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The Sunday Times: Marshmallow or marriage? The greatest test of a human being

Date: June 13, 2016

It’s tempting to think of marriage as old-fashioned. Why not just live with someone and be done with it? What need for a public ceremony? Why the weird traditions that people normally keep away from: all those churches, temples, hymns, vows and prayers? Marriage must be a silly relic from the religious childhood of humankind, not designed for the more logical modern world.

Yet it survives. All kinds of practical benefits seem associated with being married. A University of California study suggested last week that being married increases your chances of beating a variety of blood cancers by a fifth and improves survival rates from heart attacks by 14%.

However, the real benefits are not to do with physical so much as psychological health. The essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up. Why do we do this?

Originally we told ourselves that God wanted us to stay married. But even now, when God is not invoked, we keep making sure that marriage is rather hard to undo. For one thing, you carefully invite everyone you know to watch you say you’ll stick together. You willingly create a huge layer of embarrassment were you ever to turn round and admit that it might have been a mistake.

Furthermore, even though you could keep things separate, marriage tends to mean deep economic and legal entanglements. You know it is going to take the work of a phalanx of accountants and lawyers to prise you apart. It can be done, of course, but it may be ruinous.

It is as if we somewhere recognise that there might, rather strangely, be some quite good though uncomfortable reasons why making it difficult to split up a union can be an advantage for its members.

It is an arrangement that protects us from what we desire, and yet know we don’t truly need or want

The “marshmallow test” was a celebrated experiment in the history of psychology designed to measure children’s ability to delay gratification. Some of the youngsters were offered a marshmallow but were told they would get two if they held off from eating the first one for a short time. It turned out that a lot of the children just couldn’t make it through this period. The marshmallow was too tempting. Crucially, it was observed that these children went on to have lives blighted by a lack of impulse control and fared much worse than the youngsters who had been best at subordinating immediate pleasure for long-term benefit.

Relationships are no different. Here, too, many things feel urgent. Not eating marshmallows, but escaping, finding freedom, running away. We are excited by a new person and want to abandon our current partner at once. And yet as we look around for the exit, every way seems blocked. It would cost a fortune; it would be so embarrassing; it would take an age.

This isn’t a coincidence. Marriage is a giant inhibitor of impulse that was set up by our conscience to keep our libidinous, optimistic, desiring self in check. To marry is to recognise that we require structure to insulate us from our urges. It is to lock ourselves up willingly because we somehow acknowledge the benefits of the long term.

Marriage proceeds without constant reference to the moods of its protagonists. It isn’t about feeling. It is a declaration of intent that is impervious to our day-to-day desires. It is an unusual marriage in which the two people don’t spend a notable amount of time fantasising that they aren’t in fact married. But the point of marriage is to make these feelings not matter very much. It is an arrangement that protects us from what we desire, and yet know (in our more reasonable moments) that we don’t truly need or want.

At their best, relationships involve us in attempts to develop, mature and become “whole”. We often get drawn to people precisely because they promise to edge us in the right direction.

The process of our maturation can be agonisingly slow and complicated. It can take years of supportive interest, many tearful moments of anxiety and much frustration until genuine progress is made. With time, after maybe 120 arguments on a single topic, both parties may begin to see it from the other’s point of view. Slowly we start to get insights into our own madness. We become a little easier to live with.

It is not hard to seem kind and normal when we go out with someone new. The truth about us — on the basis of which self-improvement can begin — becomes clear only over time. Chances of development increase hugely when we don’t keep running away to people who will falsely reassure us that there’s nothing too wrong with us.

Many of the most worthwhile projects require immense sacrifices from both parties and it’s in the nature of such sacrifices that we’re most likely to make them for people who are also making them for us.

Marriage is a means by which people can specialise — perhaps in making money or running a home. This can be hugely constructive. But it carries a risk. Each person (especially if one person stays at home) needs to be assured that they will not later be disadvantaged.

Over time the argument for marriage has shifted. It’s no longer about external forces having power over us: churches, the state, the legal idea of legitimacy, the social idea of being respectable.

What we are correctly focused on now is the psychological point of making it hard to throw it all in. It turns out that we benefit greatly (although at a price) from having to stick with certain commitments because some of our key needs have a long-term structure.

For the past 50 years the burden of intelligent effort has been on attempting to make separation easier. The challenge now lies in another direction: in trying to remind ourselves why immediate flight doesn’t always make sense. In trying to see the point of holding out for the second marshmallow.