The Time of Separation

(Even more than usual, this is something of a rough draft. And way too long.)

A few months ago, Robin Hanson wrote a fascinating post asking what made this time period unique:

When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger. Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature. But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them. Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter. While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history. In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history.

He's thinking about the very distant future, to a time when humanity has fallen back into the Malthusian trap through an explosion in human mind uploads. I'd like to instead think a little less abstractly, and a little closer to the present.

Here's one: More than any period in the past, and probably relative to the future, we are more dependent on romantic relationships to fulfill all of our emotional needs. Our other friendships and relationships, such as with extended family, are shallower, and of shorter duration, than they "naturally" are, than they were, and than (I think) they will be.

What do I mean by dependent on romance? The decline of friendships is well-documented:

According to a study documented in the June 2006 issue of the journal American Sociological Review, Americans are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study states 25% of Americans have no close confidants, and the average total number of confidants per citizen has dropped from four to two.

Here's an anectodal, and I think illustrative, example: Last month, the New York Times Style section ran an article about marriage which had this remarkable bit:

Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. This was true for us. On our wedding day, Dan and I performed that elaborate charade: I walked down the aisle with my father. I left him to join my husband. We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan — must my love for Dan — always come first?

This all came pouring out last summer in the worst fight of our marriage. At the time, we were at my parents’ house, an hour northeast of San Francisco. More than food, more than child-rearing, we fought about weekends — in particular, how many summer weekends to spend up there. I liked the place: out of the fog, free grandparental day care; the kids could swim. Dan loathed it, describing the locale as “that totally sterile golf community in which your mother feeds our kids popsicles for breakfast and I’m forbidden to cook.”

For the past few years I dismissed Dan’s complaints by saying, “Fine, don’t go.” I told myself this was justified, if not altruistic: I was taking our girls; Dan could do what he wanted with his free time. But underneath lay a tangle of subtext. Dan wished he spent even more time with his own parents, who were quite private. I felt an outsize obligation toward mine, because they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to us. We’d had some skilled conversations, which helped a bit, as I now knew those weekends with his in-laws made Dan feel alienated and left out of our family decision-making. Yet at root we fought because the issue rubbed a weak point in our marriage, in our monogamy: I didn’t want to see my devotion to my parents as an infidelity to Dan. To him, it was.

It's not my intention to criticize these people (although, for the record, I think they both come out like most people do in the NYTimes Style pages: Self-absorbed and unpleasant). Rather, I'd just like to point out how funamentally strange this approach to emotional monogamy is, historically and (I'd argue) evolutionarily. Stephanie Coontz wrote an interesting article a few years ago about the history of marriage:

In John Adams’s view, a “passion for the public good” was “superior to all private passions.” In both England and America, moralists bewailed “excessive” married love, which encouraged “men and women to be always taken up with each other.”

From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.

Look, I realize some of this was subliminated homosexuality in age of repression. And another part was probably that men had trouble developing emotional relationships with women in separate spheres. Nevertheless, I think it's virtually undeniable that friendship has declined in importance relative to marriage.

But try telling somebody that you're unhappy about the constant dissolving of friendships, unhappy that every couple years you move and everything starts over. You get told, bluntly, that's life, grow up. And it does just sound juvenile, doesn't it? But then there's this, from the always fascinating The Edge:

Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise — habits that tend to inhibit ovulation. As a result, they regularly space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages—about four years—conforms to the traditional period of human birth spacing, four years.

Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.

She doesn't talk about friendship, but I strongly suspect that it's evolved in order to bond tribes. You're more likely to fight with and die with someone with whom you share an emotional connection. And that bond is permanent: Men didn't get a new tribe every four years. They got a new wife every four years. In other words, we're evolved to be fine divorcing, not moving.

My fellow conservative-leaners share some of the blame for this, with their overemphasis of marriage as the apotheosis of human existence. When I was looking for that Coontz piece, I ran across this old Ann Althouse post, where in the comments Coontz is made out to be a radical for wanting people to build deeper relationships. (To be fair, here's a more sensible response, someone who appreciates the deep benefits of real community.)

Coontz attributes the decline to Freudianism. As happy as I am to blame him for the world's ills, I'd like to suggest another possible reason: Economics. Specifically, mobility. As the economy became more dynamic, it became necessary to move often. As people did so, they rationally stopped developing long-lasting, deep friendships. Why bother? The people will simply move away in a few years. The only person you could (barely) count on remaining was your spouse, and consequently, people became emotionally dependent on them, and only them.

So far I've been a downer about things here. I've said friendship has been on the decline, and nothing about why I think this is a transient stage. Here, of course, I'm of necessity vaguer, since I'm looking to the future, but I'll give it a shot.

One reason is the growth of communications technology. The rise of "helicopter parents" is, in my view, a negative. And surely it's partially driven by sociological factors. But it's also a result of technology. Without cell phones, webcams, etc., it's simply not possible to be a helicopter mom. And this development will continue. I IM my brother, 1000 miles away, far more than I would call him. And then what about something like this:

A new Army grant aims to create email or voice mail and send it by thought alone. No need to type an e-mail, dial a phone or even speak a word.

Known as synthetic telepathy, the technology is based on reading electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph, or EEG. Similar technology is being marketed as a way to control video games by thought.

"I think that this will eventually become just another way of communicating," said Mike D'Zmura, from the University of California, Irvine and the lead scientist on the project.

Things like this will only continue. Already, I strongly suspect facebook and the like has led to people staying in touch for longer. True, some of these are shallow "reationships", but the technology is new. Imagine what instant, effortless communication, or truly authentic-looking holograms, or whatever would do. Friendships would be cheaper to maintain, and thus more enduring.

Potentially even transportation advances could help. Already airplane flights are far cheaper than they were a few decades ago. What about something like hypersonic transport? I don't think that's as big a deal as communications advances (partially because I view the advances as less radical). Even so, as economic growth continues, expect the time cost (that is, the hours you need to work to pay for something) of moving from one place to another to fall.

Another reason I view this phase as passing is the future of time off. I think I'm probably in the minority here, but I tend to think even highly skilled workers? Why? Because there simply isn't that much that money can be spent on. As Will Wilkinson once wrote, "The difference between rich and poor in transportation used to be feet versus carriage. Now, its a 1988 Escort vs. a 2002 BMW, which, despite our keen sense for the social distinction, is in fact a triumph of equality." This trend will only continue. Sure, people will work hard and compete, but there comes a point where the marginal gains are simply not that high, relative to just sloughing off and playing more golf.

I've noticed an interesting trend in my classmates. I don't have much to compare it to, but many, including myself, seem far less enthused about moving to random parts of the country/world than our predecessors. A huge number have strong desires to move back to the Pacific Northwest, or the South, or whatever. And why not? We have become so rich that we can allow ourselves to be moved by these non-economic considerations. Sure, you might get a few more bucks moving, but so what? Diminishing returns in material possessions kicks in, and being somewhere you want to be becomes more important. (This is, by the way, an excellent reason not to go to graduate school. More than perhaps anything else about the academic lifestyle, I'm distressed by the total lack of geographic flexibility in it.)

Better communications, transportation, and time off to enjoy them. All of this makes friendship cheaper, and just like with anything else, when things are cheaper, you get more of it. That's what I think the future looks like. I could, of course, be wrong. Perhaps the future is moving ever more often, severing all social ties every time, and having a social circle that consists of a single person, until you divorce. But I'm optimistic that we're seeing a passing phase in civilization, unprecedented and unusual.

Share this

I feel that we are

I feel that we are experiencing unprecedented and unusual times. Establishing the legitimate core of a resistance requires gemeinschaft, which leads to an almost irrepressible kampfgeist. Erosion of the bonds that allows these spirits to manifest may or may not be intentional, but it IS happening.

One must actively seek others like themselves so as to form bonds of mutual kinship, to survive these economically challenging times. Even if it is merely in the form of "doubling-up" with friends or families.

Certain individuals in the MSM claim the "family is under attack". It is not merely the family as a social hierarchy that is under siege. ALL non-state hierarchies are feeling the repressive boot of centralized command and control infrastructure that government is so damn good at establishing.

The bureaucracy wants to be the final word in your life. Cradle to grave mismanagement, by the same people who brought you public school.

In the immortal words of the philosopher Andre 3000....

"If what they say is, 'Nothing is forever,'
then what makes, what makes, what makes, what makes, what makes, what makes
love the exception?"

Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.

This is a relatively older theory about pair bonding popularized by a female evolutionary psychologist whose name escapes me at the moment.

Friendship is much cheaper these days. I wish Facebook had been around when I was in college. I'd have kept up with many more of my friends. "Reconnecting" just doesn't have the same oomph.

BTW, this was a great post-- tying together a bunch of different things in a semi-cohesive result. Very Ghertneresque.

I loved Curunir's post, and

I loved Curunir's post, and your comment. Andre 3000 is indeed a great philosopher, and we need less social emphasis on maintaining monogamous pair-bonds indefinitely and more emphasis on extending the bonds of friendship (both platonic and amorous).

These dots could be reconnected this way.

I'm not sure the trends are any different, but you could recast this story as:

  1. Humans find social bonds productive and satisfying,
  2. but not quite as necessary as basic material needs,
  3. so as the State skims more and more wealth from society,
  4. and sellers overhype the benefits of their trinkets
  5. over limited mass-media channels;
  6. the time and resources devoted to maintaining social bonds have suffered,
  7. until the only significant bond left is the nuclear family,
  8. perhaps only marriage...
  9. perhaps only parenthood...
  10. perhaps only motherhood for the first four years...
  11. which more and more people find ridiculous,
  12. and want to change.

Let's go hunting!

We can't use guns though, because they're too civilized.


I hadn't heard that stuff about strong Victorian friendships - have been pondering it for days.

The family and other forms of social integration

The beginning of wisdom is the realization that things change. People who bemoan the loss of some idealized notion of the family, language, religion, nationhood/government, “native cultures” or even nature fail to recognize that change is the only true constant.

Over the past few millennia society has experienced a general, if occasionally interrupted, shift toward larger social organizations. Prior to industrialization, people’s social circles were highly integrated: Adults lived where they worked; they used what they made/grew; if they engaged in trade, they traded with members of their immediate community/tribe. The tribe took precedence over the nuclear family. Multiple generations might live together; alternatively, a child might leave the family abode at the time the child became able to perform labor. These living conditions did not present optimal conditions for any individual to act independent of his or her larger social network.

In contrast, industrialization resulted in “alienation”: interchangeable laborers working in locations remote from their homes, creating products for people they did not know. This created both the opportunity and the demand for people to leave their highly-integrated lives for autonomous, anonymous lives in cities. As earlier social cohesion disintegrated, we see the rise of new social organizations: police departments (imposing order from without), the labor movement (creating order from within), and various forms of mass nostalgia (the rise of country/folk music and religious fundamentalism) for some lost way of life, real or imagined. The nuclear family represented a new urban ideal: a social network strong enough to support procreation and domesticate men, yet small enough to move when opportunity presented itself.

Consider the rise of contemporary notions of Christmas. At one time Christmas was a holiday similar to Halloween: rowdy young men would travel from house to house threatening mischief unless they were provided with booze (“wassail”). Social reformers promoted the idea of Christmas as focusing on nurturing children at home.

What amount of social integration is the “norm”? Hard to say. Arguably the economic crisis of the 1930s (and perhaps the desire to band together to oppose foreign powers) promoted popular enthusiasm for greater social integration. As the books Habits of the Heart and Bowling Alone document, membership in all kinds of voluntary organizations surged up through the 1970s, at the same time that divorce rates also peaked. Arguably the economic crisis of the 1970s deflated the popular enthusiasm for collectivism, replacing it with an increased emphasis on “rugged individualism” and the nuclear family. And arguably the current economic crisis has again flipped the switch in favor of collectivism. While I haven’t detected any drop in enthusiasm for the nuclear family, I do detect a broadening of the popular conception of what constitutes a family.

When libertarians discuss social organization, it can reveal a split among the fold. Some self-identified libertarians embrace a legalistic concept: I want to live in an environment in which no state subjects me to coercion. Others embrace a more bohemian concept: I want to be free to do as I choose when I choose. Arguably traditional societies offer the least “state coercion,” but also have exacting social norms that dictate the duties each member of a tribe owes to each other. Violations of these norms can lead to sanctions such as private “honor killings” or indirect killings via expulsion/withholding group protection. Alternatively, Western constitutional democracies create an increased sphere of autonomy but also an increased state coercive apparatus to defend that autonomy from threats internal and external. Some degree of trade-off seems inevitable.