While many will imagine a lifetime of endearing relationship, marriage is hardly without its own course of hardships, arguments and disagreements.
Ideally, marriage signifies a sacred union of two individuals swearing in to support each other throughout their entire life. In most marriage arrangements, spouses are assumed to pledge and observe permanence, sexual exclusivity or monogamy.
However, marriage is far more of a practical endeavour than an ideological ceremony. And none of the conditions as proposed above are definite in matrimony, except if one is to base it on the good faith in humanity.
It compels me to ponder about the various aspects of marriage for the dynamics of marriage have long intrigued me. Why is there a need for marriage? What does marriage exactly comprise of? When two people form this legal binding union, what exactly are they in for?
Deconstructing and simplifying the stages of love
To first understand marriage, we need to first understand the underlying structure of love. Why does marriage lose the sparkly lustre that it used to have during the initial phase of dating? If one cannot comprehend the changing dynamics of a relationship, one might be entrapped to seek out the pleasure of meeting someone new continuously. However, not to say that one is wrong to pursue such romantic interests but one is best equipped and prepared for marriage if they could make sense of what happen during the course of love.
Stage 1: Initial lust
We say that we feel butterflies in our stomach during the initial phase of infatuation and lust. We feel physically attracted to the person of our affection. Lust is the primitive drivers for us to find a partner to spread our genes. Of course, at this stage, we seek and desire sexual gratification. Lust is driven be testosterone in men and estrogen in women.
Stage 2: Attraction
Over a period, lust pans off to attraction. There is excitement and motivation in seeking out the companionship in your lover. Dopamine, the hormone that is associated with motivation and reward, is released when we are spending time with our loved ones and having sex. Together with norepinephrine, these chemicals make us giddy, energetic and euphoric when we are with someone we are attracted to.
Dopamine is also the chemical that is related to addictions. This pleasurable feedback loop can result in a habitual pattern of seeking out the act that invokes the release of dopamine.
Stage 3: Attachment
Attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships. This is the stage that mediates parent-infant bonding and other intimacies. The two primary hormones are oxytocin and vasopressin. At this point, the couple will be making long term plans to move in, get married or have children. Dopamine decreases, and attraction goes down. However, the presence of oxytocin creates the desire to bond with and nurture your partner.
Societal construct: On permanence, sexual exclusivity and monogamy
Marriage unites two individuals legally. By entering this form of regulated relationship, spouses seal their commitment to each other. In an ideal situation, society views marriage to signify exclusivity.
However, since the olden days, polygamy has been in practice for some communities. Even now, polygamy takes many forms across the globe: Africa, some rural areas and the community of Mormons etc. Let’s not forget that even in a culture that does not encourage polygamy, both men and women could still be having secret affairs.
There are myriad reasons for one to engage in an extramarital liaison. To list just a few, one could be looking for excitement or passion, feeling unappreciated, having a need for validation and boosting of self-esteem. They could also be addicted to various kinds of sexual adventures, serendipitous encounters and escapism. One simply could look at the myriad of dating apps to discover married and attached individuals seeking for no strings attached.
Traditionally, women need support from men. Hence, men, who are wealthy enough to support a few families and matrimony, will bring in a few wives. This helps to ensure the survivability of the women.
When we talk about survivability, we can’t avoid the issue of what human are biologically driven to do.
To put it crudely, we are engineered to accomplish one task: to procreate. Putting aside grand lofty ambitions and dreams of human and the virtually non-existence sex drive of pandas, fundamentally, all living things exist to ensure their future lineage.
In this situation, for a woman, pregnancy is a costly investment to her body. She needs to share her bodily resources and functions to develop the fetus over a course of eight months. It is more economical for her to focus her resources on a monogamous family structure and the offspring from this structure. Not to mention, if the lady is pregnant with a third party outside the marriage, it could bring in disastrous impact if she depends on her husband financially.
However, for a man, the more diversely he could distribute his genetics across the genetic pool, the probability of the survivability of his offspring increases. Of course, man faces the same issue if he impregnates a woman outside of his matrimony. However, should the mistress be dependent on him for her financial security, she might find herself in a situation similar to the wife who commits adultery, a disastrous impact on her financial stability, if she threatens to act against the man of her affair.
Even though modern medicine and interventions have reduced infanticides, increased life expectancy and reduced family size, our bodies have not evolved to catch up biologically. It might sound like a case against men, in which men have a higher propensity to cheat. But the truth is, in a marriage, in this modern society, anyone has access and the means to succumb to external temptations.
In which, we need to ask ourselves, how could we clearly define an act of infidelity? Is infidelity the mere act of sexual activities? Or does overtly romantic gestures with reconciling intentions from both the married individual and the third party be counted as infidelity as well? In this case, coming back to the constraints of marriage, how does the pledge of faith exchange during the marriage vows hold water?
Financial construct: On financial stability, childbirth and financial planning
While women are becoming more financially independent, there comes a time in which childbirth will take place. Being pregnant and having kids generally have negative impacts on the presumed work output on the female employee. In general, wage gap between the male and female is still an existing issue, even in the most developed and technologically advanced industry. Maybe it is the way that females tend to negotiate less. Maybe it is the way that a motherly figure is presumed to put in less effort and time in work as their focus is turned to their family, rightfully so.
In this case, does women consciously or subconsciously relegate to a role with lower responsibility? Not to mention, there are many women who have plans to slow down their work life upon pregnancy. Because, yes, work-life balance is important. I’m a firm believer that it is better for parents, both mother and father, to spend more time with the kids during their early, formative childhood years. Then the question is, suppose if the mother decides to put in equal effort in her work as before she is single, what are the repercussions that the family unit is able to accept?
A marriage resembles the agreement of a financial stability that both people could and have to reconcile with. Most likely than not, couples will have been through pre-marriage preparation that they could have plans to agree on the type of housing they are to live in, the number of kids and the type of education that their kids should receive. In effect, getting into a marriage, means that they are committing to a minimal of a 10 years financial planning with each other.
Governance & legal construct: On housing and divorce
In the Singapore context, unless one is married, one could not get a build to order(BTO). The option of a BTO flat only becomes available to a single upon reaching 35 years old. Even then, the regulations are restrictive: singles can only apply BTO for a 2 room flat. Though upon reaching 35-year-old, one is entitled to resales flat.
In essence, a conjugal union is catalysed by the fact that married couples will have access to their own living space, which is heavily subsidised. A potential 3-year-wait for a flat hasten a young couple to commit before they might be ready.
Putting societal and housing constraints aside, the legal construct of a marriage kicks in when a couple undergo annulment or divorce. In Singapore, the Women’s Charter, a legislative act will come into place to regulate the relationship between the husband and the wife and the relationship between parents and their children and division of matrimonial assets.
These are many the different aspects to marriage that a couple should thoroughly consider before tying the knot. Am I overly cynical? Maybe. Am I condemned to a state of perpetual singlehood because of the way I view things in an unromantic manner? Maybe. But it is my firm belief that if one has to commit to a marriage, they need to see it as what it is, the practicalities and the nuances, and not sugar coat it with unrealistic ideologies.
30 March 2016. Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. The Science of Love and Attachment, Psychology Today.
14 February 2017. Katherin Wu. Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship, SITN Harvard University.