Discover more from Nuclear Meltdown
Normalize getting married for practical reasons
Love is still overrated
Thanks for checking out Nuclear Meltdown. One day you’ll tell your grandkids about the day you subscribed to this newsletter. #yolo
This week I’m doing another quick dive into a few different articles that raise interesting family-related issues. Here we go:
Normalize getting married for practical, non-romantic reasons
I check out advice columns because I’m a glutton for punishment, and this one from Slate recently jumped out. It features a question from a woman who is concerned that her brother is going to marry his girlfriend despite the fact that neither he nor his girlfriend are really in love. Instead, they get along well and want to have kids, and they’re getting to the age where they need to start having those kids or give up on that idea. Both the woman asking for advice and the columnist offering it are alarmed by this situation.
But here’s the thing: This sounds like a pretty reasonable approach to marriage to me. The duo can more than stand each other’s presence — which is better than some once-in-love married couples can say — and they share the common goal of having a family. What they’re doing is actually much closer to the historic norm of getting married to achieve some specific objective, as chronicled in works such as Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History. Historically, love is something that was expected to blossom after a marriage (if at all).
Now, some people are going to object and say it’d be better if couples were in love first when they got married. Maybe. The evidence on divorce in arranged marriages would suggest otherwise. But either way, what about the people who spend years unsuccessfully searching for “the one?” I personally know lots of people in that boat. Some folks never do find their soul mate. Others settle. Many of those settlers that I personally know have strong relationships, at least in part because they went into it clear eyed about their objectives. They were realists.
All of which is to ask: What’s wrong with getting married because you want to have a family and found a cool person who shares that goal? This doesn’t have to be the situation in every or most marriages. Most westerners will still get married for love. And that’s great. But why not normalize pragmatism as one of many options? Telling people they have to find their one true love, and setting impossible standards for what counts as true love, makes marriage less attainable for the many people who don’t stumble into a rom-com-like romance.
Finally, one further thought: The column also suggests that the couple merely have a kid without getting married, the implication being that the stigma around such arrangements is gone now.. Some individual kids obviously do very well in life despite not having two married parents. It is possible. Some people's circumstances simply don't end up allowing for a two-parent household. Some two-parent households are abusive. But overall and statistically speaking, if you do have a choice and you want to maximize your kid's odds of success in life, one of the most obvious things you can do is raise them in a household with two married parents.
I don’t know if the Slate columnist is merely unaware of this information or doesn’t care. But the advice to forego marriage and have kids outside of wedlock captures a popular line of thinking that assumes marriage and family are relics, perhaps nice to have if you’re so disposed but no longer conferring any practical advantages. But in fact, the data suggests the exact opposite is true.
How to avoid estrangement
I included this Q&A last week in my “headlines to check out” section, but it’s so good I wanted to dive in here. The piece is an interview with psychologist Joshua Coleman, who just wrote a new book on estrangement — a problem I’ve previously noted is troublingly common. Seriously go read the whole thing, but here are some of the key points:
Widespread estrangement is a new phenomenon. Coleman also notes that cutting off a family member today can be seen as an act of “existential courage,” but that this wasn’t always the case.
The soul-mate paradigm is weakening everyone’s relationships. Stephanie Coontz has written about how couples used to be “work mates,” but then transitioned to “soul mates” where love was the key to the relationship. The problem is that this provides a shaky foundation. Coleman describes something very similar, saying that relationships are now build on intimacy questions such as “does this relationship feel good, or does it feel bad?” Coleman adds: “We're becoming increasingly atomized; our definitions of what constitutes a good relationship makes us very fragile.”
Estrangements are happening “primarily” among “Euro Americans, white, middle class families and above.” This does not surprise me at all. In my own experience, that is the demographic that’s most willing to cut off family members for things that would blow over in other demographic groups. And it tends to be the demographic I see being the most vocal in suggesting others cut off their family members for various disagreements and slights. I’m alarmed by this because that’s my demographic. We’re terrible at relationships. My suspicion is that this has to do with the fact that white Americans trace their origins to highly individualistic countries that epitomize characteristics of WEIRD psychology, which downplays the role of the tribe in favor of the individual. Either way, I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation to say to my fellow white Americans that we could learn a thing or two about healthy relationships from pretty much any other demographic.
Spouses are drivers of estrangement. This also isn’t a surprise. I lucked out because my wife gets along well with my family even though I didn’t consider that factor much when we were dating. But I should have, and I’ve definitely seen marriage partners both bind people more closely to their family (as my wife has done for me) and serve as wedges.
Chasing jobs destroys support networks
Finally, this tweet landed on my radar recently:
I felt the same way when my first child was born and we lived far away from family. There are of course more disadvantaged groups than professors or journalists, but I think among people typically described as the “professional class,” this tweet sums up a widespread problem. And it’s a big part of what I’m writing about — and critiquing — with this whole Nuclear Meltdown project.
In my case, I’m extremely lucky because I’ve been able to have my cake and eat it too; I have a job I love and I managed to live in a place near lots of family. But also, it’s no coincidence that I started working at an entirely remote company right after my daughter was born, and then almost immediately moved to the city where all my family lived. What I realized at the time was that a lot of us are conditioned to chase a career and then build a life around it. But you can also invert that concept, chasing a lifestyle and bending your career around that.
Like I said, I am very lucky. Most people don’t have this kind of privilege. But a lot of folks in the so-called professional class do, or at least did at one point. And my experiences have given me some skepticism of the “go where the job is” ethos. In the end, I know I’m going to tell my own kids to think long and hard about which career ladder to start climbing, and where it might take them.
Thanks for checking out Nuclear Meltdown. If you haven’t yet, consider sharing this post with a friend.
This has been an extensively studied topic. While there may be debates about why kids do better in married households, there’s no question that the do do better. If you’re interested in finding more on this topic, I’d recommend following Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, on Twitter.