Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Does Free Love Promote or Impede Successful Marital Search?

Listening to satellite radio while driving, I occasionally come across the Cosmo channel. The assumed target audience seems to consist of women engaged simultaneously in a search for a long-term partner—a "keeper"—and a dating pattern involving a good deal of relatively casual sex. This raises an interesting question: does the latter make success in the former more or less likely? It is an old question, but the sexual revolution may provide new evidence.

On theoretical grounds, the answer is unclear. There are two obvious arguments against the modern pattern. The first is that, in a society where sex is readily available without marriage, the incentive to engage in a protracted search for a long term partner, costly in time, effort, and emotion, is much lower than in a society with more traditional mating patterns. The second is that sex, at least in humans, has emotional consequences—you feel differently about someone after sleeping with her (or him) than before. Arguably, in humans, one consequence is to reinforce emotional bonds that promote long term pairing—plausible both on subjective evidence and on obvious evolutionary grounds, given that human infants require extended care. That makes it at least plausible that the bonds forged with your fiftieth sex partner will be weaker than the ones forged with your first or second, making marital stability, when the keeper is finally found, less likely.

There are two obvious arguments in the other direction. The first is that if individuals very much desire sex and cannot get much of it outside of marriage, there is an incentive to marry in haste and repent at leisure, wed the first moderately acceptable partner willing to say yes. The second is that a successful sexual relationship makes a successful marriage more likely, so the parties are less likely to regret their choice if they try before they buy.

My question is whether anyone has produced good empirical data to tell us which side of the argument turns out to be more important. It is not enough to observe that divorce rates have gone up along with rates of non-marital sex. That might be due to other causes, most obviously easier divorce. Better evidence would be some sort of large scale longitudinal study, aimed at distinguishing the success in establishing marital (or long term non-marital) partnerships of people as a function of their prior willingness to engage in relatively casual sex. Even that, of course, has problems, since we don't have any way of creating a true controlled experiment—but an ingenious researcher might find a natural experiment that came close.


At 11:46 AM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Libertinarian said...

I object! I was VERY fond of my fiftieth sex partner!

At 12:03 PM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Roger Collins said...

I hypothesize that success in this area (call it maximum happiness over lifetime) comes from moderation. As with drinking alcohol, neither abstinence nor drunkenness, but moderation.

At 12:35 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger jimbino said...

I object. People change vastly over time.

It seems, first of all, that evolution tricks young men into thinking they are in love and want to support and nurture a child, when what they really want is just unencumbered sex. They don't usually figure this out until they get divorced and are supporting multiple kids for 25 years.

When a man tends toward middle age, what he wants and needs is a partner to play, travel, dance and share daily life with. Some sex too. Trouble is, those damn kids get in the way of all that.

When he gets to be an elder, he enjoys having an infertile partner who is in good health, fond of travel and financially secure, who looks after him without insisting on conversation or accompanied shopping trips.

Early vasectomy and later viagra are a man's best friends. The fact that numerous love affairs have interfered with his marriage prospects must be counted a blessing.

Remember Ann Landers' poll of her (mostly female) readers in which 70% said, if they could do it over again, they wouldn't have children? I wonder what an audience of elder men would say.

At 2:01 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger Unknown said...

"Arguably, in humans, one consequence is to reinforce emotional bonds that promote long term pairing—plausible both on subjective evidence and on obvious evolutionary grounds, given that human infants require extended care."

While that might have negative consequences in terms of finding a long-term partner, it could have positive consequences also - lessened friction in the community. My loose understanding is that bonobos use sex to keep peace in their groups, though of course, the number of years of care required for bonobo young are much less than for human.

At 2:30 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger jdgalt said...

You've asked an overbroad question.

Individuals seeking dates do not all want the same thing. Some want marriage and kids; some just want a steady supply of sex; while others' just want to have fun now. Even if we leave that last category out of the discussion, not every date has to be entirely for the purpose of finding a long-term partner. I don't even try to form an "agenda" about another person until we have dated several times, and I doubt I'm the only one.

This holds true for the long haul as well. The prospect of a marriage really lasting the rest of your life was much more realistic when life expectancy was less than 50. Just because two people have gotten along for 20 years doesn't mean they will continue to be satisfied with each other for 40 or 60. So unless the human lifespan somehow gets reduced to what it was in the Middle Ages, the ancient ideal of a single "love of one's life" will simply never again be practical for most people. Religion and psychiatry, as well as government, are going to have to come to terms with that fact.

I find it remarkable that you regard the "protracted search" for a partner as a burdensome task rather than an enjoyable interlude. If I felt I really needed that long term partner, then rather than expect to "get lucky", I would seek to hire one.

At 2:34 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger Arthur B. said...

Even though, on average, men have as many sexual partners as women, it's likely that the variance in the number of sexual partners is smaller among women.

The effect of numerous sexual partners on divorce rate probably diminishes with the number of sexual partner, 50 or 51 sexual partners shouldn't make the same difference as 1 and 2.

Therefore *couch* all else equal *cough* women should be more willing to divorce than men, because the concentration of sexual partners among a few successful make does not contribute a lot to the rate of male initiated divorces.

At 12:11 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger Unknown said...

For me, sex and attachment are unrelated. I can't recall sex ever changing how I felt about someone. Having a good or bad conversation with them has though.

The problem with waiting is that it motivates people to get married in order to have sex, which might not be the best way to ensure long term compatibility.

At 3:24 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger Kim Mosley said...

Perhaps people choose casual sex because they desire intimacy, but soon discover that they can have sex with a stranger, and hardly know more about that stranger than they did in the first place. I think a more interesting and useful question is whether (or not) living together improves one's chances for a successful marriage. In some societies, past and present, love and marriage weren't supposed to go together. We are in new territory, esp. because of what one of the commenters suggests: that we live so much longer.

At 5:16 AM, May 20, 2009, Anonymous Hammerhead said...

Living longer certainly makes many new things possible. One of those, however, is that you might enjoy your one soul mate, the love of your life, even more deeply. Same with a career. For example, suppose it becomes likely you can live a productive, healthy 100-150 years. Some people would decide to explore several different avenues for their life's work. Others might just be thrilled that they now have three or four more decades to work on one, deeply difficult but engrossing question, endeavor.

At 7:58 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger Garg Unzola said...

I don't think that just because free love has become socially accepted, it wasn't around before. Even during more puritan times, there was plenty of cavorting.

Besides, if you can't get sex outside of marriage, how are you going to convince someone to be your exclusive marital sex partner? You still need to have that option in order to exercise it.

I know a few people who were virgins when they married. Those are rocky marriages, to say the least. They're always wondering about the road most travelled, as it were, whereas those who have had nookie outside of wedlock tend to be far more relaxed and informed about their decision to get married. That's just my perception, mostly because I don't believe in sex after marriage.

At 3:21 PM, May 21, 2009, Blogger VangelV said...

I agree that the answer is unclear. On one hand it is possible that an irrational and hasty decision that is made more appealing by hormones and a lack of experience can cause more damage than experiments in casual sex. On the other, it is very likely that the availability of casual sex makes it difficult for many women to find the types of panthers they claim to want.

Why would a man who has no intimate connection to a woman who is giving sex away for free in a series of casual encounters want to spend his whole life with her? A better strategy may be one of serial monogamy, in which sex is limited to a single partner as long as he relationship exists. This is likely to help develop the necessary intimacy that is critical for the formation of a strong emotional bond that is the foundation of a long lasting relationship. It would also go a long way towards reducing the incidence of many chronic diseases that seem to afflict modern populations.

While I would also like to see empirical evidence I doubt that a good study is possible. Most studies in the social sciences are badly flawed, show the bias of the researchers and go a long way towards proving that the social sciences are not scientific.

At 7:38 PM, May 21, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

"I know a few people who were virgins when they married. Those are rocky marriages, to say the least."

That is not consistent with my, very limited, observations.

At 8:27 PM, May 22, 2009, Blogger montestruc said...

We are in the middle of a baby bust that seems will continue for a significant amount of time, and is spreading to the third world.

To me it is obvious that this is because left alone many people will make the rational (for them) decision to not have kids. In the long term what that is going to do is shift evolution and demographics toward social groups that tend to have lots of kids (think mormans or islam) and people who are genetically predisposed to like kids a lot.

However I do not think shifts in technology will give evolution enough time to reach any vague approximation of an equilibrium solution.

We will have the ability to design our own DNA in detail, and have artificial intelligent life before evolution can act in a measurable way in reply to birth control.

At 2:33 AM, May 23, 2009, Blogger Ron Purewal said...

Remember Ann Landers' poll of her (mostly female) readers in which 70% said, if they could do it over again, they wouldn't have children?That statistic is at best meaningless, and at worst disingenuous. This is not exactly a surprise, though, coming from a feminist hack like the author(s) of the Ann Landers column; anything, anything, to discourage the creation of large nuclear families.

First, "Ann Landers" writes an advice column, which means that her core audience consists of Women With Problems. You shouldn't need me to explain why this will bias the numbers statistics toward complaint and discontent.

Second, that was a write-in survey, so only those readers strongly opinionated enough to write in to "Ann Landers" figured into the survey. Since even normal humans complain MUCH more frequently, and MUCH more vocally, than they exult, there will ALWAYS be a completely unrepresentative excess of complaints in these surveys.
Analogy: If a business has 1000 happy customers and 5 unhappy ones, it will probably receive 1 commendation and 4 complaints.

At 2:36 AM, May 23, 2009, Blogger Ron Purewal said...

Interestingly, this exact example is in a statistics textbook from which I've taught, one of the better statistics textbooks on the market. It is given as a textbook (literally!) example of a statistic corrupted by, and meaningless/misleading because of, bias.

At 2:04 PM, May 25, 2009, Anonymous Kid said...

Where do you draw the line between "serious" sex and casual sex?

Does it depends on marriage? If two people are together for 20 years but not married, having a monogamous relationship, is it "casual sex"?

Does it depend on the motives of the participants (to release sexual urges or to bond with someone)?

Does it depend on how long a relationship lasts or is intended to last?

Does it depend on how committed the participants are to making a place for the other person in their life?

Does it depend on the number of sexual partners someone has concurrently, or in a life time?

It also makes me curious how you could make a value judgement about various social structures.

Do we take as a measure of good the survival probability of the genes?

The stability of the relationship?

The happiness of the participants?

Should we simply judge by how close it is to the values we were brought up with?

At 5:28 PM, May 25, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, best not to confuse sex with love, and ease at intimacy should be the stepping stone to a stable personal relationship. Sexual skills can always be learned by either person, and in reality may not depend on numbers.

Second, the best large scale study that favors stable partnerships after a long run of casual sex is how society was set before: young girls married to much older and experienced men.

Today the trend is turning the opposite, and better knowledge of the partner is giving short stable partnerships, in series at best.

I think it just reflects the 'culture' of the time, the need of the crowd to follow a fashionable social value that increases the chance of social success.

Perhaps the easy at gaming of today imprints or adds value to a person's personal worth. That would be a real research project.

At 5:44 PM, June 09, 2009, Anonymous Alex said...

David, enjoyed your post. Putting human emotions aside, it looks to me that you are circling around the same concept but offering different examples of this very same topic.
You were looking for a natural experiment; I will try to explain an analogy of the concept you are circling around. You are looking to buy a new home. You have a number of options to choose from, but you have to see all options if you want to get the optimal solution. However, this is a time consuming process and taking into account time (as a resource) spent on your search the optimal solution above does not look that optimal anymore. So the question becomes when to you stop. Yes, this is called in some literature as “satisficing”. This is only half of the story. The second part makes this analogy closer to your example. The list of variables in your criterion will change as your search progresses since you learn about new options, features, and so on. This learning process may not make feel happier at the end. Of course, there are some flavors of this problem, for example, if one of the options you looked at is still available or not, and so on.
And finally, a few years ago I read about a study conducted, I believe, in a grocery store, to determine the number of options consumers feel happiest to choose from. If my memory does not fail me, the result was about five to seven options. If a consumer chooses from a smaller number of options, he feels that his choice is not exactly what he may be looking for. If the consumer chooses from a larger number of options, he doubts that his choice may not be the best available.


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