Harvard Business Review and marriage...

Another insightful article on the HBR blog today, can be read here.

Essentially, this blog refers to a paper that describes the four elementary forms of social relationships :

  • Family : Everyone shares, unconditionally, no one keeps score.

  • Neighborhood : Don't share equally , but strive for equality (If you have a flat tire, your neighbor might lend a hand. It would be strange to pay him, but you might lend him something as a way to say thanks).

  • Hierarchy : Everyone does as they are told, everyone has a defined role.

  • Market : Everyone is paid their worth.

Further, the blog goes on to articulate why in the best work environments, there is always a mixture of both hierarchy and neighborhood. Treating employees like family would be unfair, as not everyone could pull their weight equally, and a market-type scenario could be detrimental as well. After all employees generally get paid less than what they could get in the open market, which is why consultant wages are higher.

This made me think about marriages. Specifically in context of the Indian marriage in my parent's day and age. A majority of marriages in those days were arranged - thus limiting what we today call "free will". In fact, there are parts of the Indian society even today, where it is the oldest living relative of the family that would make decisions about who the younger ones marry. In that sense, there is a definite sense of structure there, with the elders playing a superior role. But it isn't all hierarchy - there is an element of "market" there as well - elements like financial standing, caste, class etc. inherent in any mating ritual, arranged or not. The "neighborhood" piece comes into play as well when the couple gets married - the extended family of in-laws behave in this manner with each other, friendly but not intimate. And finally there is the family piece - the couple themselves sticking through highs and lows, going the extra mile to make sure the family stays together. Divorce rates in those days were pretty low, partly due to the hierarchy of the social structure, partly due to disparity in the "market" but also due to people's attitude towards marriage.

Modern day pop psych states unequivocally that couples have a much greater chance of making it if they go down the aisle thinking that marriage is forever. Maybe that's what the society then gave couples , whether by the form of social taboo about separation or otherwise. But that set-up did come with some built-in checks and balances. Both sides of the family were heavily involved in the couples life, and decision making. That took the modern day individualism out of the equation, but it did build in some conflict resolution and free marriage advice, things that are available today for 200 dollars an hour. Moreover, couples that lived in the joint family setup lacked what we cherish today, privacy. Their marriage had to be conducted in the public, very voyeuristic glare of the extended relatives, friends, family and the maids. There was pressure on them to have kids as soon as they were married. All their decisions were dictated by someone else. But amidst it all, most of those marriages survived.

One possible explanation of this could be the "common enemy" theory. When you think about it, the most powerful social groups you've formed , right from high school to college, have been through common interests, but more importantly,a common enemy. The other explanation could be that if you have an active conflict with someone else, you are more likely to bond with your spouse because your negative energy has an external sink, and this could have prevented couples from turning against each other.

Marriages in those days were, by no means perfect. I know I have personally judged the marriages of people in my previous generation, and sometimes quite harshly. As much has they condemn modern day , free will ones with disappearing gender roles and skyrocketing divorce rates. But then,there is the question of what defines a successful marriage ? If a couple stays under the same roof, just because of social pressures or because it is convenient , but the communication has completely stopped, would you still classify that as a successful marriage ? Similarly, what is a good enough reason to leave ? Where would you draw the line ?

Maybe in today's world, a successful marriage has the family element to it, the unconditional love bit. But it also has a bit of the neighborhood element as well, which lets you keep your individuality, and yet function as a successful couple. This way your identity doesn't just dissolve into the larger, common social/family unit but thrives independently, thus bringing a better part of yourself to the relationship.

Thoughts ?

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