Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Divorce and Mistakes

It is a sound rule for those with any understanding of probability that the only real mistakes are ex-ante mistakes. Put simply, you should only beat yourself up for decisions that you should have been able to figure out were a mistake based on what you knew at the time. If something turns out to be a bad decision because of things you found out later, there’s no sense beating yourself up over it. 

So if you go to a casino and bet on black (following the Passenger 57 Edict) and it comes up red, betting on black was not in any meaningful sense a ‘mistake’. At the time, red was just as good a bet as black. Now, it may be an ex-ante mistake to play roulette (which has fairly bad odds) rather than craps (which has better odds). It may well have been an ex-ante mistake to go to the casino in the first place. Those are decisions worth beating yourself up over. Landing on red sucks, but it doesn’t indicate a mistake.

To this end, I often wonder what percentage of divorces are the result of an ex-ante mistake. In other words, sometimes it’s clear from the start that a given partnership will not work (although usually not to the participants). Did you date for less than 3 months before he proposed? Did he have a history of cheating on you multiple times in the leadup to the marriage? Has she been divorced 5 times already? These kinds of things probably should be red flags. I wouldn’t say that anyone who marries in these cases is making an ex-ante mistake (there are lots of factors to consider, and these are still small determinants).

And a lot of the time things just don’t work out, even though the couple seemed well-suited to each other and deeply in love. A lifetime is a long time to stay together. And if you (or your spouse) has periodic temptations towards making Seriously Bad Decisions, you find yourself in a place not dissimilar from the IRA’s boast to Margaret Thatcher that ‘you have to be lucky every day, whereas we only have to be lucky once’.

But given all this, I’m still not sure what the true number would be, even if taken subjectively from the point of view of the divorcees. In other words, how many people who get divorced look back on heir marriage and think ‘Gee, it was a mistake to marry this person, and I shouldn’t have been such an idiot’, as opposed to thinking ‘Yeah, it sucks that it didn’t work out, but we had our good times, and I can still see why I made the decisions I did.’ 

I dunno. Even if I knew a large enough sample of divorced people to ask, it seems too likely to cause distress or offence relative to my idle curiosity on the subject

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