The Relationship Calculation: What Motivates Your Pair-Bond?

Posted on January 27, 2014


BondsFor most of human history, a pair-bond between humans has almost always been a kind of business deal, whether the deal was struck by two families on behalf of the prospective business partners or by the partners themselves. In this model, the pair-bond is normally expected to be created by the agreement to share the costs and benefits of raising children, maintaining property, and supporting each other’s families. Arranged pair-bonds (e.g. arranged marriages) tend to make sense; romantic and sexual love is nice, but hardly necessary. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their families do, too.

Even now, in the developed world, as the relevance of child-rearing and one’s duties to the extended family diminishes, it seems to me, very many people still make sense of their pair-bond in terms not unlike a business deal. The main difference is that it is the relationship itself that is now the enterprise, whatever its outputs may be. The pair-bond motivates or is created by an agreement to share the costs and benefits of the relationship. The fact of the relationship is the primary good and each partner makes concessions to ensure the relationship continues. In this model, arranged pair-bonds still make a lot of sense (hello, eHarmony); romantic and sexual love is yet again a nice to have, but not a must have. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their friends and families do, too.

If one wants to raise a family or have a relationship for its own sake, either of these kinds of pair-bonds make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if one doesn’t want or need any of these things and one isn’t required by social norms to have them anymore, neither of these pair-bonds make a lot of sense. To put it more simply, it doesn’t make much sense to take on any of the costs associated with the pair-bond, if one doesn’t want any of its benefits. Moreover, there are also many other benefits that one must deny oneself in a pair-bond. Which is to say, the great increase in the number of single person dwellings in recent years can probably be explained by this simple calculation. For many people, the costs of a pair-bond and/or cohabitation outweigh its benefits.

For me, personally, the point of a pair-bond has always been the experience of love, especially an experience of love that exists at the intersection of eros and a secular version of kenosis, which involves the lover rather than God, and kenshō. Sure, I can see the benefits of a partnership for the sake of children, family, and property, but, for me, the benefits and purpose of the relationship are one in the same: love, tenderness, trust, and all that gooey stuff.

For the record, part of me recognizes that there is more than a measure of adolescent selfishness in the priority I place on the experience of love. There’s also another part of me that sometimes worries that this emphasis on the experience of love treats the beloved as a mere means to the end of experiencing love.

Ultimately, I say, fuck it. I am very lucky to live in this unique time in human history, a time when I can give priority to this experience, so, if and when I am so lucky to find it, I will try and enjoy it for as long as I can. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s even an opportunity for the experience of love, unless the other person is an equal participant. One must see the other as an absolute end before truly losing oneself therein.

Returning to the beginning, I guess the point of all this is to admit that, even though I understand the reasoning behind a marriage for the sake of children, property, family, or for the sake of a relationship in its own right, I don’t really understand why one, in the age of reliable contraception, would pursue the practical relationship rather than the one that is quasi-mystical.

Of course, the age of reliable contraception has been a short one and you probably have children or have the opportunity to have children, whereas I currently do not. From the perspective of evolution, it is clear who is the winner and who is not. Having said that, I’m sure (or hope, maybe) that very many babies have been born and well-raised in the name and glow of ooey-gooey love. In the age of reliable contraception, however, we romantics, in the name of love, might eventually eliminate ourselves from the gene pool.