I've commented before on the strange phenomenon of psychologists and other scientists who study human cognition and behavior reproducing in their findings truths about human nature which have been known to folk wisdom for centuries, and then reporting those results with breathless excitement as if they were new things, and this post on marriage by Wired editor Jonah Lehrer, though it does acknowledge received wisdom on the subject, is nevertheless of a piece with the trend. There's a difference between erotic passion and abiding love? Duh. Plato and company had that figured out 2,500 years ago, without the benefit of modern science. Furthermore, anybody who's been through the wringer of modern dating, and experienced the romantic dead ends, false starts and broken hearts that failure to observe the distinction between love and infatuation inevitably produces, ought to have learned it firsthand for themselves as well, if they're paying any attention at all. Physical attractiveness is no reliable predictor of kindness, patience, generosity, loyalty, or any of the myriad other character traits a good life partner must have? Color me shocked. I always thought that saying about beauty being only skin deep was a discarded Revlon advertising slogan, after all. And so on.
Like most people my age I talk about relationships with my friends all the time, and those of us nearing 30 are mostly in agreement that one of the most common culprits in the failed romances of our twenties was a tendency to rush headlong into things on the basis of desire/passion/attraction alone, without being prepared for the less attractive realities of real relationships. One of the markers of immaturity among some of the more callow people I know is that they haven't yet learned this lesson. But it's not some earth-shattering insight - it seems something that most people figure out sooner or later. Likewise, most people learn to appreciate appealing personal qualities more once they've had a few encounters with members of the opposite sex who are physically attractive but turn out to be shallow or unpleasant people. It doesn't take a genius to extrapolate from this realization that if the choice of whom to date ought to be carefully considered on grounds broader than mere physical attraction, the choice of whom to marry ought really to be so. And indeed caution and judgment are by-words when we do discuss the topic of marriage. I have no doubt that marrying too soon, without really knowing who one's partner is as a person, is a major reason marriages fail. But if my peers are an indication that many of us approach the institution with eyes as wide open as they can be for people our age, and some of us will still end up getting divorced anyway, I doubt that it is the only serious culprit.
My own hunch, uncolored by personal experience though it may be, is that it is futile to approach the question of what makes marriages work or not work via a priori generalizations about human psychology or data-crunching reductionism. Marriage may be a fundamental social, legal, and religious institution, but it is really only the skeleton of it that can be broadly defined as such. Individual marriages are as idiosyncratic as the individual personalities that compose them, perhaps even moreso given the added variable of how those personalities can interact with each other. I suspect it is likewise individual failed marriages. Divorced people report all sorts of reasons for the failures of their marriages - infidelity, abuse, sexual dissatisfaction, "growing apart" as people, etc. It may well be the case that there isn't any magic formula to be discovered by looking under the hood with the tools of psychology, neurology, and the like.
I suspect that loving successfully is something that's a bit of a tricky sail between Scylla and Charybdis. Approaching it without discernment and with no thought to anything other than the whims of passion is more likely than not to lead to heartbreak sooner or later. On the other hand, it's a feeling, not an exercise in formal logic, so pure rationality won't answer either. Balancing the two is probably the trick that the happily married have figured out, and everyone else hasn't.
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