Romance, after the bloom

Ran across two good essays recently, both on later stage romance.

One, by Heather Havrilesky:

But once you’ve been married for a long time (my tenth anniversary is in a few months!), a whole new kind of romance takes over. It’s not the romance of rom-coms, which are predicated on the question of “Will he/she really love me (which seems impossible), or does he/she actually hate me (which seems far more likely and even a little more sporting)?" Long-married romance is not the romance of watching someone’s every move like a stalker, and wanting to lick his face but trying to restrain yourself. It’s not even the romance of “Whoa, you bought me flowers, you must REALLY love me!” or “Wow, look at us here, as the sun sets, your lips on mine, we REALLY ARE DOING THIS LOVE THING, RIGHT HERE.” That’s dating romance, newlywed romance. You’re still pinching yourself. You’re still fixated on whether it’s really happening. You’re still kind of sort of looking for proof. The little bits of proof bring the romance. The question of whether you’ll get the proof you require brings the romance. (The looking for proof also brings lots of fights, but that’s a subject for another day.)
After a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof. What you have instead — and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all — is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won’t eventually be abandoned, it’s maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal. The smells. The sounds. The repetitive fixations on the same dumb shit, over and over. Even as you develop a kind of a resigned glaze of oh, this again in, say, marital years one through five, you also feel faintly unnerved by your own terrible mortal humanness.

Or you should feel that way.

Another, by Alain de Botton:

Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.
It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. They tend to fall into some of the following basic categories.

Botton proposes a new form of marriage to follow on the previous two ages of marriage which he terms the marriage of reason and then the marriage of romance. He terms this the psychological marriage.

In the age of the marriage of reason, one might have considered the following criteria when marrying:
- who are their parents
- how much land do they have
- how culturally similar are they
In the Romantic age, one might have looked out for the following signs to determine rightness:
- one can’t stop thinking of a lover
- one is sexually obsessed
- one thinks they are amazing
- one longs to talk to them all the time
We need a new set of criteria. We should wonder:
- how are they mad
- how can one raise children with them
- how can one develop together
- how can one remain friends

Romance/marriage, as with many human institutions, is susceptible to human myopia. People are lousy at anticipating long-term consequences, and romance is particularly seductive with its immediate chemical rush. 

The marriage squeeze is hitting China and India

Fascinating read on how the marriage squeeze, already established in countries like Japan and South Korea, has finally hit a third of the world's population, namely that of China and India. It's not just that sex selection at birth has led to a large gender imbalance in the population. Other factors exacerbate the problem.

Countries with normal sex ratios can experience a marriage squeeze if their fertility rates are falling fast. Fertility is important, because men tend to marry women a few years younger than themselves. In India the average age of marriage for men is 26; for women, it is 22. This means that when a country’s fertility is falling, the cohort of women in their early 20s will be slightly smaller (or will be rising more slowly) than the cohort of men they are most likely to marry—those in their late 20s (this is because a few years will have gone by and the falling fertility rate will have reduced the numbers of those born later). This may not sound like a big deal. But in fact between 2000 and 2010 the number of Indian men aged 25-29 rose by 9.2m. The number of Indian women aged 20-24 (their most likely partners) rose by only 7.6m.
Even if India’s sex ratio at birth were to return to normal and stay there, by 2050 the country would still have 30% more single men hoping to marry than single women. This is explained by a rapid decline in India’s fertility rate. But in China, where fertility has been low for years, the more gradual decline in fertility still means there will be 30% more single men than women in 2055, though the distortion declines after that. A decline in fertility usually benefits developing countries by providing a “demographic dividend” (a bulge of working-age adults compared with the numbers of dependent children or grandparents). But it does have the drawback of amplifying the marriage squeeze.
The problem is further accentuated by a so-called “queuing effect”. The length of a queue is determined by how many people join it, how many leave, and how long queuers are prepared to wait. In the same way, marriage numbers are a result of how many people reach marriageable age (the joiners); how many get married (the leavers) and how long people are willing to wait. In India and China, marriage remains the norm, so men keep trying to tie the knot for years.
Hence, a marriage queue in India and China builds up. At stage one, a cohort of women reaches marriageable age (say, 20-24); they marry among the cohort of men aged 25-29. But there are slightly more men than women, so some members of the male cohort remain on the shelf. Later, two new cohorts reach marriageable age. This time, the men left over from the previous round (who are now in their early thirties) are still looking for wives and compete with the cohort of younger men. The women choose husbands from among this larger group. So after the second round even more men are left on the shelf. And so on. A backlog of unmarried men starts to pile up. Just as you need only a small imbalance between the number of people joining a queue and the number leaving it to produce a long, slow-moving line, so in marriage, a small difference in the adult sex ratio can produce huge numbers of bachelors.

One can't help but conclude that India and China must prepare for an end to universal marriage. Is that so bad? Could both countries start to shift their policies to prepare for a post-universal-marriage society? Are there any countries with economic policies that can cope with declining birth rates?

Perhaps, but it's difficult to imagine a world in which the consequences are anything but a net negative.

There may be positive side effects: a shortage of brides in India is causing dowry prices to fall in some areas, for instance. Overall, though, the impact is likely to be negative. A study by Lena Edlund of Columbia University and others found that in 1988-2004, a one-point rise in the sex ratio in China raised rates of violent crime and theft by six to seven points. The abduction of women for sale as brides is becoming more common. The imbalance is fuelling demand for prostitution.

The game theory of the toilet seat problem

By toilet seat problem I refer to the problem of a couple living together, one man and one woman, sharing one toilet. To be more mathematically specific:

For Marsha the seat position transfer cost is 0 since all operations are performed with the seat in the down position. For John the cost is greater than 0 since seat position transfers must be performed.
Let p be the probability that John will perform a #1 operation vs a #2 operation. Assume that John optimizes his seat position transfer cost (see remark 3 below.) Then it is easy to determine that John’s average cost of seat position transfer per toilet opeation is
B = 2p(1-p)C
where B is the bachelor cost of toilet seat position transfers per toilet operation.
Now let us consider the scenario where John and Marsha cohabit and both use the same toilet. In our analysis we shall assume that John and Marsha perform toilet operations with the same frequency (see remark 4 below) and that the order in which they perform them is random. They discover to their mutual displeasure that their cohabitation adversely alters the toilet seat position transfer cost function for each of them. What is more there is an inherent conflict of interest.

This is one of the more rigorous game theory considerations of the toilet seat problem I've read. The solution proposed at the end seems sensible enough.

Let's not allow our current technological constraints and limited imagination confine our solution set, however. I propose a different, even more ideal solution.

We develop a toilet seat that is in communication with the Apple Watch worn by both the man and the woman. When the woman walks into the bathroom, her Apple Watch authenticates itself to the toilet seat which then automatically lowers itself. Meanwhile, when the man walks in, the toilet seat remains in whatever position it's in, per the widely accepted bachelor toilet seat strategy. One could try to further optimize for the man by learning, Nest-style, the general pattern of #1 and #2 operations and caching the last 24 to 48 hours worth of such operations, but the added complexity may only capture a slight marginal decrease in cost to him.

There is yet another solution, brought to mind by episode 4 of season 4 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David admits to peeing sitting down. Optimal for her, and, David claims, good for him as well.

“If I pee twenty times in a day I can get through the whole New York Times, for god's sake!”

That's two posts today that mention bathroom operations. My mind is really in the toilet.

Black cards, love, lies, and Force Majeure

Speaking of Black Mirror, here's a relevant interview titled Black Cards: All the Lies You Need to Love. A wife interviews her husband after he publishes the book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love.

Recall what Venkatesh Rao said about such lies we tell ourselves and each other in his critique of Black Mirror:

In each case, the technological driver has to do with information  — either knowing too much or too little about yourself and/or others.  Each technological premise can be boiled down to what if you knew everything about X or what if you could know nothing about X. In the episodes so far, there has been no simple correlation between choosing ignorance or knowledge and getting to good or poor outcomes.  That’s what lends the show a certain amount of moral ambiguity.

White Christmas, the first episode of Season 3 is more complex, wandering into moral luck territory via gaps between intentions and consequences. Gaps deliberately created by consciously chosen ignorance of the block-on-Facebook variety.

This is promising. Hopefully, the show will explore this more, because the straight-up value collisions are not that interesting. They are merely shocking corner-case hypotheticals of the torture-one-terrorist-to-save-humanity variety, in futurist garb. But with moral luck, you have more going on. Where knowledge is the default and ignorance must be consciously chosen, rather than the other way around, the consequences of ignorance becomes less defensible. Especially when you are in a position to choose ignorance for others.

Can't exist when the lies that make for civil society are punctured by technology? Grow up.

In the Black Cards interview, the husband Clancy Martin argues the opposite, specifically when it comes to love. Lie to your lover, and lie to yourself. Truth is the opposite of an aphrodisiac.

Amie: What should a woman do if she has cheated on her husband, whom she loves. She did it impulsively, and it didn’t mean anything. Should she tell her husband, or not?

Clancy: I don’t think she should tell her husband immediately. She might feel better briefly after telling him, but she’s giving him all of her guilt to carry around. And she certainly shouldn’t tell him in anger—as an attack during a fight, or as a response to some mistake he’s made.

Could there come a time when she should tell him? Yes, I think when she can see that the caring thing to do is to admit that this happened. Or if this starts to become a pattern, she’d better let him know that they need to see a therapist and then, in that moderated context, “come clean.” But she’s already done some harm with this one-night stand—don’t exacerbate it. 

Amie: Okay, but that’s what everyone says, and your thesis is that people in love have to lie more often than we admit. So shouldn’t you be coming down hard on the necessity of the lie? That a cheater should never tell? 

Clancy: Deny, deny, deny is the standard wisdom for men—and maybe for women too. That’s not—

Amie: For cheaters, let’s say.

Clancy: Yes, for cheaters, and this woman has cheated. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that caring should be her goal—and that caring might sometimes require carrying the burden of a lie for a while. Later, caring might require telling the truth. We have to be subtle epistemologists if—

Amie: Okay, okay.

Clancy: Can I just finish my sentence? We have to work hard to understand each other if we want to be good lovers.

Martin reverses the usual thinking on honesty; to him, it's a form of weakness to tell the truth.

I suspect a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma when it comes to relationships or marriages and truth. The optimal outcome is for both people in the relationship to select truth or lies (which of those you select depends on your philosophy), but the temptation is for one or the other person to defect to obtain the moral high ground at the cost of harmony in the relationship.

The interview contains a fascinating analysis of the Swedish movie Force Majeure which I saw at TIFF last year and found to be amusing in an acerbic and, well, Swedish way.

Amie: That reminds me of the movie we saw the other night, Force Majeure. A family on a ski trip is hit by a controlled avalanche. The smoke from the avalanche pours over their table at lunch on the mountaintop. But as it’s coming, the smoke looks like snow, and they think they are going to die. The mother wraps her arms around her children. The father picks up his gloves and his iPhone and runs. The two spend the rest of the movie dealing with the “truth” that has been revealed. And it seems manifestly true: the man is a coward and the woman has seen clearly. When friends try to encourage her to see it differently, suggesting for example that they are all okay, and that maybe they should move on, she is intractable. In the final scene, they are on a bus going back down the hillside, and the driver is taking sharp turns and having trouble with the gears. She forces him to stop so she can get off, and everyone on the bus follows her. But then on the roadside, night falls, and thirty people are on foot in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go. For the first time in the movie, it is manifest that this woman does not know what to do. That she has been alarmist. That she has caused a ruckus over nothing. It was a movie that presented two equally valid “truths.” And showed the way the self-righteous adhesion to one truth could tear apart a good marriage.

Clancy: For me the question becomes: When we learn things about our loved ones that cause us to dislike—or even to hate—those loved ones, what should we do? It will vary from case to case, which matters: there shouldn’t be one simple answer to the toughest questions about relationships. One friend says in Force Majeure, when the married couple has left the room, “They need therapy!” People always say, “Go to therapy!” We have become very simpleminded in how we think about love, and yet it matters to us more than anything. But here’s my answer: the woman in the movie thought she was seeing the naked truth. She even had it on video. But I would ask her, “Are you being as tough on yourself as you are on your partner? Can you withstand the same withering scrutiny? Look at your own motivations: Do you admire your motivations?” It’s a very good case study, because this woman in the movie, like many of us, was completely blind to her own failings. Forgiveness, care, commitment: that’s what we demand from our parents, what I hope we offer to our children, and I think ought to give to our spouses.

Once the avalanche occurs, the movie is a bit on the nose for a good long period. It's funny, but it's blunt, and it beats the same punch line with a hammer in scene after scene.

But then the movie ends with that scene on the bus driving down the mountain, the most oblique and intriguing part of the film. It's no coincidence that the one woman who stays on the bus is the same woman who had spoken openly about the many extra-marital affairs she's had. She rides the bus down the mountain uneventfully while all the others in the bus walk down the mountain, resigned by their (bourgeois) caution to a suboptimal outcome.

If the entire movie had that concluding scene's sly, understated sense of mystery, that would have been something.

Bible Belt Big Data

“[O]ne of the strongest factors predicting divorce rates (per 1000 married couples) is the concentration of conservative or evangelical Protestants in that county,” the researchers explain. Religiously conservative states Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., while religiously liberal New Jersey and Massachusetts have two of the lowest. Full graph below shows the regional correlation:

Describing their findings as a “puzzling paradox,” the researchers explained that the higher divorce rate among religious conservatives is tied to early marriage and early childbearing — factors already known to contribute to strained marriages and divorce. “Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages,” Glass stated.

Full piece here.


In America, religiosity and conservatism are generally associated with opposition to non-traditional sexual behavior, but prominent political scandals and recent research suggest a paradoxical private attraction to sexual content on the political and religious right. We examined associations between state-level religiosity/conservatism and anonymized interest in searching for sexual content online using Google Trends (which calculates within-state search volumes for search terms). Across two separate years, and controlling for demographic variables, we observed moderate-to-large positive associations between: (1) greater proportions of state-level religiosity and general web searching for sexual content and (2) greater proportions of state-level conservatism and image-specific searching for sex. These findings were interpreted in terms of the paradoxical hypothesis that a greater preponderance of right-leaning ideologies is associated with greater preoccupation with sexual content in private internet activity. Alternative explanations (e.g., that opposition to non-traditional sex in right-leaning states leads liberals to rely on private internet sexual activity) are discussed, as are limitations to inference posed by aggregate data more generally.

So by the transitive property...

Esther Perel on infidelity

In America, infidelity is described in terms of perpetrators and victims, damages and cost. We are far more tolerant of divorce with all the dissolutions of the family structure than of transgression. Although our society has become more sexually open in many ways, when it comes to monogamy, even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent. When discussing infidelity, we use the language of moral condemnation. And it isn’t only the act that’s reprehensible; the actor, too, is judged by the strictest standards. Adultery becomes a moral failing as we move to a description of character flaws: liar, cheater, philanderer, womanizer, slut. In this view, understanding an act of infidelity as a simple transgression or meaningless fling, or a quest for aliveness is an impossibility.

An affair sometimes captures an existential conflict within us: We seek safety and predictability, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity. Modern romance promises, among other things, that it’s possible to meet these two opposing sets of needs in one place. If the relationship is successful, in theory, there is no need to look for anything elsewhere. Therefore, if one strays, there must be something missing. I’m not convinced.


The current view is that infidelity depletes intimacy and is a breach of trust and commitment, both emotional and sexual, that can never be fully recouped. Even the psychological literature focuses almost exclusively on the ravages of infidelity. I’d like to offer a view that challenges this premise and encompasses both growth and betrayal at the nexus of affairs.

Though affairs often result in deep emotional crisis, deception and betrayal are not the prime motivation. I suggest we look at infidelity in terms of growth, autonomy, and the desire to reconnect with lost parts of ourselves. Perhaps affairs are also an expression of yearning and loss.

Lots more here from Esther Perel on infidelity, all of it fascinating. Though I've never been married or had an affair, this passage had a ring of familiarity:

Sometimes, we seek the gaze of another not because we reject our partner, but because we are tired of ourselves. It isn’t our partner we aim to leave, rather the person we’ve become. Even more than the quest for a new lover we want a new self.

The pressure on the institution of marriage is higher than it's ever been because we now expect our spouses to provide so many different forms of fulfillment. In an interview with Slate, Perel notes:

What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. 

This reminded me of two of my recent posts about the new definition of marriage: marriage is now all-or-nothing, and hedonic marriage.

Marriage is now all-or-nothing

As the expectations of marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy, the potential psychological payoffs have increased — but achieving those results has become more demanding.

HERE lie both the great successes and great disappointments of modern marriage. Those individuals who can invest enough time and energy in their partnership are seeing unprecedented benefits. The sociologists Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox have demonstrated that spouses who spent “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently. The sociologist Paul R. Amato and colleagues have shown that spouses with a larger percentage of shared friends spent more time together and had better marriages.

But on average Americans are investing less in their marriages — to the detriment of those relationships. Professor Dew has shown that relative to Americans in 1975, Americans in 2003 spent much less time alone with their spouses. Among spouses without children, weekly spousal time declined to 26 hours per week from 35 hours, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in hours spent at work. Among spouses with children at home, spousal time declined to 9 hours per week from 13, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in time-intensive parenting.

Eli Finkel in the NYTimes on the third age of marriage we're living now, one he calls the self-expressive marriage, the first two being institutional and companionate.

What caught my eye was the distribution of marriage quality as measured by divorce rates.

One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

It's not just household income or venture capital returns that show this signature barbell distribution anymore, it has extended to marriage.

Fascinating read, and not surprisingly, the most emailed article on the NYTimes right now.

The Americans

My favorite new TV show this season was The Americans. It took me a bit of time to fully embrace the show, though.

Halfway through the season, I was hung up on how Philip and Elizabeth, especially Elizabeth, didn't really seem credible in their loyalty to mother Russia. This was Keri Russell, for god's sake, how could she turn against the U.S.? She doesn't even look the slightest bit Russian.

[Yes, they're supposed to be able to blend into the U.S., that is the point of being a spy, but All-American Keri Russell is not a species native to Russian soil, especially as compared to the much more Russian faces seen at the Soviet embassy in the show.]

But the best TV shows, the ones that rise above being high end soap operas, are ones that have a larger point to make, and the longer the season ran, the more the show's casting works in its favor. What are national loyalties, after all, than arbitrary "us versus them" distinctions implanted in us by chance and circumstance?

What better way to illustrate that by having an American sweetheart playing a Russian mole? In one life, born in the United States, Keri Russell would be Felicity Porter. In another life, born in Russia, she became Nadezhda, a KGB agent. How unaware we all are of the group affiliations we subscribe to purely because they were the ones most available to us in formative years of our lives.

That Elizabeth and Philip are playing the role of husband and wife extends this theme out beyond spy games to the very household institution of marriage. When Elizabeth attends the marriage of Philip to Martha Hanson, one of his informants, she asks Philip, after the wedding, if their marriage might have been different had they actually had a real wedding. In asking that, she cuts to the heart of the power of ritual.

That their fake marriage initially seems stronger than the actual marriage of Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Sandra Beeman, their neighbors (one of which happens to be an FBI agent hot on their trail), is a wry comment on the entire institution. Elizabeth and Philip had no choice in their marriage early on, it was their cover, and they had to make it work, despite both of them having been attracted to other people earlier in their lives.

Stan and Sandra went into their marriage with different expectations, romantic ones, and the show is rather harsh about the sustainability of a relationship centered around such notions. When Elizabeth and Philip start to see their relationship strained, what seems to draw them back towards each other is not any abstract ideal of romance but instead a pragmatic life and death dependence. It's easy to love someone when they're literally saving your life on a regular basis.

As with Mad Men, the audience knows how the plot at large turns out since The Americans is set during a Cold War that ended long ago. But what we're curious about is not that larger context but the smaller scale drama of Elizabeth and Philip's relationship. Of all the backdrops for a show about marriage, the Cold War must rank among the most unlikely.