Relationships and Reason

Note: By "relationships" I mean romantic or intimate relationships. They have dating or courtship, and could become a marriage. Anything where people are "more than friends". These generally involve love, sex, living together, trust and monogamy, or hope to involve those in the future. Some of these ideas may apply to other kinds of relationships as well, such as friendships, employee/employer or child/parent.

In 1793, William Godwin wrote:

The evil of marriage, as it is practiced in European countries, extends further than we have yet described. The method is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex, to come together, to see each other, for a few times, and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are led to conceive it is their wisest policy, to shut their eyes upon realities, happy, if, by any perversion of intellect, they can persuade themselves that they were right in their first crude opinion of each other. Thus the institution of marriage is made a system of fraud; and men who carefully mislead their judgments in the daily affair of their life, must be expected to have a crippled judgment in every other concern.

Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. Over this imaginary prize, men watch with perpetual jealousy; and one man finds his desire, and his capacity to circumvent, as much excited, as the other is excited, to traverse his projects, and frustrate his hopes. As long as this state of society continues, philanthropy will be crossed and checked in a thousand ways, and the still augmenting stream of abuse will continue to flow.

The abolition of the present system of marriage, appears to involve no evils.

Since 1793, things have changed. Today, people often date for a year before they marry. They try to get to know each other first. They can divorce if either of them wants to. Women are not possessions. People try to limit their jealousy.

But some things haven't changed. People sometimes marry and then find themselves deceived. They thought they knew their spouse, but then discover they didn't know crucial facts. This happens because communicating all of one's ideas is hard, and people don't make enough of an effort; and it happens because people lie to their loved ones; and it happens because people are complicated and unique and knowing everything about someone is an impossible task.

Love at first sight remains an ideal. People quickly evaluate whether there are "sparks", "attraction", "chemistry" and "a connection" and consider that early judgment important to the relationship and its potential. We often remember the story of how we first met our spouse, and prefer it to be a nice story. First dates are commonly accepted or rejected on minimal information. Being with a person who is attractive at first sight is desired, and gets us excited so we try harder to make the relationship work.

The statement "two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind," is accurate today. Marriage comes with certain rules. If I judge that in some specific situation breaking one of the rules would be good, I am still forbidden to do it. I am expected not to use my mind on that issue and instead to defer to the marriage.

Marriage rules should not be broken lightly. There are powerful, generic arguments against breaking them. It can hurt your spouse. It can mislead people about what kind of person you are if they don't know the reason for breaking the rule. Marriage rules contain traditional knowledge about how to make marriages function in the way people expect marriages to function. Taking all these things into careful consideration is using reason; obeying them mindlessly is not.

Judging and Comparing Ideas

There is no way to judge the value of an idea in absolute terms. We can't put it on a scale and measure it. The way we judge ideas is by whether they solve our problem, whether they are better than the other ideas we have, and whether we can see any flaws in them. By the open competition of ideas, we can come to our best guess at the truth. We cannot measure an idea, but we can compare it to others.

Good ideas are good compared to all the ideas that came before them. But they are bad ideas compared to the ideas that will come after them in the future. They aren't good in a vacuum, but are instead good today. If I only know one idea, and never think about alternatives, then I might start to doubt the idea. I'll wonder about it, and I won't know how difficult it is to do better. The way to avoid these doubts is to know the history of the problem, and to understand why the current idea solves the problem the best, and to have some sense of what else has been tried and why that didn't work out. What's also needed is criticism. In an environment where ideas are not criticized and tested, we have no way to judge their quality, but when ideas are criticized mercilessly, then we learn more about them, dispel doubts, and find and reject some mistakes.

If I have an idea that contradicts my marriage, I am forbidden from acting on it, and even forbidden from thinking about it too much. Lifestyle changes are completely off limits. I might want try it out to learn about it; if I did, I might find it is worse than my marriage, and learn how great my marriage is. But that's not allowed. Instead, my marriage can have no rivals. That leaves me in an awkward position because I'm not really sure how good my marriage is, and how it compares to alternative possible lifestyles. If I have doubts, I can't experiment a bit and let the truth win out. I can't even criticize my marriage and see how well it can meet my criticisms; marriage says that to doubt your marriage is to betray your spouse who you are supposed to be committed to. If I do try something else, I must either hide it and lie, or end my marriage.

By not using the mechanisms of error correction, marriage leaves us wondering if maybe we made an error.

This is unfortunate. Marriages sometimes become unstable simply because people forget what it's like not to be in their marriage. They have doubts just because they can't remember clearly and compare. Consider the common TV drama plot where a person cheats on his longtime partner only to realize that he prefers to be with his partner. So he begs for forgiveness, and says that being with someone else made him remember how great his marriage is. He just needed to be free to spend time with other people, and see their flaws, and compare. But he wasn't free; he had to cheat to learn about the issue, and see why his partner is best. That's bad for everyone involved; they may have a permanent breakup just because of an attempt to learn something which ended with a positive conclusion.

People say that faithfulness is about strong love. Actually, faithfulness is desired by people in fragile relationships who doubt that their partner would stay with them if he had more knowledge of alternatives. People claim exclusivity is part of love. It is fear. It is asking one's partner to make a decision in ignorance that he must never reconsider. Who would ask for it if he believed the truth was on his side? When we have the truth on our side, we appeal to it; it is only when we don't that we seek promises and faith.

In a rational relationship, exclusivity could be created as follows: I try any relationships I think will be beneficial. Over time, I learn about which are and which aren't beneficial. I start predicting that some relationships will not be worthwhile in advance and deciding not to have them. I don't want them because I have knowledge that they aren't best for me. In time, I might find I am not interested in any relationships but one. The first time I think this may be case, it won't be. It might last a while, but then I will encounter something new. But the more I learn, the less frequently that will happen. Eventually it will be rare; the frequency of encountering new relationship possibilities that I don't already know about can decrease without limit1.

I am not proposing that having a relationship with only one person is the likely result of a rational style of relationships. But nor do I assume it's unlikely. I'm just sketching out what it would have to look like for it to be rational.

Irrational Ways of Relating

Reason says we should care what the truth is. There is a truth about what is best — and it could be that my marriage is best, or not — and we should try to find out what that truth is. If my marriage isn't best, it should be changed. But I'm not allowed to explore that possibility. Not seeking the truth vigorously means we won't find and correct many mistakes.

Sometimes relationship disputes are not solved with reason. For example, people take turns getting their way. They never find out what is best, or find a solution they could both be happy with; they just sacrifice equally. Similarly, compromises are common.

Reason tells us that if people are getting hurt, that's bad and important, and we should do something about it. By an effort we can improve. Relationships often hurt people; this is uncontroversial. There are breakups and divorces and broken hearts. There's jealousy, lovers quarrels, affairs, nervousness and widows. These are common, and they are excruciatingly painful. But some people don't see these as problems to solve. They aren't looking to use reason to improve anything. They just accept it the way it is, including its flaws, and don't want to change a thing, even though it hurts people. That's irrational.

Sometimes people say, "I love you just the way you are, you don't need to change a bit." Consider the similar statement, "I love this idea just the way it is; it doesn't need to change a bit." That is not rational. Our ideas may need to change; even if we don't see a flaw in them now, we might discover one later. In order to have good ideas, we need to be open minded about whether our ideas are good and be willing to change them. Similarly, we need to be open minded about whether our personality and character are good, and be willing to improve them. We should expect our spouse, like all people, to have flaws. What we should look for in a spouse is someone who learns and improves, not someone with no need to ever change. Mistakes are common, and they are OK; what's important is we don't close our eyes to them, but instead strive to do better.

The rational approach says we aren't perfect, and that isn't bad. The romantic approach tries to find someone who already is perfect, and then, even though they aren't, tries to pretend they are. I am supposed to love my soulmate, who fulfills all my needs (perfectly) and so on.

Imagine you ask someone what they look for in a spouse, and they list several things, one of which is fashion sense. Note this same argument applies just as well to other criteria, such as ability to cook well. So Jill, say, wants a boy who dresses well. He doesn't need to be flawless, or dress up all the time, but he must have some reasonable clue about it, says Jill. Is that a rational criterion? It is not. It neglects the possibility of a person who can learn fashion sense. It's asking for someone who already meets set criteria, instead of asking for someone who can learn new things. A rational relationship cannot have "deal breakers" specified in advance: instead, the value of qualities should be up for consideration and criticism.

A relationship that focusses on what people have when they enter it is hopeless. The future holds unknown problems. For a relationship to last, while its members grow as people, it has to be open to new criteria of what people ought to offer their partner, and as these are worked out, the members must learn them. They may know some of them, but not all, in advance, and that is convenient, but it's much less important than their ability to adapt to new situations and improve themselves. A fallibilist, rational relationship requires an open mind on prerequisites with the intention to improve as it goes on by thinking, criticism and learning.

According to reason, we should think about what ideas mean, and what their consequences are. The consequences of an idea are a matter of logic, not our preferences. By looking at the implications of ideas, we can learn more about them, find flaws, and learn new things by connecting ideas. Some of the ideas of marriage, taken literally, and thought about seriously, are silly. People say not to take it literally. Why not? People say don't worry about it, love matters more. Does it? People say marriage is a beautiful expression of two people's loving relationship, and that's good enough. Perhaps, but why not aim for better? For example, when people marry they vow not to divorce. Then a lot of them divorce. What's the point of making vows you very well might not keep? If they are just loose guidelines, why call them vows? If none of these problems are very important, why not make minor modifications to remove these superficial problems? On the other hand, if it's not so easy to modify marriage like that — if the problems run a bit deeper — then why believe marriage doesn't have any important flaws that could hurt?

People make a big deal out of physical appearance in relationships without sufficiently considering what the relationship genuinely needs. But why? Shouldn't the important thing be good ideas? If you want something good to look at, get a painting or an iPhone. If the relationship is just short term and for sex, then judging by appearance makes sense. But if you plan to live together for years, or to have kids, then you need someone who will be good at solving family problems. An unhappy family with lots of problems, and little ability to solve them, is a well known fate which we should strive to avoid. Yet people often choose who to have a family with based on criteria unrelated to family life or problem solving, such as sexual chemistry. They are repeating common mistakes rather than improving on them.

Footnotes

1The frequency of encountering unfamiliar relationship possibilities will not decrease if I live in a dynamic, changing society that continuously creates valuable new ways of relating. In such a situation, who could think that exclusively sticking to one kind of relationship, with one person, for life, made sense? But we do not live in that society; our society is open and constantly changing in some ways, but there is little innovation in terms of types of relationships. Some may guess that is because the kinds of relationships we have today are the best possible, but I expect in the future we'll learn more and improve on them.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!