump also said “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” And note he was not talking about the women of the church-choir here… I think most male feminists know, deep down, that what he said was true. And it fills them with rage.
Money also has the added perk for men of more female attention, so these things are very hard to disambiguate.
Do men and women value money just as much for spending on themselves? There is a stereotype that single men tend to live as slobs, where they need a woman in their lives to tell them to buy a new couch and such; or need to be told to shape up to attract a woman in the first place. This matches what I’ve seen around me.
It can even be possible that the male provider role is partially enabled by men having less desire to spend on themselves, making them more willing to trade money for companionship than women.
It’s not an organization (at least, if it is, I haven’t been inducted into it – maybe because I’m not a pater yet?), but it’s a set of cultural assumptions. Insofar as they’re true across most of the culture, I think you can give it a definite article. Or, you can argue that it shouldn’t get a definite article by arguing that those assumptions differ across subcultures to such a great extent that hardly any of them are generally true. I lean toward the first view, but I can see arguments for the second.
Or maybe alwhite’s making a statement about the official teaching of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople? I think that’d be incorrect, but it’d lead to a very interesting conversation!
True that. I think the patriarchy (in the sense I think you mean and Simon Jester beautifully elaborated on) creates a distortion field that affects how both men and women communicate their emotions and makes it harder for everyone to manage difficult conversations well.
Part of it for me is that it seems so few of us were raised by parents, men or women, who knew how to tend to their own emotions well or to tend to the emotions of their naturally emotionally very expressive small children well. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans as a whole are still pretty low down on the pyramid. It seems we’ve only begun in the last two generations to recognize the value of attending to children’s emotional lives and providing any kind of instruction on or modeling of how to resolve conflict without throwing things, large or small.
Sorry, but in:
by “we” and “humans” you really mean “post-19th century alienated Western society”. I’d bet my paycheck that a lot of e.g. hunter-gatherer societies could be WAY more advanced in this respect than “we” are (in terms of emotional awareness, conflict resolution, …).
Yes for sure, that was a very culture-bound generalization on my part.
Whether you are correct or not, I don’t know. But my immediate reflex upon reading your comment was to think “The patriarchy trains men to perform very well in conflicts — if your tribe wants to take the land of an adjacent tribe, send a band of young men with spears to do the job. What the patriarchy doesn’t train men for is dealing with mistakes that have a strong emotional component.”
I think that is a good characterization.
Especially when combined with “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
When the only tools in your brain are “assert dominance” and “win conflict,” you are going to approach emotionally charged disagreements and mistakes- including your own from a place of “how do I win the conflict and assert dominance?”
If losing dominance means that men will actually be harmed much more often and/or much more than women will be harmed who lose dominance, it can simply be the best tool for the job.
You can only condemn people for not using certain tools as often that other people use them, if the outcomes of using those tools is the same.
Of course, the same goes in the other direction. Why don’t women the the ‘male’ tools more often? Isn’t this equally easy to criticize as: “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?”
The “patriarchy,” more commonly known as “common sense,” tells men not to be crybabies. And it’s not just male culture encouraging this attitude, women, including Left-wing women, don’t find men who, shall we say, “act like women emotionally” to be attractive.
You are not displaying comprehension of the material being discussed; you have instead entirely rewritten the material into something totally unrelated.
There is a massive difference between “being a crybaby” and “being able to handle emotions in a sensible, mature way instead of pretending they do not exist until abruptly snapping and screaming at someone and then pretending it’s all their fault.”
The latter is amazingly unattractive, but also amazingly common behavior in men who think that talking about feelings is for girls.
There were three claims made in this thread:
Neither statement will actually be advocated by anybody in those words. If you think 2. means I’m “not displaying comprehension,” then you’re “not displaying comprehension” by 3. Anyway, here are four claims, tell me if you disagree with any of them:
1. A non-trivial proportion,(~30%) of females go significantly farther than “talking about feelings.”
2. A much smaller proportion of men(~3%) do the same.
3. Women find group 2. unattractive significantly more than men find group 1 unattractive.
4. 3. is one of the primary causes of that gender difference.
The comment you originally replied to said:
“The patriarchy teaches men to not have emotions and we are confused about why men don’t do well with conflict?”
Now, I’m confused about how this statement connects to either of the first two statements you’re citing:
For that matter, I’m not clear on where you’re sourcing either statement from.
Basically, you’re talking about “crybabies,” but the things other people in the thread (including Scott’s original post) are talking about are “not-crybabies.” As such, there seems to be a disconnect between what you’re describing and what the people you’re responding to are talking about.
To be charitable, I think you have very different ideas about what words mean, or how men do (and ought to) process emotions. And that this is causing you to inadvertently strawman your opposition, by turning “men should be able to clearly identify their own emotional drives and work through them openly” into “men should be crybabies.”
Your third statement cited,
appears to just be you taking something I said and flipping it around, and I have no idea why. Or what you’re getting at here.
In regards to your closing four claims:
Since terms like “go significantly farther than” are vague, I cannot confidently comment on what (1) or (2) even means, let alone whether they are true.
If you mean “a large fraction of women complain excessively about how they feel, and a smaller fraction of men do?” Because then let’s not be circuitous about it.
Assuming that’s what you mean, then there are serious problems with trying to measure the accuracy of that statement. For example, a pre-existing tendency to assume that “woman problems” that are not readily apparent to a man are not real or not important can very easily lead to someone dismissing a woman as “complaining too much about how she feels.” There is a vicious cycle that has existed for most of recorded history:
1) Men adopt various customs and practices that treat women poorly, or put them in a position of dependency.
2) Women, facing these customs and practices, wind up…
2a) … facing stress, trauma, or distress, or
2b) … forced to recognize that their own survival and comfort depends entirely on someone else making good choices.
3a) Women respond to these stressors by emoting, as is common among all humans, and/or…
3b) Women respond rationally to the incentives of being an adult dependent by pressuring the men they depend on to make choices they see as good.
4) Men, having the luxury of ignoring the underlying problems discussed in (2), interpret the behaviors in (3) as “being emotional” and “nagging,” respectively.
5) Men integrate the interpretation in (4) into their stereotype of women, further justifying and reinforcing the institutions discussed in (1).
This kind of pattern makes it very hard to form an accurate assessment of whether other people are “crybabies” or not, because it’s eternally easy to form the fixed conviction “I’m reasonable, you’re a crybaby.”
Now, because of the issues I just discussed, I can’t really comment as to what your third and fourth statements mean. It’s hard for me to sort out how much of what you say reflects realities of gender, and how much reflects your perception of gender.
I will note that in my opinion, far more than 3% of males are strongly demonstrative about their emotions, or act on their feelings in an intense way. They just pick different ways. Because in traditional patriarchal culture, a man who flies into a rage and punches things and shouts at his wife is not “a crybaby,” even if he’s just as firmly in the grip of his emotions as a woman in a sobbing heap on the floor would be.
This is not a statement I, or anyone, would disagree with. I think you are straw-manning your opponents intentionally, though I could be “charitable” and imply you are so stupid you are doing it unintentionally.
Well, you’re the one talking as if you’re an expert on the “realities of gender.” You should be able to tell me where my perception differs from reality. If you’re confessing here that actually you don’t know very much about the realities of gender, well, I’ll accept that.
I think, though, that what is really going on here is that you know that what I am saying is true.
Do you have any evidence that stoicism makes people snap and scream more than not being stoic, let alone that it makes people blame others more than less-stoic people do?
There are various mechanisms that make it more likely for this being a false narrative. For example, people often judge relatively, so an outburst by a normally stoic person is going to seem more extreme than an equally fierce outburst by someone who commonly has less fierce outbursts.
Enlightened stoicism can be a healthy system of dealing with problems for both sexes.
The problem is, there’s enlightened stoicism, and then there’s bullshit-tier nonsense masquerading as stoicism by way of “toughness.” They are not the same.
Nobody here should have any trouble figuring out how bad an attitude it is, for example, to have as a natural reflex “resort to threats of violence whenever I feel disrespected, where ‘disrespect’ is defined according to a loose grab bag of traditions from my subculture plus things I personally desire based on my own personal dysfunctions.”
Idealized men who act rationally and appropriately and are in control of themselves are not the problem, just as idealized women who do the same are not the problem. The problem is that our cultural standards of “act like a man” often fail to ensure idealized male behavior, and instead produce shoddy, inferior knock-off versions of it.
I think that you are confusing macho culture with stoicism.
This assumes the only way emotions can be dealt with is being focused on.
From Scott’s post: “Rigorous psychology studies are murderous. Things that we know basically have to work, like Alcoholics Anonymous and SSRIs and psychotherapy in general, end up showing no or minimal effects.” (Italics in original)
I have extensive experience with both SSRIs and 12-step groups. I am totally on-board with the idea that neither of these things work (and may actually be harmful in some ways). I think my hypothesis is more likely — and perhaps more parsimonious — than Scott’s theory that the effectiveness is there but hard to detect using standard research techniques. (I’m not taking a position on “psychotherapy in general”. Who knows? That might work.)
My equally non-scientific impression is that both SSRIs and 12-step groups are fantastically successful for a minority of people who try them and varying degrees of not so successful for most others.
I had the same impression. I wonder if people self-select for these kinds of therapies. And if that is why an intuitive understanding is that therapies work, while rigorous studies show no added benefit. My other completely non-scientific impression is that guidance and therapy only work for people who want to fix themselves.
Yep. I was really disappointed with that sentence. “AA and SSRIs have to work, never mind why, please ignore the evidence that they don’t.” This is like the exact opposite of what I hope for from SSC/Scott.
And FWIW, I have extensive experience with psychotherapy and it never worked…
Maybe scott prescribes drugs and sees them help so consistently to the point it’s obvious they work in a way that means the studies showing they don’t have to be wrong?
I don’t have a good way to evaluate this, actually. Is meta level uncertainty.
I have a friend who is a homeopath who feels the same way, and it’s not like there is zero double blind studies that show homeopathy works. At some level of direct first-hand experience, I’m not sure we can fault people for concluding studies are missing something even if we can’t figure out what.
No, I think we can fault people for overextrapolating from personal experience. We know a lot of reasons why personal experience is a faulty guide: the placebo effect is big, and many life problems, such as depression and substance abuse, tend to get better without any intervention. Scott knows this.
I am not a statistician, if the following is wrong my whole point is wrong, but I thought the, thing that is good for a small number of people neutral for a lot of other people and bad for a small number of people ends up looking like it does nothing in a big study, was a possibility? I was under the impression that the placebo effect actually looks like it has a pretty small effect in big studies, and that SSRIs look slightly better than placebo effect in big studies(I assume, only slightly outperforming placebo, being what ‘minimal effect’ is supposed to convey).
Given the above, if Scott has regular experience with some patients saying that SSRIs helped them a lot and some who said it did nothing/was bad. He has two options, it actually does nothing, or it does exactly what his experience has shown it to do, both supported by the research.
More over, the existence of lots of people who insist that SSRIs didn’t work for them personally, is totally compatible with this interpretation. FWIW, SSRIs didn’t work for me.
The thing to keep in mind about Alcoholics Anonymous efficacy is that it has been seen, in a form that can not be attributed to self selection. Using complex statistical modeling and looking over multiple studies of AA efficacy, Humphreys 2014 saw that people who go to more Alcoholics Anonymous meetings *because of randomization* have a higher percentage of days abstinent.
It has been well established by multiple studies that subjects who go to more AA meetings are more likely to stay sober, and with Humphreys 2014, we have now seen causation, not just correlation.
As Austin Frank put it in the New York Times: “A.A. helps alcoholics, apart from the fact that it may attract a more motivated group of individuals. With that established, the next step is to encourage even more to take advantage of its benefits.”
In “some” ways Gottman is right in his views of gender communication. A few thoughts:
In my 30’s I saw a couple of different therapists over several years. One of them was named Peter Gerlach. He passed away a few years ago. He did a lot of research on stepfamilies and his website is still current: http://www.sfhelp.org. Pete’s model of communication was derived from Marshall Rosenberg’s Non Violent Communication model. The NVC model is about feeling heard, empathic listening, and win-win solutions, etc. My communication skills improved a lot as a result of my exposure to my therapists and the NVC model.
My current wife of 16 years is very much a male according to Gottman in her communication as during arguments she panics or shuts down or blows up or otherwise starts a conflict in order to avoid having to deal with it. In every other sense she is completely female, i.e. very sensitive, cries at the drop of a hat, etc. My sense and observation is my wife is a high functioning autistic/neurodivergent, which underpins her communication struggles.
However, due to my work with my therapists and the NVC communication model I tend to bring up long standing problems that need to be resolved in order to come to come solution. So the fact that I tend to be the better communicator/conflict resolver in my marriage is mostly due to social learning, which IMO overrides my own high functioning autistic tendencies and underlying male tendencies.
I think the way Gottman describes the average male communication style in relationships may also have to do with the fight and flight response, which from what I have read, is biological and due to the SRY gene. According to Shelley Taylor’s research women use more of a “Tend and Befriend” conflict resolution.
Lastly, years ago I did an internship at a boys and girls adolescent youth group home. When I asked the staff which sex is easier to deal with the boys or the girls, the boys got the unanimous vote. Why? According to the staff with the boys it was one fight and they were playing together the next minute. With the girls the conflicts would last forever and never get resolved. As these were mostly young adolescents my sense is the difference between the boys and girls is biological and not learned.
Must they have? Maybe I’m overly cynical, but I find it all too easy to imagine a couple marrying despite never loving each other.
Yes, there’s enough social pressure to get married, and not to mention fear of loneliness, that I expect a lot of marriages don’t have a good start.
This was also much more common historically than it is these days, though it remains in effect in some subcultures.
Love is a word that means too many different things. Most couples probably started out feeling some positive feelings for each other that could be called love by some definition. People think of love as a more powerful phenomenon than it is due to the conflation of different things. Different languages have proper words for different categories. The love you feel for your kids is a different thing entirely than the love for a friend, which is then different from the love you feel for a partner.
When you translate Scott’s quote into more accurate language it makes more sense:
No mystery there.
And historically, it is recognized that love is a very volatile emotion. it seems to be a “modern US thing” to (1) base marriage on love and (2) expect love to be eternal.
So I’m in a family law class right now.
One behavior that’s served me well in law school right now is, for each class, I try to compose a single sentence heuristic that helps me avoid “rookie mistakes”…I notice errors in reasoning and common sense that conflict what the law actually says, consistently.
for family law my heuristic might very well be: “The law assumes problems within a marriage are the result of mistakes and not conflicts”
Divorce changes this analysis, but the mistake I see my colleagues making, time and again, is assuming that the law can somehow get involved in an intact marriage and e.g. force John to do his share of chores or something. (it sounds foolish in the abstract but *so many* prenups have things like “a and b will divide marriage responsibilities equally.”
Do you think that’s intended as a legally binding contract or a statement of intent that may serve as a Schelling point in subsequent bargaining?
In my incredibly limited experience, it functions as the latter, but parties seem to intend the former.
As perhaps a better example: you have a lot of cases like Mcguire v. Mcguire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McGuire_v._McGuire where one partner is dependent on another, and the breadwinning partner is EXTREMELY frugal, such that only the bare minimum support is supplied (in that case, iirc the couple did not even have indoor plumbing). Can the state compel the breadwinner to “share” his money inside an intact marriage? The answer is “no”, and the underlying premise is that within an intact marriage partners are supposed to solve these problems internally. The modern approach would be if these problems literally can’t be resolved, the solution is divorce.
another note: I liked Scott’s nationalism analogy. I recall from my psych of love and sex class in college that one predictor of couple stability was the (nearly certainly false) belief among both parties that their relationship was somehow “special” or “superior” to other relationships. Maybe not the most mature attitude, but if we believe preserving marriages is preferable to the alternative, all else being equal, maybe it’s a belief we need to inculcate.
Relationships have an unusual form of intransitivity more commonly ascribed to dogs: any number of them can be the best one.
My husband and I talked about a prenup when getting married, but eventually decided we could save money on lawyers by just not being horrible people, and if things go south, treating each other with respect. Course people get starry eyed and most people who end up divorced I’m sure didn’t see it coming on the wedding day… But I do think that if you’re trying to protect against some real scary outcomes, you should question why you’re marrying someone who would conceivably put you in that situation.
Of course, laws are helpful when you feel forced for whatever reason to marry an imperfect person, not to disparage the enormous benefits of clear and fair legal contracts to extricate from sticky situations. But if you ever have a choice, don’t do business with shady business partners.
One persistent thing I’ve observed about successful marriages (and that I’ve seen quoted in the various literature, though no specific cites come to mind) is an “all-in” mentality. If divorce is viewed as a viable, if regretful option, it has a pretty high probability of being used.
Note that this “all-in” mentality is different from the immature puppy love mentality of “we just love each other so much…”, in that it recognizes there will almost certainly be some very bad times ahead, but pre-commits to working through them.
I always told myself I would absolutely require a pre-nup from any woman I chose to marry, that it would be foolish not to. But then, in the end, I didn’t, because I decided I’d rather take the risk in order to signal the “all-in” outlook to my wife.
Agreed. To me the “all-in’ mentality is the key feature of marriage and what makes it so valuable.
It is amazingly how comforting it is when you find a person for whom marriage really means til death do us part outside of a few really bad edge cases.
It gives you the strength to work through temporary bumps in the road and the confidence that no matter how bad things get you have partner.
The problem is that people change. Their personalities evolve over decade timescales; their health deteriorates; their mental condition might worsen. The 25 year old you marry is a completely different person from the 60 year old you divorce.
Phineas Gage was an industrious and responsible railroad worker. Then an industrial accident happened and an iron rod flew through his brain, destroying his left frontal lobe. After that, he became profane, irreverent, and impatient, “a child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations”, according to Harlow.
Even if your partner doesn’t change over decades, you might. What if you were Phineas Gage? Previously, you were a prim and proper woman married to a prim and proper man. Afterwards, due to an accident that was none of your fault, you acquire a taste for indecent jokes. Your partner, still free of iron rods, now finds you repulsive.
I don’t think I could marry someone hostile to contingency planning. My ideal partner has her own binder full of emergency runbooks already. (Then again I’m pretty weird on that front). No one thinks it’s going to happen to them, just like no one thinks they’ll be in a fire or an earthquake or a pandemic. But it does happen.
Passionate love turns much more easily to passionate hatred than to indifference.
Your colleagues are more right than you are. Given unilateral no-fault divorce, a spouse unhappy about the dishes or whatever can credibly use the threat of divorce to “get the law involved in their marriage” to force compliance, backed by various penalties.
Okay, I should stress. My colleagues and I are law *students*, not *lawyers*, when we “get things wrong” its on tests and during cold calls, not in advising clients what spouses will pressure other spouses into under threat of divorce.
The very real threat of no fault divorce and all its implications is such a complex and all-encompassing topic that it’s sorta hard to talk about what aspects of a marriage it *can’t* affect.
>Divorce changes this analysis, but the mistake I see my colleagues making, time and again, is assuming that the law can somehow get involved in an intact marriage and e.g. force John to do his share of chores or something.
I see that mistake so often on the Internet. Thinking that, for example, married couple can’t/shouldn’t have separate finances because the law will view much of their property as marital property if they divorce.
One thing I’ve been yammering on about for years is that a divorce does not necessarily mean a failure of marriage. If it’s an unhappy marriage, a divorce can be a victory for marriage. How is the institution strengthened by entrapping people in miserable situations?
This reminds me of an interview I once read,in which the subject was asked about their “failed marriage”, and replied that it was a bad way to characterize what he considered a successful marriage, one which had lasted ten years, and then ended amicably when both partners decided it was time to do something else. We do not apply the same standards to marriage as to other endeavors.
(I think the interview was with Salman Rushdie, and all I can find when I search for it is stories about Padma Lakshmi complaining about how terrible it was to be married to him. Still I think there is a useful observation here.)
This is what I kept thinking over and over while reading Scott’s post – for some of these couples getting to the point where they both realize divorce is the best option is the best way to minimize harm. You don’t want to “save” the relationship, you want to mercy-kill it.
There are a bunch of couple’s counselors now who call themselves “discernment” therapists to highlight this idea that they are helping a couple arrive at a healthy outcome for them, not helping them duct-tape their marriage together at all costs.
You can’t redefine things like this. Divorce is clearly a failed marriage. It might be a better outcome than that particular couple struggling along, but that isn’t success.
Is death a failed life? Life-long marriage was a reasonable goal when nobody expected to live past 50, and death in childbirth was a regular thing. So maybe you’re in for 20 years of marriage. Well, you can ride that out, even if the last few years kinda suck. But now unless you make it for 40 or 50 years the marriage is a failure? Nothing lasts forever.
Quite a lot of people lived past 50. The reason life expectancy was much shorter in the past was the high death rate for infants and children.
A quick google finds that, for England and Wales in 1850, the life expectancy of someone 20 years old was 60.
Why would you expect marriage to get harder after the first twenty years? I haven’t checked the data, but I would expect divorce to be more common in the first decade of the marriage than in the third.
Unless your “marriage” doesn’t include a sincere vow of lifelong commitment (“till death do us part”), then it’s a failure.
You might say that the Vietnam War was a mutual success. The Americans got out when the getting was good, and North Vietnam was happy to see them go! Win-win.
But most people would say it was an American failure: the US committed to preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, and yet a red flag flies over the place once called “Saigon”.
I’d like to leave it to the people who lived the marriage to decide whether it “failed” or not.
Equating failure with divorce seems confusing when there are so many ways to stay together and also be “failing” in marriage.
The institution of marriage may be strengthened by the divorce, but that particular marriage has been revealed to be a failure.
Now, “that which can be destroyed by the truth, should be,” yada yada and all that.
But when we talk about a ‘failed marriage’ we are generally not talking about whether the marriage has failed the interests of society or the institution of marriage. We’re talking about whether that specific partnership turned out to be stable and functional. And it didn’t get the job done.
EDIT: In fairness, in the extreme limiting case where a marriage was entirely satisfactory for a long period of time and ended without acrimony or regrets, “failed” may not be the appropriate term.
On the other hand, a loooot of marriages end in acrimony and regrets, which suggest that something, somehow, went wrong, even if it was only the choice to marry in the first place.
This is a good point. (And in some cases what went wrong was one of the people ever considering marrying anyone).
Only an asexual person would say this. It’s important to like your partner, definitely. And one thing most people like about their partner, if they like them at all, is they like fucking them. And even if they don’t like their partner, they might still like fucking them.
Most people feel very very deeply about the fucking part.
Only a childless person would say this (hey, you did it first).
After the fucking comes the pregnancy, which makes the woman increasingly helpless and uncomfortable for nine months, then childbirth, then recovery, then at least four or five years of watching over a neurotic and fairly stupid creature with poor hygiene habits and a tendency to get itself killed. After those four or five years the creature will still be mostly useless and dependent, but you will be past the point where it cannot identify basic hazards or wipe its own ass. You still have at least ten years of work to put in feeding it and training it to be a self-supporting member of society who does not murder prostitutes or burn down houses for fun. During those net fifteen years, you may well sexually engineer more useless little poop-goblins, restarting the whole cycle.
Which is to say, yes, you don’t need marriage to have a next generation of humans, but if you specify that you want them to be physically and psychologically healthy, marriage really helps. Women who cycle through romantic partners while raising kids are at a distinct disadvantage.
I have two children.
Are you going somewhere with this, or only pointing out that Scott’s rhetorical flourish was not literally correct?
With contraception/abortion you can have sex without having children.
A better criticism of Scott would be that people can have children without a partner, which is an increasingly popular option.
I wasn’t criticizing Scott and I am not really interested in doing so, but thanks for your suggestion.
I mentioned Gottman’s 91% prediction rate for divorce to my wife, which caught her interest, then followed up with how he did it with postdiction. She immediately rolled her eyes and laughed. My wife is an accountant – not an MIT mathematicians. I think it is safe to say that Gottman has been drinking the kool-aid for too long.
The book sounds charming though. Will have a read.
This line seems to set up a different quote to the one that actually follows:
Funnily enough the default patriarchy advise about marriage conflict, at least here in Brazil, is that you as a man should yield to your wife, because women are extremely unreasonable and will not yield even when wrong. As a man is your burden to yield even when right to keep the marriage together.
Us WEIRD folks are very sensitive to the many horrible abuses of patriarchy, but I think it has noticeable benefits in this area.
So, my wife and I are culturally conservative Catholics who both believe in a “male headship” (ie, patriarchal) model of marriage, as described with helpful nuance here:
Indeed, my wife asked that St. Paul’s (in)famous passage from Ephesians 5 on male headship be one of the Mass readings at our wedding. (Me when my more socially liberal friends asked me about it: “Hey, she picked it. She’s the boss.”)
Anyhow, it seems to me that the following things are true for most (cishet) couples most of the time, and considered by traditionalists to be true:
1) The household is more of a female sphere; the wife cares more about it and knows more about it
2) Most marital disagreements are about matters of domestic economy like child rearing or dirty dishes or whatever
3) Per 1 & 2 the wife is more knowledgeable and cares more about most topics of marital discord—she’s usually right
4) Men have gigantic egos
Here is how patriarchy—when functioning well—deals with this:
The man is secure that he is the head of the household. Indeed, my wife occasionally prefaces her opinions with things like “As the husband, this is ultimately your decision, but I think….”
I like to think of myself as an agreeable person, but taking the outside view, it’s pretty likely that being a guy, I have a giant ego. The patriarchal structure of our marriage doubtless strokes that ego. The result of which being that 99% of the time, we do things my wife’s way. So if she says “As the husband, this is your decision, but I think….” then I’m almost always going to respond with something like “Well, that’s nice of you to say, but now that I think about it, I think you’re right, because….”
Scott said he’s a liberal and offers liberal advice to all the marital micro-polities. Well, I’m a (possibly banned r-word?) and my marital micropolity is Aquinas’ preferred form of government: a mixed polity. I’m the king; she’s the aristocracy; our kids are the commonalty.
We exercise paternalistic authority over our little serfs, who have certain customary rights (eg, brush your teeth = bedtime story). My wife offers me advice like a kind of parliament (or I guess a Lords-only Curia Regis, to keep the analogy going) or senate, and I almost always take her advice. I mostly handle external affairs; she, mostly internal.
The opposite of a monarchy, say the Greeks and medievals, is a tyranny. I propose that in a properly monarchical patriarchal micro-polity, the king is formally in charge, but more often than not, just accedes to whatever parliament wants. Whereas in a tyrannical marriage, the husband lords it over everyone and acts like an Enlightenment absolutist monarch. (Because the Enlightenment, of course, ruined everything.) (Joke!) (Mostly.)
I suspect there’s a Confucian way to write up similar insights about how fixed roles make everyone secure enough not to pull rank on each other or descend into grievance micro-politics, but I’m unfamiliar with that tradition.
There are probably primatological or anthropological or evopsych perspectives here, but that’s not my field, either. But I will say that those male fight/flight responses Gottman mentions seem to me heck of a lot less likely to kick in after a little performance of deference, be it picking nits out of fur or saying “I respect your (patriarchal) authoritah” before dealing with a simmering conflict.
A last thought: from my perspective, many of these problems of modern liberal, dare I say feminist marriage, are those inherent in democracy as the Greeks warned about: no deference, and a micro-polity riven with the democratical strife of faction.
Anyhow, that’s the view from my (very) alternative lifestyle—a Chestertonian “patriarchy BECAUSE women know best and men are hotheaded” take.
Whatever the reader’s lifestyle is, my respectful regards.
There’s a Polish saying that sums it up nicely: the man is the head of the household; the wife – the neck that turns the head.
Exactly. And that’s a heck of a lot pithier than my comment!
We got one here that goes: As the head of the household a man always has the last word in any discussion: Yes ma’am.
I’m reminded of someone’s line that he makes all the important decisions in their household, such as whether the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan. His wife makes all the unimportant decisions, such as what they are having for dinner.
Care must be taken not to go too far:
Just wanted to say I enjoyed your comment, and appreciated the level of commitment to the analogy.
That’s very kind of you to take the time to say. Thank you!
Folks are a little nicer here than on Twitter. Just saying. ;(
You’re right as usual, Nick!
(1) is true because we make it true- but that’s a side issue.
(2) is… questionably true. It may be true in a society that supplies the patriarchal household with the kind of employment stability and viable one-man-support-family living conditions that permit it to be true. But it’s not true in a society that does not support its continued truth.
(4), well… to some extent I think that, too, is true because we make it true. See an earlier comment about how patriarchy promotes status-insecurity among men; men who are insecure about their status are going to have sensitive egos.
But (4) is the clincher. Because bearing in mind that the male ego is what it is not just because of biology but because of social conditioning… Well, what your argument evolves into is “my society makes me very sensitive and touchy about being contradicted by women, so it is right and good that women in my society have to stroke my ego a bit before I can think straight and accept their influence when that influence contradicts my wishes.”
The argument is somewhat circular; the obvious response is “I’m not sure men actually have a biological compulsion to get angry or irrational when contradicted by women, so if you stop raising men to have that compulsion, they won’t have the problem, and then men and women can discuss their concerns like rational beings.”
Now with that said, there’s a lot else going on, and when Gottman entered the field of marriage counseling, the median American adult male was very much brought up in that framework of “men have a right to expect female deference and have a right to be resentful if they don’t get it.”
But I think that to some extent, the entire “happy wife, happy life” meme is acting like a software patch on patriarchal social expectations. Because it turns out that when you try to run “Paterfamilias v1.0,” sooner or later the man gets so overbearing and domineering that his wife can’t stand it and finds some way to make her displeasure known no matter how punishing an experience patriarchy makes that for her. Thus it became necessary to patch that cultural expectation “Paterfamilias v1.1,” with the idea that yes the man is the supremly logical and important head of the family and all, but he should still defer to his wife regularly. Even though the notion that he’s actually in the objective wrong about something is an inadmissible notion.
Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking response.
On (1) I’m not at all a blank-slatist, but we won’t resolve nature vs nurture on this here, so we can agree to disagree on it as being a “side issue.”
On (2), I’m implicitly using a very broad, Xenophonian definition of “domestic economy” that probably encompasses more than how you read that phrase, but if we tabooed it and did a bunch of inferential distance-bridging, we’d probably find ourselves in agreement on this one.
My take on your take on (4) is mostly just the same as mine on yours on (1), but I’ll say a bit more.
I disagree with Mr Mind’s view that patriarchal societies make men insecure (and therefore competitive) about status:
a. I think intra-male status competition is biologically inescapable, and that usually only hierarchy secures status firmly enough that larger groups of men can focus on the task at hand, whether military, ecclesiastical, political, scientific, commercial, or whatever without being at risk of descending into simian chest-beating.
b. I think male status insecurity about their position relative to women is much less prevalent in securely patriarchal societies than in ours. But it’s much more prevalent than in our society in societies where the patriarchal order is threatened—as it was here by feminism when Gottman started his work, and as it is in, eg, Islamic societies and basically every other remaining patriarchal society right now. So Mr Mind’s observations are true for extant patriarchal societies, but only because they’re all insecurely patriarchal due to Westernization, secularization, feminism, etc.
In particular, I am not arguing that “my [patriarchal] society makes me sensitive and touchy about women, therefore patriarchy.” I grew up in modern American society, not a traditional patriarchy. I’m arguing that men innately have right-shifted bell curves on status needs, women on needs like a tidy home and financial security, and a benign patriarchy gives both more of what they want.
However, there’s no panacea. The Greeks always said that monarchies tend to degenerate eventually into tyrannies, so the degeneration of benign patriarchy into abusive tyranny is sadly unsurprising. But overcorrection toward patriarchal tyranny doesn’t seem like an issue for the WEIRD world. The problem in most of our broken homes today isn’t tyranny—it’s anarchy.
@Irenist. Do you have a blog or something? I think your perspective is interesting and would be interested in reading more.
Appreciate your insights.
From all I’ve read and observed, the biggest benefit of patriarchy is that it gives men buy-in to the family. The maternal bond is, in the main, more potent than the paternal one for inescapable reasons of biology. And so a patriarchal family structure is a way to compensate for this and boost the father’s bond to be closer to the mother’s, and so increase his inclination to invest in the family.
If the household is allowed to become dominated by the maternal bond and feminine nesting instincts (and it’s easy for this to happen), the man may begin to feel “he just lives here”, and even if he doesn’t flee, he’ll daydream about it, with a corresponding increase in his bitterness and a decrease in his investment in the family.
Wency, the current situation id that men are given more of a buy-in by getting them more involved in raising their children.
Sure, that change happened, though I don’t get the sense my boomer dad was dramatically more involved than either of my WW2-gen grandfathers, or that there was a huge change among my peers. The bigger change since those days is that people just aren’t having children.
Fatherless homes have also been on a slow and steady 60-year increase among US whites, but it doesn’t appear they’ll constitute a majority in the foreseeable future.
All that said, the large majority of people (at least in the US) still retain the most basic sop to patriarchy, which is the wife and children taking the father’s surname. In the children’s case, this tends to be true even in communities where minimal paternal involvement (and children by multiple fathers) is the norm.
I think that intra-male status competition is biologically inescapable, but so is the desire to eat sugary food.
Not every human winds up morbidly obese from giving in to their inescapable- but resistible- impulses. And choices made by individual humans, and collectively by societies, can influence how effectively we resist that impulse.
Hierarchy is one mechanism for preventing intra-male status competition from turning into a crippling liability for the group; it is particularly effective at regimenting large numbers of young males, or males who have been socially conditioned to maximize their competitive streak as opposed to minimize it.
Conversely, socializing males to manfully resist the competitive streak, or to channelize it along constructive lines, makes us a lot more functional in more flexible structures. Which is useful for building high civilizations, I would argue, and civilization and liberty are superior to barbarism and tyranny.
Patriarchal hierarchy is like a species of tree that attempts to thrive by shedding poisonous sap onto the soil around its roots, to which the tree itself is immune. It’s functional and adaptive to its native environment, but not because it is better in any relevant instrumental sense.
I don’t buy that. The underlying argument “the overlords are kinder when they feel secure” is fundamentally flawed because it is in the nature of overlords not to feel secure.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
“A man has as many enemies as he has slaves.”
“The Sword of Damocles.”
We remember these things for a reason; there is no such thing as a truly comfortable and secure autocrat or ruling elite. The ruling elite will always, always be jealous of its privileges, quick to destroy potential competitors, and quick to interpret any sign of autonomy or spirit among the subaltern as evidence of impending rebellion.
There is a reason slaveholders of the American south made it illegal for slaves to learn to read, why there have been so many peasant rebellions and so many peasants beheaded, impaled, crucified, and otherwise brutally killed. And why so many premodern societies had brutal punishments for women who were, well… insubordinate.
There is no such thing as a secure overlordship; the overlord is constantly afraid of what will happen if his powers and privileges are undermined.
Most of the anarchy is, in my opinion, the product of creating a social system that promotes the interests of capital over those of labor, rather than trying to balance the two. Women’s lib did not create the problems; it merely moved the problems, and in so doing made the average man less willfully complicit in their creation.
If the liberated slaves have no property and cannot read, the solution is not to put them back in chains, it is to see to it that they have access to property and education.
If the home is in chaos because modern families face torturous external pressures and cannot negotiate equitable solutions to their problems, the answer is to learn to negotiate better and to relieve the pressures from outside. Not to fantasize about how there wouldn’t be any problems if I, the fantasist, were unconditionally in charge and never had to negotiate anything.
FWIW I have certainly found that setting up an environment conducive to good behavior makes it easier for me to control my baser impulses.
The rhetoric is heating up a bit, so I want to start by thanking you again for an enjoyable and (for me, at least) profitable conversation.
If there’s one thing this blog has taught me, it’s that preventing obesity involves much more than telling people to resist their impulses. I am in general sceptical of any “New Soviet Man”-type scheme for societal improvement that requires the “crooked timber of humanity” to will itself into a “straight thing.”
That is to say, hierarchy is effective for the hardest cases of destructive status competition. Precisely.
For those saints strong enough to be humble, humility is indeed highly recommended. One can build a very high civilization indeed (Latin Christendom, Eastern Christendom, Tibet) if men given to the monkish virtues are given monasteries in which to actualize them.
But the Jacobins, Communists, and Nazis, among others, ought to have taught us by now that one cannot build a “high civilization” on the assumption that all or even most men will be as virtuous as you would like them to be, in the way you would like them to be.
Well, of course they are. But which sort of society yields which is the question. Unless you take me to be an advocate for the latter–which I fear you may.
What is the relevant instrumental sense? If we were manchineel (poison guava tree) philosophers asking ourselves, “What is the best life for machineels?” the answer would surely involve producing lots of poisonous sap, because that is indeed what is functional and adaptive for manchineels–it’s part of their telos. If patriarchal family structure is functional and adaptive for patriarchal families and patriarchal societies, than in what “relevant instrumental sense” is it bad? What are the negative externalities, and who suffers harm from them?
Who said anything about overlords? I was talking about husbands.
It is in the nature of tyrants and usurpers not to feel secure–not kings.
Henry IV, who speaks that line, was a usurper. That fact was very salient indeed for Elizabethan audiences of Shakespeare’s many plays about the Wars of the Roses, despite the Tudors’ Lancastrian origins.
Yes, but a patriarch’s wife is not his slave. You can consult the
first book of Aristotle’s Politics, where he tells us that a master’s rule over his slaves is despotic, whereas a father’s over his children is royal, and a husband’s over his wife is constitutional.
Dionysius was showing Damocles what it’s like to be a tyrant, not what it’s like to be a king.
Not all “autonomy and spirit” is subversive of the established order. When people have the good fortune to live in a well ordered polity, they support it. Yes, tyrants and oligarchs will constantly be watching for rebellion: but kings and noblemen will not.
Assuming patriarchy is equivalent to the horrors of antebellum slavery rather brazenly begs the question.
There have been rebellions under every known social order, and every known polity has a degenerate form. Abusus non tollit usum.
The status of “peasant” postdates the fall of the despotic, slavery-based Roman Empire. The abolition of judicial crucifixion dates from the Christianization of the Empire. Chronologically, imagining widespread crucifixion of peasants is rather like picturing Pancho Villa’s favored raiding weapon as an atlatl.
What brutal punishments did Victorian or 1950s patriarchs inflict?
I think there’s an underlying difference in Haidtian foundations here. I distinguish between legitimate authority and illegitimate tyranny. It would appear from everything you’ve written that you conflate them.
I have pointed to my own actually existing marriage, and noted that actual traditional societies dealt deftly with human foibles. You have proposed that men generally abandon their primate status-seeking instincts, and that society be reordered more justly. Which of us is the utopian fantasist?
Thank you for your interest! If you click on my name, it leads to my Twitter account. My Twitter page has a link to my blog, but I haven’t blogged in ages, I’m afraid.
This is a totally ahistorical account of traditional patriarchal society, like most such put forth by its various defenders and/or resurrectionists. “Assuming” patriarchy was an evil on a level with antebellum slavery requires only that one be familiar with the actual history of patriarchy, rather than the rose-colored-glasses version– and it is no coincidence that the sort of people who believe the rose-colored-glasses version tend also to believe the Lost Cause nonsense about kindly masters looking after their slaves.
What brutal punishments did Victorian or 1950s patriarchs inflict? Beatings and rapes, to name two, which the law typically let them get away with.
Victorian society was brutal for many men as well, which makes the comparison to slavery ridiculous. For example, there was a sole burden on the man to provide for his family (which the wife could sue for) and if he got into crushing debt, he would be imprisoned into debtor’s prison. These prison’s routinely underfed prisoners and guards could and would freely torture prisoners. A parliamentary commission found very high rates of starvation. Due to coverture, a married woman couldn’t be subject to that, for any debts she made were debts of the family unit, for which solely the man could be held responsible.
Imagine slavery where the slaves could go to court if their master wouldn’t take well enough care of them and where masters would then be starved and tortured, until they somehow scrounged the money together.
Anyway, you accuse others of rose-colored glasses, but it is you who ignores all evidence that doesn’t match your revisionist and one-sided view. For example, feminism had very little traction among the lower and lower middle class because those women saw what the deal was for men in their class and few wanted to trade. In fact, even very many suffragettes explicitly noted in their writings that they didn’t want the male gender role. Only at the top tier of society did a decent number of women like the deal for their peer men better.
My analysis is that the reason why feminism ascended was the wealth increase due to the industrial revolution and the subsequent successes at having workers profit from this economic growth. This improved more and more men’s lives to a point where more and more women got jealous. Housework also got easier, but for upper middle class (and up) women, this was (more than) offset by a loss in cheap domestic labor. Once technology, schooling and healthcare advances (which caused a reduction in the number of children people had) made many housewives jobs into a part-time and relatively lonely job, many of these women experienced ennui, which is evident from a lot of cultural artifacts. See Madame Bovary and Diary of a Mad Housewife, as two examples of this ennui.
Bette Friedan wrote about it as well.
This is NOT what an African-American slave could have written about her life.
The fact that men themselves had it bad in past times doesn’t imply that they weren’t brutal in dominating others even lower in status, and doesn’t excuse them for it. And that some women complained of ennui doesn’t mean that others didn’t have worse things to complain about.
Slavery was a system that exploited some, to make the lives of others better. I’ve shown pretty clear evidence that patriarchy didn’t just put huge burdens on women, but men as well.
If your actual claim is that patriarchy is bad because people in the past had a much more brutal society, rather than that the brutality was distributed unfairly, then you have the issue that patriarchy is typically defined by gender inequality, which is merely one aspect of how society is organized.
Why wouldn’t that brutality be (partially) the fault of aristocratic rule, rather than patriarchy? Why wouldn’t that brutality be (partially) the fault of poverty and lack of technology? Why wouldn’t that brutality be (partially) the fault of different norms of how people should be convinced to act right? Etc.
Aren’t you just reasoning backwards, starting with a dislike of patriarchy and then attributing all bad things of the past to it, rather than assessing it on it’s actual merits and demerits?
(I have repeatedly tried to reply to this comment thread and the comments go ‘poof.’ Trying to figure out if it’s working at all. Which is frustrating because people are taking some of my statements in tangential directions, and refuting peripheral details that don’t address the core points I’m making)
There are some words that will prevent a post from going up; click on the comments link at the header (I foolishly tried to quote the list, lol).
Otherwise, too many links may trip the spam filter.
You can post half your comment (and then half of that comment, etc) until the comment posts, switching to the other half when it doesn’t, to figure out what naughty word tripped the automatic censoring.
I got married in the greek orthodox church. At a traditional Orthodox service, the husband and wife are literally crowned king and queen of their own household, complete with cute little crowns.
I thought it was actually a super powerful metaphor and when things get tough this is how I think about my marriage.
That’s such a beautiful tradition.
And on my account, one may want to consider extending the analogy to include the king and queen in chess….
“Just keep the pawns alive until the end of the board. Then they can take care of themselves.” (?)
The queen is a more powerful piece, but it is the king and only the king whose survival is essential?
yeah I’m not sure what’s meant by that. That’s the trouble with metaphors.
If I use the Wire analogy, the queen is the “get shit done piece” and the king is the piece that doesn’t have to move much or hustle. By this metaphor I think I’m the queen and my wife is the king. So my wife is the broad goalsetter: we should live in x city, and so on, and I’m the executive arm that makes that stuff happen.
“Men have gigantic egos” is discussed above, and I think that ultimately powers a lot of a modern marriage vis-a-vis wives getting husbands to do stuff. So the wife’s like “I want a yard” and I’m like “okay, time to earn more money with my PRODIGIOUS BRAIN”
Also: I cook. That’s non-negotiable.
…and I wear my cool king-crown while I do it.
This is further evidence for my conclusion that healthy complementarian/patriarchal/whatever-you-like relationships function basically the same way egalitarian relationships do, just with some different decorations.
(To be fair, this is true of other relationship styles too. I am more-or-less a relationship anarchist and philosophically opposed to my husband having any say over my body or my relationship choices, but of course I’ll consult him first before I make them and listen to his advice.)
I cannot help but note that if the way to make a healthy “authoritarian marriage” is basically to make an egalitarian marriage and then change the decorations…
The concept of the authoritarian marriage seems to be at best redundant and more likely counterproductive.
Any successful relationship must sufficiently serve the needs of all participants.
That’s a great point. I think considerate and terrible couples will both mostly be considerate or terrible under any dispensation, but society’s preferred relationship style will matter at the margins—with significant cumulative social effects.
Irenist, this is graciously spoken.
As someone in a pretty egalitarian marriage, happily for 20 years now I’m grateful to say, the part that matches for me is the sense of how clarity about responsibilities and expectations calms nervous systems, and how helpful that can be when life’s changes are challenge enough.
The structure needs to be flexible enough to accommodate change but sturdy enough to free the participants from having to negotiate everything from scratch all the time and to keep people from score-keeping.
As you’ve alluded to, power is extremely complex inside a long-term relationship and some balance needs to be found that feeds all the participants because unhappiness in one part of the system will lead quickly to unhappiness everywhere.
Do you think your wife does not have an ego?
I don’t think that.
If women have egos too, like men, then it would seem very difficult to accurately calibrate a fair and equitable amount of ego-stroking from each partner to the other that is consistent with meeting the partners’ respective needs.
A simple arrangement in which the woman is expected to always satisfy the man’s ego could only be practical, let alone just, if women did not have egos. Since this is clearly not the case, there must be some balance.
But the very nature of a marriage dynamic characterized by “the male ego needs to be satiated for the marriage to function, so the woman is going to have to do that for practical reasons” is going to make it hard to determine and appropriately implement the right amount of ego-stroking for the women.
And then we get the core complaint of ’60s feminists regarding traditional marriage. Namely, that women are being expected to abnegate their egos and live what might be termed ‘lobotomized’ lives if that’s what it takes to please their man.
This is a deal they may understandably view as grossly unfavorable. But then they are heavily penalized by the social order if they choose not to take a deal that is grossly unfavorable to them. At which point it becomes hard to argue that the entire arrangement is advantageous to women, or that the women shouldn’t just make like Lysistrata and (so to speak) go on strike for better spousing conditions.
My father has a Japanese friend who says that him and his wife have a very traditional Japanese marriage and in a traditional Japanese marriage the wife makes all the little, day-to-day, decisions and the husband makes all the big, important, decisions. He then pauses and says, with a big smile, “We’ve been married ten/twenty/thirty years and there’s yet to be a big decision.”
It occurs to me that this may be more than just a joke.
Certain aspects of Japanese society are famously stable- in particular, employment is stable. Stable employment grants greater security from outside the domestic family unit, and in turn means that there are fewer momentous high-stakes decisions to be made (and potentially made wrong, causing recrimination).
All else being equal, it’s probably easier to maintain domestic accord and bliss when your family isn’t forced to move house every three years because one of you just lost your job or has to relocate to another state in order to keep it.
This is pure speculation on my part.
The famous employment stability of Japan has been showing many ominous cracks for decades now, and will continue to deteriorate.
Many younger workers are beginning to realize they will not be working for the same company their whole lives.
It is unfortunate when an economic structural feature that would otherwise permit human beings to lead happy and stable home lives disappears.
The work culture of lifetime employment was incredibly unhealthy. Because you were supposed to be devoted to your company just as it was to you, it could easily eat your whole life up. Moreover, you couldn’t seek out better opportunities in other companies, which is key to advancing – and also to avoiding being abused as a worker. After all, if you can’t find another job if you lose your present one, then you have to do basically anything your employer says.
The work-life balance of many Japanese people was absolutely atrocious, and a big part of that was because of the whole lifelong employment shtick. It has very severe drawbacks, and is one of many reasons why the Japanese economy is much less healthy than the US one – and why people in Japan have all sorts of social issues.
Isn’t/wasn’t the idea of Japanese companies that you’d advance if you put in your time and did a decent job, so no job-hopping was required?
I also think that the shitty work culture is largely due to Japanese culture in general being a shitty mix of honor culture, a Calvinist work ethic and immense respect for hierarchy.
That’s largely also why the Japanese military had suicidal tendencies in WW II and those soldiers were conscripted and thus you can’t blame lifelong employment.
I mostly agree, and am happy to see you post here again.
The reason why this works for some people is that you’re basically assigning each person a domain of power, and that domain of power is also where that person does most of their work.
Thus, the man has the superior societal role – they have a job, they are the breadwinner, they control if the family needs to move when they get a new job, they have the superior outward facing role in society, ect. They spend 8+ hours a day out of the house working, and the woman has no power over that.
The woman takes the majority of the housework on, save for some particular tasks (like building stuff, or hauling around heavy stuff). Because she spends most of her time rearing the children, cooking, cleaning, ect. that’s her stuff, so the man acquiesces on it because it’s the stuff SHE mostly has to do.
When you start trying to boss the other person around and tell them what they are supposed to do in their domain of power, or where you try to assign a heavy burden from your domain into their domain, this all breaks down. This is probably also a big part of why if a man became unable to support his family anymore, it created huge problems.
I suspect this is part of why the Baby Boomers and Generation X had such high divorce rates – women were entering the workforce and trying to be their own people socially, which created tension with the male role (as the male no longer had their own sphere of dominance), and simultaneously expected men to do more work around the house and not leave it all up to them (because they were now working, so it was unreasonable to expect them woman to do all the work). This caused both partners to intrude on the others’ domain, but they still felt like it was “theirs”, and so conflict happened (either because they wanted the other person to do things their way in their domain, or because the other person was demanding the same of them, or because their new responsibilities created conflict, like a woman being promoted potentially causing the family to move or resulting in her not being able to do some household role that the man was ill-suited for as well). They didn’t have models for this in their heads and often had conflicting ideas about how to deal with stuff outside of their domain.
This is also why modern generations can deal with it better, at least in the upper half of society – they’re more used to the idea of men and women being equal and assigning roles by sex not making much sense, so it makes more sense that they both have jobs and both deal with household chores. This leads to more mutualism, as they regard both domains as shared.
Conversely, at the bottom end of society, they never adapted to the new circumstances, so failed relationships are now the norm rather than the exception there.
Basic nitpick – why frame it as marriages at this point? Committed relationships seem to be the actual topic being discussed. I’ll freely admit that the marriage ritual statistically appears to change *something* in the quality of a cohabiting couple, but the whole question of what makes couples stay together and what can be done to help them with it surely applies to unmarried as well as to married ones!
That’s how I read it, substituting marriage by relation automatically.
At least in my country, marriage or committed relation makes little difference, less and less with each legal system update.
What makes a huge difference are children and common house mortgage, Those 2 are the real wedding.
Maybe a big wedding ceremony sometimes is social-binding, due to visibility and cost, but among my married friends the size of the wedding varied a lot, some having a quite minimal, non-religious close family only stuff, other bigger more traditional one. None had a huge one though….
If you’re in a committed, monogamous, cohabiting relationship of indefinite duration, you’re in a marriage, at least anthropologically speaking. The idea that marriages MUST jump through numerous legal hoops to be valid seems to be mostly an invention of the later middle ages, at least in the West.
However, in my experience (living in the US at least — where Gottman was writing), the most common reason people in long-term relationships don’t get married is reservations about their partner. So when it comes to resolving conflicts in these types of relationships, where the commitment is not so solid, the experiences of working with married couples aren’t necessarily applicable.
The case may be different in Europe, where I hear tales of people choosing never to complete the legal steps necessary to get married despite being (supposedly) entirely committed to lifelong monogamy.
Marriage advice books always frame it as “marriage,” with typically a footnote that everything they say applies to unmarried couples too. I take it as a combination of 1) trying not to alienate socially conservative couples, esp. for U.S. audiences, and 2) married people are richer than unmarried ones and therefore more likely to go to therapy.
Is it possible that Gottmann’s research methodologies are simply old-fashioned, from an era before people really worried about P-hacking, the garden of forking paths, preregistering hypotheses and such? I mean, the man was born in 1942. And psychology doesn’t sound like the sort of deeply mathy field that would be using the very latest statistical and conceptual tools in the first place.
Reading through the post, that was my impression. For example, Scott says:
That’s just not true. For one thing, phrases like “training data” and “model validation” hardly existed when Gottman was in school. For another, studying math doesn’t give you a sense for data. An understanding of probability theory is inadequate alone to understanding hypothesis testing and sampling.
What studying math at MIT does grant you is a strong belief that you do understand things like data and numbers. Gottman is blinded by arrogance, not malice.
Yes, probably, but Heyman understood the dynamic involved when he wrote his paper in 2001. Even if he was the first person to discover it and Gottman could not possibly have known before then, he’s had 19 years to shape up.
And Paul Meehl was born in 1920. He prominently wrote about all aspects of the replication crisis in 1967. Just look up anything like predictive validity in wikipedia and it cites Meehl.
This is a criticism of using p-values and NHST as an end rather than a means. An understanding of difference between statistical significance vice practical significance and the problems with generalizing too broadly from non-representative populations is adequate to address these concerns. While these are elements of the replication crisis, they’re certainly not “all aspects” of it and arguably not even the most important. People have been misunderstanding NHST for years (and continue to do so today!), so one person pointing limitations of the form that, if abused or ignored, result in bad science isn’t to me indicative that the psychological community had a good understanding of “all aspects of the replication crisis” in the late 1960’s.
Gottmann was on par with peers in his field, not an exception.
Those who do not remember the past have an excuse to get away with repeating it.
Yes, Gottmann was on par with his post-Meehl peers and he is still on par with his post-crisis peers.
You made a specific claim. You said that predictive validity did not exist when Gottmann was in school. Not only did it exist in statistics before he was born, Meehl was writing about it in psychology when Gottmann was in middle school.
Thank you for this takedown of pop psychology. I sympathize with your frustration at the end of your review. I think there might be a way to have your cake and eat it too, though, and reconcile Ozy’s fatalism with Gottman’s self-determinism. If we take the view that mental health predicts marital happiness, that’s fatalism. But if we also take the view that we can improve at least one partner’s mental health, then that’s self-determinism.
As I was reading your review, I recalled the Duchenne smile study, how yearbook photos could predict marital happiness, among other life satisfaction variables. At first, I thought it was Gottman who did it, and it turns out to not be. However, I don’t know if it was postdiction or not. But it makes sense to me. In middle school and high school, I quickly developed a sense of everybody’s fatalism. Why was it, that everybody, for better or worse, had similar experiences one year as the previous year? Nobody seemed to get better or worse in their happiness, stress levels, pessimism/optimism, etc.
To my mind, the Duchenne smile is an indicator of someone who has great mental health. So, my recommendation to couples wouldn’t be communication templates or cultural advice like “always agree with the woman” or “stand by your man”, but instead to encourage practices that improve the mental health of a least one partner.
What is mental health, and how do we improve it? Well, that’s its own rabbit hole, but it’s my current belief that that’s the answer to everything. Mental health is the only thing that seems to even remotely improve wisdom, except for experience. However, marriage is in theory, a one-shot deal. I’m sure you could get better after your 100th marriage. But wisdom is what would lead someone to the right communication techniques, or how to compromise with your partner, or how to talk oneself away from a cliff, etc., without any prior training.
I object to being characterized as a fatalist! I had three entire categories of problems that are manageable or solvable in ways other than “break up.”
I wanted to say how much I liked your inclusion of the option “Suck it up”. I hate how conflicts are always portrayed as solvable, like if you just talk about it enough or compromise or whatever then you can come to an arrangement about anything. Most problems, in my experience, involve one or the other person just fucking dealing with it, and that should be presented not only as an option but also, frankly, an obligation. If you want to be in a relationship, there WILL be some things that you’re just going to have to accept aren’t going to change but also aren’t important enough to break up over.
This is the content of an online document that I update whenever I find valuable couples insight (I’ve started this years ago due to a failing relationship):
1) Stay with people you like.
2) People change. It’s totally possible to marry a person and, years later, finding yourself with a totally different person you don’t like anymore. It’s also totally possible that the person who has changed was you, even if you feel absolutely the same.
3) If there is a problem, both must want to resolve it. One can shift, but the other must follow suit. One sided change are only exploitative.
4) You can work around unsolvable conflicts, but you can also split.
5) Every emotion is valid. Not every expression of emotions is valid.
6) There’s no shame in feeling vulnerable or asking for forgiveness. Being a couple should not be infected with status-seeking game at the expense of your partner.
7) Emotional intelligence is a key skill: understanding your emotionally motivated cognition and her emotionally motivated cognition.
8) Substitute expectations with contracts.
I’m pretty sure that the entire reason why things like anxiety, mania, and depression exist is because not every emotion is valid.
In fact, I think it’s actually extremely common for emotions to be invalid. I think an important part of being healthy is recognizing when an emotional response is invalid and curbing it.
I think Mr. Mind’s distinction here is key: “Every emotion is valid. Not every expression of emotions is valid.”
We tend to conflate the internal having-an-emotion experience with the acting-on-the-emotion experience. I think an important part of being healthy is seeing a clear distinction between having an emotion, the story-telling we do based on the emotion, and acting on the emotion. We can be kind towards all our emotions and give ourselves and others validation for all the emotions without encouraging taking actions based on those emotions.
I would distinguish between emotions and moods. Anxiety, mania, and depression are pervasive mood states that do not pass quickly like emotions do and therefore tend to impair functioning because they chronically distort our thinking and behavior.
Strong feelings, like anger or rage, can also temporarily impair our functioning, but because it’s an emotion, it tends to blow through pretty quickly and if we have some coping skills on board we’ll see that something is making us really mad and that we might do better to refrain from acting out of the place and instead go take a walk or whatever until we calm down.
What really does “valid” mean when talking about emotions? I read this terminology as a way of conflating “genuine” with “reasonable.” Arguing over whether someone is or is not feeling a certain way is a sucker’s game, but that doesn’t mean that emotion is justified or helpful. I think it’s very healthy to discourage one’s own unhelpful, unjustified emotions, and to keep the unhelpful, justified ones brief.
I disagree. There are more reasonable emotions and there are those that are less so.
For example, if someone gets strong feelings of jealousy every time their partner talks to someone of the opposite sex, that is not reasonable.
Perhaps they can do no better than to learn to cope with those feelings, rather than not have them, but that doesn’t make them reasonable, it just means that they can’t fix themselves, so coping is the best they can do.
If the emotion impairs a person, making them unable to act in a way that is useful for their and/or society’s goals, then the emotion is harmful.
There are coping skills to reduce the harm, but these will often be merely partially effective.
Imho, marriage is not very different from any human relation or activity: people will do it as long as (they think) they are better of doing it than not doing it. So mariage ends as soon as one of the spouse think he will be better divorced. Conflict happen because it’s rare both have the same opinion at the same time, and also because both can feel they either get less and less from the mariage or that their happiness-prospect in case of divorce increase for some reason.
When this happen you feel getting closer to the tipping point and often try to change things to move the other way, which means getting more out of the relation (who would actively attempt to get less in case of divorce?). This often escalate things quickly because it’s rare you can get more in a win-win situation (those are the easy win you get at the early stage of the relation), so not only you do not really get more, but you also start to shift your partner towards it’s tipping point just because of the conflict.
I think many therapies try to change the perspective of how much you get from the relation, or how you would fare when it’s off, usually to make your appraisal closer to reality. I am not sure it often work, because appraisals often are quite good and seems wrong to someone else only because he do not have all the data. In the case appraisal is really shifted by therapy, I am not convinced at all it will move in the “good” direction.
>So mariage ends as soon as one of the spouse think he will be better divorced.
To be honest, I’ve seen this dynamic happen very rarely. In my experience, it’s more frequent the case that both partners try to stay together even when it’s obvious that they would benefit from splitting.
Is it obvious? Not in my experience, I have family where the relation continues while I would have ended up (in place of the guy) long ago.
But I do not think the guy is irrational, or a saint that put his relation above his well-being. It’s more that I fail wearing his shoes.
You have the obvious stuff like mortgage, and children, and the shared hobbies that are always considered….But it’s not the whole picture:
For example, in this case I know I bear being alone much better than he does, already a big factor. Things like social circle play a huge role too (do you have a circle that will still be there after separation (then not really alone)? Any social/professional consequences?. How physically attractive the partner (still) is to him is also difficult to know, and not much discussed, while this is important and not at the early stage of the relation, and variance is high on this.
BTW, I think that when one is vehemently saying to anybody listening he/she will be better divorced, but stays, it’s more likely he/she is not at all convinced he/she is, but attempt to get more (and shift away from the tipping point) by bluffing. Basic negotiation tactic, that can backfire hard when pushed to far.
When convinced (it means better separated but taking the uncomfortable transition period into account – so this will also depend on your time preference), you do not tell, you do. Maybe with some latency to try to get an even better deal (by having a better social story around it, hence minimising some of the social consequences)
I think my dad must have gotten into this Gottman shit, because he’s adopted the principle of “always take your spouse’s side in a conflict”, which I guess is great at keeping his marriage together but has completely ruined MY relationship with him ever since my stepmom crossed a major line with my wife and I told her to fuck off. Don’t worry, I’m not just taking my wife’s side, literally everyone I’ve ever told the story to agrees with me, and even my dad gave me a sort of sad-sack oblique acknowledgement that I was right but he literally said his marriage is a higher priority.
So, pop-psych isn’t necessarily harmless placebo.
I think it’s probably less the “always take your wife’s side” criticism than it is the dark side of having a romantic relationship be the core of most people’s lives. As a practical matter, the romantic relationship is more important than the filial relationship (or sibling relationship, or friend, etc), and if different relationships come into direct conflict, it’s simpler and more practical to sever the non-romantic one than it is to sever the one that requires you to hire an attorney, divide your assets, sell your home, etc, etc, etc. Especially when the conflict seems so minor as “people don’t get along”. My dad made a similar decision, banking on the hope that (since I was a teenager at the time) I would get over my conflict with his new wife and civility would be restored. He happened to be right in the end, but it was not pleasant.
One of my uncles whose wife is…difficult…recently expressed what amounts to a desire to leave his wife of something like 40 years, but also that he can’t separate. He is in his late seventies and is beginning to experience mental decline. Even when he wants to separate, it’s now too difficult for him to do so.
He doesn’t need to sever relationships with anyone, it’s not like I think he should divorce her (well, not for this reason anyway). He just needs to accept that I brushed her back from the plate and I’m not going to apologize for it, and also maybe not force me to always hang out with her because I can’t really stand her anymore. It’s a very John and Yoko kind of dynamic, which is unnecessary, but that’s his choice I guess.
I think one fairly common marital failure mode is where the romantic relationship remains central to the man while the mater-filial relationship becomes central to the woman.
I don’t think this is (generally) a failure mode—I think it is the way things should be. Children are extremely vulnerable and need someone who is prioritizing their interests when they don’t have the clarity of vision to do so themselves. But if the mother is prioritizing her children in this way, it is (at least according to my mother) impossible for her to simultaneously protect herself—she ends up vulnerable and overextended. Thus her husband is responsible for keeping her safe and secure and well-grounded.
Obviously, none of this is an endorsement of short-term thinking or wantonly self destructive behaviors.
Perhaps “source of tension that frequently leads to failure” would be a better way to put it. I think many men are understandably unwilling in the long term for their prioritization of their wife not to be mutual; I also think many mothers find it very difficult further down the line when their children are still the most important people to them, but they are no longer so important to their children.
When someone screws up big if that one person isn’t going to try to fix things then at least one relationship has to suffer. It sucks that it is yours/your dads but there isn’t much middle ground.
I’m pretty sure the “take your spouse’s side against everyone” is imprecise. You take your children’s side against everyone. You take your spouse’s side against everyone else.
If your children ask your spouse “Can I have this?” and your spouse says “No” and then your children ask you the same question, I hope you give same answer. To do otherwise pits one spouse against the other and is bad for home stability.
That’s not the kind of conflict we’re talking about and I’m not sure why you even brought it up.
My interpretation is that there, he’s mainly talking about the types of conflicts which are just veiled power struggles. Where a mother is doing something to get the child to give allegiance to her. Not blanket “wife is right.”
Elsewhere he does say wife is right though so that could be too charitable.
It probably seemed unimportant given your other criticisms, but what’s the deal with this:
Aside from 0% being automatically suspicious, it sounds like he’s talking not about actual outcomes, but scores on some predictive measure? This sounds very susceptible to… I’m pretty sure it’s a Somebody’s Law, but I’ve forgotten the name — the thing where, even if you find a good proxy measure, it ceases to be one as soon as people start optimising for it.
Concretely: maybe it’s relatively easy to train people to do various things that correlate with relationship success, but a lot harder to actually increase their chances of relationship success.
Goodhart’s law may apply here, but focusing on a proxy measure is also a problem. I remember reading at some point about work ostensibly aimed at heart attacks but focusing on blood pressure as a proxy measure. Blood pressure and heart attacks are correlated, and there’s even a plausible mechanism linking them, but it still turned out that treating blood pressure directly in hopes of treating heart attacks indirectly didn’t work.
“Couples who told researchers they regularly felt gratitude were much more likely to have lasting marriages. So the most important thing you can do for your marriage is to tell researchers you regularly feel gratitude.”
I understand the joke, but I think it is true that, in a healthy relationship, each party feels as though he or she is doing better than he is entitled to.
I would phrase it as ‘my life is better with this person, and theirs better with me’, or the mutually beneficial gains from trade.
That’s a realistic way of looking at it.
But there are some emotional advantages to a situation where each side believes he is getting a deal biased to his own advantage, and so feels grateful.
“One of the worksheets lists a bunch of good qualities and asks you to pick some you appreciate in your spouse and explain why.”
The recent fine movie “Marriage Story” starts off with a couple of video montages of a husband and wife at a marriage counselor running through their What I Love About My Spouse worksheets:
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the movie (or in the Noah Baumbach-Jennifer Jason Leigh marriage the movie was presumably based on). But it seems like a good thing to try.
wow, you admitted to liking that movie on the internet. this has got to be your most controversial statement ever.
I’m a Noah Baumbach fan going back to The Squid and the Whale. I really liked his “While We’re Young.”
From a review of “While We’re Young.”
“Don’t make the same mistake I did and read it when you’re feeling lonely.”
This sentence is a bit ambiguous – I can’t see if it means that if you read it when you felt lonely and we should avoid that or that we should read it when we’re feeling lonely.
Also, I like the use of “‽”.
Definitely the first interpretation.
The joy of writing in English. Very little conjugation. Usually saves time and characters, sometimes leaves you not knowing what exactly has been said.
I think people would use the interrobang (‽) more if it were conveniently displayed on the keyboard. I could see it replacing less useful punctuation marks (I’m looking at you, back-quote “`”.)
Incidentally, does anyone know how to change a keyboard key output to replace ` with ‽ without having to do something drastic like going into regedit?
I think the better idea is probably just to set up a compose key (on my system composing “!” and “?” does indeed yield “‽”). But I guess you’re on Windows, and I don’t know how easy that is to set up on Windows…
In 12 months this will be an ethno-nationalist blog and I’ve never been so proud ;^)
Rooting culture in éthnos? How quaint.
Ethno-nationalism is great until you realize that not everyone in a given territory can possibly be in-group and then you have to decide what to do about it and genocide winds up being the only available option.
Assimilation and territorial partition are historical solutions to this problem which were implemented much more often than genocide, and they usually worked reasonably well.
I’ll grant you assimilation, but did you have an example of a well-done partition in mind?
Czechoslovakia. All loveliness
Weren’t the Czechs and Slovaks already living in geographically separate regions under approximately US-state levels of self-government?
Czechoslovakia is arguably the most successful recent example. The dissolution of the USSR also went quite well all things considered. Older examples range from the Roman Empire amicably splitting in two, to the dissolution of the British Empire.
Peaceful partitions generally seem to involve multi-cultural states (often empires) where the different ethno-religious-linguistic groups live in fairly distinct regions. If they are mixed together then you end up with ethnic tensions between the majority and the minorities (see for instance the current issues in India between Hindu nationalists and Bengali Muslims).
Given the past conflict in Georgia and present situation in Ukraine, I’d say you were being just a tad too optimistic.
But considering that Russia, as the successor state of the USSR, lost 1/4th of its surface area and half of its population (145 million people), these are minor skirmishes compared to the scale of the geopolitical realignment.
Partition runs into problems when there isn’t a clean natural border with all the Greens on one side and all the Blues on the other side. Wherever you draw the line, there will be some Greens left in Bluistan and contrarywise. The historical solutions are usually coerced assimilation, expulsion (also referred to as “population exchanges” or “ethnic cleansing”), or some degree of tolerance.
The other failure mode of partitions is irredentism. If one side disagrees over where to draw the line for whatever reason, there’s going to be some temptation to “revise” the border by force of arms. Maybe there’s some valuable natural resource just on the far side of the border. Or an economically important river. Or some strategic position. Or a community of downtrodden Greens living under the yoke of Bluish oppression. Or maybe the area used to be Greenish before the Blues unjustly expelled the Greens.
Yes, every time I have guests in my house, I end up selling them one of my rooms, or adopting them, as opposed to murdering them, which would be crazy! Those other options are far preferable.
Something like the Ottoman millet system often works fairly well. And even in Europe, Jews were far more often an oppressed minority, even a prosperous oppressed minority, than actually genocided.
Ethno-nationalism doesn’t require complete ethnic purity, but that any minorities can’t threaten majority culture. For example, the Amish don’t really threaten other Americans because they isolate themselves very well and don’t demand that the ‘English’ adopt their lifestyle or make significant concessions.
They violate a ton of moral doctrines of modern progressives, but since they are a fargroup, progressives pretty much don’t give a shit that Amish women are literally forced into the kitchen and such.
Basically, ethno-nationalism demands of minorities what Gottman demands of men: that whenever there is a conflict, the minority appeases the majority. The minority can get away with anything that doesn’t cause (significant) conflict. Isolation typically reduces conflict and thus allows the minority to get away with more.
Also, Japan was actually quite good at keeping out other ethnic groups for a long time. When the Dutch were the only ones that were allowed to trade with the Japanese, during most of the Edo period all trade was done on an artificial island near Nagasaki. Although the reason for that was not merely ethno-nationalism, but an unwillingness to have other cultures influence Japanese culture at all. Without such strict desires for ethnic purity, one can of course be way more open to outsiders, while still having a single dominant culture.
America is not a good example of an ethno-nationalist regime. It’s exactly the opposite. The Amish don’t threaten American identity because American identity is malleable. Ethno-nationalism assigns identity at birth.
Ethno-nationalism is malleable as well, both in ethnic classification and the level of tolerance.
Also, you missed my point about the Amish. We’ve seen attempts to force conservative Christians to be more progressive (like ‘gay cakes’), but no such thing happened to the Amish. My argument is that the reason why that didn’t happen is the same reason why a (not ultra-extremist) ethno-nationalist country can leave certain minorities be.
Ultimately, ethno-nationalist intolerance is not some special kind of intolerance that works completely differently from other kinds of intolerance.
If we go along with Scott’s analogy of marriages as civilizations, then the husband and the wife would be two different ethnicities who must overcome their innate differences for the sake of their shared enterprise, hence a nationalist marriage would be civic nationalist. So ethno-nationalism in relationships would be… gay marriage?
Can’t we at least have a thread on marriage counseling without someone dragging ethno-nationalism into the conversation for no reason?
Based on my experience and observations, Gottman is basically right about the yielding, but not for the reason he thinks.
What do you think the reason he’s right is?
In a nutshell: conflict minimisation.
Women are, speaking in Gaussian-distribution median terms, more emotional and therefore will always win a game of emotional chicken. If your spouse is more emotional than you, you can never white-knuckle your way through an out-and-out impasse, because they’ll almost always be more willing to go to mattresses than you. There’s a strong argument for thinking this is why emotions evolved in the first place – they provide an advantage in the arms race of social conflict. More rational people will always decide to give in because the cost-benefit calculation always favors it, whereas emotional people DGAF about the costs, they’re going to hold to their position even if the world burns down.
Pyrrhus of Epirus would make a good marriage counselor.
How are you measuring “more or less emotional?”
Also, alternate hypothesis:
The behaviors you identify as “more emotional” are, evolutionarily speaking, the product of greater investment. In any given romantic partnership where pregnancy and childrearing are at stake, the woman has more to worry about and more to be perturbed by under most circumstances. As such, even if women and men were equally emotional ceteris paribus, you might expect women to exhibit stronger emotions in the context of romantic relationships, for the same reason that people react more strongly to having their car stolen than to having their pencil stolen.
Alternate alternate hypothesis:
“Strong emotions” are psychological mechanisms created to enable the kind of restoration of emotional equilibrium Gottman describes. They’re coping strategies designed to deal with what would otherwise be unresolved tensions.
“Women’s strong emotions” are reactions to pressures and strains created by specific structural features of our society that put specific stresses on women than on men.
I feel like we need more dimensions than more and less emotional.
In your description, benf, emotion sounds more like “expressed emotions used as weapons in conflict.”
People can be very emotional without using lots of words. Quietly fuming, rolling eyes, being generally irritable or quick to irritate, being very judgmental, withdrawing into silence, or getting very intellectual or legalistic when one is actually really pissed off are all forms of emotionality as well.
For people who have difficulty naming their emotional experience to themselves, much less conveying it clearly to someone else, those emotions tend to come out sideways in the form of controlling behavior, inflexibility, or stuff like migraines, back pain, and high blood pressure.
Emotional reactivity and the use of emotions as weapons in relationships seems equally distributed to me across the sexes, though varies from person to person.
I think of emotions as an internal experience (at the levels of mind/body and thought/feeling). How we act on or communicate them is yet another thing. So I see emotions as a pretty universal experience, but that we vary a lot as individuals in how well we regulate our own emotions (ie, cope with them) and how skillfully we take actions based on them (including communicating about them).
Ideally, when there’s pretty good communication in a relationship, there’s no longer a sense of emotions being weaponized in the way you’re describing. There’s no game of chicken. There’s just two people attending to (and taking responsibility for) their own emotional experiences and communicating needs or wants in fairly clean language.
I think you speak wisely.
I think there’s also a tendency to say “I’m responding rationally to my circumstances and incentives, while expressing reactions that are appropriate to the stress they’re putting me under. You’re just being emotional.”
It’s very easy to rationalize one’s own emotional responses while treating those of others as inexplicable weird things that just happen because other people are crazy. it’s even easier to do that when those other people are designated as something of an out-group, Those Whose Ways Are Not The Ways Of Normal Men.
I’ve observed this behavior between different men and groups of men, and between different women and groups of women. I suspect most of us have, when we think about it. It’s not just some kind of mechanism that’s biologically sex-linked.
Agreed. This is the typical mind fallacy, right?
It’s my impression that a lot of the arguments in this space generally are of this kind, though masquerading as disagreements over supposed “facts.”
So many of our general statements about “how the world really is” are statements of emotional preference. It’s my preference that we all cop to the emotional roots of our preferred interpretations.
Interestingly enough, I agree that men should yield more. My culture is not yours or Gottman’s, but I’ve noticed that more patriarchal societies tend to make men very unsure about their status, so much so that they feel the need to constantly compete / prove themselves. This attitude infects a couple with status-seeking games at the expense of the partner.
I believe that men fight more to gain status, so it’s plausible that women simply yield more frequently and more graciously, to the point that men don’t even notice when they do. Then, when there’s something important about which a woman cannot yield, a man might feel threatened.
The very same vague feeling that whoever yields somehow loses or has a lower status is a symptom of this uncertainty.
The effect you describe in your second paragraph may be heightened by something else. Because when you’re strongly concerned with status and pecking order, and someone you’re accustomed to influence suddenly shows some backbone and resists your influence…
You’re shocked. Something that on an instinctive level belongs to you has been taken away, and it threatens your monkey-brain’s perception of its monkey-status in the monkey-tribe.
I think you’re both missing the fact that “Manhood” is an inherently precarious position. One isn’t able to just obtain that status and rest on their laurels because manhood is performative. So when a man’s wife minimizes them (or just seems to), it isn’t just a status game, it’s literally declaring them unfit (in their perspective).
I don’t think the process you describe is truly separate from the process we’re describing.
The problem created for men in a patriarchal society is that status is associated with their ability to performatively “act like a man” according to their society’s definition of “man.” This makes them extremely vulnerable to a very metaphorical, very abstract form of ’emasculation.’ Which in turn means that a lot of otherwise normal and harmless behaviors on the part of the wife become a problem for the husband because he is in some bizarre and metaphysical sense ’emasculated.’
When society says “part of being a Real Man is maintaining control of your women and not letting other men get a look at them” then you get a situation where a wife ’emasculates’ her husband by going out in public unveiled. Or where a daughter ’emasculates’ her father by getting into a romantic relationship with a boy her age without the father’s permission. To preserve his socially constructed status as a Real Man, he is ‘forced’ to act harshly against such behaviors.
This can be described BOTH as male insecurity about status AND as the precariousness of a performative, socially constructed definition of what Real Men do. There is no functional difference between your analysis and ours, as far as I can see.
There are some societies* in which it’s considered perfectly normal for the woman** to have sex with other men than her “boyfriend.” In others men become extremely agitated if this occurs. What does this show?
Nothing more than that societies differ. Something you learn in third grade.
What you want to say is that when women want something or don’t want something it’s natural. But when men want something and I think they shouldn’t want it, well, it’s socially constructed.
*To use the term very loosely.
**And when you have these “open relationships” it’s usually the woman who’s engaging in sex outside the relationship.
Precariousness is a feature of the environment. Gender roles are one way to deal with it, but hardly the only one. Also, different gender roles can exist in response to different kind of precariousness (macho gender roles are adaptive to a violent environment, while provider/housewife is adaptive to an environment where housewifing takes a lot of work, work specialization is beneficial and/or outdoor work is very physically demanding).
I noticed this paragraph as well. But mainly because I recognized the advice as something I got in lockerroom-talk kind of situations. The cynic in me couldn’t think of anything else than:
“So the feminist position and the macho-brodude position on this is the same. Funny how that goes.”
Am I understanding you correctly as meaning you got this advice as something along the lines of “just between us men, here’s how you have a happy, lasting relationship”? That’s how I encountered it first and what I say when asked, now that I have the experience of being with the same woman for 20 years through thick and a whole lotta thin.
You know it’s good advice if both the feminists and the macho-brodudes are giving it to you.
Nah, what ever works for you man. It’s just the kind of thing I find funny.
Feminists tend to merely care about something advantaging women, so it’s not evidence that it’s a good idea, but merely that it helps women.
Feminists and traditionalists also agree that men who are abused by women deserved no sympathy or help.
>Feminists and traditionalists also agree that men who are abused by women deserved no sympathy or help.
That’s an incredibly uncharitable and inaccurate picture of feminism.
As a single datapoint, I am fairly traditionalist and my girlfriend is very feminist, and both of us find the suffering of women significantly more emotionally salient. Neither of us feel strongly that this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, just a thing that we recognize to be true about ourselves.
Then why do I only see feminists attack scientists who find lots of evidence of violence by women against men? Why do I see men who try to speak up under #MeToo or outside of it be shouted down by feminists? Why, when covering reports that show both victimization of men and women, do the media almost always merely discuss the latter and ignore the former, let alone wonder if some of those men are victimized by women?
“By their fruits you will know them.”
Because you actively seek out those sorts of opinions, regardless of whether they’re representative of feminists as a whole.
As we’ve discussed before, feminists are actually quite receptive to claims of sexual assault coming from men, provided the attacker is also male. The real problem is that people in general (not just feminists) tend to be dismissive of any sexual assault claims where the attacker is female, even when the victim is also female. Very few people would agree with the statement “men can’t be raped,” but a good number of people would agree with the statement “women can’t/wouldn’t commit rape.” And while I do find this extremely problematic, it’s a problem with our culture as a whole, not a problem that only exists within feminist circles and not a problem that exists as a result of feminism.
I don’t know. Probably due to a multitude of deeply-rooted cultural and psychological biases, either socially constructed or innate to the human psyche (though I hope it’s not the latter). Definitely not because of any feminist agenda.
I think that it is the opposite. I didn’t just look at the examples that circulate among MRAs of shitty feminists, but I really tried to find a light in the darkness, including by challenging feminists to present their more egalitarian scholars. That seems to be an extremely fair approach. Yet when the response repeatedly is people whom I consider quite biased, this is very telling, IMO.
There are various levels of bias. One is celebrating when a member of the outgroup harms another member of that outgroup. A lesser bias is always siding with the ingroup over the outgroup, but being willing to be supportive of one outgroup member over another outgroup member. An even lesser bias (although this can can exists at various intensities) is to be (much) more prone to side with the ingroup member, for the same level of evidence. Then egalitarianism is to be equally prone to support either.
I would argue that feminists with power tend to operate in the second level and the top tier of the third level, which is rather nasty.
Yes, but if a movement claims to be an egalitarian movement that aims to liberate people from gendered stereotypes and biases, but it actually is worse at those aims than many others, it is worsening the problem.
Also, being rather active in shouting down alternative voices and for hiding inconvenient facts/science, the movement is also to blame for the voices it silences, which is a very serious offense, in my view. It is true that we can’t know whether a lack of such oppression would have resulted in a substantially different societal attitude, but it does mean that when attempting to achieve change, it makes sense to target feminism, if only to try to remove its power to control the conversation.
@Aapje: I don’t think ingroup/outgroup dynamics are the best way to model the situation here. There are a great number of men, including plenty of non-feminist and anti-feminist men, who believe that women can’t be rapists. It’s not just “ingroup can do no wrong,” it’s something much more pervasive.
I think it’s fundamentally about the fact that men are viewed as more active, more ruthless, more aggressive, and more sex-driven, while women are viewed as more passive, more compassionate, more peaceful, and more chaste. Some people would say that those assumptions are sexist against men, some would say that they’re sexist against women, some would say they’re both (which is my stance on the matter). And some would argue that they’re not sexist at all, just statistically-proven facts of life rooted in innate human neuropsychology. Regardless, the end result is that people view women as less likely to commit violent crimes and less likely to pursue sex, and thus exponentially less likely to commit acts of sexual abuse or violence.
Regardless, I do know that what little pushback I’ve seen against the idea that “women can’t be raped” has almost exclusively come from feminists, including mainstream Social Justice feminists like Lindy West. And I’ve never seen it come from anti-feminist reactionaries, who typically have attitudes ranging from “he shouldn’t complain about a woman having sex with him” to “she’s just a woman, so if he really wanted to stop it, he could’ve easily overpowered her.” (Maybe I’m wrong and some anti-feminists do oppose the idea, in which case I’ll happily give them credit for taking the right stance on this one issue.)
Claims of victimhood by women are also regularly challenged, which seems like a lesser version of what happens to men (which is presumably based on the idea that women can be expected to have less agency than men, but not zero agency). It appears to be rather popular in modern feminism to argue that women cannot be expected to have any agency or to use the agency they have, resulting in a demand that all accusations are to be believed and the blame put on the man (which, aside from its injustice to the accused, reduces gender equality if men are not simultaneously believed more often, if they make an accusation against women, aside from disparate impact, which can increase inequality even more).
It is consistent for non-feminists who believe in gender roles to demand more agency from men in the same situation (same level of strength/weakness compared to the accused and/or same level of disability, etc). It is not consistent for feminists who reject gender roles to do so, which is why I attributed it to outgrouping, which I often see.
Although on second thought, if these feminists actually do believe in gender roles (that men are to be held to a different standard), then it is indeed not necessarily for this to be outgroup-based, although holding men to a different standard can be outgroup-based, which then merely makes it more indirect.
Sure and feminists seem to almost always rather strongly oppose claims of innate traits in women that they interpret to be negative about women and/or the belief in which causes what they see as negative behavior against women. Plenty also claim that those male traits are not innate, but learned (often called toxic masculinity). And yet I see that evidence against toxic masculinity and/or in favor of women having similar toxic traits at substantial levels is typically rather fiercely rejected.
This makes perfect sense if there is a need for ammunition against the outgroup, but doesn’t make sense if the goal is to achieve gender equality.
Anyway, as I said before, if one is corrupting science, then one doesn’t get to claim to just be interpreting the facts.
Fair enough on Lindy West, who does seem to oppose it (although she is not an academic and has a strong biased against accused people that in practice has disparate outcomes that harm men, but this is not inherently biased against men).
Anti-feminism is not an ideology or movement, but merely states what one opposes. You also can’t point to radical Islamists as being typical for anti-Christians, ignoring atheists.
There are plenty of anti-feminists who are not reactionaries. Furthermore, it is also possible to have this preference: egalitarian > reactionary > feminist, when people consider feminism the least fair.
“Men are frequently rape & abuse victims, and male victims deserve respect and help” is a central claim of MRAs, who are usually (but not always) anti-feminist.
If two mortal enemies are in agreement on a matter, there’s a fair chance that it is true, ‘s all I’m saying.
Most feminism doesn’t actually oppose traditional gender roles & stereotypes, though. Just part of them.
For example, traditionalists and feminists tend to agree that men are more prone to violence in domestic settings, even though the evidence is rather strong that women actually commit (a bit) more domestic violence.
When two mortal enemies agree on an issue, it can simply mean that they have a common interest, a common enemy, a common delusion, etc.
I would also argue that movements that advocate change cannot be completely revolutionary and also gain a large following, but have to adopt parts of the old ideology to convince people. For feminism, it was necessary to adopt the negative stereotypes of men that already existed, to argue that the old system was unfair to women.
I’m piping up here to say again that your (Aapje) picture of feminism bears no resemblance to my picture of feminism. I respect your right to your view of what feminism is. So I’ll just voice that there are multiple “feminisms” and yours is not mine nor that of many people I know. I won’t go any further here because I know we’ve had several rounds of that conversation not so successfully.
You can easily find ‘my’ feminism by looking at what gets written in the media by people calling themselves feminists, in papers/books by feminist scholars, what gets done by feminists organizations like NOW, by feminist-identifying politicians, etc, etc…
Frankly, I see bias and stereotyping against men all over the place, with almost no people who openly identify as feminists pushing back against this.
What actually makes you a feminist if you reject all this, assuming you do? Are you a feminist just because you call yourself that or does the overwhelming use of the term in a certain way produce a meaning that is stronger than your self-identification?
Imagine that someone would tell you on the Internet that they are a KKK member but love blacks and know several alike, but 99.9% of people who publicly call themselves KKK members are hateful against blacks. You’d see that pretty much all ‘KKK studies’ at universities are racist, that pretty much all KKK books are racist, that pretty much all KKK politicians are racist, etc. Would you then stop saying that the KKK is racist?
PS. I’ve repeatedly challenged (smart) feminists to provide a single feminist scholar who has a fairly gender-balanced point of view or a single feminist organization that pushes back against feminist bias/discrimination. This actually make me kinder than God, who demanded 10 righteous people to not destroy Sodom, while I only ask for one. Yet no one has so far been able to provide one.
I mostly agree with you, but still, I’m compelled to point out that bias is only wrong when it is factually untrue. For example, if feminists said that men were more prone to red-green color blindness than women, this would be an example of statistical bias that is entirely accurate. Obviously, the conclusion “…and therefore we must kill all those red-green colorblind subhumans” would still be unwarranted, though.
I would have be far less upset with feminism if the mainstream claim was that violence by male perpetrators is more salient because men are stronger and/or that female victims suffer more for the same level of victimization. Those claims are reasonably consistent with the facts, although I have, at least in part, a different interpretation of those facts.
However, when facts get suppressed, the people doing that don’t get to hide behind ‘wir haben es nicht gewußt‘. If you go out of your way not to know and to silence those who argue that the Emperor’s new clothes are not real, to defend biased claims, then you don’t get to plead a different interpretation of the facts.
For example, Mary Koss, the first researcher of rape prevalence, believed that men don’t suffer from rape as women do. That is a debatable, but not inherently unfair claim to make. However, what she did in response is tailor her methodology to exclude men victimized by women, hiding facts because she thought that those facts might be interpreted differently from how she thought they should be interpreted.
The result was that people started to believe a falsehood: that women never force men into coitus and the like. This strengthened the common feminist claim that greater victimization of women is because men are conditioned to act monstrous, which is 100% opposite to the reason that Koss had to hide the facts, which is the claim that women are more sensitive than men.
This corruption of the science led to:
– a falsehood being the common belief in society (not just among feminists)
– the claim that men suffer less than women being woefully understudied
– Later studies using the same methodology, but the researchers often believing that this methodology was chosen because women practically never rape men or not even considering the reason for/validity of the methodology.
As a data point, my perception of feminism is that it agrees with traditionalism on things like “ladies first” and “men who complain are losers and should shut up, or be silenced if they persist”, but disagrees on what are women’s duties (there are none).
The approach that talks about how men are humans too, that’s called “misogyny” these days, because empathy is treated as a zero-sum game.
I wonder what would be the necessary condition to have a meaningful discussion about this, though. Seems to me like one of those things that are obviously correct to some people, and obviously incorrect to others, and talking about it just makes everyone see how the other side is willfully blind. (For a different topic, I would say that “Scott should write an article about this” would be a good start, but this specific topic was already touched in the past, and it only brought negative attention.)
EDIT: By the way, I blame feminism less than it may seem here. I suppose that some things are biologically hardwired in human nature, and even if some people can go against them temporarily, any successful movement will sooner or later reinvent them using their own arguments. So it’s more like “feminism failed to achieve its own stated goals, because at the end it turned out it was only made of fallible humans”. (To give a different example, PUAs also gradually converged to “ladies first” and “men who complain are losers”, despite coming from a completely different angle than feminists. This is simply a natural attractor for humanity.)
Since “everyone gets everything they need” is a pipe dream, an empathy-based movement will inevitably deteriorate to something like this. My mental model is that ideas that are considered “Left-wing” are predicated on the belief that entitlement should come from need, and thus will inevitably create a hierarchy of whose needs are more important.
As for PUAs, I never spent time around them, but were they ever different? My impression that PUAs market themselves to men who already know they are pathetic losers and would like to learn to become someone else.
Yes, bad outcomes typically occur when people follow random monkey instincts rather than abiding by a thought-out ethical code derived from first principles. This is hardly a point against feminism in my book.
It is in mine. The same way I would frown upon a fire code that says “Fire exits re-enforce negative thinking. Just don’t follow start fires lmao”.
My impression is that their advice is aimed a little higher than that. An actual pathetic loser, someone who has his hands full paying the bills, holding a job, keeping a roof over his head, and really basic social functioning, probably isn’t all that worried about getting laid/dates/married; he has bigger problems.
The actual target market for the PUA movement is men who have the basics of life down, but who are sort of deeply mediocre: boring average job, kind of out of shape, not particularly handsome or charming, poorly dressed, and no self-confidence. These men think of themselves as ok guys, and in a sense they are, so they expect to find female companions. But they don’t, because there is nothing particularly outstanding about them and crucially, they are not making the best of what little they have.
The PUAs’ advice to these guys seems to be, first, to spruce themselves up: get fit, dress well, groom yourself properly. And second, find the confidence to try and keep trying, because you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. (I’m sure it gets a lot more intricate than that, but these bits, at least, make some sense.)
It really would be great if people would stop starting so many damn fires, though.
Men shouldn’t be treated as disposable. Women shouldn’t be treated as objects. These two things really aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if we’re hardwired to think of the opposite sex in those terms – and that’s a huge “if” that I’m only entertaining for the sake of argument – that doesn’t mean we can’t struggle to do better, or to socialize people in a way that minimizes those attitudes. (And before anyone says “if those behaviors are hardwired, then no amount of socialization will change them,” that’s clearly not the case, as evidenced by the fact that different cultures have wildly different norms when it comes to sex and gender.)
Stalinist and Trotskyists? Sunni and Shia? Protestant and Catholic? Ect. You take a step back and realize these are often just two sides of the same coin.
“Ladies first” is hardly a human universal. It seems like a human universal to stigmatize excessive complaining about any subject. But I don’t think it’s a human universal that it’s less acceptable for men to complain about women than for women to complain about men.
A lot of these mortal enemies are arising out of the same situation and this leads to quite similar behaviors that one could see as inevitable but are really just a product of that particular environment. Feminists want to eventually get married, sometimes people say feminists are “anti-marriage,” this isn’t exactly the case. They want to delay marriage and want to make it easy for certain aspects of the marriage(and not others) to be dissolved. But they certainly want it to be available for them.
PUAs have a business model. They can’t make any money from men who disengage. They are living in a world culturally dominated by the Left, so they have to tell their customers to in some sense make peace with it.
I don’t think they have wildly different norms. Are there any cultures in which the female partner is older than the male on average?
The ‘happy wife, happy life’ thing itself I could believe is cultural and I would be interested to know if other current cultures or older cultures had it. Shakespeare might be a good resource for that.
If two sets of extremists are giving the same advice, I’d take that as more of a sign that it’s bad advice.
After all, both Nazis and Communists agree that there’s a small minority controlling world politics and economics for nefarious purposes, they only differ on whether that group is “the Jews” or “the bourgeoisie.” That doesn’t mean that they’re both right! If anything, it makes me more likely to assume that they’re both wrong.
The macho-brodude position is that you should not argue with your wife, not that you should always do what she says.
No, the macho-version is that you should agree with your wife, because it’s not worth the hassel. The other version is you should agree with her because opression, or toxic masculinity, or what ever.
Point is, the behaviour advise is the same.
Yep that advice matches a lot of the wisdom/advice men give each other like the sayings.
Happy Wife = Happy Life
If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy
+1, made me think of how this is always @Plumber’s advice here for a happy marriage. And of course it is! Men have been saying it for centuries because it works!
I’m willing to endorse this view as long as we understand that there’s a fair amount of equally old lore on the women’s side about how to keep your man happy by pretending you’re not feeling or thinking the things you’re thinking or feeling.
These kinds of wisdom of the ages bits are fine I guess at some general level, but it seems to me at the end of the day we all have to sort out what works for us in our own relationships. That means for some people, both men and women, biting their tongues or making nice or lying about feelings…. or graciously letting things go, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, waiting to speak about difficult things until it’s clear they need to be spoken about. And for other people it may mean talking or arguing near everything through.
My main vote is that we don’t hold one way of doing things as generically better than another way of doing things because people and relationships have different needs. The old line about “never go to bed angry” — another lovely piece of old wisdom — it works great for some people and other people really do do better when one person goes and sleeps in the other room and it all gets talked about two days later when everyone’s had a chance to get a little perspective.
While people don’t all have the same needs, there are needs that are far more common than others. People often are more tolerant of common needs, are more aware that they have those needs, feel more entitled to them, judge people by how they satisfy those needs (even if they personally don’t have those needs that strongly, because norms & status are largely (sub)cultural), etc, etc.
So it’s often helpful to know that information and to act on it, while seeing yourself as a unique snowflake can be a recipe for failure.
This is not actually specific to relationships, but to life in general.
The unique snowflake language in this context strikes me as gratuitous. If you’d like to make a case for the value of upholding certain behavioral norms having to do with voicing/not voicing disagreements in relationships, please do.
I’m objecting specifically to the way that Gottman, under the banner of scientific authority, is repeating a very old, tired line that in a different form is also aimed at women, and in both cases can be unhelpful to some people who actually would do better for their own well-being to speak up (see Faza’s comment and my reply below). A guy who habitually doesn’t speak up for himself is going to be harmed if he also goes around saying to himself, “I’m not supposed to say anything to my partner when something is upsetting me because Gottman’s expertise says that doesn’t work out.” I think that’s nuts.
It’s a bad habit of medical and mental healthcare providers to use the authority of their position to dispense their pet personal philosophies.
I find it somewhat abhorrent that generations of men might be raised on the idea that they should just not argue with their women partners, and that that idea be reinforced by a relationship expert with “science” credentials. It strikes me as patronizing to women and suffocating to men. If some men and women decide they want to do it that way in their relationships and it works for them, I’m all for it. But the idea that men as a category need to just shut up and go along regardless of how they feel about something seems, well, harmful.
I probably communicated rather poorly here. What I meant to say is that if there already is a culture that demands certain behaviors, then saying: ‘you need to figure out what works for you’ can insinuate a level of agency that people don’t necessarily have.
If the actual choice is between hiding some of your feelings or staying alone, but you tell that person that their choice is between hiding their feelings and having them acknowledged and respected, then you are deceiving that person.
Oh well said Aapje, I agree. Thanks for clarifying.
I think perhaps I see a bit more room for agency than you do, but that’s an outlook thing, not something I can prove with evidence. Or at least I don’t think I could.
I think it’s complicated the question about what constitutes deceiving because how much agency a person thinks they have varies from one person to the next, so if I think you have more agency than you think you have, or if your sense of agency changes over time, then the “choice” is more and less real/truthful based on that perception.
Yeah but the context matters. I imagine a “macho-brodude” as someone who mostly tries to get his way all the time. For him, “you should yield to your wife more” is great advice. For a nerd who reads self-help books to try to get more in touch with his emotions and improve his relationship, “yield to your wife more” can easily just turn him into a doormat.
As a nerd myself (more of a geek actually, but whatever), I would expect fellow nerds to devote a bit of effort to understand why certain things are advised.
In this particular case, the reason is simple: pick your battles, else you may win all of them and lose the war (and your relationship). A lot of the time, it’s simply not worth getting into a fight over certain things.
It is my experience that those who advice you to “pick your battles” will never find a battle they think you should actually pick. (there’s even a related aphorism — “Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff”). This also appears to be Gottman’s opinion, and I suggest it is one path to “horrifying soul-sucking messes”, as one party continually yields ground until they find their entire life is spend avoiding annoying the other party, who does not reciprocate at all.
If someone ain’t picking battles, they ain’t actually picking battles.
The next step on the path to enlightenment is “keep your center”.
The deep, dark secret of a successful relationship is that no one person can be your everything. For some things, it is best to go elsewhere – which is why I find myself here every now and again.
There are two central pillars of a relationship: emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. If you find yourself going elsewhere for either, the relationship has already failed. Everything else is a matter of doing the things you both enjoy together and other things apart.
Things go bad when your partner isn’t providing you something you need and keeping you from fulfilling those needs otherwise – for example, by keeping you from interacting with friends.
What are the things you actually need (enough for it to be worth fighting over)? Epicurus provides us a helpful heuristic: what happens if I get what I want? What happens if I don’t get what I want?
Once you’ve got that bit sorted, the day-to-day is something you can work out.
That’s the normal natural way of thinking that everyone would already say. But Gottman seems to be saying that, no, you as a man need to give in and lose the fight. It’s just your stupid male pride that’s making you not see that your wife must be correct because of her superior emotional intelligence, or something.
and yeah, I agree with Nybbler that this is one path towards those Horrible soul-sucking messes. Especially for conflict-averse men.
Yes, totally, glorkvorn, I agree. I think generic relationship advice is dangerous for this reason and I really don’t like that aspect of Gottman’s view. There are people, men and women, who have already been shut down by whatever they’ve experienced to that point, and so for them speaking up is the growing edge. For others, the growing edge is about refraining from speaking up about everything that comes to mind, whether it’s thoughts or feelings. We can’t say for someone else which direction growth is in for them.
Both spouses should always try to yield as often as possible. (Obviously you should not point out this rule to your spouse. If there’s an occasion to point it out, then it’s also an occasion for you to yield.) The more yielding the better. If everyone tries to yield in 100% of the conflicts, then that will successfully end maybe 50% of them.
This doesn’t seem quite right:
“One couple’s solveable problem might be another’s solveable one.”
Also, I’m suprised he didn’t mention problems people have with their partner’s siblings. Maybe I’m just living in a bubble, but sisters-in-law seem to be complained about as much as mothers-in-law.
Scott, how often have you seen couple’s that just refuse to speak to each other? As in, they will never direct more than a sentence to each other in a month as they can’t stand the other person. Perhaps it leads into horrifying soul-sucking messes? Seems a touch different though.
I almost never see that, but I don’t do that much marriage work.
Maybe “successful marriage therapy” does not always means staying married. People can realize they are not a good fit after all, get a divorce and be satisfied with the therapy (paraphrazing Esther Perel).
That was my thought. A marriage counselling system which caused all of the awful relationships to end would be a good thing. And sometimes open communication makes you realise that the person you’re dating isn’t the person you pictured in your head, and you should stop.
A successful marriage is like a successful movie: they don’t last any longer than they should.
This is off imo. Successful marriages generally last till death.
Successful marriage counseling may entail ending an unsuccessful marriage.
A failed marriage is like a failed business: tragic and usually expensive, but trying to keep it going on life supporr once it’s irreparably failed will only make things worse.
Were your parents divorced?
With the caveat that if moviegoers never needed to eat, sleep, use the restroom, or go back to their 9-to-5 job, the “optimal” length for some movies might be very long indeed.
Some marriages “should” last indefinitely because they, y’know… work. Or such is my opinion.
There are addictive video games that you can play all day and much of the night and that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
Episodic pastimes seem best. You can play regularly but they have regular stopping points when you go do something else.
Maybe this isn’t a great metaphor for marriage?
The reason addicting video games are bad is because human biology and society aren’t designed to cope with something that makes you want to do it for forty hours straight. It’s situationally bad; a race of post-scarcity immortals whose biological needs are handled by nanites would probably be perfectly capable of gracefully handling plays, movies, and for that matter video games designed to be consumed for a few days at a stretch.
Episodic art isn’t objectively better than situational, in other words.
And note that “binging” a whole season of a new Netflix show is very popular for people who can pause easily for those biological needs, so it seems that most people agree with you.
Yup. Divorce and “marital stability” are the dumbest possible metrics to use and I hate that the relationship industry focuses on them. Personal satisfaction is what we’re after. Successful counseling should end bad relationships, improve the quality of good and middling relationships, and potentially make people stop feeling quite so much existential dread and angst at the thought of being single.
The issue with “personal satisfaction” as a target for maximization is that whenever more than one person is present, you will have to contend with conflicting teleologies, at least to some extent.
A partner whose optics are mainly those of personal satisfaction may well find themselves without a partner and that may result in less satisfaction overall in the long run than finding a way to reconcile differences.
IOW, you gotta know when to hold’em and when to fold’em. Also, better the devil you know than one you don’t.
The problem with this is that this is not what marriage is meant to be about.
Marriage does not exist for the sake of the partners. It’s not cohabitation with a tax break. The point of marriage is to create a new family that is at least capable of bearing and raising children. If a marriage breaks up, then it failed at its primary goal.
There are some circumstances where a marriage has become so dysfunctional that divorce is the best of available (bad) options. But this is already a failure case, and indicates that something went badly wrong beforehand. A successful marriage is one that stays together with minimized existential-level conflict; it is absolutely the goal of marriage counseling to make marriages successful.
This. I would assume that in the era of sexual freedom when people can cohabitate with their sexual partners for years without getting married, it should be obvious. No it isn’t.
If you are saying that couples who are unable to or don’t intend to have children shouldn’t get married, I disagree vehemently.
Couples who do not intend to have children should not expect or demand that marriage customs be altered for their convenience. If they want the package deal that other people came up with to facilitate child-raising, as is, sure, have at it.
Corollary: “But not every married couple intends to have children, therefore…”, is not a reasonable argument for changing the laws or customs of marriage.
…what do you mean by “alter”? If you mean alter the customs for everyone, I don’t see how a minority of people doing things differently will alter much of anything (you can still practice more traditional customs even if other people are practicing different customs), and if you’re talking about some couples practicing altered versions of the customs, I don’t see why people shouldn’t be able to use whatever versions of whatever customs happen to fit their needs, as long as they’re not causing harm to someone else.
That would be a lot more convincing if these “customs” didn’t involve demanding legally enforced privileges up to and including compulsory cake-baking. Or is that the bailey that I’m supposed to forget you demanded while you’re holed up in the motte?
But even leaving the law out of it, if you want the rest of us to respect your marriage, even just to refer to you as married people, then we have the right to say “no” or “not unless you…”
@John Schilling: People have the right to do a lot of things that I’d consider unethical or undesirable or just plain rude, such as refusing to respect gay marriages or childless straight marriages. And it’s very good that they have a right to those behaviors, even if I think the behaviors themselves are bad. But that won’t keep me from judging and criticizing them for it, as is my right. If you tell a gay couple or a childless straight couple that their marriage isn’t real, then I see that as a jerk move and I won’t be afraid to call you out on it. (If your definition of marriage allows for adoption – and thus doesn’t automatically exclude gay people and people with health problems that prevent them from conceiving – I’d consider it far less of a jerk move, but still a jerk move.)
Leaving aside the meta-issue of rights, I never got the impression that the institution of marriage existed exclusively for the sake of producing children. When I was growing up, I was told that a man and a woman got married if they loved each other very much and wanted to spend their life together. That’s still how I view it, with the caveat that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a man and a woman. Maybe it’s a cultural difference, and other people grew up with different definitions of marriage. Which is fine, as long as they’re not jerks about it. (My own personal definition of marriage wouldn’t include an asexual and aromantic couple who got married solely because they wanted the benefits of a shared lifestyle and mutual support, but it’d be extremely rude to tell them that their marriage was invalid. I can understand that my opinions are not everyone’s opinions.)
My understanding is that it has been customary for a long time to allow people who can’t have children (e.g., because the wife is past menopause) to get married. So I don’t see that I’m proposing any changes here to either law or custom.
… or are you saying that referring to a divorce as a failed marriage is customary and therefore shouldn’t be argued with? I still don’t see where compulsory cake-baking comes into it.
Nobody does the latter, for a variety of reasons. Until about a decade ago, the former was the law of the land.
For a long time, there hasn’t been a way to really check all that well, especially without massively invading personal privacy. We’ve seen slight intrusions into privacy to discourage irresponsible procreation (checking birth certificates for ~1st cousin level close family relations, refusing to provide marriage certificates until proof of sterility is provided), and extremely non-privacy-invading encouragement of responsible procreation (checking the sexes listed on birth certificates).
I don’t think anybody, and certainly not myself, is proposing to in any way delegitimize merely childless marriages. Traditionally, we offer the full respect of that institution up front, and consider it more trouble than it’s worth to try and figure out whether we should try to claw it back from those who might have abused the process – so long as they afford the institution the same level of respect.
My problem is with people who say, “We’re not going to have children, and because we’re not going to have children our marriage doesn’t need all that baggage the breeders have in theirs. We’re going to have sex with other people, and keep separate bank accounts, and go our separate ways with a quickie no-fault divorce as soon as either of us finds this marriage more trouble than it’s worth, etc”.
Congratulations, you’ve just invented “shacking up”. And there’s a reason we have the two different terms for two different institutions. One of these, is a very substantial commitment usually made for a noble purpose and which earns a great deal of up-front respect for the participants. The other, not so much.
Claiming to be “married” when your relationship more closely matches “shacking up”, is a claim to unearned virtue and respect.
And it complicates our efforts to respect and support the people who really have made the greater commitment, so please don’t do that.
@John Schilling: Ah, I understand what you’re saying now. I’m not sure I agree: I’ve seen childless marriages, sexless marriages, marriages where people were allowed to have sex with other people, marriages where people kept separate finances, marriages where people had to live separately for extended periods of time due to work or family obligations, marriages where the participants didn’t go out on dates together anymore. And I don’t think any of those things alone makes a marriage invalid. But when you take everything together, you’re right, it doesn’t seem like much of a marriage anymore. So I’m really not sure exactly where to draw the line myself.
What would you say the noble purpose of marriage is, once you exclude producing and raising children?
Providing a lifetime of domestic partnership to support whatever other worthwhile thing at least one of these two people are going to do with their lives. Which may not be quite as noble as creating intelligent life from scratch, but I’m (probably) not going to judge. There’s a rebuttable presumption that people are going to try to do something respectable with their life, and that’s generally much easier with a solid partner watching your back.
And if they’re both going to be obvious hedonistic wastrels, there’s at least something to having them promise to be there to take care of each other as their aged bodies start to fail and solitary living becomes problematic, so that they are less of a burden on the rest of us.
Perhaps I’m just in a bubble, but I don’t think the sort of marriage of convenience you describe happens to any significant degree in my part of the world. (Not that it would bother me particularly if it did, but I can sympathize with your position to at least some extent even if I don’t share it.)
Wild speculation time – I have in the past seen various claims that suggested to me that the US tax code (and legal system in general) discriminates against single people; to the extent that this is true, perhaps it is a part of the problem?
For me the objection to childless marriage is less about “the institution is being perverted,” as that ship has sailed, than it’s about me wondering what the point would be. I can see no advantages and a boatload of disadvantages.
It’s an excuse for a big fancy party, and it helps convince people you’re a real grownup. Possibly including yourself, if you’re insecure on that front.
On the one hand, that seems to describe nearly every millenial (certainly all of them that use “adulting” as a verb).
On the other hand, rites of passage were ubiquitous until fairly recently, so the anxiety is understandable.
Agreed. But marriage is the wrong tool for that job, and our having degraded all the more appropriate tools into uselessness just means we’re going to do the same thing to marriage as we push it into the same role.
Hmm, if we really are going to make “everyone must go to college or be a failure” be the standard in the 21st century, can we make college graduation into the “now you’re a Real Adult(tm), so celebrate that and then live up to it” rite of passage?
From some cursory googling, it does look like college attendance has out-paced marriage.
And college already incorporates the psychadelic use aspect of ancient rituals.
As a traditionalist, I’m going to insist on a solitary hunt being made a part of the curriculum for the men, though.
There’s some discussion about financial advantages and disadvantages here but (as is pointed out) the question largely misses the point. People get married because we are instinctively driven to do so – or perhaps it is primarily a cultural drive rather than an instinct, but either way the impact is the same.
As LadyJane said, there are lots of different kinds of marriage and I don’t want to be seeming to invalidate any of them, but for my part I would be very sceptical of a marriage where the only motivation for it was that you thought it would give you an advantage in child-rearing. Once the children are grown, what’s going to keep you together?
Perhaps that is true for your marriage, but it is dead wrong about mine.
My wife and I are childfree. Bearing and raising kids is completely
beside the point for us. Our marriage most certainly does exist for
the sake of my wife and myself.
Bad marriages are a bad way to rear children, though.
I don’t think there’s evidence that keeping together in a bad relationship is better than breaking up as far as child outcomes go. And of course, if there are no children yet at all, then breaking up a bad relationship pre-emptively is better than producing children with an unsuitable partner.
Failing once is not as bad as failing repeatedly.
I think that depends on how you define bad. There is a big difference between an abusive marriage and one where one parent is no longer attracted to the other and wants to find a new love.
Parents who prefer to separate for their own sake have an incentive to consider their marriage more harmful for their children than separation.
The trouble comes when people mistake a bad stretch for a bad marriage. Or use the possibility of a better match as a reason not to work at it.
Because the next marriage will have the same situations at times.
As Aapje points out, watch out for using the worst marriages to justify the dissolution of the marginal.
No, a thousand times no.
The entire construct is to give innocent children home stability and legal protection.
If life is only about satisfaction maximizers then abortion should be mandatory for everyone but Mormons /s.
Sorry for the sarcasm. I’ve witnessed far too many “Eat Pray Love” divorces where the children ended up opium addicts or in prison.
You know childless people are sometimes married too, right?
It seems to me a marriage is what the two people in it say it’s about. Personal satisfaction seems a perfectly reasonable “about” and as the commenters to your comment say, providing a stable base from which to raise children also seems like a fine “about” for marriage to be.
My only objection would be one set of people deciding for another set of people what marriage is about or asserting with great authority what marriage is obviously, objectively, rightly about, when that’s really just their view.
I think the notion of “failure” when a relationship doesn’t last until death is okay for those who want to carry that notion of failure; for those who don’t, having divorce held up as failure in some objective sense seems unhelpful. I think it’s good when people set their own benchmarks for success and failure, according to their own values. It’s not the SAT and there’s no one right answer.
I see protecting children from harm and raising them well as an endeavor that is related to but not at all co-extensive with marriage. Which is to say, it’s possible to have all kinds of different views about what marriage is about and what constitutes success and failure in it while still protecting children from harm and raising them well.
I have my doubts whether many of the people who speak of relationships like something that you just enjoy while they last, would actually prefer a shorter term relationship over a lifetime one.
If they are merely communicating that they don’t want to accept a loss of certain benefits from their relationship and would rather separate to seek those benefits with someone else, but they would prefer a lifelong relationship with those benefits, then is their measure of success and behavior truly different from someone who says they want a lifetime relationship with certain benefits and who will separate if those benefits are not/no longer there, but who sees that relationship as failed?
If an optimist sees the glass half full and the pessimist as half empty, they may perceive their drinking bout differently in hindsight, but in both cases the goal was to get buzzed.
Yeah, I guess mainly I see failure as a word used for general social shaming or self-shaming but that otherwise doesn’t have a lot of explanatory value. And I see no merit in shaming people whose marriages have ended. Or for that matter for people whose marriages haven’t ended but aren’t working very well for them (another kind of “failure”).
If we’re not taking about a graded test or a work performance for which their are explicit external standards, then statements like “my marriage failed” or “I failed my marriage” or “I was a failure as a partner” are all subjective interpretations by the person who was acting. The question I’d ask is, how does this appraisal of “failure” help you? It may well, but I think it’d be worth considering the question.
@cuke I think ‘failure’ is also just a word to describe ‘that which if we changed most people would agree it would be a good thing.’ Marriages tend to start with the goal of lasting forever (generally speaking, for a bunch of reasons), and so when they don’t it’s called a failure. To the extent this is used to shame people, I think it’s to help them stick to this precommitment.
Calling it a failure can encourage people to fix something about themselves, rather than make the same mistakes again in their next relationship.
Also, some people who fail are relationships hurt people due to selfish reasons or such. I do think that some of them deserve some shaming.
I don’t think “it can be used to shame people” is an adequate reason not to distinguish failure from success. As a rule, people who get married do so with the intention that it will be permanent. Divorce means that that project has failed.
The divorce itself isn’t a failure — it may be the correct response to the situation. But the situation is the failure of the marriage project.
Yes good points, all of these.
When it comes to relationships, I think distinguishing failure from success is up to the individual who was in the relationship, that’s all.
If failure were used out in the world and in people’s minds as neutrally as “that which if we changed most people would agree it would be a good thing” then I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. That would be lovely to live in that world. I don’t think we do.
I see no value in shaming anyone for how they conduct their personal relationships. There may be legal consequences for harmful behavior. I think this is a larger philosophical disagreement about whether shame is a useful tool. Even if I thought it were useful in some narrow instances (not sure I do), I don’t see it being useful in this context.
Because marriage isn’t a math test or a science experiment or a computer program, the word “failure” doesn’t work for me.
Some of my reaction comes of sitting with people many days in my office who say things like “I’m such a failure” and “my father thinks I’m a failure” and “my wife thinks I’m a failure” and “I’m afraid if I try that I’ll fail” and so on, so my experience is that the word carries unhelpful psychological baggage when it comes to how we conduct our lives. And I see the word paralyzing and weighing people down and that change often has to wait until they begin to describe their experience with different words — less emotionally fraught words like the ones you offer NoRandomWalk.
I don’t think it’s our business to appraise for other people whether they’ve failed in what are very subjective experiences. I think it’s totally fair if someone finds clarity or precision or a helpful sense of accountability in applying that word to their own experience. I think the problem comes when we think we can apply that word to a piece of someone else’s life.
We all may have to agree to disagree on this one. I do appreciate the thoughtful back and forth.
Yeah. I’ve talked to a bunch of marriage therapists (FML) and the majority approach is that they are neutral between marriage and divorce. Very reluctant to tell people to either stay married or get divorced.
This seems to be an important point. Also, there seems to be a presupposition that divorce is due to some sort of functional deficiency on the part of one or both spouses, and also that the couple was “in love” when they got married (and had rational expectation of that continuing forever).
A better analysis would be closer to Gary Becker’s “A Treatise on the Family”, which predicts what is observed, that who marries whom has a large component of “each person trying to get the best deal they can” in a marriage marketplace, and that marriages break down when one or both spouses has better options than remaining in the marriage. (Interestingly, the latter often happens both when the family’s economic situation worsens dramatically and when it improves dramatically.)
At the least, that provides a natural way to incorporate the information that the presence of (joint) children is statistically very stabilizing to marriages despite decreasing the spouses reported marital satisfaction.
FWIW Gottman specifically focuses on staying together (not divorcing) as the metric of “success”, at least in part because it is an objective metric.
This quote seems a really odd copy and paste error?
“More than 80 percent of the time it’s the wife More than 80 percent of the time it’s the wife he wife who brings up sticky marital issues, while the who brings up sticky marital issues, while the husband tries to avoid discussing them.”
“The wife he wife” is still present at this time.
That’s just ye olde English.
The wife he wifed until the waif waved her wavy hær.
There’s an invalid character between the “follow” and “up” in “At our three-month follow up that proportion…”, which is breaking the RSS feed for me.
Thanks. I’ve deleted the character, though I don’t know if that will fix the RSS.
Seems to be fixed.
It showed up in my RSS feed without any noticeable problems. (I use Feedly.)
I saw the old version without any of the changes, also on feedly. But I presume any readers afterwards will see the newest versions.
Is that what you bring up with your partner as the one problem you’d like to work on this week?