It’s the bane of moderns’ existence: dating is hard, and marriage isn’t working. What is the endgame? What is the solution, if any? What is the future of marriage? All interesting questions.
The form of marriage we live with today has been dubbed “Marriage 2.0”, the transition to which was complete by the time of the great divorce surge of the 1970s; “Marriage 1.0”, of course, refers to the vaunted “traditional” laws and norms about marriage. Divorce rates have stabilized at 30% (50% if you include repeat divorcees) since around 1980, but at the price of steeply increased average ages at first marriage (at record highs now, especially for women) and a steep rise in the number of people who don’t get married at all, i.e. much higher selectivity in who people marry. It has also correlated with a steep rise in the share of children born out of wedlock, though that too has stabilized since the mid 1990s.
Conservatives getting everything backwards as usual
The standard conservative explanation for all this is that people have too much personal freedom, the decline of marriage is the sickness of civilization and social order, and we’d all be a lot better off if we entered into marriages we don’t really want with people we’re not really attracted to just because society tells us to. Yeah, right. I know conservatives are far from the sharpest knives in the box, but really? That’s their solution? It’s as if they’ve learned nothing from the failure of “Marriage 1.0” after the 1950s; people rejected those marriages they all entered back then for a reason.
Besides, it’s truly weird for conservatives to see a system where marital and family life is increasingly defined by the intervention, meddling, and micromanagement of the judicial branch of the government in a way inconceivable to our forefathers and go “oh, you know what the problem is: the almighty nanny state isn’t regulating marriage and family enough!”
Problems and Solutions simple
Take a moment and listen to what all the men who say “don’t get married!” are saying; they’re primarily driven away from marriage by the spectre of divorce and child custody disputes, specifically the risk of them turning against them, or at least more against them than they had planned for. Judges and family courts have virtually untrammeled authority over divorce and, especially, child custody and support settlements, regardless of the preferences of either or even both parties.
The solution is obvious: if people could make binding contracts that guaranteed particular divorce and child custody and support arrangements and they couldn’t be overturned by the state willy-nilly, i.e. if married couples had the same rights the parties to any other kind of contract have, this whole problem wouldn’t even exist. So the problem really is not too much personal freedom but rather too little!
Toward Marriage 3.0
In practical terms what this means is we should greatly strengthen pre-nupital agreements (which already exist!) and permit people to make flexible and binding contracts for matters of alimony, child custody and support, and the like. This of course is the standard libertarian solution for marriage; if people actually went for it it would work very well.
Despite the hype about how dissolving marriage is so easy these days, divorce laws are still often restrictive, much more so than the parties to many marriages actually want; if they could contract for a more flexible arrangement they’d be more likely to be married as opposed to being forever boyfriends and girlfriends. The ancient Norse had trial marriages, where the marriage expires after a few years and you can then decide whether to marry the other person permanently; such arrangements could be revived in “Marriage 3.0”. Ditto for the Shia practice of temporary marriage.
Arrangements short of marriage could also be governed by such contracts, which was historically known as concubinage but now goes by the more antiseptic name of “domestic partnerships”. Like pre-nupital agreements, this is something that already exists now that could simply be strengthened.
Arrangements that impose more restrictive terms for divorce or even bar divorce altogether could also be entered into, though even then people couldn’t literally be forced to stay in a marriage, only subject to, as with any other contract, an unfavorable civil judgment for any damages that result from breaking the agreement.
Covenant Marriages; or that Time the Religious Right really did try to strengthen Marriage
An interesting wrinkle in this part of the story is that the Christian right in America have put in work trying to make something like this happen! Often it’s said in the debate over same-sex marriage that the religious right had no problem with divorce, that divorce was a far greater threat to opposite-sex marriages than the legalization of same-sex marriage would be, and that traditional marriage was already redefined or destroyed anyway. Well, that is basically true, but what few people seem to know about is there actually was a religious-right initiative to counter divorce: it was called “covenant marriages”!
The idea was actually rather clever: give people the option of a marriage with more restrictive conditions for divorce, so religious conservatives can get the kind of marriage they pine for without upsetting the liberal apple cart for everybody else. Weirdly, considering how popular “family values” rhetoric was at the time, Tony Perkins had to practically pull the Republicans’ teeth to get them to do it, and in the end three states adopted it in a wave in the late 1990s: Louisiana (where he was a state Representative at the time), Arkansas, and Arizona.
if even Conservatives don’t want Conservatism…
One might think the party of family values would go for it, but as it happens only 1% of married couples in Louisiana opted for covenant marriage; in Arizona the number is 0.25%. Covenant marriage proponents insist this is because few people are even aware it’s an option, and they have a point, but with something like 30% of the population being churchgoers the complete lack of interest from these vaunted conservative churches in informing their congregants that it’s an option says it all, doesn’t it?
Even social conservatives it seems don’t want Marriage 1.0 to come back, so what chance does it have with the rest of the population? No, conservatives’ Marriage 1.0 is gone and won’t be back, progressives’ Marriage 2.0 is not long for this world, so libertarians’ Marriage 3.0 stands as the last best hope for reinvigorating marriage in modern societies.
Conservatives might say this proposal of mine merely systematizes “the decline”, but much of the decline they speak of is in fact caused by how poor our marital system is; improving the system would help. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Marriage 3.0 failed to change the fundamental trajectory of the culture, as the roots of that run much deeper than the vagaries of the legal system.
The strange Lust for Brave New World
Denizens of “the manosphere” love to spin complex theories about “alphas” and “betas” and how sexual freedom will lead to the end of civilization through low birth rates; these theorists usually make the objects of their study sound more like Hirogen than humans, perhaps revealing more about the authors than they do about society. Nevertheless, unless the trend toward less marriage and less childbearing is reversed at some point, in the relatively near future it may pose a serious threat to the continuity of human societies. What are the options then?
Neoreactionary blogger extraordinaire Spandrell posits three rather depressing options: the inferior inherit the Earth (Global Haiti), the religious inherit the Earth (Global Mexico), or the superior inherit the Earth through artificial means controlled by the state (Brave New World). Spandrell is on the side of Brave New World, but if it comes to that I suspect nationalizing breeding through artificial wombs won’t be the only option, for billionaires are already pre-empting the state in building Brave New World: Kristina Ozturk, wife of billionaire Galip Ozturk, aspires to have 100 children through surrogate mothers, and in only a few years of trying already has 21 babies. Kinda perverted if you ask me, but nevertheless I say hooray for the rich; they are our guarantee that by the time the state gets around to enacting such extreme measures it will already be too late for them to seize effective control over the means of reproduction.
It’s also a bit odd of so many to assume artificial wombs are the only path forward, when the most obvious way is to simply pay women to have children naturally; certainly an incentive of $1 million per baby would really move the needle. If a state desperately wants babies it can probably get them through rather conventional methods. That is, if a sinister urge to usurp the maternal role in the life of the youngest citizens isn’t the driver, which as we all should know it is (else why is daycare always subsidized over maternal care?).
Toward Breeding Colonies?
A neoreactionary like Spandrell might insist on the births being eugenic, but that can be accomplished through sending the best women to resorts to be pampered and have sex with the best men until they fall pregnant. Interestingly, exactly this is what popular culture imagines the Nazi Lebensborn program was; in reality it was far less racy, but I can’t help but suspect this fantasy (and the fundamentally similar harem fantasy) having as much a hold on the public mind as it does suggests a latent desire for such a system of reproduction: children coming from orgies of the hottest people in oases of hedonism, with their care and support guaranteed come what may.
Is that desire strong enough to inspire a society to actually organize itself like that? Probably not, but it does mean the space for something like Gigameds outlines in this rather intriguing tweet to become at least a social niche is much more open than one might think:
To my mind Eugenics would not need to be coercive at all, Eugenics is the spirit of those communes people joined in the 60s but made actually productive. A bunch of teenagers live on a farm for several months having sex. Why do people hate this so much? Only a few people would sign up for this at first but it would very quickly become desirable and “high status” through social contagion. This is why young people increasingly not having sex at all is desirable. Soon, these sorts of schemes will become the only way they CAN.
1960s-style communes as tomorrow’s fonts of life? Per Strauss-Howe generational theory we’re due for the Second Turning the 1960s took place in to return by the mid 21st century, and in America utopian socialism tends to surge in such periods (as do Great Awakenings, the next one of which might just bury today’s Wokeness), so something like this might actually happen! Notably this vision could easily be anarchistic rather than statist.
As an aside, pop-cultural fantasies and conspiracy theories might reveal much sentiment that otherwise never breaches the surface. For example, take all those conspiracy theories that wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the most powerful old-money New England families control everything through secret societies like Skull and Bones. Are its adherents drawn to the concept because deep down they feel like those are the kind of people who should be leading their country? Could be.
Consider also something David Graeber once pointed out: medievals’ concept of the divine or, in modern terms, a high fantasy world involved complex hierarchies of angels, to the extent it practically resembles a modern bureaucracy, but now that we moderns have such a world we pine for the personal relationships of the medievals and orient our fantasies around the fulfillment of that often unarticulated wish.
The Dark Theory of the Average Marriage
Last but not least, I offer an even more speculative take: are most couples even attracted to each other? It might sound like an odd question, but consider that most people are not sexually attracted to most other people; people are primarily physically attracted to the best and most beautiful of the opposite sex (who tend to be the same people; people’s tastes vary but nevertheless they mostly overlap), but they generally “settle” and take what they can get. These propositions are not particularly controversial.
Yet the implication is that people don’t find those they settle down with to be particularly attractive. Ah, now we’re getting spicy; in this Reddit thread as elsewhere, people desperately evade the question, and the all-but-inevitable conclusion: that most will never be married to somebody they truly love in a sexual sense, and most marriages have little to no true marital love or lust.
People spin rationalizations all day about how it might not be a huge physical attraction most people have but they’re attracted to each other in other ways, about how such affection is a higher form of love than mere infatuation, blah blah blah, but the truth is can we really call a feeling (romantic and sexual) love if it’s not an intense physical attraction and deep emotional connection? I most certainly would not, and nobody else would either in the abstract, only when they have to rationalize settling for what they can get. Telling, isn’t it?
Some take this too far and posit that most marriages have “dead bedrooms”, but that’s not really so; on average young couples have sex twice a week, older couples once a week. But is that out of a genuine lust for the other person, an expression of any kind of genuinely deep emotional connection, or is it something they do out of duty because they think they’re supposed to, or at best because their spouse happens to be the most convenient way they’ve got to satisfy their libido? Neither indicates true love. Indeed, I only recently became aware of how willing some people are to have sex with people they’re not even highly physically attracted to; are we really to believe that only happens in hookups and not in marriages?
Worse yet, I suspect most people only marry and have children because they kinda think they have to in order to be good people, not because they have any burning love for the other person. The really horrifying implication of this is that the children of such marriages, the majority of the human population, are not the bundles of love they should be. Worse yet, this neatly explains why so many children we see out and about don’t seem to be loved all that much by their parents; they’re inconveniences that are sort of just there who get alternately warehoused away to institutions and snapped at by their harpie-esque mothers. If these children were the renewal of the world and the human spirit, the ultimate consummation and possession of the love and lust that sets one’s heart aflame and fills one’s soul with bliss, they would not be treated like that.
“Welcome to the desert of the real” indeed. But is this rather dark vision reality for most people? I know not; I certainly hope not! If it is true I’m not sure what the solution would be. If I had my way, or rather if everyone thought like I did, only the most beautiful people would marry and have children, the broad middle’s sex lives would consist of seeing prostitutes (primarily sourced from the beauties who wish to stay both single and sexual), and the remainder would be celibate monks and nuns.
The more Things change, the more they stay the same!
Doesn’t sound much like real life, so maybe I’m just strange? On the other hand, this state of affairs, from a certain point of view, isn’t too different from what prevailed under “Marriage 1.0”! In old-time Europe a large fraction of people joined the clergy, a large fraction of women were sex workers (a full third in golden-age Venice!), and a large fraction of men had mistresses (which is where all those courtesans came from). The only real difference is that people often married, because of wealth, politics, or some other kind of connection, or because they wanted to have children in a stable household.
Maybe things haven’t really changed, and won’t really change, nearly as much as we think sometimes. Emphases might change, the forms might change, and we might be more honest or more deceitful about it, but human nature is the one constant in the past and the present, and so long as it exists in the future the future of marriage and childbearing is assured.
Forget about taking pills red and pills black. Forget about centrally planning our posterity. Man’s innate drives will compel him to find a way to continue the race, come what may. Stop worrying about what’s best for society or some imaginary collective that cares nothing about you; start thinking about what’s best for your future.