Diane talks with The New Yorker's Susan Glasser.
You will marry the wrong person. That’s the bold premise behind a viral New York Times article by philosopher Alain de Botton. He says our unrealistic notion of romantic love needs challenging, and he argues for a new, more pessimistic outlook on marriage. Agree or disagree, there’s no escaping that the way we find love and make commitments today is changing, thanks in large part to technology. And new research tells us that facets of our lives before marriage can have a bigger impact on our decision to couple up for the long haul than we may realize. A look at the science, history and philosophy of how we choose life partners.
- Alain de Botton Philosopher, novelist and non-fiction writer; his latest novel is titled "The Course of Love"
- Helen Fisher Biological anthropologist and senior research fellow, Kinsey Institute; author of five bestselling books, including "Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray" and "Why Him? Why Her?"
- Rebecca Traister Writer at large, New York magazine; contributing editor, Elle; author of the 2016 book, "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation," which has just been released in paperback
- Ty Tashiro Psychologist and relationship expert; author of "The Science of Happily Ever After"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For much of history, marriages took place for practical reasons. Emotional fulfillment was rarely a chief concern, but today, cultural norms tells us to find a soul mate, a perfect match. In an article earlier this year, philosopher and writer Alain de Botton challenges our modern notion of romantic love. His piece is titled "Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person."
MS. DIANE REHMAlain de Botton joins us by phone from London. Also here explore how and why we choose lifelong partners, psychologist and relationship expert, Ty Tashiro. On the line from the studios of NPR New York, biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher and writer Rebecca Traister. I'm sure many of you will have your own opinions. Please join us, 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. TY TASHIROThanks for having me.
MS. REBECCA TRAISTERThank you.
MS. HELEN FISHERThank you.
MR. ALAIN DE BOTTONThank you.
REHMAlain, as one who was married for 54 years to my late husband, I can't tell you how excited I am to have you on the program and to hear you explain why you wrote this and exactly what it is you mean by the headline "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person."
BOTTONI think the strange thing is that it's rather comforting to be told that marriage won't be perfect and I think that tells us something. It's almost funny. I mean, to be told you will marry the wrong person is funny in the way that we laugh at the darkest things. And the reason that there is something oppressive in being told that only perfection will do as the basis of marriage, is that so many of our marriages, under that kind of judgment, have to seem below par and it can seem rather punitive and oppressive as if we have failed to measure up to a standard which most of us simply cannot measure up to.
BOTTONSo I think the perfectionism behind a lot of the romantic myth is strangely guilty for spoiling a good many relationships which are perfectly decent. Not perfect, but perfectly decent, good enough as we say.
REHMAt the same time, it seems to me you're talking about the importance of what was in each person's background, in each person's upbringing that they may bring to the marriage that has, perhaps, as much influence on that marriage as the two persons in the present.
BOTTONWell, one of the strange things is that we imagine when we try and find a partner to marry and get together with that we're simply looking for happiness, for our own satisfaction. But I don't believe we are. What we're really looking for is familiarity, a sense of familiarity. And you don't have to be a paid up Freudian or psychologist to accept that, in many ways, the way we love as adults is based upon a foundation of how we first came to know love as children.
BOTTONNow, when we first came to know love, often the love that we tasted was not totally pure. It was mixed up with slightly darker dynamics, maybe a sense that a parent we love was slightly out of control or that we needed to be cheerful for them because they were maybe on the edge of depression, whatever it may be. And when it comes to choosing an adult partner, we therefore sometimes find that the people we date might feel oppressively perfect or too nice, we say, or we might say a bit boring and that the people we're really drawn to are those who can make us suffer a little bit.
BOTTONSuffer in ways that repeat the ways in which in childhood we knew love not simply as a satisfying emotion, but as one mixed in with some pretty troubling psychological dynamics. And that's why so many people seem to be engaged in repetitions of rather uncomfortable and unhappy relationships. And it makes no sense unless we start to understand how their ideas of love were formed as children, as they say. They're not looking to be happy. They're looking for situations of familiarity and that can be very different.
REHMHelen Fisher, you've spent a lifetime looking at how and why people love. So what do you make of Alain's argument?
FISHERWell, first of all, thank you, Diane, for having me and bravo on your 54-year-old marriage. I mean, that's just wonderful. Well, you know, I actually don't agree at all. I'm sorry to say I don't agree at all. Certainly, your childhood plays a big role in who you choose to wed, but we are also -- have a very biological tendency that pull us natural towards some people in which we will actually have a good relationship. And I recently studied 1100 married people.
FISHERThey were all married an average of 21 years or more with adult children. And I asked them a lot of questions. But one of the questions was would you remarry the person you're currently married to and 81 percent said yes. And I think the reason we are more and more likely to marry the right person is because we have this long period which I call, you know, the precommitment stage. I call it slow love. We used to marry first and then get to know somebody. These days, marriage tends to be the finale instead of the introduction to the relationship.
FISHERAnd we have -- it's many, many years in our teens and 20s to experiment, understand people, live with people for a while, get rid of bad relationships so that by the time we walk down the aisle, we know who we've got. We want what we've got and we think that we can keep it. And I think there's a great deal of data that we are actually moving forward to actually very stable, good marriages because of this period of time in which we have an opportunity to choose.
REHMAnd you're talking about biology as well, playing a very important relationship...
REHM...to the people we choose.
FISHERYeah, you know, I created a questionnaire that has now been taken by 14 million people in 40 countries with Match.com and as it turns out, I think that we've evolved four very broad styles of thinking and behaving like with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. And people who are very expressive with the traits, like with dopamine, novelty-seeking, risk-taking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic people are very drawn to people like themselves and they will have a lot of fun doing...
BOTTONIt's really -- can I interrupt? I mean, this seems absolutely extraordinary. It's clear that for most people, relationships remain one of the most troubling areas of their life. Up to 50 percent of marriages fail. Of those that stay together, another 25 are actively unhappy. The thought that somehow we've solved all the problems of loves, it's, you know, you have to turn on...
FISHERI didn't say that. Thank you very much.
BOTTON...any TV, any radio station...
REHMOkay, hold on. One of you at a time.
BOTTON...we are very conflicted about love.
REHMAll right. Now, I want to turn to you, Ty Tashiro. When it comes to actually choosing someone as long term partner, how does that compare to someone we're simply attracted to?
TASHIROSure. Well, it's a big difference, it turns out. So there's a lot of studies now that look at how we choose short term partners versus long term partners. Now, what happens sometimes with short term partners or a lot of times we choose on physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status so things like wealth or power and there is biological reasons why we find these things attractive. Now, if you look at longitudinal studies of marriage, and basically your return on investment from physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status, the return is poor. So it's about zero for physical attractiveness and once you pass the poverty line, there's not much return on investment from your partner's wealth.
TASHIROSo people are spending two of their first three wishes, essentially, right, for traits in a partner on things that don't really matter in the long run for long term happy relationship. Now, we do know which traits do matter in partners.
TASHIROIt's actually common sense. This is the amazing thing about it. People have a very good intuitive wisdom about what they should do. You should choose someone who's kind. You should choose someone who's capable of being committed and loyal. You should choose someone who's emotionally stable. That's probably the biggest variable. Yet, when you look at partner selection studies and where these variables rank, they're far below physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status.
REHMBut what about Alain's point that somehow what plays more of an important role in our choice and to whom we're attracted is in our past history?
TASHIROI think there's actually good evidence -- if I dare to say, there's good evidence for both Helen's point and Alain's point, which I think is that we choose people who are similar to us, right? So there's that familiarity piece, but there's also this biological piece where we're drawn to certain traits that are biologically driven that the other person has as well. And some of the attachment research is really interesting where if we were anxiously attached to our parent, when it comes time to choose a romantic partner, we're actually more likely to choose someone who's anxiously attached versus someone who's securely attached, which would technically be the better choice, right, because people who are securely attached will be more satisfied and stable in the relationship.
TASHIROSo from the get-go, we choose people who are similar to us, but that's not always the best choice.
REHMWell, exactly, as Alain points out. I mean, you've got 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, 25 more percent saying they're unhappy. So clearly, we are not making really good choices, at least at the beginning. Let's take a short break here. I want to hear from our listeners, either in short term, long term relationship or who are considering marriage. Let's hear what you think after a short break.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about an essay that Alain de Botton wrote for the New York Times. He wrote this several months ago. It went viral. It's titled "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." And he's outlined his reasons that he believes that's the case in many of our situations. Also with us is Ty Tashiro, he's a psychologist and relationship expert, author of "The Science of Happily Ever After." Joining us from studios at NPR in New York, Helen Fisher, who is a biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of five bestselling books, including "Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray."
REHMAnd finally Rebecca Traister, she's writer at large for New York magazine. Rebecca, marriage has taken on a kind of outsize importance in our culture, and one of our emailers, actually Arion on Facebook, says marriage is an outdated concept. What do you think?
TRAISTERWell, I think that that's -- I mean, I think that what is true and that has not been fully acknowledged in this conversation so far is that we are moving away from marriage. I mean, Alain makes the point that we have held it up as unrealistically -- as, you know, having to be perfect and being the be-all and end-all of human connection when in fact it's a very flawed institution and that many people are -- have experienced unhappiness within it, not just now but throughout history.
TRAISTERBut one of the things that we're not talking about, and I just wrote a book about this, is that marriage patterns are changing swiftly and dramatically. People are moving away from marriage. Marriage rates are down around -- certainly throughout this country and around the world, and marriage ages are going up, which means that people are waiting longer and longer in their lives to marry, they're having entirely -- I write about this from a feminist perspective, so I'm looking at women who for centuries were economically, socially and sexually dependent on this institution.
TRAISTERThat is becoming less and less true, and the way that they pick their partners is changing, truly, sort of every day. And I'm not sure that this conversation about marriage and its rewards is reflecting the way in which we are marrying differently than we ever have before.
REHMAlain, do you think that waiting longer can somehow improve success?
BOTTONWell, I think what's striking is that marriage in a way makes no sense from many points of view nowadays, and yet people keep doing it. So I think we have to search not for legal structures or social structures or religious dictates, as we used to in the past, but really what is the emotional impulse of marriage. And I think it's the idea -- look, to put it benevolently, I think we all know that sometimes controlling our impulses and willingly framing ourselves in a situation which denies us certain sorts of freedom can be an impulse towards growth.
BOTTONSo I think many people marry because they feel that it's going to be somehow good for them to have their liberty somehow constrained. They do it themselves. We lock ourselves in a cage because we know sometimes that -- you know, look, if everybody left their marriage every time they felt like leaving the marriage, they would -- no one would be married, you know, in the world because every happily married couple wants to leave the marriage at least once a week, in my own experience. I'm exaggerating.
FISHERThat's not true in my experience.
BOTTONBut it is in a sense a willing submission to a structure, which even though it doesn't make sense every day and cannot make sense every day makes sense over the long term, and I think that's what's fascinating about it because in a way, people who keep announcing the death of marriage and the end of marriage, it kind of makes no sense legally anymore and religiously anymore, but there are other reasons for it.
REHMExcept where children are concerned, Alain?
BOTTONYes, indeed, I mean children is another, you know, key motive, absolutely. So I would say that the -- there's a kind of emotional desire for certainty over the long term, and that plays into children's desire for emotional certainty vis-à-vis their parents.
REHMAll right, Helen Fisher, what do you make of that?
FISHERWell first of all, I want to answer your question, and this -- I have data on '80s societies with the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. And the longer you wait to marry, the older you are when you marry, the more likely you are to have a very stable marriage. So it -- having this long period of what I call slow love of pre-commitment, is an adaptive mechanism. And as Rebecca says, the very concept of marriage is changing.
FISHERAnd in fact I've got data on 30,000 people that say, you know, I ask on match.com what are you looking for, and the top thing people are looking for in America today, 98 percent, say they want somebody who respects them, somebody they can trust and confide in, somebody who makes them laugh, somebody who gives them enough time and somebody who's physically attractive. So I think we are beginning to choose people, partners, for very solid reasons.
FISHERI think we have a great deal of time to find the right partner, and I think also about divorce, you know, in the 1950s, domestic violence was 30 percent higher because people could not leave a bad relationship in order to make a better one. I'm not trying to advocate divorce, but even in America today, over 60 percent of people believe, married as well as single, that a very troubled marriage is worse for the children than creating a more solid home after divorce.
FISHERSo I think it is changing. I feel personally that Alain is looking at a more conventional type of marriage, as Rebecca said, and I think we're at a beautiful time in human evolution, when we can make the kinds of partnerships that we want.
REHMTy Tashiro, the title of your book is "The Science of Happily Ever After." What do you mean by that?
TASHIROWell, one of the interesting things about happiness in a relationship and stability, so staying together, is that the two are fairly weakly correlated or associated with each other. So the overlap is much smaller than you would think. They're two separate things. But we know from longitudinal studies now that even before the couple meet each other, you can predict their marital outcomes, to a certain extent, based on their individual characteristics.
TASHIROSo the people they were before they ever met will help you predict that before you ever put them together.
REHMSuch as? Give me those characteristics.
TASHIROSo one very clear one is emotional instability or neuroticism. And with neuroticism, it gets you in two ways. So the satisfaction is weaker because a neurotic person is less satisfied with most things in life, including a relationship, and they have a temper, or they're moody, and that makes life a little bit miserable for you. Now with stability, one of the studies I love the most is a four-year longitudinal study of dating couples, and some of these couples both were emotionally stable, some both emotionally unstable, and some were mixed.
TASHIROWhat was interesting is that when you had one person who was emotionally unstable, and one person who was emotionally stable, they didn't last as long as when there were two emotionally stable people, which makes sense, but what was more interesting was that the person who ended the relationship in these mismatched couple was the person who was emotionally unstable.
TASHIROSo here they are with a person they absolutely they need to be with, someone who's steady and calm and can even them out, and it's like they can't stand the success. So in "The Science of Happily Ever After," we talk about there are certain traits that you should have red flags for and say this is something that if not a hard rule-out, but it's something I should think very, very carefully about because it's going to be a stable characteristic that will likely be there throughout the marriage.
REHMAlain, why do you think so many people marry the wrong person?
BOTTONBecause I think that unhappiness feels familiar, you know, in a way, as we've just heard, when there's a high degree of neuroticism. You know, for a neurotic, happiness is very frightening. I speak as a neurotic. It's, you know, it's deeply terrifying to be with a well-adjusted, happy person. It feels completely alien. And, you know, at least half the population has come from family backgrounds which have not given them, you know, what psychologists beautifully call a secure attachment.
BOTTONSo they're either anxiously attached or avoidantly attached, and therefore somebody who makes them feel cozy and gives them dependability and all the things that we seem to want actually comes across as a bit eerie. And therefore, you know, a neurotic person will try and shake to bits a situation which could actually be quite optimal for them.
BOTTONAnd this is the kind of poignancy and the tragedy of it. So really what we need to be discussing, I mean not necessarily here but overall as a society, is how can we increase the level of emotional stability so people can start to form unions that will last. And my belief is that, and this is rather boring, we can't really do it through drugs, we can't do it through, you know, outside medical interventions, we need to do it through that rather painful and slow process of just understanding oneself and one's path through life through therapy or associated kinds of introspective behaviors.
REHMBut that -- that is the question, then. How does one find the right person, Alain?
BOTTONDiane, I also want to say that we don't need people to be perfect in love. We need people to be good enough. And what I think a good enough person is isn't someone who's completely sane but someone who's able to explain their craziness in good time before they've started to hurt us with them in ways and at moments that we're likely to understand and sympathize with because by the time somebody's humiliating you or, you know, ruining your life, you're not going to be sympathetic to the fact they had a tough childhood when they were four.
BOTTONSo this needs to happen early on, and as I say, I think, you know, I think it's rather worrying when people say I'm totally emotionally healthy. If somebody says, look, I'm not that emotionally healthy, but this is where the problem lies, I feel reassured. I think this is a good sign of maturity. So real maturity isn't not having any problems, it's being able to discuss and master the problems in good time.
REHMAll right, I want to open the phones here and go first to Debbie in Boca Raton, Florida, you're on the air.
DEBBIEHi Diane, and thank you so much for having me.
DEBBIEI am finding this discussion so, so interesting, and it really hits home for me. I am 61 years old, and I have been married twice and in more relationships than I could ever want to even admit to. I grew up in a house where I did not have a mother that was nurturing, a father that was not nurturing and who worked many hours out of the house. I had no guidance as to what was right or wrong with relationships.
DEBBIEAnd as a result, I kept picking men that were not emotionally available, that were abusive, that could not commit, and if I even had anything that felt somewhat right in a relationship, I would ruin it myself because I didn't feel even comfortable with something that did feel right.
REHMHow fascinating, Ty.
TASHIROYeah that, you know, you see that play out quite a bit, and one of the great things is that you've taken the time to pause and have some insight into what the pattern is, and that is definitely half the battle, right.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What do you make of that, Helen Fisher?
FISHERWell, I am -- there are happy marriages out there. A good 50 percent divorce, and a good 50 percent do not divorce, and I have never seen the data that there's another 25 percent who are in unhappy marriages. So I think there certainly are people who are unhappy in love. There's -- nobody gets out of love alive. But we live in a time where we have an opportunity to get rid of bad partnerships and make better ones.
FISHERAnd I agree with your caller that -- I mean, I didn't have -- grow up in a house where anybody told me anything about how to choose a person or the right person. But we've got -- you know, we have more therapists today than at any other time on this planet. We've got more books to help you out, we've got more TV and radio shows like this one to discuss it, and I think we are living in a time where we have a tremendous opportunity to make good relationships.
REHMWell, the clear factor there is not everybody takes advantage of therapy, not everybody uses books to help them understand themselves. And let's face it, therapy is expensive. Finding out who you are and what you are is expensive.
FISHERWell, you have lots of friends, though, you know, who we discuss things endlessly with. And I don't know, I guess I'm just an optimist, but I think it's a wonderful time for women. We're educated. We can walk out of bad partnerships to make better ones. We bring a great deal to our marriages because of our education, because of our independence and our ability to build the kind of partnerships that we are looking for.
REHMAlain, do you want to comment?
BOTTONLook, I mean, I think that it's a sort of national priority that we start to see love not as an emotion, not as just as a feeling but as a skill and one that has to be systematically learned. And this flies in the face of our romantic ideology, which tell us that, you know, we don't need to go to school to learn love. But I think we kind of do. And I think the sooner we can, you know, get over this idea that love is just an instinct and that we should just learn to follow it the more we can start to create emotionally healthy societies.
REHMBut Rebecca, your book is titled "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation." So I gather what you're saying is that more and more women are happy to live on their own.
TRAISTERWell it's not -- I'm not necessarily arguing, in fact I'm directly not arguing that single life is inherently superior to married life for women. What I am pointing out is that historically marriage was an institution that organized gendered power on which women were dependent, women were dependent on men in all these different ways and that they entered marriage at the beginning of their adulthoods and that increasingly, thanks to increase economic opportunity, the ability to liver sexually liberated lives, to control their reproduction, women are able to live outside of marriage and what that enables is not some preferable single path in which you are unmarried, what it does is open up a diversity of paths in which you might marry early, happily or unhappily, you might not partner with anybody, you might have a sexually promiscuous life, you might have a monogamous life, you might have a celibate life for any number of years, you might have children, you might work, you might go to school, you might marry late, you might marry briefly.
TRAISTERThere is now a diversity of options available to women that simply was not there until very recently, really the past few decades. And my argument, I think agree with Helen that we're living in a period in which relationships, romantic, traditional romantic relationships, whether they take the form of marriage or not, have so much more flexibility, the ability to leave marriages, to leave relationships before you marry, to have the relationships with the -- if you're a neurotic and pick the wrong people, to have the wrong relationships and get out of them without the kind of severe emotional, social and economic costs that were once the tolls of divorce.
REHMRebecca, Rebecca Traister is writer at large for New York magazine. When we come back, we'll go to the phones, read your email. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Our discussion began with an essay written for the Sunday New York Times by Alain de Botton, back in May, that got really quite a reaction, went viral, titled, "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." And before I go back to the phones, Alain, I wanted to ask you what kind of reactions you got.
BOTTONYou know, well, what was interesting was that people were overwhelming relieved. Look, it's like telling people you will have an unhappy life. Now, this could seem rather oppressive in someone telling you that, but that could, you know, one of your guests saying, you know, she's an optimist. And therefore, there's an idea that in order to cheer someone up what you need to tell them are cheerful things. Now, I actually disagree with that. I think that often we suffer from a burden of shame around how difficult it is that we find it to live, to love, to make good choices.
BOTTONAnd therefore, if somebody tells us, you know, your life's gonna be perfect, it sets the bar very high for our own admission of our sense of kind of failure. Somebody who is, you know, life is basically kind of miserable and most days you'll sort of feel like ending it roughly around midday, that oddly can make you laugh and think, oh, well, it's not that bad. So there's a kind of way in which pessimism is a rather generous emotion, which allows us to confess some of the things that we feel quite humiliated and lonely with.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones to Andre in Clinton, Md. You're on the air.
ANDRELove your show.
ANDREOkay. I basically just wanted to make a comment. As far as I think a lot of people are, you know, instead of looking for what they need in a mate, they worry about so much what they want, where it's looks or socioeconomic status. I think that, you know, like in my case, what I had to do was I had to sit back and analyze myself and see what I need in a woman, what kind of person I am, "A" personality, I needed somebody not passive, but someone that's a little more passive than aggressive.
ANDREAnd I've been with my wife now for 12 years and we are very happy. We don't just look for love. You know, I think the looking for love thing is the problem also.
REHMInteresting. Ty, you said there's some research on this.
TASHIROThere is. You know, regarding needs versus wants, the need part is pretty biological. And so for most of the 5,000 years the institution of marriage has existed, the main goal was survival in society. So up until about 250 years ago, life expectancy was under 45 years old. Obviously, it's much longer now. And so you chose people who were physically attractive. It was an outside marker of genetic health, which was not only good for your survival as a couple, but also the survival of your children.
TASHIROAnd wealth would be -- you had food and you had shelter and all these other things that weren't guaranteed for most of human history. So we have this strong biological disposition to have needs that are different than what we want now. Right? Which is to be happy and to have stable relationships that will last for decades on end. And these two things don't really line up with each other.
REHMHere's an email from Diane in Falls Church, Va., who says, "What you all are discussing is the largely the domain of the upper-middle and upper class with all the options they have. For the lower class the evidence is the best chance of making it is to marry, then have children, in that order. The marriage, maybe not made in heaven, still does provide the stability that children without married parents lack." Would you agree with that, Helen Fisher?
FISHERI certainly think that this discussion is about the upper-middle class, yes. What's interesting to me is -- I'd like to say one thing that I actually do agree with with Alain. You know, he says marriage takes work and love takes work. And that you need to know more. Let me say what the brain says about a long-term happy marriage. I agree with everything that Ty said about your childhood, etcetera.
FISHERBut here's what the brain says. I and my colleagues put 15 people who were long-term married. They were married an average of 20 years -- into a brain scanner. And we found the parts of the brain that become active in a long-term happy marriage. And those were a region linked with empathy, a brain region linked with controlling your own emotions and your own stress, and a brain region linked with overlooking the negative, what we call positive illusions.
FISHEROverlooking the negative and focusing on the positive. And I think that any kind of marriage, if you have -- if you understand how the brain works and if you understand anything about mate choice and who to choose, you can build a long term very romantic and deep attachment with somebody, if you can express empathy, control your own emotions and overlook the negative.
REHMRebecca, do you want to comment?
TRAISTERYes. I strongly disagree with the caller who argues that if you're talking about economic communities that marriage and what conservative dogma would call the success sequence of going -- graduating from high school, marrying and having children, in that order. I strongly disagree that marriage, in and of itself, brings stability in economically challenged communities. In fact, a move away from marriage was pioneered in impoverished communities.
TRAISTERWhen marriage itself, with rates of high unemployment and poverty, marriage can be a damaging institution if you don't meet the person who -- the right person. A person who's either gonna be emotionally or economically stabilizing. Marriage can produce bad results within the home, even for children, if -- where there are higher rates of addiction and drug abuse, higher rates of incarceration, of depression.
TRAISTERMarriage can itself be a perilous institution, which is one of the reasons that you see marriage rates very low in economically challenged communities. And one of the things that I thought about when I read Alain's essay and he talked about marriage as the entrance into a relationship and that you marry this person and then you get to know them, one of the patterns you see in lower income communities in the United States is people staying together, raising children together and not marrying until they are economically secure and emotionally sure that they want to bind themselves legally.
TRAISTERIt's what sociologists call the change of marriage to a capstone event, rather than the keystone event. And for many people there are entire families raised, decades lived together before they enter into marriage, in part because the legal binding is viewed as economically and socially perilous, not necessarily stabilizing.
REHMAlain, do you want to comment?
BOTTONWell, you know, I've been thinking about love, really, in all of this. And it does seem that, you know, if we think of love as a kind of skill, you know, what does it really involve. We're talking about love as hard work. What is the work of love? And it -- a lot of it, you know, it's funny. I think a lot of us know how to love children. And we're better at loving children than we are living -- loving adults. And the reason is that when you've got a three-year-old who throws his dinner on the floor or who, you know, starts screaming about something, we don't necessarily automatically say they're a bad person.
BOTTONWe search for attenuating circumstances. We reach around for gentler explanations for bad behavior. And I think that often when it comes to our treatment of other adults, we're -- we can be in danger of being quite punitive. And I think that one of the things that love is is a kind of generosity towards another person. Trying to see the origins of, you know, perhaps less than gracious behavior in slightly more generous terms. Because I think, you know, couples get very brittle when two people cannot find it in themselves to forgive…
BOTTON…and to overlook, you know, slightly difficult things. And there's a kind of brittle self-righteousness that settles in. So these are some of the skills we're gonna have to learn if we're to get better at doing this strange thing called loving.
REHMHere's an email from Travis in Michigan, who says, "After going through the tough early years of my marriage and endless nothing fights, my partner and I found our issues weren't with each other, but unresolved childhood wounds. Through couple's counseling I found that you do choose an imperfect partner. And if you take the time to work through these unfinished issues from your childhood, you can heal yourself personally and also have great success in your relationship. Going on 10 years now and happier than ever." Ty?
TASHIROOne of the interesting things is that one of the most powerful couple's therapies that exist right now is called integrative couple's therapy. So it does some traditional things, like uses behavioral interventions or changes your thoughts about the relationship to be more helpful, perhaps overlooking negative things for example, and focusing on the positive. But the key difference is it has what we call acceptance component. And this means that you work with a couple to understand the limitations of their partner, the traits and characteristics that you don't love and that probably bug you on a regular basis.
TASHIROAnd you talk about how can you -- instead of becoming reactive to those and having a knee-jerk reaction, how can you instead accept it -- it doesn't mean it's okay. But how can you accept it and then think about a productive way to deal with that? And that's a much different thing than having a knee-jerk reaction to it.
REHMOf course, you don't know about the things that are gonna drive you crazy before you marry. And it seems to me that even if you go through couple's counseling before you get married, it's only the longevity that sort of brings out those traits that make you crazy.
TASHIROI think that's true to a certain extent. But you'll also see couples that divorce and they'll site early evidence that some of the deal-breaker characteristics were there early on. But it's only once we're out of the relationship and we have that clarity to look with hindsight that we see, oh, there were red flags all over the place. I just couldn't see it when I was in the relationship. But that happens to the best of us. Love's a very powerful thing. And Helen actually has some studies that show nicely what happens to our brain we're in passionate love and falling in love.
REHMIndeed. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Sam in Grand Rapids, Mich. You're on the air.
SAMHi, Diane, and hi everyone else.
SAMI'm a, you know, 20-something guy who's dating right now. And I'm curious -- I'm also an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so there are a lot of things that, you know, my faith tells me to overlook. And, you know, forgiveness and people changing and converting and having mercy, that's all, like, part of my world view, particularly when it comes to something like marriage in the future. You understand that people can change. But I'm curious. What are some of the personality traits that do frequently change in our culture over time and what are the ones that generally don't?
REHMThat's an interesting question. Helen?
FISHERWell, this is one the things that I study. If you're a curious person and you're four years old, you're gonna be curious about dolls or trucks. When you're 14 you're gonna be curious about boys or girls or music. When you're 50 years old you're gonna be interesting in travel or politics. But curiosity itself doesn't change. And I study the traits that come out of our biology (unintelligible) of our traits do. And then they don't tend to change over the life course.
FISHERSo if you are married to a curious person, that person will remain curious. If they're stubborn, they will probably remain stubborn. If they're assertive, they will probably remain assertive. And so, sure, people can change to some extent, but it's tiring. And you got to find somebody who has a personality that really does fit with yours. I just wanted to say one thing that Ty said that was so interesting in the beginning of relationships, you know, because I do study the brain.
FISHERThere's brain regions linked with decision making. And they begin -- the blood begins to drain out of those. So when you've just fallen in love with somebody you can overlook an awful lot of things that you begin to understand as you marry them. But you know what, Diane? Don't you think that even in your own marriage you kept on learning things about your partner? I mean, marriage isn't the end of a relationship. It's -- it is an ongoing thing in which you can -- it can be very flexible and changeable if you make any effort at all to keep it alive.
REHMYou know, I go back to the statement which I've made over and over again and which you all will recognize. There are no perfect marriages. And there certainly are no perfect people. Longevity does not imply perfection. John and I went through a lot of ups and downs because we were very, very different people, and yet, in some ways, very, very closely aligned. Alain?
BOTTONI think that's a beautiful point. Because I think that some of the -- some of what's happening because of all this new technology is that we're getting ever fussier, that we can meet the perfect person. And all these dating apps like Match.com and Tinder, etcetera, are kind of promising us that if we keep swiping left and right, at some point we will come across this ideal flawless person. And I think that, you know, compatibility is ultimately an achievement of love. It shouldn't be, as these dating websites promise us, the precondition of falling in love.
BOTTONAnd it is something that you work through. And a true understanding of love is -- involves and acceptance of a range of things which are very far from perfect. And I think our culture is in danger, because of technology, of driving us towards a kind of brittle perfectionism when it comes to finding the perfect person.
BOTTONWith all of us deeply broken and to truly have a success -- a chance of success in love means being able to deal with our brokenness, both inside ourselves and in a partner.
REHMAnd one last call from Peter in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
PETERHi, Diane. And thanks for your insights on this. I do agree with what was just said and what was more my call-in and situation about how the technology and social media has changed the dating scene. I'm 32 years old and I'm single, but, you know, it seems with all these dating apps and websites you can order up someone just like a commodity.
PETERAnd so the whole idea, which I would attend to agree with, of forbearance and working through disagreements and trying to, you know, develop that relationship is really hard to find these days. 'Cause everybody just seems to be wanting something new and it's easy to find that. And if something doesn't work out, well, I'll just go back and order another one.
REHMWhat do you think, Ty?
TASHIROWell, you can tell when people will commit with a model, an algorithm that's based on three things. What do I want from a partner or a relationship, what do I think I'm getting and what are my other options, what we call attractive alternative options. Other people I could date, basically. And one of the things that's happened with online dating, just by the nature of it and the vastness of it, is that it shot up the number of attractive alternative options. So just like the caller said, we have more options than any -- than we've ever had before. And I think we're having a hard time figuring out what to do about that.
REHMAlain, very quickly, what are three questions you would ask of a potential partner to help you know whether that person is right for you?
BOTTONWell, I think the first question is to say, are you crazy. And by that I mean, are you somebody who is gonna flinch at the suggestion that they're less than perfect. If they don't, if they go, of course, I'm crazy. I'm human. Right? That's number one great question. If you then say, well, how are you crazy and they're able to give you some sense of the way in which their own path through life has led them to be, you know, a little disturbed, as we all are, that's a very good sign.
BOTTONAnd if you're then able to say, can I tell you a little bit about myself, and they're willing to listen to your own crazy aspects and are willing to respond to them with, you know, humor, generosity, sympathy, complexity, then I think you're onto a good thing.
REHMAll right. And we'll have to leave it at that. Obviously, a discussion that could on and on. I want to thank you all so much. Alain de Botton, you can read his piece in The New York Times of May 28th. Rebecca Traister, writer at large for New York Magazine. Helen Fisher, she is the author of five bestselling books. And Ty Tashiro, "The Science of Happily Ever After." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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