Thursday, May 10, 2018

On Predicting Divorce

Divorce, like death, is one of those things that deep down everyone assumes will only happen to other people. People believe this despite all the statistics and reasoning to the contrary. Also like death, it usually takes a divorce happening to someone close to you for the full gravity and horror of the situation to become apparent. But if it comes, there's a good chance it will take you by surprise. Maybe your marriage gets randomly run over by a bus. Maybe it develops a debilitating and malignant lung cancer, until when the end finally arrives it almost comes as a relief. Of course, divorce doesn’t have to happen to you. But maybe that’s just because the other inevitability steps in first. On a long enough time frame, the survival rate for everybody drops to zero, after all. If we lived for a million years, would any marriage last that long?

I have not been divorced. I have not even been married. Which makes me wholly unqualified to talk on the subject. But then again, even the most ardent real life students of the topic probably only have a few first-hand experiences on the subject. And knowledge on the subject is almost by construction going to be piecemeal. The people with the most firsthand experience of what it’s like to go through one are likely those with relatively less understanding of why it tends to occur. Or they’re bizarre gluttons for punishment.

If one is interested in forestalling divorce, there are two questions to ask. The first is how you should act in a marriage, conditional on your spouse. For this you can go to your local marriage counselor, or Dalrock, or Heartiste. Weight the three according to taste.

But there’s a second question – whom should you marry in the first place? I’ve probably spent more time thinking about this question, because it’s the Russian Roulette of high-stakes inference. And if I spend more time thinking about it than most people, perhaps oddly so, I at least have the defense that I think that most people spend an insufficient time thinking about it in cold, concrete terms.

So what might be things I’d look for?

The first, which doesn’t require much insight, is divorced parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, etc. Everything is partly heritable, so a fair amount of behavior will come from genetics. But this is one of those cases where you don’t really care where the predictive power comes from. The bit that’s environmental is being passed down too. Freud may have been wrong about the specific hypotheses he had on how children relate to their parents, but he was right on one thing – if you want to understand the child, look at their parents, and the child’s relationship with their parents.

Some people end up explicitly modeling themselves as a rejection and reaction against their parents’ failings. But most people end up subconsciously taking in expectations of what “normal” behavior looks like. Marital breakdown is like a car crash. Because crashes are quite infrequent, you probably want to spend more time analyzing near misses, where there’s a lot more frequent data to go on. In the marital domain, I find a quite illuminating question to be “how often did your parents tend to argue when you were a kid”? Everyone assumes their answer holds across the board for everyone. It doesn’t. Try it out.

So then we turn to characteristics of the person themselves. What traits are worrying?

To me, the biggest personality trait I’d worry about is selfishness and self-centredness, broadly defined. And importantly, you can’t look to how they are with you. You have to look at how they are with other people, especially those they don’t really like. Sacrificing and making an effort when in the first flush of excitement and love is very different than doing it after ten years when you’ve got two young children and you’re chronically underslept. The latter is when it actually matters. How does the person behave when they’re tired, and stressed, and having to do something they don’t really like?

Selfishness and self-centredness aren’t the same thing, of course, but they overlap. Selfishness is probably something that people are more apt to notice and avoid instinctively – is the person just stingy and rarely generous in unsolicited ways, unless they’re getting something out of it? This is probably likely to make your marriage unpleasant, leading to a visible deterioration. But it’s also something that is likely to make you avoid marrying someone in the first place just as an experiential aspect, regardless of the specific divorce question.

I suspect that self-centredness is both harder to diagnose, and more likely to get you blind-sided by a surprise divorce. In other words, does the person think that the main question to be answered is “Is this marriage something that makes me happy?”. If this is the relevant question, you might be surprised how their behavior turns on a dime when the answer switches to “no”. When things are going well and marriage makes them happy, a self-centred person might do lots of nice things for their spouse. But once it doesn’t, suddenly their desire to be generous decreases a lot in a way that seems surprising from the outside.

So how do you spot someone who’s not self-centred? Self-centredness can have a number of opposite traits, which manifest in different ways. One is empathy – genuine empathy, that is. Genuine empathy frequently asks the question “I wonder how that would feel to the other person?”. Someone who asks this frequently will wonder far in advance what divorce would be like for their husband, and their children. Self-centredness can coexist with kindness to others, and even compassion. This is the main way people don’t tend to spot it. Doing well-understood nice things to other people, because it feels good, is not the same thing as habitually thinking about how one’s words and actions will affect those around them. A self-centred person might do sweet things like buy a present for someone, but then later inadvertently hurt them with some carelessly chosen phrase, because they just weren’t really thinking about how it would impact the other person.

Another opposite trait is a sense of duty. Duty is a very old-fashioned word. Someone who has a concept of the duties of a wife is not just thinking about themselves. I suspect that a general sense of duty across the board is useful. Do they call their parents often, for instance? Do they have a sense of religious obligation? Even beyond their specific views on marriage, duty says that there are more important questions than just whether something makes you happy in the short term, or even at all. Some things just ought be done. And the broad sense of duty does not need to require a specific set of saint-like devotion to husbandly happiness. Good luck finding that in the Current Year (or, honestly, probably in any year). It’s probably enough to just have a stubborn insistence that one is obligated to work out one’s marital problems no matter what, because divorce is just not done.

Between the two, empathy avoids self-centredness by being able to reason on-the-fly about what other people around them are thinking and feeling. Duty is the conservative, Chesterton’s Fence version – because most people will insufficiently be able to reason out all the ways to make social arrangements work, we should roughly codify the parts that seem to be best practice. The former is more useful in a wide range of social situations, but probably also harder to find. The latter is scalable to more people, but of course we as a society don’t bother doing that scaling anymore.

There’s an additional component at play here, but it requires more honest introspection. Having a partner who isn’t self-centred is especially important if you yourself are self-centred. Because that’s exactly the nightmare kind of situation. When you’re both in the first flush of love, it will bring you pleasure to do nice things for each other, the other person’s nice behavior will bring out more niceness in you, and you’ll think it will last that way forever. But when things deteriorate, you’ll both start making excuses to start looking out for number one.

The one trait that I think is a) true and b) more likely to be emphasized by marriage counselors than Heartiste is the other person's ability to communicate about problems, figure out reasonable solutions, and stick to them. If I don’t dwell on this one at length, it’s not because I think it’s less important, just that I think it’s sufficiently obvious that you don’t need to come here to hear about it.

The final trait I would look at is the extent to which the person bears grudges, or how they act towards people they hate. Do they just try to move on and remain civil, or do they dwell a lot on the subject of people they dislike? It’s not so much that this predicts the possibility of divorce, but I suspect it surely predicts how they will act if and when it comes about. The central mistake that causes people to underestimate how bitter their divorce will be is that when they imagine the process of divorce, they’re imagining their wife or girlfriend now who loves them deeply. This is a terrible failure to do statistical conditioning. Conditional on getting divorced, the person hates your guts. So how does this person act towards people whose guts they hate? More importantly, are they willing to be reasonable and compromise, or are they willing to pay a price to stick it to someone they hate? This is the difference between a grudging and terse two hour conversation about who gets what and $500 in lawyers fees, vs $200K and two years of utter misery. Once the arms race train gets started, it’s very hard to stop. And people underestimate the arms race. Your lawyers will emphasise the part that ends with the divorce settlement. They won’t emphasise what it’s like to have to see that person you now loathe every second weekend to pick up the kids.

But sometimes, to paraphrase Sherlock (not Shylock) Holmes, we have to decide when the R2 of the regression is not as good as we would like it to be. And this is one of those cases. It is hard not to feel that, when all is said and done, one’s best calculations may not help one much here. One cannot, after all, pick a constellation of personality traits. One can only evaluate the girlfriend or boyfriend in front of you, and make a call one way or the other without knowing in any concrete way who the actual counterfactual girlfriend you haven’t yet met is. So you go with your gut, and roll the dice.
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.
The good news is that, having rolled the dice, one can then (or hopefully sooner) turn all one’s attention to the second question of what to do once you’re in a marriage.

The bad news is that that, too, is subject to the Kundera problem.

Sometimes, despite everything, death happens to you too.