Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rethinking childrearing and adult relationships

A friend and I were recently debating what the ideal marriage relationship is. He sent me this article as representative of his beliefs, and my response is below: http://drkellyflanagan.com/2012/03/02/marriage-is-for-losers/

Thanks for sending the article. It was an interesting read and definitely reflects my attitude towards marriage 5 years ago, as well as what my parents imbued in me.

If you're going to have a conventional marriage - life-long, single-partner, shared property ownership, high cost (financial, emotional, and on the children) of separation, no other sexual partners, no or few other partners with emotional connections as deep as your married partner, home life dominating your non-work/social life, kids only raised by you and your partner and possibly a parent occasionally, etc - then I agree, the third marriage type is the best you can probably hope for.

Still, as the author says, "The third kind of marriage is not perfect, not even close." Why settle for something that's still not even close to perfect? I believe that in order to do substantially better, we can't just hope to find a better partner - we have to rethink the cultural norms around partnership and child rearing.

The author doesn't say this, but the reason that being a 'loser' is so important is that the cost of break-up is so high, and that there's only one kind of break-up: permanent (excluding long-term separation I suppose), and it has huge impacts on both partners and the children.

Change a few cultural norms and see how this changes: what if we had....

a) multiple men and women who fully identify as parents? or a whole extended 'tribe' (30-50+ people) identify as parents?
  • the change in relationship between one pair wouldn't affect the children much, since even if it got so bad that a pair no longer interacted and one parent totally left the community, the children would only have n-1 parents, not '1' parent
  • without this fear of hurting the children by breaking up, healthy and needed break-ups might be more common: I know one woman especially who would have broken up with her abusive husband 10 years earlier but wanted to wait 'til her kids were out of school; if her kids' well-being hadn't depended on just one man and woman, she could have felt comfortable leaving much earlier.
b) shared extended family or community property
  • the cost of splitting up would not involve 'financial' or resource losses since the partners would have nothing or little to divide up
c) non-jealous or non-exclusive relationships
  • imagine you can relate in a healthy way to multiple lovers simultaneously. You're less likely to get tired or bored of your spouse after 20 years. And if the one with your primary partner does grows stale, you don't feel the need to seek out hidden sexual or emotional relationships with others: you just have relationships as they feel right to you
  • since your marriage relationship doesn't dominate your life as much, the prospect of being without your 'primary' partner doesn't seem as lonely - you know you've got many other rich relationships that could take its place.
d) the child is raised by the mother's family
  • in one culture in China, women from 12-13 on can have any relationships they want. Any child is considered part of the woman's family and is raised by her, her parents, and her siblings (brothers and sisters). Thus, men don't feel attached to the child they produce, they feel attached to the children their sisters produce. In this culture, the women only stay with men for as long as they feel comfortable, knowing their own and their children's well-being isn't dependent on picking THE RIGHT MAN and sticking with him forever come hell or high water. Men likewise don't feel trapped in bad relationships.This is just one example of a specific alternative cultural arrangement that doesn't make having a baby with someone so damn risky! There are many other possible arrangements.
e) there are a lot more possibilities, but you get the idea

In general, marriage as commonly practiced in the US really does feel like a straight jacket to me - the set of legal and cultural norms surrounding it make it very risky and extremely expensive to change your legal relationship as your actual relationship changes. I would prefer a culture that makes it easy to change your relationship as your feelings change, so that at every point, you're with the woman or man (or multiple) that most fulfills you, knowing your well-being and your children's doesn't depend on sticking with someone that doesn't fulfill you for the rest of your life.

Of course, you'd also need a culture with more emotionally mature people like the ones in 'marriage 3' in the article - humble, connected, emotionally open, loving, so that relationships don't just start and stop all the time, but grow in richness and love for as long as both partners desire.

 And to make this a little more personal, some anecdotes:
  • I know a woman who stayed with her abusive husband for 10+ years after he started being abusive because she wanted to provide a stable home for her kids while they were in school. What if she could have provided that stability and removed him from her life?
  • I know another woman who began to question war in the early 1990s, eventually becoming very stressed about it. She couldn't have reasonable discussions about it with her friends, family, or her husband, and as her stress built up, they started talking about divorce. Afraid that her career, stable family with children, and relationship with a man she otherwise deeply loved may be at risk, she chose not to go through divorce. She's been on anti-depressants since then, about 20 years now. This means her life has been clinically depressing for 20 years, and she's managed to remain functional only with drug-enabled denial and distraction.
  •  I've known many people who grew up feeling very lonely, and so became very clingy - multiple cases, with both guys and girls, where the person chose to stay with one partner all through high school or through college. When they marry, they'll try to navigate that 'final' relationship after having very little relationship experience, or experience with very few people.
  • I've been told many times, including recently by married friends my own age, that the 'fire' in a marriage changes after 1-2 years. It may still very much be a 'relationship worth having', but don't expect it to be the same.
And lets get a big-picture view to generalize:
  • 43% of American women and 31% of American men have some sort of diagnosable sexual dysfunction as found by The National Health and Social Life Survey and cited at the Cleveland Clinic.
  • If you want to know where our culture is, know where we came from:
[..]Until the 20th century, American and European men—including physicians—believed that women did not experience sexual desire or pleasure. They believed that women were simply fleshy receptacles for male lust and that intercourse culminating in male ejaculation fulfilled women's erotic needs. Women were socialized to believe that “ladies” had no sex drive, and that duty required them to put up with sex in order to keep their husbands happy and have children.
Not surprisingly, these beliefs left an enormous number of women sexually frustrated. They complained to doctors of anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the leg. This syndrome became known as “hysteria,” from the Greek for uterus.
Documented complaints of female hysteria date back to the 13th century.[...]
I used to find this hard to believe, but I've met women in the generation before me who still believe it's the "woman's job" to serve her man sexually. It also reinforces how terrible women had it back when they were, financially, essentially the property of men a century ago.
  • Pornography brings in $100,000,000,000 in revenue per year worldwide. This was confirmed by the LA Times. And given the amount of porn available free online, if all users paid for what they used, this figure would be much higher.
  • According to the National Center for Health Statistics cited here, 1/10 Americans is using anti-depressants, in many cases more than 1 simultaneously.
Humans didn't evolve to be so sexually dysfunctional. We didn't evolve to get off to sex on paper and screens, or to try to counter chronic emotional trauma with drugs, or abuse our spouses or children, or raise children in single-parent homes, or leave children in day-care with strangers for 8 hours/day during very formative years, or any other problems that seem common in the US and around the world. Without changing the culture, or 'moving' to a different one, even if individual relationships can avoid the worst of the problems or misunderstandings noted above, it seems like the "still not even close to perfect" relationship is the best I could hope to end up with.

Books that helped shape my thinking on this:
  • Black Elk Speaks
  • The Enlightened Sex Manual
  • Sex at Dawn
  • The Continuum Concept
All 4 pretty much rocked my world actually.===

P.S. Interesting side note: the way we think of marriage reflects a cultural preference for making important life decisions once and relatively young: go into debt to select your profession at 18 and stick with it for 30 years; get a 30 year loan on a house, meet the one and only true love of your life and get married at 22 right after college, etc: the cultural and legal norms really don't support flexibility as a rule, especially if you don't have money to throw around.