Failed Marriages / by Bryce Hidysmith

The Russian Bride’s Attire - Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky. The original hangs in the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco and takes up an entire wall. I still marvel at the way that Makovsky was able to impose detail on tiny subsections of the painting without being able to see the representational utility of the detail at the resolution necessary to execute the brush strokes.

The Russian Bride’s Attire - Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky. The original hangs in the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco and takes up an entire wall. I still marvel at the way that Makovsky was able to impose detail on tiny subsections of the painting without being able to see the representational utility of the detail at the resolution necessary to execute the brush strokes.

< Soundtrack: Jamaican Queens - Water >

Marriage has not fully decayed as an institution in the West. There are enough individuals attempting a postmodern spin on the practice and neo-traditionalists trying to reanimate dead models for it to still be in play. Still, there are some critical questions that need to be answered before it becomes a reliably useful practice again.

Marriage may fully decay in this century. As an aside, a world without marriage is probably an okay place to live, provided it has a political economy reasonably similar to the Na with a less gendered labor caste system. The Na system, at my estimate, sacrifices both a great deal of enjoyment and utility by limiting the pursuits available to individuals by gender, but I must endorse its decision to make the spheres of political power available to each gender incontrovertible while not non-interactive. I estimate that the likely correct system is to make economic life gender-blind, and political life somewhat gender segregated, with the caveat that the economic system must be contained so as to not supplant the political system by instituting a plutocracy. There’s probably a more elegant system that reconciles the separate spheres of the political and the economic, but I estimate that’s largely impossible to derive from the Na social structure, and as would only be designable with an a priori methodology by looking at entirely abstract decision theory. Additionally, I cannot interpret history as anything other than a warning against making the political power of males dominant, and thus must endorse the female political system as primary, but a discussion of my specific justifications for that belief must be the subject of another, much longer, post.

Before evaluating whether or not it’s worth rebuilding the institution in some sort of sane form, it’s worth looking at why marriage failed in the first place and why it was a practice that humanity invented to begin with. Marriage might most easily be thought of as the act of correlating two agents utility functions to a sufficient degree that they can act in the best interests of themselves as a collective unit. This should be distinguished between the concept of the “relationship” or “boy/girlfriend” that are common in modern society, as frequently those practices make no attempt to correlate the utility functions of the persons within the emotional bond. In fact, I might have to note that much of the use of dating is the creation of plausible deniability to succeed in a sexual market by communicating that one has a better BATNA than a potential partner. This is exacerbated in polyamorous cultures such as my native upper-middle class art/tech San Francisco. While the stated intention of open polyamory is the exploitation of the fact that love and intimacy do not have to be finite, one’s lifespan is always finite, and the temporally local amount of one’s lifespan that may be devoted to another is more finite still. This leads, rather obviously, to inevitable envy and conflict, and thus the relationship anarchy model need not be discussed further as anything approximating the same institutional validity as marriage. This is obviously true for persons who want to “make a life together,” which seems like a good way to think of pair bonds, spouses or “primary partners” as common law pairings are often termed in these cultures, but conflicts over scarce time empirically proliferate even in cases where the partners in question do not want to correlate their utility functions and simply desires attention. The latter case of partnerships that make no attempt at correlating intentions can work, but it is reliably a delicate and often unpleasant case of domestic Metternichian balance-of-power politics.

The correlation of two utility functions is obviously most critical for the raising of children, but the practicality of breeders and raisers hardly rules out the necessity of adults able to enter into a contract that produces the effects of a new family without a new generation. While this is of practical necessity in partnerships with infertile individuals or incompatible gametes, the act of marriage should be understood as a tool of undefined and broad use rather than a tool only in service of producing children. Thus, marriage as a concept should be thought of irrespective of biology. The same types of social relationships will remain useful regardless of gender or even the existence of the physical body. Biological constraints should be limited to specific cases, rather than confused for the general concept.

The two failed models of marriage common in the past are both cases of attempting to avoid the problem that one cannot serve two masters by making one’s spouse one’s master in one way or another. They may be best characterized as the following:

  1. Traditionalism, asymmetric power, or the extension of property rights over the spouse: Common in Western society until the much-needed social reforms of feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The wife is the ward of the husband. Until fairly recently, this was almost exclusively a patriarchal institution in the West, but with added economic and political equality there are cases where the male of the relationship is effectively the ward of the female, and there have always been same-gender pairings that fit this model. One partner claims the right to dictate the behavior of the other, creating a correlated intention by making the intentions of the property partner invalid. This has the rather obvious effect of robbing the property partner of all agency, and is rightfully witnessed as at minimum in bad taste in the civilized sections of contemporary society, if not actively and needlessly cruel.

  2. Folie à deux, symmetric power, or you and me against the world: The partners in the marriage have the right to unilaterally demand defection against any other person or object, with the claim that the marriage represents a prioritization of the spouse over all other concerns. This is certainly a step up from the property-rights model described above, but has the effect of closing off the spouses from external concerns. It demands loyalty over integrity, in that the members of the relationship are always judged against a rubric that is separate from the rubric used to analyze the persons external to the relationship. This has the added effect of degrading the epistemic ability of both spouses, given that they must act against their better judgement to preserve the loyalty of the relationship. Perhaps the only scenario that this model is effective is the transitional period following the fall of the 1950s property model during the earlier days of women’s liberation, where American and to a lesser degree Western society was structured in corporations that provided the necessary economic, academic, and security coordination to allow for atomized spousal relationships to maintain nuclear families. I do not mean to suggest that this was ideal, the household division of labor during that time was still unnecessarily patriarchal on the whole. While this is still a viable model for a small subset of the American workforce—employees of the financial sector or FAANG-tier companies that maintain a light socialist lifestyle for their workers—such a socioeconomic system does not exist for the vast majority of Millenials and younger, and will likely phase out. Additionally, I cannot endorse the sacrifice of membership in a trusted community larger than the relationship in favor of the marriage. Even if that were a worthwhile trade from the internal perspective of the spouses, it produces conflicts that strain the marriage that often inevitably cause a divorce.

I do not have a good answer as to what model comes next, only that these two models and the non-model of relationship anarchy are altogether insufficient and detrimental to varying degrees. The only intuition that I have, though, is in the idea of loyalty versus integrity based ethics. If the folie à deux model demands loyalty over integrity, then the only clear way of redeeming the model is that one must be loyal to a similar type of integrity to one’s partner. That is to say, marriages will only be successful if the partners in question have similar ethical systems and can coordinate based on a shared endorsement of each other’s ethical system. In a way, this is something of an endorsement of the homogeneity of traditional societies with the caveat that the traditional-proprietary model of marriage must be permanently abolished. Such a shared spousal ethics must be generative, as the marriage is composed of two persons and each person will have a consistent informational asymmetry compared with the other. This discourse between spouses must be interpreted as an advantage, rather than a disadvantage as in the folie à deux, as the ability of one partner to inform the other increases the amount of compute and memory available to the partnership. The core thing is that correct action must be understood to be subjective, but that the information available to a given subject must be understood to be incomplete. This provides an adequate justification for preserving the integrity of one’s partner’s ethical system without sacrificing the integrity of one’s own. Other than that, I am still uncertain as to what a eudaemonic marriage in the twenty-first century looks like.

A word of thanks to C.B, with whom many of these ideas appeared in conversation a few weeks ago on a nighttime walk along the coast of Santa Monica.