Marriage is forever. At least the people intend it to be, and take steps to make it so. Sometimes they fail, but that is beside the point. They want it to last forever.
An alternative way of approaching relationships I would call "project-based relationships" (PBR) where people sometimes do projects together and they stay together as the details of the project require, and no more (unless they do more projects).
Some people might claim you could have a marriage, but only for raising a child, and plan to divorce afterwards. And they would say this is wise because the arguments against committing to a marriage forever have some point (we'll get to what those arguments are later), but that most of the details of what married people do are good for at least some purposes, including for parenting (I will argue against that later too). For now let me just say: that is not a marriage. It fits very well into the PBR mold. They are choosing to act in certain ways (which can be summarized as how married people act) because they believe that is functional to the project at hand. They are not intending to continue doing it once the project is complete and therefore the functionality is gone. So in a fundamental way they don't have the attitude behind marriage and can more accurately be said to be in the PBR camp.
The importance of the *forever* part of marriage is not to be underestimated. You can't just ignore it like some surface detail. It plays a huge role in how people treat each other during courtship and in marriage. While this role has many bad effects, it also is an important part of *defenses* of marriage. What's so good about marriage? One might say that the commitment to face life together allows for new and better knowledge creation, but that the commitment to do this forever is necessary to secure such a huge investment -- all the effort to become closer and more intimate and face life together would not have been well spent were one's partner to leave.
Forever throws off how people value things. If something has such huge potential, and is best started as soon as possible, then even a small chance of it is given a lot of value. And so people meet a girl and think "she might be the one" and then make a serious effort with her, even though they have little reason to expect the effort to be well spent. And they know their odds are poor but they want the imagined *eternal* reward so much that they don't care. A bit like wasting money on the lottery.
Forever also changes the dynamics within a relationship. If a friend has an annoying habit, who cares? He's worth visiting anyway. You only spend a limited amount of time with him. He might get a job and move cross country and your problem will disappear. But when your spouse has annoying habit you don't want to settle for less or just live with it because you are trying to have a perfect, ever-lasting relationship. If you really will be together forever then even a tiny annoyance is best fixed immediately. And, by the way, failure to do so proves a lack of commitment to the relationship by your spouse which fuels further fighting over the triviality.
Forever also isn't reality. Lifespans are still short. So perhaps putting in a lot of work now for intended rewards eventually is not wise. People know their lives and marriage only have a limited number of decades but still their philosophy is polluted by forever and imagining plenty of time to reap the benefits of a very good relationship once it is created so that they are overly willing to delay the benefits. This has a further adverse effect because one of the best ways to find out if something is going well, likely to work out, worth doing, etc -- one of the best ways to predict future benefits -- is to see how well something is going now. If it's producing great benefit now that's the best way to judge it's really going to work later as well. (I don't mean literally you can just assume one based on the other. But it's a good type of evidence and when applied using common sense and thought it is a reasonable approximation for good criteria.)
Forever is also a bad idea. People change. People learn. Learning is not predictable -- you can't understand what you don't yet know. Making long term commitments reduces our scope for future choices. It reduces our freedom.
Forever, further, is a sort of promise. People make wedding *vows*. As Godwin taught us, promises are not rational. When it comes time to do as you promised either the action you promised will be right to do, in which case you would do it whether you promised to or not. Or it will be wrong, in which case you have promised to do wrong, and ought to break your promise. So either the promise makes no difference, or it encourages you to do wrong and should be broken.
I know there are a lot of strands of the discussion open. It's somewhat hard for me to remember them all, so it's probably hard for you as well. And I don't have section headings or anything. So to do us both a favor here is a reminder list of the open topics, including some that have not yet been mentioned:
- statements of intent, alternative to promises
- arguments for how long term commitments can sometimes increase freedom, and about counting choices, and then response about specific faults of marriage
- comments on non-forever details of marriage which PBR style "marriage" might emulate and why they are bad
- investing in relationship + requiring commitment/promise/vows silly. why not do w/ friends? what do we do w/ friends instead? compare
- optional comments on marriage specifically related to parenting
- optional comments on what commitment means
- optional comments on love
- optional comments on sex
- optional comments on cohabitation
So if promises are irrational what is to replace them? They seem to serve a useful function. What if you plan to do something in the future and want people to know your plan and perhaps to be able to rely on it? Surely there is a way to arrange this. And indeed promises sort of play that role: if you promise to do something it becomes morally right to do it in a wider variety of circumstances -- you've changed the moral landscape. (All actions change the moral landscape at least a tiny bit. But here we've made a significant, intentional change.) The replacement is very simple: say you intend to do something. Promising pretends to know what will be right in the future. Say you do not know what will be right, but you will try to make the intended action right, and use your planning to try to make it happen. Then people can include reasonable actions by you to make it happen in their personal guesses of how the future will go. They should make their own guesses and take responsibility for said guesses, BTW. In fact that is another reason promises are bad: they invite people to trust you instead of taking responsibility for their own lives. Trust is a very bad thing. Don't put your life in my hands! You are just asking to be a victim if I mess up. And you should be trying to learn how to make your life good yourself instead of counting on me to make it work out. So make your own judgment please instead of trusting me to tell you the future.
My comments on long term commitments reducing the scope for choices and therefore freedom at not at all the whole story. All choices alter the scope for freedom: you cannot choose not to have made that choice. But if you don't do it, you can't choose to have done it (at that time). More concretely, if you buy tickets to a concert now you can't not-go and keep your money (though you have some new options like trying to get a refund or selling the tickets to a third party). Your options are restricted. But if you don't buy the tickets you can't get into the concert (except perhaps by buying from a scalper or somesuch). Again your options are restricted, but in a different way. Which is better? Well first of all it isn't a matter of counting. You can't just count which way provides more options and say that way is more freedom. This is for two reasons. One is it doesn't matter so much how many options you have: you're only going to actually choose one option, and you want that to be the best one. Keeping your options open is only much use if they many options seem *good* and you aren't sure yet *and* you have reason to think you'll be able to make a better choice later *and* you aren't giving up any great options by keeping the other options open. The second reason you can't just count options is that there is no known method of counting them. What, exactly, counts as one option? Don't we always have infinte slightly different options? I could eat the tickets if I have them. Or rip them. Ripping them is not just one option because I could rip them in so many ways. There are a lot of atoms in the ticket -- much more than trillions -- and I could separate them in ... well every atom has multiple bonds to other atoms I guess, and each one I could separate or not. If I don't have great tools I can't be so exacting but there are still a vast number of ways to rip the tickets. Trying to count those and compare them to how many ways I can rip the $20 bill I would have if I don't buy the tickets is completely absurd and pointless. And please don't email me to point out that obviously the $20 bill is larger than a concert ticket and can therefore be ripped up in more ways and therefore having the money provides greater freedom.
So that's why giving up some options does not necessarily reduce freedom. Sure you can't do all the many things unmarried people can do. But how many different things can you do with your spouse that are at least slightly different than doing the same things with a friend? Lots. There is no obvious way to say that the choices available to married people are less than those available to single people.
What's wrong with marriage, then, in this regard? There must be something because I made comments along these lines above while trashing marriage, and I obviously am familiar with the above defense, so I must have meant something this defense misses.
Well, as I said, people change and learn, unpredictably. So for one thing married people might develop different interests. This can lead to them having no active interests in common. Theoretically they could then go many millennia without speaking. More immediately their interests could lead them to live on different continents. Or one could become an astronaut and go on a manned mission to mars that doesn't include a return trip. Does marriage make sense if you don't see each other for a long time, possibly ever again? I don't see how it could. And worse, does *exclusive* marriage make sense? If marriage is good then going without the day-to-day benefits of marriage for so long must be awful. And further, if marriage really is about learning to be close and intimate so you can create knowledge and solve problems together really well, and is thus a big investment in your future, then if you spend so much time apart that is a waste! And if it's not some huge investment requiring huge commitment to be reasonable then why marry? Why not just do this good thing with all your friends? And if some leave it's no big deal b/c, by premise, you have lost little. And you were gaining while friend was still around so it's probably a net benefit. And even if not the policy of acting this way with your friends is because the leaving rate is pretty low so on the whole you win.
That reminds me of a snappy phrase I wrote, "Lovers leave, friends stay." This was inspired by a Buffy plotline where someone has serious problems in her life. Her lover feels betrayed and leaves her -- if she really cared about the relationship she'd stop messing it up with her personal flaws and just fix them already (or something. that's silly of course. she'd fix her personal flaws if she knew how to, committed relationship or no). Meanwhile her friends did not leave her. They did not feel betrayed. They helped her. After she was helped and improved then her lover came back and wanted to try again. That was funny. Before leaving they said things to each other like they'd be there through good times and bad and they were so dedicated to helping each other and so on. And the lover coming back wasn't even apologetic. She still generally thought it was her fault for having a flaw. What meaning can a commitment to stay with someone have if a single flaw voids it? A defender of marriage would of course condemn this action and say a good couple would not be like that. But still that leads to some questions:
1) What *is* grounds for leaving a marriage if your partner turns out to have flaws? Nothing? You stay and help no matter what, forever? The trick is just to pick a perfect person based on imperfect knowledge, and if you mess that up it isn't marriage's fault? But if you try to make the grounds something simple like "you are justified to leave if your partner's flaws really suck and bother you" then you have to admit you can't reasonable claim *your* marriage will last through the next week because your partner could have a flaw you don't yet know about. if that sounds unlikely, besides standard comments about you really don't know how likely it is and you shouldn't underestimate the differences between people I also want to point out a different mechanism by which this could happen: you could *both* have a flaw, and be blind to it, (so far this is very common), and then one of you could learn of the flaw and improve, but fail to convince the other. and there you go. now your partner has a flaw, and quite possibly you really hate that flaw because you have the zeal of the convert. and quite possibly argument and discussion don't solve this problem. so, divorce? and BTW yes I know i've written at length about the power of discussion, and about there being no barriers to human understanding. But there are also no guarantees to understand a given thing soon. if you don't mind to give it a few millennia then probably your partner will eventually learn what you did about this flaw. but learning is not predictable. you can't count on it happening quickly. especially when memes, irrationalities, and blind spots are involved! these things are so strong that many people think if they are involved then changing is impossible!
So we were talking about whether the commitments in a marriage are functional and increase future freedom and provide good options in the future, and I was saying they do not, and worse people do not specifically even try to pay attention to the function of each commitment and to justify each one, they just take marriage as a big bundle -- what could go wrong, anyway? they love each other and "would never hurt each other" so even if some of the agreements are bad or dangerous they have nothing to fear, or so they imagine. the well known fact that consequences of actions are often not what was intended can't override love, or something.
There is ample room for serious discussion of specific details of marriage commitments and which might be reasonable and which are not. and there is room for discussion of how marriage might allow new and better problem solving and knowledge creation. that sounds very fishy, btw, since umm knowledge creation comes through conjecture and criticism as specified by Popper, not through trust or love or intimacy or whatever. But anyway, for today i am going to leave that out.
Another good thing to consider is an arctic expedition. If you're traveling through the snow you cannot just back out and leave at a moment's notice. But you also would be silly to make detailed and extensive plans in advance for what you will do as soon as you get home. Sure you might plan a party in advance, and some relaxation time. But you won't be planning the second arctic trip yet, nor how often you will meet with other team members to reminisce about the trip. You only plan things in advance when there is a purpose to doing so. So you plan to be on the trip for the entire trip because that is functionally necessary to going on the trip. You plan the coming home party early because you will be tired when you get back and won't want to plan it then. This is all perfectly justified and rational despite the significant commitments and the advanced planning. Marriages though aren't like this. People don't choose to get married to make some new thing possible that they couldn't do before. And people don't choose what to commit to in advance in a marriage based on what has functionality, they choose it based on what a marriage is supposed to include (which they would say is what they personally want. but what they want *is*, ignoring some superficial details, the stereotypical thing because they are infected with memes).
A lot of people would claim the things required of married people *are* functional. Agreeing to stay together long term makes buying a house together better. Sharing money makes parenting together, and having one parent stay home without a job, work better. It's hard to give more example because most things required of married people either have something to do with sex, or are justified as steps that make the marriage/relationship work better and help it last. If you weren't married they wouldn't be necessary. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and imagine married people do lots of things that non-married people would also do for functional reasons. Then it is still the case that married people are not doing those things one at a time, specifically when they are needed for some function. They are not paying close attention to what steps are needed and why and doing them only when there is reason to. That isn't the attitude at all. The real attitude is: no we are married, and we trust each other, so let's share a house, and share out bank account, and tell each other secrets, and everything else. It's all lumped together to obscure any relation between a particular restriction on married people or unusual action they take and its functional justification. They just want to be together, forever, in body and soul and mind, and merge their lives, or whatever, not think carefully about what steps intended for the good of the relationship and for closeness and intimacy actually have a useful effect.
A friend of mine suggested I might want to rethink mentioning bestiality in the opening paragraph. This amused me because it had not occurred to me to have sex with the cow, even if married. I thought only that cows are ridiculous, being friends with one more so, marriage even more so. And also that the conversations would not work well. This brings up the very real issue of the role of sex in marriage. Many defenses of marriage say they allow better sex, and this is important. Some even go so far as to mention avoiding STDs as an important reason to get married. It might be an argument for sexual exclusivity, but what does that have to do with marriage? Maybe I'll tell you tomorrow. (I do not promise to do so. I may never return to this topic. Do not form expectations except based on your own judgment and for which you take full responsibility.)