(epistemic status: brain dump)
It’s weird when you see something working the way it was intended to for the first time, and things click.
In my post, Marriage is a Hostile Act, I took exception with the fact that there exists in the US a standard contract that one is encouraged to sign which literally takes away a large percentage of your personhood. This is very much against everything I know of the spirit of the liberal ideal. Contracts which remove personhood are generally considered unconscionable and illegal. You cannot sell yourself into slavery, nor into indentured servitude. There are exceptions, but they are not entered into lightly and generally come with a lot of oversight.
I’ve come to realize lately that I never really understood what marriage is supposed to be about to a large part of the populace.
For most of my childhood, my family lived as exiles. We could have no contact with anyone back in the home country, as that was both nearly impossible practically, and would endanger my parents’ family members. I had no uncles/grandparents/in-laws/cousins/etc to model normal family life. My only real-life model was my parents marriage which, with all due respect to my parents, was massively dysfunctional.
My fall-back models were Hollywood/Disney. Which is basically the porn equivalent of marriage. As far as I could tell, marriage is what you did with someone that you had developed a strong emotional bond with. And I develop emotional bonds pretty easily.
This seemed reasonable, in fact. Friends live together all the time. Sometimes they have sex. It makes sense that they get a few legal protections to help each other out. That shit’s important when you’re incapacitated, and it’s good to have someone watching your back. If, over time, you drift apart or move on to the next phase of your life, you just dissolve the marriage and keep in touch.
Recently I read that the difference between economic and social ties is that social ties are longer term. (I don’t recall where, but probably at Samzdat?) In any economic transaction, it must be fair immediately, or nearly so. AND verifiable. I give you X for Y, and we’re both better off. In social transactions, one trusts they’ll even out in the long term. I see the dishes are scattered across the counter, so I put them away and turn on the dishwasher. I don’t expect anything in return, because I believe that when you (my partner) find yourself in a similar situation you will do the same for me. It’s a beautiful sort of acausal trade among instances of ourselves that we cannot verify, because we aren’t there, but we have faith they’re being executed because we know each other’s character.
You can’t have trade like that with strangers. (It’s probably one of the reasons that working for a corporation feels so empty and meaningless.) Acausal among humans trade takes bonds of family or deep brotherhood. The trust it both requires and engenders allows for all sorts of efficiencies that can’t be created otherwise. This is why throughout most of history the basic economic unit was the family.
There’s massive personal benefit beyond the efficiencies of trade as well. There’s immense psychological safety in knowing that even if everything I’m doing falls apart, I still have a home and a place. They will help me for the months or years it takes to get going again, because they love me, and they know I’d do the same for them.
And I guess marriage-relationships are like that, taken up to eleven. Back in the day there was a semi-tongue-in-cheek way to say “I love you” that ran something along the lines of “My utility function contains a term for the fulfillment of your utility function.” I think marriage is supposed to go beyond that though. The two utility functions are supposed to be merged and mangled to a point where its hard to distinguish them any more. It’s not just a commitment. It’s partially becoming the other person. It’s thinking of them instinctively in all situations. It’s not something that can be done in the course of a few weeks or months, and certainly not something that can be shown in a stupid 100-minute film.
And of course, after such a meshing of utility functions, one could never, EVER be replaced. It would be unthinkable. It would be like ripping out a limb and several organs. It’s not something you do unless the limb’s become gangrenous and it’s the only way to save someone’s life. Even then, the person will be diminished and lesser for a long time afterwards.
(Perhaps ironically, the first (and as far as I can recall, only) time I’ve seen this sort of thing modeled, it has been with a multiple-relationship polyamorous family, not a mono couple.)
This sort of thing is hardcore. And when it’s made official, it should be a big deal. It should be a long, elaborate magical ritual that taps into a culture’s mythology and the participant’s wibbly mystical instincts. It should require sacrifice of some sort. Maybe if the religion I’d been raised in had something like this it would’ve helped me “get it.” As it was, I was in an upstart sect less than a century old, there was nothing particularly interesting about the few weddings I attended.
The government, certainly, should have never gotten involved. Perhaps this was a tactic to grab power from the church. Perhaps it was an attempt to make marriages legible to the state. As usual, it fucked things up. Reducing a social ritual to an economic contract broke the core of what the ritual was about in the first place. When marriage means going to the DMV, signing a single-page contract, and paying a $15 fee, well, you don’t expect it to come with the same sorts of entanglements.
I don’t know if I’m OK with ever getting that deeply enmeshed with anyone. The closest I’ve come is a sort of hetro-life-partnership with a deep friend. I’m starting to trust my parents to this degree, though. So I guess I’m coming closer.
The marriage thing probably isn’t that big of a deal if both participants of a marriage are expecting the same thing. But if one party is expecting “Friends who care for each other, but remain separate people” and the other is expecting “life long soul-enmeshment,” and they fail to communicate properly, and then find out their partner expected the opposite of what they thought they were getting… Well. That can be a very hurtful shock.