17 September, 2008

Marriage Failure a Natural Success

In a hilarious example of editorial resistance to the way things actually are, the Washington Post published this feature on the findings of researchers at the esteemed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on the genetic basis for marital dysfunction.

The writer and editors of the Post article blandly accept the social idealism of the study's authors, not bothering to trouble themselves with a critical (i.e., journalistic) perspective on the biological ramifications of what, essentially, now seems to be a demonstrable biological truth (albeit as yet scientifically uncorroborated); that some 40% of men are genetically outfitted to "cheat".

The use of the word cheat in the article is very telling, as are words such as "risk", "dysfunction" and "threat":
"Men with two copies of (a particular) allele had twice the risk of experiencing marital dysfunction, with a threat of divorce during the last year, compared to men carrying one or no copies," said Hasse Walum, a behavioral geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who led the study. "Women married to men with one or two copies of the allele scored lower on average on how satisfied they were with the relationship compared to women married to men with no copies."
If we consider more than one copy of the allele in question (an allele is a member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific chromosomal position) predictive of a man's success or failure in marriage and long-term relationships in light of the much more rigorously predictive models of Gregor Mendel and later Charles Darwin, then a fair alternate conclusion could be that men possessed of more than one of these rover alleles are more likely to wander and therefore reproduce - precisely nature's intent for all its creation - and that failure, if any is to be assigned here, accrues entirely to the institution of marriage as it is conceived in the popular consciousness.

Do we blame fish for dying off when we dam a river?

The report is all very nuanced, and not made any less so by the inclusion of weasel words such as "satisfied", with the concomitant couching of the entire study's relevance in terms of that vague and variable criterion - stacked, let it not go unobserved, on but one side of the matrimonial partnership (which, I suppose, if one considers the Latin root mater in matrimony is placing the emphasis where it wants to go anyway). It's quite likely that nearly 100% of men with this naturally-occurring genetic variant would have equally valid (i.e., weak) complaints about their matrimonial "satisfaction", thus is the criterion spurious and the point of the study moot.

But, since we're on the subject, let me apply Occam's Razor and offer a simpler thesis: Naturally-occurring human genetic encoding trumps socially-engineered monogamy.

Big surprise.

Despite its laughable faults, this study does support an explanation for women-kind's reliable attraction to renegades and outcasts, the proverbial "bad boys", the "alphas", of whom it is always known at the outset never stick around. The basis of the attraction to the James Dean type is by now well-understood: women sense good-quality genetic information much as men do - the kind that begets more of the species most efficiently (and therefore gets passed on), the kind they want expressed in their offspring. If 40% of males pack the tomcat allele, then there's no denying that variant's success in getting itself passed on.

If a woman thinks about it (i.e., does the risk-analysis math) she may indeed go directly for the beta male, or upon hooking up with an alpha seek to modulate his risk profile down the scale to beta levels (thus possibly jeopardizing her marital satisfaction in an entirely different way). On the level of woman's feeling, however, the recently popular beta types, e.g., the "emo-boy" and homo-manque, have apparently had their moment in the sun and have been largely discarded (as they characteristically fretted they would be) by sexually astute and self-aware (read: trend-leading) women.

From the perspective of a long-time married man who, given my history, likely has two or more of the offending allele, marital survival is in no way predicated on the luck of the double-helix draw. Fin and my marriage is completely legit in all the conventional senses of the word (licensed, blessed, taxed, etc.), but it is also something else utterly outside conventional legitimacy: we can't "cheat" because we tell the truth.

Or, pulling in Occam again, cheating truth telling. Fin knows all about my partners, they know all about her, I know about hers and they about me. Everyone is clued in and gets complete disclosure upon request from me, and I from them. I think the marriage succeeds not because it's open but because we are open with each other, fully exposed and vulnerable... and therefore, paradoxically safe.

Think about it - the "cheating" is just the lying (cheating = lying); we fear what we don't know, and if our partner lies to us about his or her desire for other partners, about the nature and extent of their lust, about their kinks, about whatever, we don't get to know them, who they really are, who we're spending our lives with, who sleeps next to us (when we're really most vulnerable), who's helping to raise our kids. Now, that's fearsome, not knowing who you're married to. That could be reason enough to get out of the relationship.

Make no mistake, I'm not arguing here for having a lock on everything your partner is or will ever be in order to stay in your relationship. Quite the contrary - mystery promotes attraction (see "bad boys" above). I'm talking about proceeding from truthful premises and being content with the unvarnished truth of what you find out about your partner, which is often what they're finding out about themselves in the same moment. Their own picture of themselves is likely incomplete, so the truth is we don't get to know anything our partners don't know - although we pretend it's possible and often demand answers along these lines. In effect, we ask to be lied to.

A big part of success in anything has to do with allowing yourself to be surprised, indeed, being grateful for the leavening and spice of life's surprises, big and small. This is never more true than in relationships, but in principle yielding to surprise solves (in the sense of Wendell Berry's concept of "solving for pattern") for what appears to be a host of life's more intractable problems while creating few new problems of its own. Often events are just surprising and nothing else - not really problems at all if one can accommodate having not expected them.

Blaming unhappiness on hardwired (and therefore unsurprising) biology is lazy, even shabby, thinking. Lying is a social act, related in this case to a social institution, marriage. Given that over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and that cheating plays a big part in a sizable percentage of those divorces, it may be fair to say that lying (by cheating) is a property of conventional marriage; i.e., dishonesty comes with the package, if not in the bridal registry.

That after 25 years Fin and I are still married is already statistically unconventional, but in the conventional sense our marriage is a failure in that it utterly fails to force biology to heel, and has failed, thereby, to fail. With respect to this failure to fail we have also been told occasionally through the years that our marriage is basically a sham, that our relationship is nothing more than that of roommates with privileges (ironically, this often comes from folks whose marriages are somewhat brittle, if not in outright distress).

And you know what? Those folks get to be right. That's all 25 years of cohabiting companionship, mutual support, commitment, pooled resources, sexual experimentation (within and without), crisis management and the gathering to our relationship of a cherished and loyal coterie of friends, lovers and fellow travelers comes to: a sham marriage. Nothing like a real marriage, with the lying and the cheating and the stacked odds on ending and the counselors and the lawyers... the real institutional trappings of the institution of marriage.

So, there you go: lots of alleles = marital failure. QED.

What bearing, then, does the bit of embossed paper with the endorsement of several potentates with powers granted them by The State of New York have on my relationship with my wife? Nothing with any real meaning, really.

Other than perhaps economic. The last lines of the article cited above confirm as much:
"Fisher (quoted previously in the article), who described herself as a romantic, said she would not reject a potential mate who has two copies of the risky allele (Surprise!). She paused, (no doubt doing the risk analysis) then added: 'But I might not start a joint bank account with them for the first few years,'" (italics mine).
What's left? Well, Fin and I don't lie, cheat or resist our genetic makeup, and we stay together despite the odds. Clearly it's something other than the kind of failed marriage that gets looked at in studies.

I wonder if anyone still believes in the idea of a sacrament.


Anonymous said...

"I'm talking about proceeding from truthful premises and being content with the unvarnished truth of what you find out about your partner, which is often what they're finding out about themselves in the same moment."

I have re-read your post a half dozen times now and I can't put into words yet how meaningful it is to me. I'm wrestling with just this in my own life at the moment and you bring insightful light to a dark truth. Thank you.

Mac K. said...


I wish you godspeed in your deliberations, but also that you might take your time to make the most of what could be a seminal event. Perhaps more than any other violence that can be done to our psyches, the tearing pains of love have the potential to leave one not only whole, but more revealed to all of who we really are when all the gnashing is sorted out - which, in the fullness of time it will be. For what it's worth, I think that the more that we turn to face it, the faster and better revelation is, and the sooner we get to love even bigger. :)

I'll keep my fingers crossed for an auspicious outcome.