Friday, November 9, 2007

Why aren't our property rights over one another more transferable?

Why do people get married? If anyone ever proposes to me for a reason other than to surreptitiously steal my belongings or to get more centerlink benefits, I would have to refuse them on the basis that I could not love a man so irrational.

~ all married/engaged folks please forgive me and freely assume I'm just rather jealous :) ~

What is the purpose of a contract to love someone forever?
If you anticipate loving them forever anyway, it would seem to be pointless. I'm told it is romantic nonetheless, but how is it romantic to take a legal precaution that implies some doubt that you will love each other forever?
On the off chance that you stop being in love with them, the last thing you want is to be legally bound to stick with them. And a legal obligation to actually love them is pretty laughable. Possibly if they stop loving you you might want them to stick around regardless, but isn't that rather selfish and desperate? Anyway, surely this is hardly the contingency people have in mind when saying their vows.

Anyway, now that divorce is allowed the whole thing seems to be completely meaningless, except if understood as a way of betting large swathes of assets on the outcomes of ones emotional attachments, with divorce lawyers and priests playing casino. If this is the kind of gambling that floats your boat it makes perfect sense, but perhaps you could benefit from counselling at some point.

I propose a solution for escaping most of the potential damage of weddings while retaining the romance they apparently emanate: short term marriage contracts. At the end of, say, six months (terms such as length should be completely flexible) you renew it, or don't, and act accordingly. If your spouse forgets this anniversary you can give them a year off. The whole ceremony could be the same as before, with a minor alteration to the vows: ' sickness or in health, to love and to cherish 'til death or May 17 - whichever comes first, do us part'. Plus you can have more parties later on.

(On the earlier point, if anyone is ever irrational enough to propose to me, and I usually consider them rational, perhaps I must conclude that they are irrational specifically with regards to me, so therefore may in fact love me. A heuristic for finding selectively crazy guys could be just what one needs. If this occurs then you all have permission to laugh at me lots.)


denis bider said...


Me and my last girlfriend thought much like that.

Then, we got married. :-)

The reason was banal. I wanted to move to St. Kitts to avoid income taxation in Europe. It would be much easier for my girlfriend to come along if we were married. So we signed a pre-nup, and got married. We wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Now that we've been married for 18 months - and now that I've become used to speaking of her as my wife - I have observed some interesting changes in our relationship.

Most significantly, I have no more uncertainty. I tend to be a cautious person who always tries to consider all outcomes before relaxing emotionally. This leads to stress.

However, now that my wife was willing to sign a pre-nup, marry me, and move with me across the Atlantic, her commitment is apparent. I have no more nagging thoughts about the possibility of her leaving me. I trust now that this will happen only if my behavior causes it. This reduces my stress, makes planning easier for me, and is great for me emotionally.

In summary - I would never have thought it previously, but marriage has enhanced our relationship, and made it happier for me.

Another important aspect that makes our relationship work is that it has been an open relationship from the beginning.

I find that, even when a couple does fit together, something people have a really hard time coping with is their attraction to third parties. The traditional response is to sweep such feelings under the rug, and not talk about them.

Our solution is not only to talk about such feelings, but to occasionally act on them. This is not only a great way to experience variety, which is generally denied to monogamous people, unless they cheat; it is also an excellent way to realize, and not forget, that the grass on the other side is not greener.

Our experience is that this openness has reinforced our relationship, rather than made it weaker.

However, in order for this to work, the grass in your relationship actually has to be green, so that the grass on the other side is, in fact, not greener... ;)

shagbark said...

Great comment, Denis, and glad it worked out for you!

I understand what you're saying, Katja, but I do like the idea of marriage. Maybe it's just signaling. Saying "I love you" doesn't prove much; getting married does. Maybe it's a contract that people should have with each other before having kids. Or maybe it's a game-theoretic mutual tradeoff of remaining future romantic options for security.

Dammit! It still seems romantic to me. As Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer said, "I may be love's bitch, but at least I know it."

Anonymous said...

The purpose of marriage is to create families. The purpose of families is to raise children in a stable environment.

Lots of people today do not want kids, but do want the social/legal benefits of marriage. Just because someone gets married for another reason does not make that the reason that we have marriage, nor does it make their choice a bad one. (Eg Many people get married when they are too old to have children. No one says that there is anything wrong with this because there is nothing wrong with getting married for reasons other than children.)

Your post suggests that the social/legal reasons are the only reasons for marriage. Ignoring the children as the reason is to not see the forest for the trees.

denis bider said...

Anonymous, social/legal reasons are the only reasons to get married. If there were no social/legal benefits to marriage, people wouldn't get married, and would raise their children outside of marriage. This is in fact what happens increasingly in countries where legislation imposes costs on married couples that are not imposed on non-married ones.

As far as purpose is concerned, legal constructs like marriage are tools. The purpose of each individual marriage is what the people in that marriage use it for. Legal tools should be useful, and access to them should be fair.

limes said...

Like shagbark says, it's totally a matter of signalling. So A and B are in a relationship but each party knows privately whether they want a long term (LT) or short term (ST) relationship. Simply telling the other is pretty unreliable: whether LT or ST, it's better to at least have the option of sticking together. If A is LT (and therefore better off sticking around only if B also is), then it may be rational for A to propose a contract whereby an enormous material cost is imposed on both if the relationship fails (which is likely if at least one party is ST). B's response reveals the hidden variable, conceivably improving A's expected utility in either case. It would be nice to imagine that a faux proposal, followed by the explanation that was really just a signalling experiment, would achieve the same effect, but I can't imagine that going down so well.

Anonymous said...

Been married 19 years, no kids.

I'd say there is something more than just signaling at work here. Every marriage hits rough spots, and usually, if you ride them out, you'll be happy that you did.

The various legal and social commitments help hold things together when the going gets tough. It raises the transaction costs, I guess, and protects us from transient forces that might otherwise ruin a valuable, long-term resource.

It's sort of like requiring a super-majority to make a constitutional amendment.

Jeff Brown said...

There's an economic literature on these ideas, under the heading "commitment device". Marriage raises the cost and lowers the (expected) benefit of continued search, reassuring each party the other will stick around. That reassurance increases the expected returns to investing in the relationship, so both parties invest more, and the relationship is better.