Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Get Married, Be Happy

I was struck by some of the thoughts in Cardinal Seán Brady's recent talk to the Humbert Summer School last Sunday. Most of the subsequent coverage focused on his suggestion that the No vote in the recent Lisbon Referendum was partially due to growing disillusionment on the part of Catholics with the secular direction of the European Union project. I doubt that this is as significant a factor as the Cardinal suggests, though it would certainly be worth exploring further.

But there were other things in the Cardinal's speech that did strike a chord with me. One of the things he calls upon the leaders of Europe to do is "to pay attention to protect the family based on marriage, for these are the foundations on which our common European home rests." There I think he is on much firmer ground with his analysis. I've blogged before on the issues of marriage and family trends, and I certainly think it warrants the attention the Cardinal proposes.

Stepping back from political and theological perspectives - and applying a cold, socio-biological analysis - it would appear that monogamous marriage is a social institution invented by men (our feminist sisters fighting the Patriarchy were right in that regard), which provides most men with regular sex in return for being regular fathers. Oh, and there's a small spin-off benefit called 'Western Civilisation'. I know, not very romantic.

Like all 'invented' social institutions (e.g.: money, nationality, even language) it has proved to be a remarkably successful invention because it works. Married people are generally happier than those of other marital statuses (males and females), even in Ireland after a period of rapid social change (pdf). Though happiness levels in marriages change over time, both husbands and wives tend to end up equally happy eventually. And yes, married men do have more regular sex than single men.

All of this puts the recent debates about gay marriage and polygamy in perspective - for me anyway. Personally I don't have a problem with some kind of legal recognition for gay couples, not least in terms of tax treatments vis-a-vis inheritance etc. As for polygamy, it does seem that polygamous men are happier (big surprise there!), but the same studies don't report on the happiness or otherwise of the males denied wives as a result of 'crowding out'. Given the 50/50 ratio (approximately) of males and females in the population then there's always a danger that polygamy will leave us facing some of the same dilemmas as China with its surplus of 40-60 million young men. Actually, we'll probably be facing China's and India's problems directly ...

So the Cardinal is on the right path: monogamous, heterosexual marriage is truly the building block of peaceful, prosperous civilisation. And that's something we've all got to support.

3 comments:

  1. I'm an Irish expat in the US and your analysis strikes a chord.

    Here in Boston, there is an interesting juxtaposition: The advancement of Gay Marriage rights and the decline of heterosexual marriage. That is not to say that people are not getting married - they are - but, they get divorced at almost the same rate.

    Why is this? Certainly in the less well-off sections of society, single parenthood is the norm, often from teenage years. But, there is a different twist to the story in the middle class (and, of course, the vast majority of people in America count themselves a middle class).

    Massachusetts, like many US states, has "no fault" divorce. Also, it has a well-greased divorce system, including all of the attendant lawyers, counselors, et al. It is perfectly acceptable, if you are feeling down about your marriage, feeling constrained, or feeling that you want freedom, to get a divorce. Friends will say "you're doing the right thing", and may in fact be envious. I've questioned this, but am told "that is just how it is over here". If a parent is going through an unhappy period, then the perceived wisdom is that "the children are better off if their parents are happy", i.e. if the parents are divorced.

    There is an argument, as you say, that marriage was invented by men. And, I can see that many women yearn, at a kind of midlife crisis (usually earlier than the male equivalent, I've noticed) for freedom, and feel pent-up anger at their husbands. This widely-read Oprah "O" Magazine article by Ellen Tien is a perfect example of this. The response from their friends is not the boring "you should work on it" or "you should talk about it with him", but "you do what you think is right" or simply "you go girl!". And, indeed, seeing a "successful" divorce (the wife is now "free", can feel much better about herself, get a new life, date other men), they may do the same thing.

    Conversely, there is also the almost scripted and predictable male mid-life crisis - fast car, affair, then divorce - which again is part of culture now.

    Although I am loath to agree with Cardinal Brady, I can see his points. Children are part of the wreckage here. The culture says divorce does not hurt children, but it typically demolishes family finances (less money for school or college) and they lose a role model.

    Ironically, although I believe in marriage, but I would be very loath to advise anyone in the US to get married unless they are very sure that they will not be another victim of the divorce culture here. Ireland is different, for the time being. I worry, though, that it's simply a few decades years behind. The US had a strong culture of families in the much-derided 1950s.

    This is an excellent blog, by the way.

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  2. Great comment Marko. Yes, we do tend in Ireland to follow the worst policy practices of the US and UK, whilst ignoring the best practices from both countries unfortunately.

    Thanks for the Oprah link: another fascinating example of feminist narcissism. I tend to think of women as 'the complaining sex' who have wisely evolved superior linguistic and emotional intelligence skills to counter the violent threat of superior male strength. It's kind of nature's arms race: women respond to the threat of male physical violence by developing the verbal skills for nagging, carping and fault-finding. The latter are used to persuade when force just isn't an option.

    A depressingly unromantic view of course: but then again I think civilisation is a social innovation that allows millions of us to live together without violence. And marriage kind of does the same for couples (except for an unfortunate minority of women and men who think that 'winning' is a viable option when it comes to the more usual 'armistice' between couples).

    And like all dis-proportionate strengths, if they are used unwisely the consequences are grim. I.e.: war in the case of patriarchal violence. Demographic decline in the case of feminist narcissism.

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  3. There may indeed be an "evolutionary psychology" background here alright.

    But, here in the US I think this is what has happened:
    In the past, it was often men who would leave a marriage, leaving the wife and kids stranded. Divorce laws safeguarded women by forcing men to support the family after they left. But now, decades later, those same divorce laws are in place, but now the majority of divorces are initiated by women, and the men left behind are then treated according to laws which were put in place to bring runaway fathers to heel (i.e. limited "visitation rights", putting liens on houses, docking wages, etc). A woman who decides that the marriage is not, as promised in magazines, a "60 year honeymoon" can initiate a divorce and then see the full force of the law come down on her husband. This is an example of "freedom", "starting over", really part of the DNA of America. It is just that now women are taking advantage of it.

    But, as I say, it was originally the men who would leave families.

    Given the year that's in it, it's interesting to go back to the 2007 New Yorker piece on Barack Obama, written by Larissa MacFarquhar.

    The piece talked about how his father repeatedly walked out on their various families, and how that was an example of American "freedom and idealism". i.e. If you're not satisfied with your life, move on, Go West. He tries to understand why his father did this, and why his mother also ended up as (literally) an "innocent abroad" who was in a string of unsuccessful relationships.

    He looks at his parents' parents. About his maternal grandfather, who Obama wrote in one of his books:
    “His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price".

    His paternal grandfather also left behind his culture and travelled to work in Europe for the British Army.

    His parents then came from these quite rootless backgrounds, and his father then "left his pregnant wife and his son to study econometrics at the University of Hawaii. There he met Ann Dunham, married her, and had another child, Barack. He left his second family to return to Kenya to work for the government, where he married another American woman and had two more children with her. After a few years, this third family disintegrated,..."

    In the US, repeatedly breaking up families would not have the social stigma which it (still) would have in Ireland. In many ways, you are commended for leaving a situation where you were restless, and "Starting a new life". You are more likely to get a pat on the bat than criticism.

    MacFarquhar writes:

    "Innocence, freedom, individualism, mobility—the belief that you can leave a constricting or violent history behind and remake yourself in a new form of your choosing—all are part of the American dream of moving west, first from the old country to America, then from the crowded cities of the East Coast to the open central plains and on to the Pacific. But this dream, to Obama, seems credulous and shallow, a destructive craving for weightlessness."

    And then:

    "Freedom is really just abandonment. You might start by throwing off religion, then your parents, your town, your people and your way of life, and when, later on, you end up leaving your wife or husband and your child, too, it seems only a natural progression."

    Obama rejects this and builds stable roots and family in Chicago. Very interestingly, he also sees a mirror of this illusionary freedom in US policy abroad, where the notion is that you can simply "remake the world", just like his father had repeatedly tried to "remake his life" but in the end, just created a trail of wreckage.

    Obama writes:
    "Idealism can express itself in a sense that we can remake the world any way we want by flipping a switch, because we’re technologically superior or we’re wealthier or we’re morally superior."

    Food for thought there.

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