Purged, Strengthened And Made Endurable

Two stories about marriage caught my attention recently. No, not that one. First, Dare Obasanjo has the story of seeing a man propose to his girlfriend on the train: “They were engaged in conversation and he was comparing her favorably to ex-girlfriends, then all of a sudden he got down on one knee and pulled out a box with a ring in it. After a stunned silence she took it, said some words softly then said "I appreciate the sentiment but the timing is inappropriate" and handed it back. This was followed by her voicing her concerns about his ability to support them and him rattling of how much he made a month plus various bonuses, etc. I think it went downhill from there.” Then, via Photodude comes this story. There is even video of the event, this being the 21st century and all. For readers who come to this weblog entry and the NBC10 link is dead—first of all, welcome to the future!—let me describe what happened. A woman is blindfolded on an NBA basketball court and is asked to find a mascot. She does, and wins tickets to somethingorother. Then her beau comes out of the costume, takes the microphone, and asks her to marry him. She bolts, going right past the alter, heading down the ramp, and out the door. Okay, that last part was from a movie, but thing is, she ran, and the crowd—evidently—was aghast. Both are funny, but in the sense that the man suffers from public humiliation. Humans think misfortune is funny, especially when it happens to the male of the species. (It's funny when a girl kicks a guy's ass in a movie, but not when it's the other way around, right?)

I'm all for committing to someone. My opinions towards marriage, however, have been radicalized—if slightly—since reading Stranger in a Strange Land. It introduces the idea of being committed not just to someone, but multiple someones. This is from near the end of the book, so hopefully it doesn't ruin it for those that haven't read it. The first speaker is Sam, and the second is Jubal Harshaw, the principal character of the book (after Mike). Sam is an acolyte of Mike's "church":

"One institution won't be damaged. Marriage."
"Very much so. Instead it will be purged, strengthened and made endurable. Endurable? Ecstatic! See that wench down there with the long black hair?"
"Yes. I was delighting in its beauty earlier."
"She knows it's beautiful and it's grown a foot and a half since we joined the church. That's my wife. Not much over a year ago we lived together like bad-tempered dogs. She was jealous . . . and I was inattentive. Bored. Hell, we were both bored and only our kids kept us together—that and her possessiveness; I knew she would never let me go without a scandal . . . and I didn't have any stomach for trying to put together a new marriage at my age, anyhow. So I grabbed a little on the side, when I could get away with it—a professor has many temptations, few safe opportunities—and Ruth was quietly bitter. Or sometimes not quiet. And then we joined up." Sam grinned happily. "And I fell in love with my wife. Number-one gal friend!"
Sam had spoken only to Jubal, his words walled by noise. His wife was far down the table. She looked up and said clearly, "That's an exaggeration, Jubal. I'm about number six."
Her husband called out, "Stay out of my mind, beautiful! —we're talking men talk. Give Larry your undivided attention." He threw a roll at her.
She stopped it in orbit, propelled it back. "I'm giving Larry all the attention he wants . . . until later, maybe. Jubal, that brute didn't let me finish. Sixth place is wonderful! Because my name wasn't on his list till we joined the church. I hadn't rated as high as six with Sam for twenty years."
"The point," Sam said quietly, "is that we are now partners, more so than ever were outside—and we got that way through the training, culminating in sharing and growing closer with others who had the same training. We all wind up in partnerships inside the group—usually with spouses-of-record. Sometimes not . . . and if not, the readjustment takes place without heartache and creates a warmer, better relationship between the 'divorced' couple than ever, in bed and out. No loss and all gain."

It's a radical idea, even today, that people can be 'married' or at least committed to more than one person. Marriage is exclusive, meaning that by law, only a certain amount of people (one) are allowed to do it with another number of people (also one). Open marriages such as the one described above reduce the barrier to entry into relationships. The sentence highlighted above shows that: she was happy to be sixth, because otherwise she wouldn't even be on the list (just like how there may be a power law with regards to blogging, but as compared to say, TV or newspapers, the barrier to entry is very low). In other words, it's not how you place, but whether or not you finish that matters, and open relationships, married or not, allow for more people to finish.

On what principle can we—can I—justify denying the ability and, more importantly, the propriety of people loving more than one person? Nate quotes a Malcolm Gladwell where the latter says “institutions [...] are where we hide when we can't find our principles.” It's a naive question (but naive questions are often the important ones to ask): is there a good explanation for why we are marrying? Or do we do it because, while there may once have been a good reason for doing it, we only do it now because it's the way we've always done it? We can question why these men made fools of themselves so publicly and have a laugh about it, but you'll notice that nobody questions the institution that caused them make fools of themselves.


Isn't it rather strange to take a work of fiction as "proof" that open marriages, or whatever you want to call such relationships, are stronger and those involved happier? If we take that approach seriously, I could take another of Heinlein's books and "prove" that we have already travelled faster-than-light to the stars, right?

I agree completely. None of what I write says that Heinlein "proves" open marriages are stronger. That would require evidence. Fiction doesn't "prove" anything, but it very often argues something, or makes soical commentary, as Heinlein does in his novels.