A (half-baked) theory of marriage being on perpetual razor’s edge

Posted in society by jrahman on May 28, 2010

Once upon a time, I had delusions of grandeur.  I had enough vanity to value being addressed as Dr.  I used to think of writing neat little mathematical models using incorporating economics and insights from Jared Diamond’s writings.

Well, I used to think of lot of things, and one of them was a model of marriage where it is always on a razor’s edge, and society oscillating between purdah and free love (and sometimes even Amazonia).  I’m cured of the vanity and delusions.  But I am going to take advantage of having a blog — where else can I sprout this nonesense — and jot down the basic idea.

It’s a reasonable assumption that life’s fundamental purpose is to replicate itself — we want to ensure that our genes survive.   This means we want to have kids who will live and have their own kids and so on.

It’s also a reasonable assumption, supported by data, that kids can be raised more successfully by a family than a single parent.   So there is a natural reason for both men and women to prefer ‘marriage’.

But men and women view marriage differently.  A pregnant woman is sure that she is the mother.  But the partner can never be absolutely certain whether he truly is the father.  There is an inherent information assymetry.  For example, the pregnant woman may have had a fling with a top athlete and then have the boring but dependable husband to raise the kid (who has the athlete’s genes).

Now, if the partner can’t be sure that the kid he’s raising is actually his, then what should he do?  Should he also cheat on his wife?  Should he try to impregnate as many women as possible?  Should he favour a world of ‘free love’?

He could try, but the competition out there is pretty hard.  Unless he is a ‘superstar’, he can only be successful with a girl who is very much less attractive than he is.  But this means that his kids will be even worse than him.  Play this game with enough future generation, and his the genes would die out in a world of free love.  And since ‘superstar’ is dependent on distribution, no guy is really safe from ‘mating down’.

So men don’t want to be in a world of philandering.

Instead, the best thing for the guy to do is to lock his wife up.  This is the basis of purdah.  If purdah can be fully enforced, then the story ends there.

But nothing is quite full-proof.  One can always find a way to break the rules.  If nothing else, the woman can always deny her womb.  So the guy’s best bet is to have more than one wife and keep all of them in a harem.

This is the basis for polygamy.

But the story doesn’t end here either.

It’s important to note that the girl doesn’t actually need to actually cheat —his uncertaintly/insecurity is enough to generate patriarchy.

But does she have any reason to cheat in the first place?

The question of cheating arises because one can never know whether the spouse has all the attributes that they seemed to have before marriage. Everyone wants to marry up, and of course not eveyone can do so.  So, before marriage, everyone pretends to be more than they really are.  And inevitably, post-nuptial, some couples will be unhappy.

Whenever a woman is dissatisfied with her husband, she has a reason to cheat.  Of course this is as true for men, but from the above analysis, it follows that men shouldn’t want a society where everyone cheats.

Ironically, in a patriarchy, some women have even more reasons to cheat. Women who find themselves in a loveless stifled marriage could perhaps even ‘cheat down’.  And if the patriarchy is of the polygamous nature, then it is much more likely to have many unmarried men out there for the desperate housewives.

So men are not safe with a patriarchy either!

So free love and purdah are both out  — what does he do?  He could submit himself to a matriarchy.  But in a matriarchy, most men would lose out. Why?  Because women would just mate with the select few.

So men would not want to be in a matriarchy.

What is the equilibrium here?

Well, a mutually respectful marriage is of course a solution.  But slightest perturbation in the system and what was previously a stable, loving marriage would be off the rocker — there lurks an Othello in every man.

In fact, there is no stable equilibrium in this system.  Depending on the technology and resources, a society could fluctuate between purdah and free love (and even move to Amazonia).  But for men, the preference is always towards (impracticable) perfect patriarchy, which would result in women looking for other options (unless they get the equally impracticable perfect matriarchy).

And at a micro level, this means that any marriage is always on a razor’s edge.

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  1. tacit said, on June 2, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Great article, Jyoti Bhai. Of course, we could just escape the mousetrap altogether by understanding that it is our deeds and accomplishments that will live on and give us eternal fame. Our genes will get diluted with each passing generation. I wouldn’t want to live in posterity through them.

    How depressing is it that we let go of a system of free love because some wimpy dudes were not self-confident enough that they would be man enough for their wives? And now we live in a world where the Gores split up after forty years! We are paying the price of our owm follies.

    • jrahman said, on June 4, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      Is it really our deeds and accomplishments? Have you not met a traveller from antique land? Have you not heard him say:

      And on the pedestal these words appear:
      “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.

      Or what about the evil that men do living on after them, but the good being interred with their bones?

      And that’s for the high and mighty — for most ‘ordinary people’, raising children to adulthood is probably the biggest deed or accomplishment.

      Besides, did we ever have free love? Our African cousins have strong patriarchies with harems. Perhaps so did our ancestors in East African plains? Yes, shame about the Gores. Though, with kids being out of the way, there is no reason not to have free love after 50. The model described above doesn’t apply once kids. To the extent that civilisation has allowed us to live longer than the child-rearing age that nature would select, perhaps the history of humanity is one of slouching towards free love?

  2. tacit said, on June 4, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Yes, it is those two broken legs that sufficed to grant him immortality. You know how in Bangladeshi schools, all through 1 through 12, they make you memorize a bunch of poems? I have a friend who probably doesn’t remember a single word of the other poems, but he can still recite this by heart.

    We could view children as our gifts to the world; well-adjusted individuals who have been given the best nurture. This would take away the urge to instead see them as merely walking copies of our genetic imprimataurs.

    You’re right, free love is one of those concepts that are surprisingly hard to see through. We always want it both ways. But free love after 50? God, no (strongly shudders).

  3. On the wedding « Mukti said, on May 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    […] saying about the chance of the marriage surviving.  Of course, any given marriage is always on a razor’s edge.  But I suspect the newly married couple will probably do better than the groom’s […]

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