Friday, March 22, 2013

"Young and impulsive"

Caryatis pointed me to this (relatively tame) Savage Love letter, from a 28-year-old man with a 28-year-old husband he'd been with since they were 24. I had known Savage to make arguments like this, and had tried to dig one up to link to here, but the trouble with podcasts is searching them, and I hadn't found any in his searchable oeuvre. Anyway:

These two men, apart from being 28, have a messed-up and possibly unfixable marriage. Sad, but seemingly unrelated to their age, which is unremarkable. As in, not worth remarking on, since as per the document Savage links to, the median age for a man to marry is 28. As Caryatis notes, we don't learn when this couple got married. For all we know, they married after five minutes at age 24. But "together" from 24 and married at 28 does not mean married at 24 and together since 17. To marry at a so-called reasonable age, after a so-called reasonable amount of time, you need to have met your spouse while too young to marry. Nevertheless, Savage takes the opportunity to launch into a speech about the "young and impulsive" who enter marriages all but doomed to fail:

According to the Pew Research Center, early marriage correlates strongly with divorce. The younger a couple is when they marry, the likelier they are to divorce. There are often other factors at play, of course, and there are plenty of people out there who got married in their teens or twenties and are still with their first spouses.
Well. It's good to know that on rare occasions, people who get married in their twenties do not divorce. Their twenties! You know the NYT Weddings pages, that sea of highly-educated 27-29.5-year-old brides? Some of those couples just might make it.

I mean, gah! How is this meant to work for women, this rule by which one cannot marry or even begin dating one's future spouse until age 30? Fertility isn't everything, but it isn't nothing, either. I'm not aware of a study saying that it's better to marry at 32 than 28, but I do remember hearing somewhere (intentional understatement - this is all one hears about) that IVF is best avoided if possible.

If Savage were talking only about gay male couples, fair enough, although same-sex marriage is kind of new to start imposing window-of-opportunity restrictions on it as well. (And are gay male college sweethearts who start thinking about marriage at 25 rightly considered "impulsive"?) But he's not. He's saying that 30 is the age at which anyone, male or female, straight or LGBT, can start even thinking about settling down without that being foolish.

49 comments:

caryatis said...

Yeah. This is pretty absurd. If the average age people lose their virginity is 16, then Savage is telling us we should expect to spend 14 YEARS, minimum, sowing our wild oats. And it's my understanding that the negative effects of early marriage are actually concentrated in the very early, 16 to 22, range.

It does seem like one of the 28-year-olds isn't ready for marriage, since he doesn't seem interested in monogamy or honesty. But why assume that's because of his age? Maybe he's just like that.

Petey said...

"I mean, gah! How is this meant to work for women, this rule by which one cannot marry or even begin dating one's future spouse until age 30? Fertility isn't everything, but it isn't nothing, either."

You're just shooting fish in a barrel here, no?

Savage has zero insight or interest in the issues facing heterosexual women. This is not news.

Yoffe is living in a Jane Austen novel. This is not news.

What would be news would be locating a modern 'dear abby' whose advice isn't shite.

(I'm quite partial to the soundness of Miss Manners' advice myself, but she's obviously not modern.)

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

"And it's my understanding that the negative effects of early marriage are actually concentrated in the very early, 16 to 22, range."

Right - there's no reason to think even if they'd married at 24, that would be child grooms, although if they married at 26-27, as is more likely, there's really no doubt.

As for whether that one dude wasn't "ready," I don't think that's it. I think if that's how you are at 28 and married, marriage (or your spouse) isn't for you. Maturity's by then beside the point.

Petey,

"This is not news."

I get that commenting along these jaded, seen-it-all lines is your way, but this actually is, if not news, an important point. Savage is presenting himself as, and received as, an advice-giver to primarily hetero individuals/couples. His whole "monogamish" thing is about telling straight couples that they've been arranging relationships wrong (all the while ignoring that this arrangement had long reigned, but with men and not women having the "ish" option).

Petey said...

"this actually is, if not news, an important point."

Agreed!

"Savage is presenting himself as, and received as, an advice-giver to primarily hetero individuals/couples."

Agreed!

Part of my point is just that Savage is generally a lousy advice columnist for a general audience.

The other part of my point is that, IMHO, pretty much all popular advice columnists at the moment offer lousy advice for a general audience. I find this interesting, and can try to understand it due to fragmented audiences, or the pressure of page-views, or whatever. But whatever the cause, I do find it interesting a non-jaded way.

Andrew Stevens said...

Petey, I have long agreed with you and have over the years actually given the matter some thought. My provisional theory is there are two different types of people who think they'd make good advice columnists. One is people who actually would make good advice columnists and the other are those would make really terrible advice columnists but do possess a delusional amount of self-regard. The former have many, many things they can do with their lives, almost all more remunerative, more rewarding, and more fulfilling than being an advice columnist. The latter are the ones who actually become advice columnists.

Take Chuck Klosterman. When I first came across his column, I assumed that he had actually studied ethics at least at an undergraduate level. It only took me a few columns to figure out that he had absolutely no training, qualifications, or aptitude for writing an ethics advice column. So I checked his resume and was hardly surprised to find that he was nothing but a journalistic hack. And yet he has the gall (and lack of ethics) to title his column the "Ethicist."

caryatis said...

This gets to the question of whether advice columns actually exist in order to provide advice or simply as a glorified talk show allowing us to peer into the bizarrities of others' lives. Or to spark fun arguments with our friends and coworkers about ethics.

Now, that's how I feel about most advice columns, but I think because Dan Savage is writing about a hitherto-neglected area of life, he actually has a special responsibility to pause and think and give reasonable advice that is applicable to everyone. Because there are actually people, including straight women, who start reading Savage Love in adolescence and learn what to think about sexuality from it.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: That's certainly true. Unfortunately, the actual job of an advice columnist is to entertain, not to give good advice. I have no doubt this is another reason why the advice they give is seldom very good. It strikes me as pretty irresponsible though. I don't know how concerned I am about the audience (though that's a good point too), but the letter writers themselves can often be deceived into totally screwing up their lives because they have made the mistake of trusting these people.

I am reminded of Dan Savage's receiving a letter from someone whose wife (who he claimed to love very much) had become disabled and unable to have sex with him any more. His wife panicked, quite understandably, over the idea of his having sex with someone else. (One can easily imagine that her fear of abandonment must be extremely high after such a traumatic event.) Savage advised him to cheat on his wife and just not tell her. Now, this may work out for him. Perhaps she'll never find out. Perhaps the letter writer is just as callous, self-centered, and amoral as Savage himself and he'll be able to effectively rationalize his betrayal. But I cannot imagine being that man after taking Savage's advice. He's already had the great misfortune of having seen the love of his life become disabled and now he's going to be feeling continually guilty for the rest of his life over a few moments of transitory pleasure (and I'd be willing to bet they won't even be that pleasurable to him). Forget about whether Savage's advice is morally wrong or not and whether it actually constitutes a true betrayal; I was really quite startled at Savage's lack of understanding of human psychology.

caryatis said...

Well, the other consideration here is: to what extent do letter writers choose the advice they are given, by choosing who to write to?

In your example, Savage is known for being more open to adultery than most advice columnists. (Although he gives lip service to the idea that monogamy is okay for some, he doesn't seem to really understand its appeal. Just as, when writing to Prudence, you know her assumption will be that anyone who drinks is an alcoholic.) If this man really didn't want to cheat on his wife, wouldn't he have written to someone else?

And how much trust do letter writers put in the advice they are given? I mean, personally, if I ask advice from a friend, by and large I'm not going to naively do whatever they say. Mostly I just want a chance to talk out the problem and gauge others' opinions, but ultimately, I'm going to use my own judgment. Of course, for most, especially teenagers, there is no trusted source of advice about sex besides Savage Love--or significant others--which, as I've said, makes the situation riskier.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: That is true, of course. It had certainly occurred to me that the writer was looking for validation for an opinion he had already come to.

In fact, that's straight out of Sartre, right? We are all radically free and forced to make our own decisions. Some people "mask their anguish" about having to make difficult decisions by seeking advice, but we still end up making the decision by choosing the person we ask for advice (who we probably know in advance are going to recommend what we had already decided to do). I'm pretty sure Sartre wasn't entirely right about all that, but it is an important insight.

Savage does usually frown on non-negotiated adultery, though. It was not necessarily a foregone conclusion that he would advise the way he did. Of course, Savage recognizes no higher aspiration than sexual happiness - everything is subordinate to it in his worldview and the letter writer surely knew this. So I do imagine he was really looking for some external validation. "I'm going to cheat on my disabled wife. Please tell me I'm still a good person." And he was writing to the person most likely to give him that validation.

caryatis said...

Agreed. You make a good point that Savage thinks nothing should trump the desire for sexual fulfillment--he doesn't seem to believe that anyone can be happy who does not have a fulfilling sexual life, and "fulfilling" means having your every bizarre whim fulfilled. I always thought I was open-minded, but--this isn't true. There are other things in life. And, just as Savage urges pedophiles to find a way to suppress their urges, less harmful urges can be suppressed too, if they make it too difficult to find a partner.

Andrew Stevens said...

I should say that I do agree with Savage on a lot of things, in particular his sympathy for people's sexual desires and fantasies, whatever they might be. E.g. I am firmly in agreement with him that pedophiles deserve our sympathy and support. Given the biological markers for pedophilia, I am reasonably convinced that a great many of them were born that way. (One of the errors people make is thinking pedophiles want to "rape children," but most pedophiles are very gentle. Read the testimony of Michael Jackson's accuser, for example. Of course, it doesn't help us to make careful distinctions when we lump predators like Jimmy Savile and Roman Polanski in with pedophiles when it's crystal clear that Savile and Polanski are just garden variety sexual predators. It is perfectly normal and natural for men to be attracted to post-pubescent teenage girls.) Of course, we can't let pedophiles live out their desires any more than we can allow adult predators to prey on teenage girls, but we can offer those pedophiles (the majority!) who never act on their desires our understanding and support rather than vilification.

Or I recall reading one letter in which a 22 year old woman found incest porn in her father's browser history and was freaked out about it. So she asked if she should "trust her gut" which was telling her to pack up, leave, and never talk to him again. Savage's advice, that if her father has never done anything to make her feel unsafe then she should just forget she ever saw it, was spot-on and you'd never have gotten that from Dear Abby or Ann Landers. I am convinced that none of us, not one, could stand to see his or her private sexual fantasies exposed to the full light of day and Savage understands that and is willing to articulate it in a way most people are not.

Also, I described Savage as "amoral" above, but I would like to retract that (though not "callous" and "self-centered"). Savage's moral code is actually a pretty decent attempt a lot of the time if only he didn't place such a high priority on sexual fulfillment above virtues such as duty, loyalty, and honesty. He's willing to pay them lip service, but it's clear they're fairly trivial to him compared to sexual fulfillment. C.S. Lewis's terrific 1963 article We Have No "Right to Happiness" is always worth reading in such discussions. Yes, I agree Lewis was an out-of-touch old dinosaur, but he had a lot of wisdom for all that. In my opinion, he exactly nails why it is that people put such a high priority on sexual fulfillment as well as why they shouldn't.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

I think we've discussed your objection to Savage, re: that letter or a similar one, before. And I'm not sure this stance of his is as hedonistic as you're making it out to be. Obviously if you think that if your spouse so much as sneezes, you have the right to sneak around, that's a mockery of "in sickness and in health," and not really monogamy. But in general, he's talking about cases where someone is facing decades of celibacy. What Savage argues is that in some cases, sneaking around is, realistically if not ideally, the alternative to leaving an ailing spouse. That our society's insistence in equating extramarital desires with divorce leads people to leave in cases where they have a duty to stay put. (Also: cases where one spouse is staying home with young children and would have no income if the other one left.) He's much more wary of divorce than one might expect, and that, more than hedonism, is the rationale. Regardless of whether you agree with Savage on this (and I'm not sure I do!), it's a situation that's extreme and difficult to judge.

That, in other words, is Savage at his more humane. Where he veers off is in his assumption that opening up a relationship is basically the evolved thing to do. I'm not sure it is for same-sex male relationships, but it's clear enough where it fails as blanket advice to straights. It ignores... fertility, for one thing - opening an opposite-sex marriage means opening up the possibility of children being born outside the marriage. And the entire history of heterosexual relationships. The long tradition of a double-standard in this area.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm actually certain I am correct on the hedonism; it's the subtext of virtually everything he says. The reason why we can say something like "in some cases, sneaking around is, realistically if not ideally, the alternative to leaving an ailing spouse" is because a very large percentage of our modern culture shares the hedonism rationale with him and this has been increasingly true for the last hundred years. I hesitate to say it's the majority position yet, but, if not, it's rapidly becoming that. As Lewis said fifty years ago, "every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is [sexual happiness]." I agree that Savage certainly didn't start that particular cultural slide. However, I will say that straightforward divorce and abandonment is more honest at least and I would respect that more than sneaking around. If your moral code makes you a selfish bastard, at least have the guts to admit it to the world and let your partner try to find someone else - she deserves better.

Plus I don't see how anybody can read Dan Savage even semi-regularly and not pick up on Caryatis's claim that "he doesn't seem to believe that anyone can be happy who does not have a fulfilling sexual life, and 'fulfilling' means having your every bizarre whim fulfilled." It is crystal clear to me that this is what he believes.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

Doing the noble thing and leaving may mean one's spouse is broke and without health insurance. And without emotional support. The rationale for leaving rather than staying and cheating under normal circumstances is, it gives the would-be-cheated-on partner a chance to find someone else. In certain cases, such as these, that would not be possible.

And no, he isn't saying this re: whim. Or he is sometimes, but not all the time. He's often reminding people that their demands (including non-outrageous ones) are unrealistic, that expecting daily sex from a partner of 30 years is a bit much, etc.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I am of course not advocating leaving. I think both the person who leaves and the person who cheats are scumbags, the deserter just marginally less so. (The broke and without health insurance thing is a completely separate issue. There is no necessity that divorcing one's partner means leaving them broke and without health insurance. Anybody who is doing the leaving purely for their own selfish sexual desires and also leaving their partner in such dire financial straits is beyond a scumbag.)

I don't disagree that some sexual whims do occasionally strike even Dan Savage as too extreme.

caryatis said...

But if someone has a sexual desire, even a very uncommon and silly one like being buried in mud, Savage's assumption is that that desire is an inherent and important part of one's being, and that not having that desire fulfilled means compromise at best and lifelong unhappiness at worst. And, if your choice is between forgoing the desire to be buried in mud or dumping your girlfriend, Savage leans toward advising the latter.

I think he tends to apply a sexual orientation model where it doesn't belong--yes, gays are probably going to be unhappy if they try to suppress the desire for same-sex relationships, but less broad sexual desires, random ideas of which we all have dozens, come and go based on whim and are not a core part of our personalities. And should be jettisoned if fulfilling them would be harmful or make it too hard to find a partner.

On the topic of divorce, it is interesting that the sexual revolution has come down here. There now seems to be a consensus, even among liberal people, that divorce is almost always bad, while there is more difference of opinion about adultery. That wasn't always the case. Maybe related to the increasing child-centeredness of American families.

caryatis said...

Wait, and Andrew, you're saying that a person who initiates a divorce is a scumbag? Does that apply to just those who leave because of lack of sexual fulfillment?

And yeah, I don't have much sympathy for someone who finds herself broke after a divorce. She knew divorce was possible. She should have kept her job.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

"She should have kept her job."

Who's to say she had one to begin with? Is she, this theoretical woman, late-20s or older and well-educated? And what if there are multiple very young children? What if they have special needs, which going by NYT stories and the like would be a good % of children these days?

I'm with you on the importance of women working if for no other reason (although ideally for other reasons as well) than insurance against a husband no longer being on the scene. But I wouldn't go so far as to lack sympathy for those who for whatever reason aren't working outside the home at the precise moment that a dude up and splits.

caryatis said...

There are probably good reasons not to work, but they don't apply to most. (Did you read the NY mag article on housewives? When asked what she would do if her husband left her, one housewife says: "You have to live in the now. I will deal with later when later comes. I’ll find a way. Who knows? Maybe I will be home for ever and ever. Maybe I will have the best-kept lawn on the block for the rest of my life.” She's more the typical housewife than someone who is truly incapable of working.)

I'm a believer in personal responsibility (and in birth control), so I'm not inclined to sympathize with someone who chose to have children without being able to support them. And raising "special needs" kids is also a choice.

Phoebe said...

Eh. While I agree that women should work outside the home, I disagree with the schadenfreude approach when one who for whatever reason wasn't doing so at the time is abandoned. That NYMag article totally messed up on that angle, but that's not the issue. Women should be advised against setting up that kind of situation, not told-you-so'd whenever it doesn't work out.

caryatis said...

Imagine yourself as the breadwinner, though. Your spouse knew the risks of financial dependence and unemployment but chose it anyway. Would you really be willing to stay in an unhappy marriage, or else give away half of your income indefinitely, to support her imprudent choices? Maybe short-term alimony, but that's all I would be willing to do.

Phoebe said...

This "breadwinner" presumably consented to and maybe even demanded this arrangement, and was presumably benefitting from all kinds of household labor.

But once again... I'm with you on this issue. Just not on the ha-ha-sucks-for-you approach, particularly given the myriad reasons a parent might be stay-at-home at a given time.

Andrew Stevens said...

Wait, and Andrew, you're saying that a person who initiates a divorce is a scumbag? Does that apply to just those who leave because of lack of sexual fulfillment?

I was referring to this specific case. Spouse becomes disabled and unable to have sex. Spouse does not want you cheating out of perfectly understandable abandonment issues. You decide that sex is so earth-shatteringly important that you have to either cheat on your spouse or get a divorce. Whichever you choose, you're a scumbag.

Having said that, most modern divorces are indeed caused by simple immaturity, usually of the hedonistic variety.

Imagine yourself as the breadwinner, though. Your spouse knew the risks of financial dependence and unemployment but chose it anyway. Would you really be willing to stay in an unhappy marriage, or else give away half of your income indefinitely, to support her imprudent choices? Maybe short-term alimony, but that's all I would be willing to do.

Being the breadwinner in a single worker family, yes, I absolutely would be willing to stay in an unhappy marriage or give away half my income indefinitely to support our decision that my wife would stay home. This is what I mean about duty, loyalty, and honesty. But I gather you think I'm just a sucker.

caryatis said...

Andrew, it would make a difference to me whether the spouse was _unable_ to have sex, as you emphasize, or just doesn't feel like it, which would be the more typical Savage Love situation. As I said above, sex is not everything in life, and I think people can be happy while celibate. But it's a hell of a lot to ask of your spouse.

I think that an agreement that X will support Y so that Y can raise kids, go to school, or whatever, is reasonable, but doesn't automatically translate into an agreement that X will never leave or that Y is entitled to maintain her standard of living after a divorce. Unless, I suppose, you explicitly make promises as to what will happen in the event of a divorce, but most don't like to think about that.

redscott said...

In addition to everything else you rightly note, there was also that bit where Savage cheered on the run-up to the Iraq war and demonized anyone who questioned it as a DFH. So maybe his take on what everyone else's values ought to be isn't exactly spot-on, whether or not he writes good copy.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: The problem with "just doesn't feel like it" isn't, in my opinion, the enforced celibacy. It's that it gives you a legitimate reason to question your spouse's loyalty and commitment to you. It is unlikely in such a case that lack of sex is the only problem in the marriage.

but doesn't automatically translate into an agreement that X will never leave

It's fairly common in most marriages for X to have already made that promise, even if it is broken about 30% of the time. However, what I'm talking about here is what the breadwinner's moral duty is to the spouse he/she is leaving rather than whether there has been an explicit or even implicit promise made.

caryatis said...

I guess we disagree about moral duty, then. A person does have some duty towards a former partner--but duty to financially or emotionally support that person, at the cost of one's own well-being, for the rest of one's life? I don't think so. That person had to support himself before you came along and can reasonably be expected to do so again after you leave. And as for promising to stay together forever, well, I think that is a foolish promise.

I agree with you about the spouse who "doesn't feel like it."

Andrew Stevens said...

A person does have some duty towards a former partner--but duty to financially or emotionally support that person, at the cost of one's own well-being, for the rest of one's life?

I'm probably not in a good position to argue about this. I am the family breadwinner. My wife does stay home with the children. If I were to leave her (through faults primarily of my own), I would believe myself absolutely obligated to support her more or less for the rest of her life. But then, I can easily afford to do so, so it's not really "at the cost of my own well-being" and I confess that I'm seeing this discussion through the lens of my own experience. If I were considerably poorer with a much smaller income, I might think about it very differently. (But then I doubt my wife would be staying home, in that case.)

I am going to argue that your philosophy gets you stuck in an odd sort of trap. Let us say that you are part of a couple, both of whom wish one person to stay home with the children - assume it doesn't matter which. Your entire code (taken as a whole) makes that impossible because neither member of the couple can afford to take the risk of being the one who stays home. You acknowledge that giving up one's career is a sacrifice which sets one back in one's ability to support oneself and yet acknowledge no obligation on the part of the other person to "make them whole," even in the case when the breadwinner is the one running out on the marriage. I think you are a proponent of a particularly harsh and unforgiving individualism - one which essentially redefines the family as a group of roommates, some of whom happen to have sex with each other. This is radically different from my own understanding of the family as a unit which works together toward commons goals.

And as for promising to stay together forever, well, I think that is a foolish promise.

I believe it's usually phrased "until death do us part." I don't agree it's necessarily foolish, though obviously sometimes it can't be kept even with the best of efforts. E.g., my parents had to get divorced through no fault of either of theirs.

caryatis said...

“If I were to leave her (through faults primarily of my own), I would believe myself absolutely obligated to support her more or less for the rest of her life.”

What if you didn’t think the fault was primarily yours? I don’t know you, but I bet the average divorcing person would have some anger towards and blame for his ex-spouse.

My position might make more sense to you if you imagined a former girlfriend--maybe someone you dated in high school or college and are glad you didn’t marry. Would you be as sanguine about supporting her? That might be a better reflection of how a divorcing person would feel about his ex-wife.

“I think you are a proponent of a particularly harsh and unforgiving individualism - one which essentially redefines the family as a group of roommates, some of whom happen to have sex with each other. This is radically different from my own understanding of the family as a unit which works together toward commons goals.”

Well, yeah. I could quibble with your language, but you’re essentially correct. Let me give a personal example.

When I met my boyfriend, we were both already adults. Each of us had a job, an apartment, and a savings account. I know he can survive without me, because he did, for many years. And I can survive without him. And that strikes me as a good thing--if the relationship were to fail, we would both be very sad, but we would survive. That means I know that he stays with me because he wants to be with me--not because he’s afraid of being alone or of being poor. I can be secure in the relationship without having that queasy if-he-doesn’t-like-me-my-life-is-ruined feeling that I had in earlier relationships.

We are not a unit--in fact, it rubs me the wrong way even to hear the word “family” used to describe a collection of individuals with disparate interests. That rhetorical denial that family members’ interests conflict is often used to push for traditional family roles. If family members must sacrifice for “the family,” the most powerful family member generally gets to decide what “the family’s” interests are. But if we acknowledge we are individuals, the compromises that inevitably need to be made can be negotiated out in the open, which means they are more likely to be fair.

Now, you’re right that this sort of egalitarianism makes it harder for one of us to be a full-time parent. If we did that, we would have to work out a financial arrangement ahead of time. But in general, I think that being a full-time parent is not a healthy situation for a person to be in--no adult companionship, no sense of productivity, no social prestige, doing work that doesn’t engage your mind. It’s all in Friedan. I see no reason why either partner should have to give up the possibility of living a fully adult life.

Phoebe said...

Allow me to intervene...

We have two issues here:

1) Working outside the home, technically working for money, is insurance against a husband leaving, dying, losing his job, or deciding that the time has come for him to fulfill his creative/househusband potential. Given that no woman can know for sure she's taken care of for life, even a woman with no principled objection to being financially dependent might not want to be.

2) Workplaces continue to assume a 1950s arrangement. If you want to pursue a career that requires mobility and to have biological children, it helps if both spouses aren't equally ambitious. If you want a family that functions, as Andrew says, like something other than roommates - heck, if you even want cohabitation guaranteed - one partner will likely have to be less go-get-'em than the other. This doesn't mean a) that said partner must be the woman, b) that said partner must be entirely unemployed outside the home (not all jobs, after all, are Careers), or c) that there can't be some alternating of whose career takes precedence. But things happen that might not be anticipated in a young-and-independent life stage - careers require relocation, having children requires uteri, etc.

So: That family members are interdependent isn't necessarily a bad thing, and is kind of unavoidable once their are kids. It seems the place to look for change is in how the workplace is structured (the Anne-Marie Slaughter argument, give or take), and in how expected it is that the less-ambitious spouse be of a particular gender.

caryatis said...

I don't agree that one partner must necessarily step back from her career. Two ambitious people who make a lot of money can hire help, after all.

Plus, if you pursue a career that requires lots of moving, you'll know that from the beginning, right? And you can pick a partner whose career is movable.

And of course, not having more than one child helps.

Easier said than done, I know, but at least these suggestions are things under my control, unlike reforming the workplace.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis, the point isn't that one partner "must" step back, nor that it must be "her" career that suffers. It's that in the real world of real people, "easier said than done" is incredibly important. I mean, consider academia (not the only career that requires lots of moving, but the one I know best). People often meet their future spouses in grad school, or at conferences. Yet spousal hire is by all accounts incredibly unusual. I'm curious where those moveable-career mates (not house-spouses who work from home or at a coffee shop on occasion, but equally high-powered yet entirely mobile workers) are hiding themselves.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: I think we're at an impasse because I'm assuming children and you are not. E.g. none of my ex-girlfriends are also the mother of any children of mine and this is a very significant difference. Also, I'm sure you and your boyfriend are not a unit and very probably never will be and this is fine: you don't have children and therefore don't need to be.

But in general, I think that being a full-time parent is not a healthy situation for a person to be in--no adult companionship, no sense of productivity, no social prestige, doing work that doesn’t engage your mind. It’s all in Friedan. I see no reason why either partner should have to give up the possibility of living a fully adult life.

Friedan was a brilliant woman who was completely unsuited to being a full-time homemaker and parent. Her genius was in discovering that she was hardly alone in this. But, when you do a survey like Friedan's today on both working wives and stay-at-home wives, it's the stay-at-home wives who are happier on average. This does not lead me to conclude that women should stay at home, of course. The ones who do are self-selecting as are the ones who work. But I do think Friedan's survey "proved too much." Most people are going to be at least a little unhappy and dissatisfied no matter what they end up doing even though their reasons are going to change. (Plus Friedan's survey, almost certainly without realizing it, was asking leading questions which were always going to elicit particular responses. It's not her fault; polling question design is very hard.) Do we believe that there has been a huge increase in female happiness since women have started going to work in large numbers? If Friedan was right, there should be, but what evidence we have points the other way. (Not that women are more unhappy, necessarily, but they don't seem to be any happier.)

In any event, since 1963, technology has expanded available options for entertainment, communication, etc. I can only say that my wife doesn't have any of these complaints and probably spends less time on housework than most working women do. Unlike Friedan, she is not terribly ambitious, though. (Neither am I and neither are most people I know, but unambitious people rarely write best-selling books about their own perspective. I couldn't give a good goddamn about sense of productivity or social prestige. I have a very high tolerance for solitude and wouldn't miss adult companionship. I'd also prefer a job which didn't engage my mind so I could engage my mind more on the things which interest me, but which aren't remunerative. I would in fact have made a great stay-at-home father and I did consider it, but the reality was that this would have been a very inefficient use of our family's resources, since my wife had no real hope of commanding the kind of compensation I could command in the marketplace.)

caryatis said...

Phoebe, it would be easier for spouses to not both be in the same field. I'm not saying they have to be both equally high-powered, but they both should have _something_ productive to do. Career compatibility is one of the things I think people should consider when forming a relationship, along with all the other kinds of compatibility.

caryatis said...

Andrew, I think having children makes it even more important to consider individuals in a family as separate people. Children are stuck in their family, and if the more powerful family members don’t recognize that a child has his own separate interests, it will be sheer hell for the child until he can get out.

I don’t necessarily trust surveys on happiness. How happy someone says she is depends a lot on how happy she thinks she should be–and a lot of housewives are immersed in religious cultures which put a premium on seeming happy and content. I’ve read, however, that rates of depression–not just subjective statements of unhappiness, but distress bad enough to prompt a visit to a psychologist–are highest among housewives.

And really, I’m discussing happiness because you brought it up, but that’s not the point. Whether a person can be happy while unemployed for a long period of time probably depends on personality, but doing productive work that engages your mind and gives you self-respect, strength of character, and social prestige is essential to being a full human being.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think having children makes it even more important to consider individuals in a family as separate people. Children are stuck in their family, and if the more powerful family members don’t recognize that a child has his own separate interests, it will be sheer hell for the child until he can get out.

I think you may be taking things a bit far here. Decisions have to be made for the good of the family which is why it has to be viewed as an autonomous decision-making unit. This doesn't mean that children are assumed to be cookie-cutters of their parents.

I’ve read, however, that rates of depression–not just subjective statements of unhappiness, but distress bad enough to prompt a visit to a psychologist–are highest among housewives.

Inconsistent with other studies I've seen. Did the one you read control for the presence of small children? There is a definite correlation between small children and depression, possibly due to post-partum or for some other reason.

Whether a person can be happy while unemployed for a long period of time probably depends on personality, but doing productive work that engages your mind and gives you self-respect, strength of character, and social prestige is essential to being a full human being.

Sorry, you're no longer speaking my language here. Yes, I agree that you can define the words "full human being" that way if you like, but you can't expect it to mean anything to me. I can define "full human being" as excluding women entirely. So what? It just means I defined a word in a peculiar way. I take it my great-great-grandparents who worked in cotton mills weren't full human beings, as you define the term. They did productive work; they had self-resepct, strength of character, and probably some measure of social prestige, but because their work didn't engage their mind, this made them sub-human?

We could talk about the moral value of such work, if you like. Personally I happen to have made my entire fortune through intellectual labor; I don't believe this makes me superior to those people who did not or do not and I'm nearly 100% certain that it has less moral value than what my wife does in child-raising.

caryatis said...

I guess I don’t understand what “Decisions have to be made for the good of the family” means. “The family” is an abstraction, right? “The family” is never going to tell you what it wants. In practice, it’s going to be Jim saying what he thinks is best for the family, and Mary saying what she thinks is best. Again, some compromise between Jim’s and Mary’s and child’s interests is necessary, but it should be made openly, without hiding Jim’s interests behind a pretense of the needs of “the family.”

Don’t you agree that most of child-rearing is mindless work? It’s making sure they don’t kill themselves when they’re young, changing diapers, taking them to school. Why is that work of particular moral value?

On depression, this study does seem to control for presence of small children, and suggests that employed mothers are about as happy as employed non-mothers. (It addresses subjective feelings, though.)

http://www.gallup.com/poll/154685/Stay-Home-Moms-Report-Depression-Sadness-Anger.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=All%20Gallup%20Headlines

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis, I will grant you that Jim and Mary might have different opinions about what is good for the family. I am contrasting "Jim saying what he thinks is best for the family and Mary saying what she thinks is best for the family" with "Jim saying what he thinks is best for him" and "Mary saying what she thinks is best for her." If both partners are keeping the needs of the family first and foremost, I think there are many fewer conflicts than if the latter situation is occurring. Which is what I thought you were implying when you wanted to wave "the family" away entirely. If I was mistaken about what you meant there, then I retract my criticism.

On a personal note, I cannot recall the last time my wife and I conflicted on what we believed to be for the best. (Granted our general resolution strategy is that I get to make the final decisions, but also have to make all the sacrifices since I am more self-sacrificial by nature. Having a conflict resolution strategy tends to reduce conflict.) My brother and his wife (pre-divorce) constantly conflicted because both were basically selfish people looking out for themselves.

Don’t you agree that most of child-rearing is mindless work? It’s making sure they don’t kill themselves when they’re young, changing diapers, taking them to school. Why is that work of particular moral value?

I do not. Early childhood education is very important and my wife does a ton of it. Of course, we plan to homeschool and my understanding from talking to other parents is that she does far more of it than most stay-at-home parents. Our daughter is reading at 3 years old and this is not true for most children that age. This is because of the hard work my wife has done to figure out how to teach her and then to actually do it. If you're just baby-sitting until you send them to school, then I still think there is a lot of moral value in that (keeping the kids from killing themselves is hugely important!), but I would agree it's mostly mindless, and this is always true with infants. Mindless does not equal low moral value. "They also serve who only stand and wait."

On depression, this study does seem to control for presence of small children, and suggests that employed mothers are about as happy as employed non-mothers. (It addresses subjective feelings, though.)

Actually it doesn't, though I see why you thought that. It compares stay-at-home moms with a child under 18 to employed moms with a child under 18. But the stay-at-home moms are much more likely to have a very small child. (Many stay-at-home moms return to work when the child is old enough to go to school.) I need a study which compares apples to apples on that. Stay-at-home moms with 2 year olds versus employed moms with 2 year olds and so forth with some sort of discrete age ranges compared to each other. Otherwise, in particular, you're going to sweep a lot of moms with newborns into the "stay-at-home" category even though they won't be stay-at-home for long. I don't doubt that mothers with small children get depressed a lot; that's well-established. It would even be consistent with other studies I've seen if employed moms with small children were insulated from depression better than stay-at-home moms with small children. (Since it might have to do with dealing with small children, and not just post-partum depression and the like.) However, then I would expect stay-at-home moms with older children to do much better than employed moms with older children.

caryatis said...

I agree that people in a family will naturally incorporate a desire for continuance of a harmonious family relationship into the set of all their other desires (assuming they do want to continue in the family.) As you admit, this doesn’t eliminate conflict.

Now, I thought this was a discussion of how to have a harmonious relationship that takes care of children and is also egalitarian. But now you admit your relationship is a sexist one, so I’m not sure why we are having this conversation. Surely you can guess by now that such a marriage seems deeply wrong to me, so I don’t have anything to learn from your example.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: Sexism is the wrong word, though you are correct that it isn't strictly egalitarian. Different arrangments work better for different people. My other older brother (the one who is not divorced) has a relationship with his wife in which his wife (who is 15 years older than he is and retired) clearly makes all the decisions. I completely support their marriage and fiercely defend him on charges of being "whipped" or "henpecked" or whatever. He seems far happier than any of the people who criticize him and I am always quick to point this out when people are criticizing him because he loves his wife. My own opinion is that people are very individual and need different arrangements which suit their different personalities. One size fits all egalitarianism is no better than one size fits all traditional marriage.

I do not advocate the arrangement my wife and I have for everybody else or even for anybody else. What works for us may very well not work for you. (I certainly wouldn't recommend to Betty Friedan that she should marry someone like me; such a marriage would be a disaster.) I do urge conflict resolution strategies, but those strategies can, I suppose, even be things as simple as taking turns or flipping a coin.

In our particular marriage, my wife has a deep preference for letting me handle issues of finances and career decisions (though I am always sure to keep her absolutely fully informed, much to her exasperation sometimes). On the other hand, she does all the driving (I don't drive) and I would never dream of second-guessing her on issues of safety, health, home, car selection and the like.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I would also recommend better mate selection. I meet men like my brother all the time. Most strong women I meet tend to look down on them as wimps or milquetoasts and never seriously consider them as partners. I would urge them to consider them more closely. Some people require a great deal of control in their lives; other people prefer that someone else have the control. These people should be marrying each other, not others of the same kind. What needs to stop is the contempt that stronger people often have for the weaker, be they male or female. Weaker does not equal inferior.

caryatis said...

Well, there's making decisions and then making decisions, right? If Jim cares about eating the best possible food and Mary is indifferent, then Jim ought to choose the restaurant. And it would be silly for him to look down on Mary for letting him make those decisions.

But if Jim and Mary both have strong opinions about food, yet somehow Jim always get his way, that's unfair, and we should ask what is wrong with Mary's character which allows her to let herself be exploited in this way.

What I said above may have sounded insulting, but I think you would agree with my real point, which is that the relationship strategies that work for you & your wife are unlikely to work for me. In fact, they'd be counterproductive. Of course, I don't believe that "traditional" marriages work for anyone, but some people clearly think they do.

Phoebe said...

OK, stepping in because this is getting a bit too high-blood-pressure for my tastes.

Official WWPD verdict: while I agree with Caryatis re: the importance of women not being entirely reliant financially on men, Andrew's not saying that families must go one way or the other gender-role-wise. I agree with Andrew that families-as-roommates doesn't work, and frankly think it's naive to imagine it could in more than rare circumstances. Yes, when two 20-30-somethings meet and both have jobs in the same city, nothing drastic changes when the two move in together or get married. But what if one gets a job elsewhere? What if a pregnancy has complications? Postpartum depression? And Caryatis, I'm not sure what you meant re: it being an option whether or not to raise a special-needs kid. These "needs" may arise once the kid is long since out of the uterus, and there isn't just some doorstop where one can (or would be prepared to) leave one's own child. And... what if the woman has a really high-powered career and must relocate, and the man realizes he's happier working occasionally from home and doing more housework?

And what about income disparities? The power imbalances that arise from those are important, yet it's asking a lot to say that people may only pair off with partners whose incomes will match theirs forever.

"Equal" in this context means that there's no default assumption that the lower-earning/less-ambitious partner in an opposite-sex relationship be the woman. It doesn't mean that partners never make sacrifices for each other. There are advantages to pairing off with someone equally ambitious, but there are also advantages to pairing off with someone more flexible.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis and Phoebe: There's really no need to worry. I'm not at all insulted and certainly my blood pressure isn't rising.

Caryatis, I hope I haven't sounded in this thread like I've been trying to give you advice at all. You've given me no reason to think you intend to have kids, so as far as I know, this is purely an academic discussion for you. I have no opinions whatsoever on how consenting adults should arrange their own relationships when there are no children involved and my view of how it should be handled when there are children involved is very flexible. So far I think all I've really recommended are fairly banal things like "don't be selfish and work together."

As for your Jim/Mary example, I actually don't think it's unfair that my wife gets her way all the time, but I have no doubt that part of the reason it doesn't bother me is I know she will always let me get my way if I believe it's necessary. Because of that, it never really comes up. She selected everything in our house except my laptop (including the house itself). Her personal entertainment budget is ten times what I spend for myself (though that's not because hers is huge - more because mine is so small). I literally can't remember the last time my wife and I disagreed about anything. (All right, I didn't particularly want to go to the circus last weekend, but I went without grumbling so it doesn't really count as a conflict. I probably didn't hide it that well, though, since she seemed to thank me afterward for going more often than is usual.)

However, my wife and I are both very relaxed, easy-going people. It would be very different, I suppose, if we were both Type A personalities. The only thing I'm Type A about is money.

Of course, I don't believe that "traditional" marriages work for anyone, but some people clearly think they do.

I'm not sure I can make sense of this one. If you meet a couple in a traditional marriage and they both think it works for them, what's your criteria for success that makes you right and them wrong? I had one set of grandparents who were, as far as anyone knows, blissfully happy for 40 years. My grandmother was never really the same after he died. My brother and his wife seem to be doing great in their traditional-with-genders-reversed marriage for the last 30 years. I could name many, many more (there are literally thousands of historical examples), but then you probably could too, so you must be saying that simply because you've defined "successful traditional marriage" as an oxymoron.

This is not to say that I don't 100% agree that many men in traditional marriages were tyrants and many women in traditional marriages were bad-tempered scolds. That goes without saying.

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, of course, I object to "traditional marriage the straitjacket." Speaking as an atheist, I actually believe Saint Paul's model of marriage where one person takes the responsibility and makes the sacrifices is not a bad model; it was just needlessly gendered and it's not the only good model.

And what about income disparities? The power imbalances that arise from those are important.

Do power imbalances arise from income disparities? Are we mostly talking about marriages without fully shared finances?

By the way, there is a different power imbalance which is not mentioned often because in "traditional marriages" it's tilted against men, but will matter to women who ever have stay-at-home husbands and fathers. The person home with the kids will always have a stronger relationship with them. My wife intentionally goes out of her way to make me the "fun parent" and, hearing from the women I work with, I seem to spend lots more time with my daughter than most men seem to spend with their kids, but I still envy my wife her relationship with my daughter. My daughter is very excited to see me when I come home, but if she's crying or upset, she has no interest at all in Daddy.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

"Power imbalance" for a couple reasons. Most obvious: s/he who's making more gets to leave without sacrifice to lifestyle-to-which-grown-accustomed. Also relevant: how people feel. Not every shared-finances household is one where both partners are entirely thrilled about that. Even breadwinners who accept that role and ostensibly prefer it sometimes get resentful. Pardon the banality, but people are complicated.

Which I think gets to the problem with both your and Caryatis's positions. You're both describing ideal situations. She's discussing 50-50 partnerships and compatible but equally-prestigious careers, while you're discussing traditional arrangements in which the man (and the woman) is 100% on board and 100% committed to staying put. Realistically - and Caryatis, I know you dislike my tendency towards nuance - neither option goes exactly as planned.

Andrew Stevens said...

Most obvious: s/he who's making more gets to leave without sacrifice to lifestyle-to-which-grown-accustomed.

Prior to marriage, sure. Not exactly true after, as Caryatis was complaining about earlier (but which I regard as simple justice - divorce settlement laws in most states are roughly fair).

Personally, I think fights and resentment about money rarely have anything to do with who's making the income. I think they come about when either A) both partners are spenders and they're fighting over the pie or B) one partner is a saver and the other is a spender and they're fighting over whether it gets saved or spent. Solution: become a saver and marry a saver. Unfortunately, that seriously is my only solution. If you want a harmonious marriage and you're fighting over money, I'd just recommend that both people should start listening to Dave Ramsey or something.

Phoebe said...

Andrew, this isn't literal "fighting over money." It's a power imbalance that exists whenever one person earns more than another. And, FWIW, non-payment of alimony has been known to occur.

Andrew Stevens said...

Maybe I'm missing something; I'm not sure why the power imbalance matters unless you're fighting over money so that the power is actually used against you. Or is this what you meant by "Also relevant: how people feel"? I.e. the lower-income partner might feel relatively powerless (or the higher-income partner might feel more powerful) even though that power isn't being used?

You are quite correct about the possibility of non-payment of alimony, of course. I certainly don't want to deny there are relative advantages to being the higher earner.