Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's Friday, I'm in Love

A post by Veena on a movement to abolish marriage in Sweden prompted a meditation on the incredible lack of imagination that human beings bring to relationships. Think about it - in every other aspect of our life we encourage and actively seek variety, acknowledging that different people have different preferences and needs, which require different service offerings to meet them. Cars, clothes, music, books, insurance policies, television channels - wherever you look you find a wide range of possible choices available to you, so that not only can you easily find one that is exactly suited to your needs / desires, but, in fact, picking one over the other becomes an important way of making a statement about your own personality. And yet when it comes to what is arguably the most important relationship of our adult lives, we're stuck with this cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all straitjacket of an institution called marriage. Worse, even within that institution, there's so little variation - so that the range of what a 'proper' marriage does and does not include is so heavily proscribed (there are actually laws governing this, for God's sake!).

I mean okay, so I see why in a world before birth control and DNA testing, in a patriarchal society where women were objects, land was a key resource and the civil code was fairly rudimentary, stringently defined monogamous marital relations were the only viable social form. After all, these were not times when individual choices mattered that much anyway - you didn't get 294 brands of everything - so having a system where you were either married or unmarried made sense. But surely now that the world has moved on, and greater differentiation has been made possible, we can afford the luxury of looking beyond a single narrowly defined relationship model?

Of course, you could argue that not everyone gets married and men and women do actually relate to each other in a number of different ways. This is true, I think, but it doesn't obscure the fact that marriage is still the only solution that is immediately socially accessible - the only thing you can get 'off the shelf'. No other form of relationship even begins to approach the levels of legitimacy that marriage enjoys:

1) Most other forms are generally seen (often even by the people in them) as temporary / makeshift solutions. By and large there are all just steps towards or away from the sanctimonious temple of marriage. Tell someone you have a long term girlfriend (or boyfriend) for instance, and people will instantly either assume you'll marry her (or him) at some point, or / and wonder why you haven't already. And joint custody parenting, for instance, is not a stand-alone relationship option - you can only get to it by getting married and then getting divorced / separated.

2) Most forms end up being approximations in one way or another of the marriage paradigm. So live-in relationships, for instance, are just marriage without the contractual complications, or the legal crutches. In particular, I think we are not able to break away from the entirely unnecessary assumptions that greater, more serious affection is a) associated with monogamy and b) directly proportional to the amount of time you spend with someone.

3) Even where people have innovated and improvised new forms of relationships, they have not gained the kind of currency that marriage enjoys. Much of this is to do with language, and with the absence of clear definitions and words to go with them. The problem is that marriage is the only thing we have a blueprint for. We understand how it works - there are ground rules, there is a convenient diagram which tells us where everything goes and how it is all to be put together. It's painting by numbers. To break out and try to paint something by ourselves, making it all up as we go along is an almost impossible task for any couple.

Understand that I'm not saying that marriage should be abolished, or that there's anything wrong with it. I recognise that for many people marriage might be exactly what they want - just as I recognise that there are people who loved the Da Vinci code or whose idea of a perfect evening is one spent watching Desperate Housewives or talking about how George Bush is such a visionary. My argument is precisely that the fact that people's tastes and interests vary so widely suggests that a single relationship form for everyone is not the ideal solution. If I don't enjoy any of the other things that fascinate you, why should it be that I'll enjoy being married just because you do?

Nor am I suggesting for a minute that breaking away from marriage is easy. Clearly there are strong inertial forces at work; certainly there are centuries of social conditioning to deal with. There are obviously advantages to sticking with the status quo - it's the mechanism through which social institutions acquire legitimacy. Ceteris paribus, the conventional organisation form will always be the best one to choose.

But throughout history, the development of new forms has been engendered by a violent disconnect between the needs of the specific situation and the socially imposed form. I'm not saying that we should do away with marriage on general principle. I'm simply saying that for those of us for whom a married state is manifestly in opposition to our personal emotional needs, there is value in exploring alternate relationship choices, rather than making a dichotomous choice between being 'married' (with everything that entails) and staying single.

Personally, for instance (and this is obviously what this entire post has been building up to), I'd prefer a relationship form that I shall christen a 'sabbathal'. A sabbathal is basically like a marriage on weekends. The general idea is that you have one special life partner, but rather than living together, you have an arrangement where you maintain independent homes and just spend some weekends / weeknights together. This means that you have someone with whom you can share important life events, vacations, crises, intimacy and books; someone you can count on for support and turn to for advice, someone you can love and cherish. At the same time, you don't have to come home to them everyday, you don't have to spend all your time with them or involve them / be involved in everything you do; you don't completely give up your personality, you don't have to have the same friends or the same taste in furniture, you don't have to argue about how you're going to spend your evenings together, if you want the space to be alone you can easily get it, no questions asked. It'd be like having a long-term girlfriend / boyfriend only without the expectation / pressure to move towards something more - that's what the stable long-term state would look like.

Of course, you could just live your life this way anyway - but the point is that it would be a lot easier / nicer if sabbathals were defined and understood to be a legitimate and socially acceptable relationship form. So you wouldn't have to explain to everyone what it was about. So you'd have other couples that had similar arrangements who you could hang out with. So you would have sabbathal counselling sessions for people whose sabbathals were going through a difficult time. So you would have books and movies about couples in happy and unhappy sabbathals. So the New York Times would have articles about the relevance of sabbathals in the modern age, and your local feminist would go around raging about how sabbathals were derogatory to women. Wouldn't that be a wonderful world to live in.

People will argue that sabbathals are not the best arrangement to bring up kids in. Maybe, but a) they may be perfectly good option for people who don't want to have kids anyway and b) it's probably better for a kid to be brought up in a sabbathal than to be brought up in an unhappy marriage or in a single parent household because his parents have divorced or seperated - which is what ends up happening if you force-fit marriage on people who it's not the right model for. And the relevant comparison isn't necessarily with marriage anyway. In the absence of alternate relationship forms, given a strict choice between being married and staying single, people like me would choose to stay single - so the relevant comparison is between bachelorhood and sabbathal, not between marriage and sabbathal.

Understand that I'm not for a moment suggesting that sabbathals are the only alternate form that we could or should develop - I offer the example just as an illustration of what I mean by alternate forms - and because it's the one that I personally would like. There may be people who are perfectly happy, for instance, living with someone else, but who find monogamy an unacceptable condition - such people might have a preferred form that looked very different. My general point is just that there's no reason why society shouldn't create, recognise and make available these forms to people who want them. Let's break away from a mindset that says you can have your relationship in any colour you want, as long as it's marriage.

P.S. For those of you who are thinking this is all just a long-winded and fairly desperate attempt to hook up with someone - you're right, of course. But then, what isn't?


Heh Heh said...

Hmm. so i take it you are not questioning the idea of monogamy per se, only the structure of monogamous relationships.
I ask that because I suspect that there are biological urges that drive us to demand exclusivity in relationships, and that has little to do with social conditioning.

Falstaff said...

HWSNBF: Not true. I certainly don't agree that exclusivity is in any way a fundamental biological urge common to all human beings. I see monogamy as mostly the product of a social system that required the maintenance of bloodlines as a way of ensuring control over property.

I personally don't have any issues either way - I'm neither for monogamy nor against it. Well, actually, I'm marginally for monogamy but only because multiple relationships are too much effort in themselves, plus social pressure means it's just easier to go with monogamy (which is why that's implicit in the sabbathal). But I certainly think that it is possible to be in multiple genuinely strong relationships at the same time. And I recognise that there are people who might desire this and find monogamy suffocating, and I'm supportive of their right to have alternate non-monogamous relationships. I personally would be quite happy with a monogamous relationship (or any relationship, at this point :-)), but I don't think that needs to be true of everyone.

Oh, and notice that I'm speaking only of sexual monogamy here. One of the greatest arbitrage opportunities that society provides us, I think, is the frankly ridiculous idea that sexual exclusivity is sacrosanct, whereas everything else (spiritual, intellectual, emotional ties) need not be exclusive. So I could have strong connections with multiple people, and as long as I'm only sleeping with one of them, I'm being 'monogamous'! This, in my view, is both hilarious and wonderful.

Neela said...

Ok Falsie,

Now I feel truly smug. Not only can I read music scores but I also have a sabbathal. As if this gloriousness were not enough, I even have special knowledge of what to do with collected coins instead of letting them pile up near your non-sabbathalian window and block your view.

AND I run evil experiments!


meditativerose said...

Interesting post ... you clearly seem to have thought about/discussed this a lot :)

Anyway, since I don't want MY comment to be longer than your post, I'll just put down the disjointed thoughts that came to me reading this.

Regarding your point about the 'one size fits all' definition of a relationship, one can explain why it has come to be so. The relationship is standardized because of the need for such a structure to exist to ensure the survival of society. If the choices available are only b/w being single and being married, more people would be, and are pushed towards marriage as the more preferred of the two (am sure you're an exception). If more options existed, fewer people may choose to get married and have children, thus endangering the propagation and survival of society.

It is unfortunate that people see these other forms of relationships as being temporary, because it often leads to people in such an arrangement getting out of it, even though they might be happy in it, because they are uncomfortable about ‘not taking things to the next stage’ … the implicit assumption being that there has to be a next stage, and the relationship cannot be valued for itself.

Re the strength of a relationship being dependent on monogamy, that’s a tough one. For some, there may be no reason for a monogamous relationship to be stronger, but I can’t personally imagine giving considerable mindspace to someone and being emotionally invested in them, while being as invested in another person. So it just makes me mistrust someone who claims to be able to do that. I think there’s always one person you instinctively turn to when you have trouble, and that’s the one you’re truly sharing yourself with, all the others are incomplete - those are the ones you're cheating.

I think the absence of social constructs and definitions of these other relationships make things much more difficult .. also, since there is no common term to use, the wide spectrum of relationships one could have get clumped under the broad and inadequate definition of ‘friendship’. While I guess semantics are ultimately irrelevant, it would be nice to be able to acknowledge and have acknowledged the relationships or friendships that are more special to us than others. This lack of a commonly understood term also makes conversations unnecessarily complicated. How often have I heard .. Oh, he did XYZ for you, or, you do ABC together – he must be your boyfriend. Clarifying that he's 'just a friend' seems unfair to him and the relationship.

Finally, the idea of the 'sabbathal' seems pretty interesting. What better than retaining the joy of being able to come home to an empty house, while at the same time having someone to share intimacy and books with :) Now all I need to do is explain this to my mom ...

Falstaff said...

Neela: Falsie? Falsie?!

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate you? Having a sabbathal is bad enough. Saving coins is even worse. But what really adds insult to injury is when your sabbathal ensures that you're rich enough not to have to save coins. Aarrghhh!

MR: Agree with you on it being unfortunate that people see perfectly good relationships as temporary because of some unnatural expectations. Also glad that you liked the concept of sabbathal.

On the whole, I see your evolutionary point about the need for marriage, but my point is that it's not clear that marriage is, a priori, the best mode to bring up children. Think therefore that you're confusing cause and effect. It's not that marriage becomes the dominant social institution because society needs children. I think only married people have children because marriage is the dominant social institution. Given this dominance of marriage (which, as I've said earlier, is linked more to the nature of property rights in ancient societies) naturally other social institutions (schooling, etc.) evolve in line with these, so that bringing up children outside marriage becomes more difficult. But there's a long body of work from Plato to Bertrand Russell that argues that children could well be brought up outside the family, in a more communal setting. From what I know, this is actually true in cultures that haven't evolved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage (and where property rights are therefore irrelevant) - the whole idea that it takes a village to bring up a child.

Disagree with you on monogamy - YOU may not be able to accomodate more than one person in your mindspace, but there's no reason to impute your lack of imagination to other people. I certainly think it's possible to love multiple people simultaneously (of course, there may be some specialisation - where you turn to one person for something and the other person for something else, but that doesn't mean one is more important to you than the others) and there's no question of 'cheating' anyone. Anyway I don't really understand what you mean by 'cheating' - if you share a real emotional bond with someone and are there for them when they need you, how is it relevant how (or how much) you feel for someone else. The problem is this. Suppose you have to choose between two people: A and B. A gives you relationship value R but gives someone else relationship value S. B gives you relationship value T. Where S > R > T. Would you choose A or B? (note that S, R and T are adjusted for uncertainty - so trust is already taken into the valuation).

Also disagree that semantics are irrelevant (which is kind of your point, but I think it needs to be made more strongly). Words have real power (remember 1984?) and part of why marriage is the only thing that has legitimacy is that all other relationships don't have commonly accepted names.

Veena said...


I am so with you on this. And I like sabbathals. In fact, I have one going on right now. The sad part being I am also getting married soon, so its all going to end! However, since pratically speaking, its still going to be a sabbathal(he will be still in Pitt staring at the celing or whatever and I will still be here in Chicago). So should I be inviting people to my wedding or my sabbathal?

As for monongamy , I think the human mind left to itself will always look towards variety. Its only social conditioning that makes us think otherwise. I also vauguely remember some experiments run with raising children in a communal setting and it was supposedly better or something. Let me see if I can dig that up.

Falstaff said...

Et tu Veena? People, let's get one thing straight. The point of this post is not so people who have sabbathals can come and crow about it on the comments page. I mean I'm happy for you and all but will you please stop twisting the knife in my heart.

the correct response to this post is: "Oh wow! Sabbathals. What a cool idea! I could totally get into that. Actually, now that I come to think of it, I'm available - so if you're interested..."

It is not: "Nyah! nyah! I already have a sabbathal. Aren't I the lucky one!".

Veena: Glad you agree. Inviting people to a sabbathal might be more fun (what do you give someone as a sabbathal present? Two toasters?) but probably more trouble than it's worth. Also, btw, notice that sabbathals proper involve living seperately even if you live in the same city, this "some people have sabbathals thrust upon them" model isn't quite kosher (Neela, are you listening?)

meditativerose said...

Re monogamy - not comfortable. Jsut feels icky. Or maybe it's insecurity masquerading as ickiness...

Now, how can you argue with that :)

Also, you mean to say that you don't have a sabbathal?? So what do you keep going up to NY every weekend for? And please don't say he's just a friend ;)

Falstaff said...

MR: I never argue with people's preferences / prejudices; only with their attempts to argue that they have some larger, more logical validity.

About NYC connection - which one are you talking about?

Neela said...

falstaff, dear heart

my sabbathal is not a forced one - remember i had the chance to attend NYU and skipped that?

but it alternates with living together (7 months in the last 5 years). does that make you feel better at all, this veering toward the traditional?

more later on this fasctnating topic. btw, food for thought: with a name like falstaff, the probability that you will get a sabbathal partner is close to 0. rushing to class now, more later on why that may be so. try changing your name to "the game".


p.s. was an article on the growing trend of couples keeping separate houses. forget wher e- wsj or something?

Falstaff said...

Neela: But now you couldn't give up all this wonderfully practical research that you're doing, complete with the potential to conduct evil experiments, could you?

Also, what's wrong with Falstaff, pray tell? I mean other than the fact that it suggests a fat, cowardly buffoon of indeterminate years. Certainly think it's better than 'the game' (I want them to date me, dammit, not shoot me and put my head on a wall as a trophy). I'll have you know that I actually picked Falstaff over my other options (Achilles, Lord of the Myrmidon Spear; Yorick and Macavity) as being the one most likely to get me into a sabbathal. So there.

Neela said...

Ok I have some time from torturing unsuspecting critters..

Falstaff is not a name that resonates with sabbathals. When women who might be sabbathally inclined think of Falstaff, they see a fat old buffoon. They see themselves grow tediously old, middle-classed out of all dreams, in this Falstaffian existence of 10 p.m. sex after Desperate Housewives (or during commercial breaks) and endless re-runs of Friends. Every single day, for they would not dream of a sabbathal with someone called Falstaff. They see multiple little snot-nosed Falstafflings. They see this creature who will tell tedious jokes at parties and fart loudly at the wrong times and watch SuperBowl all the time. Obviously these women are smart, so they figure they could save a lot of time and energy by staying away from all things Falstaff.

On the other hand, when women are introduced to The Game, they think of danger, excitement and of course sabbathals. They know that The Game will never ask them to share beds, houses or bathrooms, much less kids. There will be delightful sex in public places and hours of unscheduled delights.
And even better, just going out with or marrying someone called The Game totally removes any responsibility or burden on them to have an exciting life. They can therefore concentrate on the soulless, utterly monetarily rewarding existence of being a corporate lawyer or a detergent selling MBA and rest secure in the fact that they have what no one else could ever aspire to :The Game.

Of course I could be entirely wrong. As I write this, women may be breaking down your door and swooning at the mere mention of the word Falstaff. Perhaps they are having Falstaff-inspired erotic dreams. Perhaps your mailbox is flooded with women (and men) who are crying "Falstaff me, Falstaff me".


Falstaff said...

Neela: So, do you have a topic for your dissertation yet? [evil grin]. Think about that the next time you feel you have too much time on your hands.

So, I see the point about the old, fat buffoon, (and the tedious jokes at parties) but don't agree with some of the other stuff - I mean hello, anyone who knows who Falstaff is is hardly likely to be obssessed about the SuperBowl or Desperate Housewives. And can't see Falstaff as anxious father - more bumbling cuckold (a la Merry Wives of Windsor - though, of course, the Falstaff there is such a travesty of Prince Hal's sidekick). The real trouble, I think, is that Falstaff is not a passionate name - it has all the romance of a whoopee cushion.

Still don't agree about The Game. Too Vin Diesel. I'm not saying there aren't women who wouldn't go for that - i'm just not sure I would want to be in sabbathals with them anyway (this, of course, is your cue to make snide ones about how some people can't afford to be choosy).

Also, hello, haven't you heard of setting low expectations so you can easily overdeliver (and you're the one supposed to be the marketing expert)? Can you really see any woman who's expecting torrid affair with illegal acts in public parks being anything but disappointed with little old me? On the other hand, if I manage to find someone who's okay with the Falstaff - then things are only going to look up for her from there.

confused said...


While I do agree about the legal aspect, the offcial social acceptance of ''sabbathal'' will take generations, I mean for it to have the same social sanctity as marriage.

Now, the society does not regulate what you do after marriage. You can very well slip in to a state of sabbathal even after getting married, if thats how you want to live your life.

I mean, you already assured us that you don't have any problem with the concept of a single special partner, how you choose too define marriage is entirely up to you.

Which does seem to make the concept of sabbathal a little meaningless except on the conceptual level.