Marriage 103

Link to the lyrics of “Saints and Angels”

Link to a video of “Saints and Angels” sung by its writer, Victoria Banks

Today is Valentine’s Day. I want to follow up these previous Valentine’s day posts:

I have a simple theme. The success of a marriage depends to an important extent on both partners investing in that marriage. And how much each partner invests in a marriage is likely to depend a lot on how long each of them thinks the marriage will last. So there is self-fulfilling prophecy aspect to marriages—or what economists called “multiple equilibrium”: if two people think their marriage will last, it is more likely to actually last; if they think it won’t last, it is less likely to last.

The song “Saints and Angels” above, written by Victoria Banks and best known as performed by Sara Evans makes the strategy for the better of the two equilibria clear:

We're only human baby
We walk on broken ground …

We fall from grace
Forget we can fly

But through all the tears that we cry
We'll survive

… We're just two tarnished hearts
But in each others arms
We become saints and angels

I love you when you hold me
And when you turn away
I love you still
And I'm not afraid

'Cause I know you feel the same way
And you'll stay

These feet of clay
They will not stray

Beyond the effects of both partners investing in the relationship, commitment to staying may have an even deeper effect. Because reproduction is so central to evolution, human beings may well have specific adaptations for two different possible strategies in a relationship: the strategy appropriate for romantic relationships expected to be short-lived and the strategy appropriate for romantic relationships expected to be long-lived. What is the appropriate strategy if the relationship is expected to be lifelong on the part of both partners? In that case, the fact that descendants will be shared means that the objective function evolution has for the two members of such a longterm relationship will be very similar. There is some gap in evolutionary interests even in such a long-lived relationship: someone is bound to die first, and the evolutionary interest is greater for blood relatives who are not descendants—parents, sisters, brother, nephews, nieces, etc.—than for in-laws. But the high degree of concordance of evolutionary interests for a pair that both expect a lifelong relationship should mean that fully expecting a lifelong relationship should help kick highly cooperative adaptations into gear. If these highly cooperative adaptations can be kicked into gear, living and striving side by side with someone who is pulling in the same direction is a very rewarding experience!

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple, but where interests continue to differ, reciprocity, love and empathetic understanding can help make up the difference.

Economists use the unromantic sounding term “relationship-specific capital” for what one gets from investing in a relationship. Besides shared experiences and shared loved ones beyond the couple, one important type of relationship-specific capital is learning which battles to fight and which battles to avoid. Some of the content of what one can predict about what one’s partner will do or how one’s partner will react in any given situation can be frustrating. But being able to predict it is a lot better than having it come as a surprise! There is often a path to avoiding bad interactions and a path to seeking out good interactions. Many times early on in my marriage, I wished I could rewind time ten seconds and try a different tack. I couldn’t do that then, but in our 34+ years of marriage, a similar situation has often come up later on, in which I could indeed take a different tack.

Here is the bottom line: there are indeed marriages so damaging to at least one of the partners that the marriage should be broken apart. But assuming the partners begin the relationship by marrying someone of a gender they are attracted to, it is good to set expectations for the two in the relationship that both will be very, very slow to break apart the marriage for anything less heavy, say, than adultery by the other partner, physical abuse, felonies, or prolonged verbal and emotional abuse. As long as there is still good will and good intent on both sides, even big hairy arguments can often be worked through, and reruns of those arguments moderated.

For me, it is not a hard judgment to make that the most recent year in our marriage has been the best. I hope that continues to be true for the rest of our life together!