Newsletter #73: Ten Theses on Marriage and Family
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Back in newsletter #9 I noted how church leaders frequently don’t preach what they practice. That is, they don’t publicly commend the life scripts that they themselves followed successfully.
It’s a free country. I fully believe everyone has a right to make their own choices about how they want to live. But today so many people in elite culture will rep any lifestyle but normal, even when they are living a very normal and traditional lifestyle themselves. Even the church spends disproportionate amounts of time reassuring those in what should be exception cases relative to the amount it should be spending repping the ordinary one.
In that light, I want to repeat and expand on several of the theses on marriage and family I listed in newsletter #9 that illustrate general principles for living. Again, for some people, some of these aren’t the best fit. People have the right to right to choose their own path. But there are some general principles that we should keep in mind.
Thesis #1: Marriage is the normative pattern of human life. The vast majority of people are not called to the celibate life, nor will they be satisfied with life long singleness. Some people are called to be celibate. Others will be happier and most fulfilled as singles. Some will get married and it will be a disaster. But for most people, marriage is best path for flourishing.
Suggesting that those emphasizing the importance of marriage are guilty of the “idolatry of the family,” or the same for those who are single and unhappy about it is a disservice. Many people today would like to be married but haven’t found the path to it. We should affirm that these desires are good, and that failing to see them fulfilled represents a legitimate and significant hurt.
Thesis #2: We should bring the same focus, effort, and intentionality to finding a spouse as to getting into college, landing a dream job, or other important life matter. People today start strategizing how to get their kid into Harvard before he is even born. Today’s young people can bring incredible focus and drive to achieving important life ambitions. People who need a job are working every day to try to find a new one.
Yet too often people treat finding a spouse as if it’s something that’s just supposed to happen organically. Especially today, that’s not true. It might seem unromantic or cold-blooded, but if getting married is important to us, then we need to be very intentional and focused on making it happen. That means more than just swiping on dating apps.
Thesis #3: People shouldn’t engage in premarital sex or cohabitate prior to marriage. Quite apart from any moral considerations, pre-martial sex and cohabitation potentially undermine martial stability.
Especially for women, multiple pre-marital sex partners is correlated with a higher risk of divorce.
My observation is that refraining from pre-marital sex demonstrates self-control and sexual continence that raises trust levels within marriage. Someone who can resist the temptation to pre-marital sex is someone we are likely to view as being able to likewise resist the temptation to affairs, for example.
Cohabitation itself is correlated with various negative outcomes vs. marriage. Cohabitation also seems to be correlated with a greater risk of divorce. At a minimum, it lacks the benefits that some people seem to intuitively associate with it.
Thesis #4: Stay monogamous within marriage. Cheating is one that even secular society still views as a betrayal. It’s obvious that affairs risk blowing up or permanently damaging your marriage. The odds that anything good comes out of an affair are pretty bad.
Since we are very easily blinded by passion, it’s good to set guardrails on our behavior to avoid getting put into positions where we will be exposed to temptation and opportunity for unfaithfulness. Mike Pence making a policy of not attending events where alcohol is served is an example of one such rule (although not one that I specifically follow). I personally have a policy not being 1:1 personal friends with women. (Professional relationships are acceptable, however).
Thesis #5: Do not divorce in almost every case. I won’t argue that there’s never a place for divorce, but it should be rare. H. L. Mencken has a quip that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Divorce is often like that, too. Sometimes we get what we want - and then we’ve got it.
Divorce has long term implications that don’t become apparent until many years after the fact. Second marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than first ones. Those who don’t remarry face the prospect of growing old alone. Divorce also destroys social capital in that divorcés often lose or suffer a downgrade in their relationships with married couples following a divorce. (You’ll notice that divorce is frequently preceded or followed by a change in friend set).
Divorce is also terrible for kids. While parents can conceivably move on, the kids have to deal with the fallout of a divided family forever. There’s plenty of literature out there on the negative association with single parenthood. I don’t know very many people (any?) who tell me they are glad their parents got divorced.
Thesis #6: Relationships are more stable when they exhibit modest hypergamy. It’s pretty well established that women want to marry someone they see at least as an equal (assortative mating) or ideally above their status at some level (hypergamy). I recently linked to a study of Norway, the world’s most gender equal country, that once again demonstrated female hypergamic mating preference. Women tend to marry men who are older, taller, make more money, etc.
Inverse hypergamic relationships are unstable. It’s generally not a good idea for men to marry up. When men lose their job, their divorce risk goes up. When his wife starts earning more money, that leads to marital unhappiness.
Now, a man can marry a woman who is more physically attractive than him. Male attractiveness is driven by multiple factors such as money, power, etc. whereas women’s attractiveness as seen by men is more driven by youth and looks. So it’s possible for a man to be less physically attractive than his wife and still be seen by her as more attractive overall, if he’s a baller in other areas. But all things considered, a relationships where the woman thinks she married down is going to experience challenges. For example, if a man who is a 7 marries a women who is a 9, she is going to get tons of attention from men who are more attractive than he is. This is going to produce jealousy, mate guarding behavior, etc. This is one reason why men should not self-deprecate relative to their wives. If you keep telling people you’re not worthy of being married to your wife, don’t be surprised if one day she starts believing it.
At the same time, when the man is vastly more attractive than the woman, that can also produce instability because, similar to the above example, the wife will not feel secure.
Thesis #7: Traditional sex role divisions work best for most people. While the 1950s household pattern is mostly obsolete, some type of traditional sex role division of labor still seems to work or be preferred by most people. For example, the husband’s career tends to be more emphasized while the wife’s role is more focused on children and the home.
Keep in mind, specialization and the division of labor is one of the foundational principles of economics going back to Adam Smith. Also, in light of hypergamy above, men tend to have a higher paying career jobs, which makes it logical to focus more on his career.
Thesis #8: The best place for raising children is in a home with their married father and mother. Basically, the advantage for kids being raised in an intact family is enormous. Just look at, for example, the difference in poverty rates for married families with kids vs. single parents. Having the father married at home significantly reduces risks of abuse, etc. for kids. As sociologist Brad Wilcox wrote, “Children who grow up with their fathers in a married household are significantly less likely to be sexually abused, to end up in prison or to become pregnant as a teenager. Communities that have lots of fathers at home are markedly safer than communities where fathers are absent from the home.” Economist Raj Chetty found that the top correlate to low socio-economic mobility is the share of single parent households in a neighborhood.
Thesis #9: A large majority of women want to have children, and will be grieved and distressed if they are unable to do so.
The desire for children is not static. The share of women saying they don’t want children has been rising. However, I think we’ve all seen that people’s views on whether or not they want to have kids shift over the course of their life. It’s easy to talk a good game of not wanting kids when you are young, but when people age, their priorities change. That was true for me, for example. And women are already falling significantly short of their own stated desired fertility.
Just as with any other major life goal, failure to have kids can be a painful one, particularly for people who watch their peers get to have them.
The same principle applies to men at some level, by the way. But men have a longer runway to have children, and fatherhood seems to be less central to the identity of men than motherhood is to women.
Thesis #10: People who don’t want others telling them how to live shouldn’t expect other people to cater to their desires either.
As I said, the above are general principles. They don’t apply to everyone. And I fully affirm people’s right to make their own choices.
At the same time, those who say that they don’t want to get married, for example, and who don’t want people to tell them to get married, are not in a position to demand that other people rearrange their own lives to underwrite that decision. They get to make their choices. And others get the same opportunity.
Specifically, when single people in the church decide to live life on their own terms, say that they don’t want to hear suggestions for change from others, and are unwilling to alter their life choices or priorities to raise their likelihood of getting married, then they are in no position to demand that the church change how it does business to accommodate them.
Obviously, there are going to be many more singles in the world today, they need to be welcomed by churches. Some of them would love to be married but aren’t sure how to get there. Others face hurdles such as being socially awkward, being a short man, or some other attractiveness issue that they can’t do anything about. But any number of people are single in part because of their own choices and priorities. If they don’t want to change those choices and priorities, if they aren’t willing to make changes to how they are living their lives - which, again, is fully their right to do - then it is not the obligation of the church or others to change to underwrite their preferences.
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The pain box is very difficult, and people have experienced it to varying degrees. But that's basically why I thought Donald Trump was the real deal, when I saw that he could endure the pain box like no other, literally the coordinated opposition of every single institution in the country, if not the world, which was against him. And he withstood it, kept his composure and it didn't faze him. In fact, he pushed harder.
People don't appreciate just how hard that is. Human beings did not evolve for the pain box. And you know, there's a reason they say – while it's cliché and I think it bears qualification – that people are more terrified of standing in front of a crowd than death. That’s because social disapproval makes people extremely uncomfortable and the mechanism of the internet and social media has enabled a kind of social disapproval, a mechanism on steroids that also has professional repercussions, potentially legal, all sorts of things, and very, very, few human beings are constituted in a way that they can withstand that. Including a lot of wealthy human beings, in fact, especially a lot of wealthy human beings….even people with money who should know better or who should have higher aspirations, who should be a little bit more ambitious - but the pain box is the reason people avoid it. And the more you have, the more the pain box can do to you. So it's understandable.
And this gets to the question of masculinity you and I talked about. I'm not one of these guys going to the gym all the time. Maybe I should. I used to be quite fit. I like to play tennis a lot, and I've gotten more fit, but I also just I like to eat. I love Dr. Pepper, and an occasional Negroni. And I just hate the gym, I'll be honest. I think it's so boring. I can't get into it. I guess my health pays the price. I think the core of masculinity though, if I have to address it, is not about that. The core of masculinity is really having the characteristics that you need to withstand the pain box. And you know, you could be, you could be as ripped as possible. You can be in great shape, which, you know, that's good for just life generally. A lot of guys in great shape, the second they get a little hint of the pain box, they snap. They don't have what it takes, which is a kind of spiritual strength. A lot of people don't have it. So what's the point in building up your strength or any kind of equivalent of strength, building up wealth, building up anything if you ultimately don't have what it takes to be truly independent, sovereign, and to withstand social pressures? Because there's nothing more feminine than caving into social pressure.
That to me, that's masculinity. That's calm under pressure. It's withstanding social pressure, and it's the rarest thing in the world, and you just don't see it very much at all. And I'd say that's the core of masculinity. If you don't have that, you're not getting anywhere. If we don't have people who exhibit those traits, we're not getting anywhere. And so that more than any other attribute, more than muscles, more than money, more than, you know, more than Bugattis (laughs), being able to withstand the pain box, to withstand the social pressure and to hold frame is the most important and manly thing you could possibly do….It's not unique to men, but I think ultimately that ability to withstand the pain box is masculine trait, and we need more of it, and so we’ve got encourage it as much as we can.
- Darren Beattie, interviewed by Noor bin Laden [emphasis added]