Marriage is one of the most important projects in our lives, yet most people are clueless about it. What is the most effective role for each spouse? What are the most important aspects of marriage? Can we use science for planning a marriage? Is the modern approach better than more traditional marriages? Maybe it is better to stay alone? I will try to answer all these questions as effectively as I can.
Even a great marriage is not perfect
When I was dating I used a statistical approach which I called “lovegorithm of dr Lev”. Upon marriage, Anna asked me to delete all the research data, which I did. I will only say that Anna is a nearly perfect spouse by any criteria I could come up with.
The dating period was perfect. We married in Australia and had the most beautiful honeymoon in New Zealand. After the marriage, we started to experience tensions. Anna’s pregnancy coincided with our return to Israel. Within two years we had two kids, yet our marriage was falling apart. There were simply too many unrealistic expectations from each other.
We went to a marriage counselor for several years, improving every aspect of our family life. Now, our eldest son is 14 years old, and we are happier with our marriage than ever before. This does not mean that we agree about everything, but we use very effective conflict resolution methods. Our conflicts do not project on our relationship.
Is it expensive to keep a good family life?
Spending several years in marriage counseling means that around half a day every week is allocated to finding the balance with the spouse. For several years! Not going to a therapist, still means spending that time working on issues, only without a third party. This is very expensive. We have about two days of weekend for all of our projects. A quarter of it goes to romance… It can be combined with shopping, nature, or strategizing, but it is still a lot.
We should probably add occasional romantic getaways. Before COVID 19 Anna and I every year took a one-week vacation to some romantic country to reignite the romance. In addition, we organized every year a one-week romantic staycation sending the kids to grandparents. Beyond fun, the romantic getaways allow real uninterrupted intimacy. This intimacy allows us to love each other not in our family roles, but as human beings.
Is upkeep of family life a good investment?
How expensive is a bad marriage?
The alternative to hard work is worse. There were multiple pieces of research on the subject. While there is no universal consensus, the main theme is pretty clear. A bad marriage is approximately as destructive as divorce. A divorce is a huge toll in several areas:
- The kids get less balanced parental attention and are more likely to develop issues. Financially, this means extra bills for tutors and therapists, extra presents… The extra expenses cannot quite compensate for the loss of a functioning family unit. The kids are still more likely to develop self-destructing patterns.
- There is a huge emotional toll. I am not even talking about the original separation process, with bitterness and aggression. Loneliness can lead to depression and substance abuse. Dating is exhausting. Second marriage requires as much maintenance as the original relationship, with extra figures of ex-spouses in the picture.
- Financially, each of the spouses gets roughly half of the capital, but need to spend much more on separate households. And there is a huge waste of everything paid to lawyers, counselors, and other advisors.
- The separation process can require a lot of attention and can have a very negative effect on the career of each spouse. The process can take a couple of years, with complex adaptation and a lot of issues that need immediate attention.
So I would say, that the time spent working on our family unit is one of the best investments we made.
Having a shared interest
It is very nice to have shared interest with your spouse. Preferably hands-on experiences. For example, interior design, art, dancing, or gourmet cooking. Having a common intellectual interest can lead to vigorous conversations but also to conflicts when the paradigms clash.
One of the worst things for any marriage is running a family business together. Usually, we go to our spouse to escape the stresses of work. Then we go to work, to escape the stress of family life. This is a normal process. Spending 24/7 with the spouse means that there is nowhere to escape from the stress. While for a short period of time this means doubling the available resources, the escalating stress is simply not worth it.
Anna and I tried to run our teaching project as our main activity. We even co-authored several books. Eventually, we stopped. It was simply too stressful. After several years we separated the efforts. Each of us has his own areas of interest and the interfaces are very well defined. Today we have nearly zero stress from our common endeavors.
Modern marriages are usually a result of intense attractions. Traditional marriages were calculated by parents for maximal political benefits. We think that our loving marriages are better. Is that opinion supported by research?
As far as I know, there is no significant body of research clearly showing why one kind of marriage is better than the other. The initial romantic interest wears off after a couple of months or a couple of years. What comes next is hard work. About 50% of marriages end up in divorce or loveless cohabitation if divorce is not an option. The rates of family violence is about the same in both kinds of marriage.
Moreover, living with a person for a while we often find new sources of attraction and lose what we previously found attractive. People change. Some changes are physical. They lose and gain weight, acquire sports interests, undergo medical procedures.
Yet one element of attraction does not change: the chemical compatibility. During a kiss, we can sense how compatible we are genetically. Some kisses are sweat more than we could imagine. Other kisses are bitter, even when we kiss a very attractive person. This is an issue of genetic compatibility above anything else. And it does not change.
The three laws of thermodynamics
You cannot win with thermodynamics. The laws of thermodynamics can be cleverly reformulated as follows:
First Law – You can’t win. (Preservation of energy)
Second Law – You can’t even break even. (Rising entropy)
Third Law – You can’t get out of the game. (Absolute zero temperature)
What we can expect from marriage is not infinite bliss. It is a constant and clever compromise. We have conflicts simply because we have common interests. What makes compromise clever is this simple goldilocks rule: give up when it matters to you less than it matters to your spouse. Eventually, this means that you will win almost every conflict that really matters.
Many couples have two long honeymoons. The first one is after finding each other and before having children. The second honeymoon is after the kids leave the home but before the body gets brittle. The second honeymoon can often be longer and better than the first one. At least this is what I was told.
While young people are in romantic relations to build family units and have children, elderly people are together recreationally. It is simply more fun being together than alone. There is no real evolutionary advantage to it, yet it is reported as a wonderful experience of affection and warmth without inflated expectations.
Married people on average live longer and report better quality of life. Having children makes life pass faster (subjectively), and reduces the chances of depression. It is an emotionally satisfying experience. So there is a very real price for the hard work of staying together.
Does the science help?
I would love to tell you that the scientific approach helps in family life. I am not really convinced it is true. Effective marriage counselors rely on common sense and life experience more than on cold science. Which factors have been scientifically outlined?
Smart people are less likely to get divorced. IQ contributes not just to longevity. I think that smart people are better at understanding each other’s needs, act less impulsively, and can craft better compromises.
The way we talk matters. The most important part: fight with specific behaviors, not the person. People are given. They may change, but we cannot change them. We can replace specific behaviors we do not like with more productive behaviors.
Perfectionism is toxic. Try to achieve our fantasy we may lose everything. If the family can adapt and deal with the problems and provide each family member with emotional support and some sense of safety – it is probably good enough. Claiming that a spouse is useless, for example, because your house is not as clean as you might want, is a sure way to find trouble.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are conflicts that require a third unbiased perspective. This perspective often introduces diversity and dimensions we tend to miss.
Investment into marriage really matters. Probably much more than finding the spouse. This investment should be clever. Otherwise, it can be wasted. In any case, divorces are very expensive, so the return on investment is clear.