The Function of Marriage

If we were some outside civilization looking into the human creation of marriage, what would we think?  The idea of marriage is built on centuries of tradition and cultural assumptions; lending itself as a great candidate for our skeptical scrutiny.  What is the purpose of marriage and how is it different than being in a relationship?  To answer this, we need to look at the function marriage serves.

Marriage gains its value as a proof-of-work system; where each involved party must pay a cost.  A traditional proof-of-work system involves the practice of creating an artificial cost with the goal of hindering scalability.  For example, to limit email spam, an email service provider can require the sender to incur some cost (typically a CPU intensive problem) with each mail that it receives.  The sender provides a proof that it incurred the cost along with the contents of the email.  To a legitimate individual sending a dozen emails per day, the cost is paid without notice.  However, for an abusive spammer to send millions of emails per day would require additional hardware to handle the load.  This cost may outweigh the profits of sending spam and disincentivize the abuser.  For a proof-of-work system to work, it really doesn't matter what the cost is as long as the cost cannot be performed on scale.  The unscalable cost that typical marriages provide involves time, effort, and money.  Humans are not the only ones victim to this proof-of-work mating system.  A male penguin will attempt to woo his mate by collecting smooth pebbles while a praying mantis takes a more dramatic approach and allows his head to be consumed by the mating female.  As a human, it would be hypocritical to observe these acts as a waste of precious resources.  Whether it's gifting a ring worth two month's salary or conquering Mount Rainier in someone's honor, the value of the action comes from its lack of scalability, not in the action's natural worth.  Due to a shortage of resources you simply cannot marry every person you date (although some people may try).

Equally, if not more, impactful to the value of marriage is the marriage's function as a commitment device.  According to Stephen Dubner, a commitment device is "a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result".  By partaking in the legal contract of marriage you are adding an artificial impediment with the goal of providing mutual security in the relationship.  When deciding whether to stay in a relationship or not, the decision maker must weigh out both options and decide which choice is least painful.  The impediment of divorce (be it financial, emotional, or social) stacks the deck towards staying together.  This buffer provides stability to prevent the minor ups and downs from capsizing the relationship, similar to how insurance reduces the risk of volatility.  However, this feature of marriage also introduces two unintended consequences.

The first is that it encourages couples to stick together even if they're both worse off for it.  Delayed gratification is the practice of using self-control and forward thinking to forgo some minor pleasure in the short-term, for greater fulfillment in the long-term.  As an example, preferring to indefinitely pay a small tax every month rather than a one time large fee is a failure to practice delayed gratification.  It's easy to see how an individual could end up trapped in an harmful relationship by dreading the cost and uncertainty of separation.

The second unintended consequence is that the buffer of the cost-out can cause both parties to take advantage of the other's buffer.  Consider the following situation:
Alice and Bob just got married.  Before the marriage, the cost of separation was measured at 10 units of suffering.  This implies Bob could have incurred 10 units of suffering upon Alice before Alice should logically consider the separation option.  However, now that they're married the cost of separation increases to 30 units.  This implies Bob can now incur up to 30 units upon Alice before she will reconsider the relationship.

Neither party may be consciously aware of the increased cost's effect upon the relationship, but it would be naive to think that there are no changes due to the shift in equilibrium.  This unintended consequence leads to the stereotypical marriage jokes: weight-gain, impoverished romance, and relentless bickering.

The main takeaway is that marriage is a complex tool.  When and how to leverage the tool is up to the individual, but it's important to understand the purpose a tool serves before blindly applying it to a situation.  Undoubtedly, by stripping away the romance and reducing marriage to a utility I have offended some readers.  Offended or not, I hope that this imparts onto you the practice of questioning and re-questioning your reality by thoroughly dissecting each layer to either affirm or discard each of your preconceived, cultural habits.