Thinking of the days that are no more

In a previous post, I talked about some of the biases which skew the evaluations of our memories carried out by our "remembering selves". One domain in which these biases are particularly prevalent is romantic relationships. The most emotionally charged period of a relationship is usually the acrimony which accompanies its demise; the peak-end effect ensures that this negative affect is one of the main things we remember. Then there's duration neglect: our memories discount long periods of uneventful happiness compared with sudden changes. There's also a great deal of cognitive dissonance involved in reflecting on past relationships: we don't want to think that we were the reason a happy relationship failed, so it's easiest to conclude that it probably wasn't happy, and that this unhappiness was the other person's fault!

Lastly, there's a comparison effect, where we constantly hold in our minds certain ideals to which past relationships haven't measured up - in particular, the ideal of a lifelong commitment. There are certainly many practical reasons to favour long-term romantic commitments, for example the ability to raise children in a more stable environment. However, I think it is a mistake to view relationships as successful if they last "until death do us part", and unsuccessful if they don't (a mistake whose prevalence is due in no small part to the biases I described above). Rather, relationships can be positive experiences in the same way that holidays are: fun while they last, and memorable afterwards, without any need for expectations of permanence.

Of course there are many reasons to want a permanent relationship - to spend the rest of your life committed to another person. For a majority of people (probably including myself), those considerations will be overwhelming. But I'd be surprised if there were not plenty of people more suited to a series of medium-term relationships, each lasting perhaps half a dozen or a dozen years. Given the heights that divorce rates have soared to, it seems like many are already ending up in this scenario accidentally.

You might object that almost everyone could manage long-term relationships - because almost everyone managed it "back in the good old days" - and it's just modern life which is giving people shorter attention spans. Perhaps that is true. But under the heading of "modern life" we must include a variety of genies which we can't and shouldn't put back in their bottles - women's empowerment, longer lifespans, no-fault divorce, increasing secularism, even the rise of film and TV. Besides, we're going to have to adapt eventually: if and when technology extends the typical healthy lifespan to two hundred years or more, I'm very confident that new forms of marriage will arise to replace the current expectation of lifelong commitment. So why not anticipate them now?

(Note: since this post is based more on anecdotal data than hard evidence, I'd be very interested to know whether your experiences match my claims.)


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