Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘relationships

A new take on marriage

with 3 comments

I have for some time contemplated topics around marriage, including the conflict between a “civil” and a “religious” take, the problem of “same-sex marriage”, the arguable arbitrariness and/or antiquatedness of marriage, how divorces should be handled*, issues around pre-nuptials, issues around common-law marriages, whether restrictions on polygamy are valid, … A very important topic has been expectations,** and the problems that ensue because too many enter marriages with unrealistic expectations or expectations that have not been discussed sufficiently with the partner in advance.

*Mostly concerning questions like who gets what on the cost of the other party, especially with an eye on the high rate of divorce and the extreme societal changes since the still prevailing norms originated. (Notably, that a woman without a man has plenty of opportunity to earn money of her own—and usually already does.) However, also with an eye on whether divorce should be allowed, in light of the high promises usually made during the wedding (and, to a lesser degree, religious bans).

**Cf. a text on poor decision making [1], which can be valuable in understanding some of my motivations for the below. See also an excursion towards the end.

My solution sketch* to take care of most of the related problems in one stroke:

*There would be many details to clarify, and possibly changes to make in light of practical experiences. Indeed, for reasons of time, there are some sub-topics that I have left out entirely, e.g. inheritance regulations and the rights of children. (Not to mention an unknown number of sub-topics that might simply not have occurred to me…)

  1. Marriage in its current form is deprecated in favor of a regular contract between two (or more*) parties that details their respective rights, responsibilities, if/when/how the union** can be dissolved**, etc. (With the option, cf. below, of having this union “upgraded” through a religious confirmation.)

    *For the sake of simplicity, I will base some examples and discussion on a specifically two-person or a specifically man–woman constellation. This should not be taken as a restriction on the generality of this scheme.

    **In this text, I will use “union” and “dissolution”/“dissolve” to refer to the new and contractual quasi-marriages resp. a “divorce”; however, this is for the convenience of this text alone, and should not be seen as a prescription of terminology (unlike the next item). Note that this use of “dissolution”/“dissolve” does not necessarily imply that the contract is ended—just the quasi-marriage phase and the rights and obligations applying during that phase.

  2. Words like “marriage”, “married”, “matrimony” are reserved for contracts having a religious confirmation (cf. a later item and an excursion towards the end).

    Terminology is otherwise outside the scope of this text, “marriage” etc. being special cases needed to separate the quasi-magic of marriage from mere union (cf. below). However, it might make sense to avoid “wife”/“husband”/“spouse” (absent a religious confirmation) in favor of “partner”, “life-partner”, or similar; “divorce” is another word which might need to be restricted in meaning.

  3. There would be a considerable leeway in how to construct this contract, it would fall under regular contract law*, and legal special treatment should be kept as low as practically possible. However, some contents would always have to be present, ensuring that all situations and questions that will often arise in a marriage are addressed sufficiently.** This will include e.g. matters of sex***, children****, dissolution*****, and penalties/reparations in various circumstances.

    *With the implications that (a) most or all of current marital law would be rendered irrelevant, (b) there might be means of dissolution, reparations, whatnot exceeding those specified in the contract (e.g. in the wake of a severe breach of contract).

    **To ensure this, there would likely be various forms of extensive contract templates provided by the government, specialist lawyers, religious organizations, or similar, which would mostly involve a series of choices between certain pre-defined alternatives—including choices on matters that are somewhat less likely to occur and are not legal prerequisites. (The more effort put in here, the better; cf. the excursion on expectations.) However, the parties would, obviously, be perfectly free to not use such a template.

    ***E.g. to what degree and under what circumstances either party has an obligation to have sex with the other, and whether the parties are promising monogamy.

    ****Notably, if, when, and how many are intended; who will be in charge of what; what major changes are agreed upon in the eventuality of a child (e.g. career changes, move from inner city to suburbia, …); whether to home-school; … (For natural reasons, such plans are quite likely to require adaptation over the time-spans involved, and it will likely often be preferable to state sets of mutually acceptable alternatives. Of course, as with any contract, a mutually agreed amendment is always possible.)

    *****If, when, and how; according to what principles assets are to be divided; whether an alimony will be paid (how much, to and by whom, for how long); ditto child support (but see below); issues of child custody; … It will make great sense to formulate this in abstract and general terms, e.g. not as “X will pay Y an amount of […]” but as a listing of conditional circumstances, depending e.g. on who earns more and by how much. For instance, a highly successful business owner should not promise a blanket five grand a month, and be left with a crippling payment when the dissolution was proceeded by the business’ going bankrupt. A better regulation would be e.g. the smaller of five grand and 20 % of the difference in respective after-tax income, going to the lesser earner (all measured in the respective post-dissolution month).

  4. The courts and the government would (except as restricted by ordinary contract law and general legal considerations) be bound to accept the regulations made in the contract. In particular, a court would absolutely, positively not be allowed to reject the “pre-nuptial” parts of the agreement by using subjective fairness criteria (e.g. based on “social justice” or that someone “has grown accustomed” to a certain standard of living, cf. excursion below); in the light of a sob-story (“I need to X—I can’t be expected to work”) ; or based on who needs what (“I have bills to pay, and earn too little”), except as per the following item.* In particular, in light of modern divorce rates, an abuse of alimony to avert costs (social security, unemployment benefits, whatnot) from the government is not acceptable (cf. an excursion on obligation to support). Courts would, however, have the right to make adjustments in light of reasoning applicable to any other contract.**

    *Note that these arguments and examples apply equally to both parties: We could have someone wanting to “ride the alimony pony”; we could have someone trying to shot it. What is agreed is as binding for the prospective recipient as for the prospective payer—just like with any other contract.

    **I can think of no good “pre-nuptial” example at the moment, but chances are that they exist.

  5. The restrictions on matters relating to third-parties, criminal acts, whatnot that are present in ordinary contract law would obviously apply. For instance, the contract could not oblige the government to continue paying pensions of a deceased party to a surviving party;* an agreement to circumcise a child would not be valid in a jurisdiction where this is illegal; in case of divorce, the rights of a child, as a non-party to the contract, might to some degree** trump the contractual agreements.

    *Which is not to say that “pension sharing” mechanisms are forbidden—just that the parties cannot one-sidedly impose their will upon third parties. Exactly how pensions should be handled is too big a question for this text, but possibilities might include a separate contract between the parties and the government, a legal right for several individuals to have a joint pension account with the government, a move of all pensions to private enterprises with a wider range of contractual agreements possible, … Note that e.g. such a joint pension account would not necessarily be limited to parties of a union, in keeping with the philosophy that there should be as little special treatment as possible. (Whether such accounts would regularly make sense in other situations, I leave unstated.) However, the government must not impose rules like those common today, where pensions are automatically shared under some set of circumstances and never under any other set. That would not only violate the principle of as little special treatment as possible, it would also threaten the general applicability of the system, and re-introduce some of the complications I deliberately try to remove.

    **The extremely far-going interventions that are common in e.g. the U.S. today are out. (Say that the court overrides who should “have the house” or decides on child-support, let alone alimony, in an arbitrary manner.) However, possible examples do include e.g. altering custody agreements in severe cases of parental unsuitability and granting additional child-support to ensure that the child’s/children’s standard of living reaches the existential minimum or some defined-by-legislation (not court!) “conscionable” minimum. (But I stress that only the living standard of the child(ren) is covered—not of the custodial parent. Moreover, that this will be academic in most cases, seeing that such intervention requires the four simultaneous conditions that custody is not sufficiently shared, that the custodial party is very low on money, that the non-custodial party actually can cover the difference, and that the contract did not already make sufficient provisions.)

  6. Such contracts may contain provisions regarding religious confirmation, e.g. that the contract becomes binding with the performance of a “church wedding” or another type of official blessing (rather than e.g. the act of signing). In such cases, the performing church* is, obviously, entitled to impose additional constraints and conditions for agreeing to give this confirmation. (Should these constrains and conditions be irreconcilable with the main contract, the parties must either modify the contract sufficiently to please the church or forego the confirmation.) This includes even strong** restrictions on divorce, bans on infidelity, bans on contraceptives, and similar; however, nothing that potentially violates the rights of third parties, notably the children of the marriage. The decision whether to marry e.g. homosexuals or more than two spouses rests solely with the church.***

    *Here and elsewhere used as a catch-all for the religious organization or entity involved, with no implied restriction to Christian churches.

    **How strong, I leave open for now. One possibility would be that the parties are considered married and must present themselves as such towards other parties, even in the event of a dissolution of the union. (Married, but separated.) Certainly, the church should have the right to refuse the blessing of any future union involving one of the old partners. A complete ban on dissolution would be fine on paper, but might prove incompatible with both the application of regular contract law and the realistically implementable.

    ***As it must: Those rejected have no legal disadvantage from any church restrictions, and they have no right to enforce their own religious views upon others. If worst comes to worst, there is always the chance that “church shopping” will find them someone more cooperative.

    Similarly, a contract might be complemented by a religious confirmation at a later date, with the same constraints applying.

    A religious ceremony without an associated contract would be fairly pointless, even frivolous, and is likely best considered a void act. However, there is no reason why a church would not be able to offer an own contract or contract template, to be signed in conjuncture with the ceremony, in order to create the same effect as one of today’s church weddings.* (However, I strongly recommend the parties to go through a more careful process of contract negotiation.)

    *With some reservations for jurisdiction. In e.g. today’s Germany, a church wedding has no legal/secular effect on its own, and requires a corresponding additional civil ceremony.

  7. In addition to the regular right to make mutually agreed upon alterations, some provisions for mandatory re-negotiation might be present to allow for adaptions due to changing circumstances over a prolonged time period. (If no corresponding law exists, it could pay to voluntarily include such provisions in the contract.)

    It might even make sense to divide the overall agreement into contractual stages, with a first basic contract defining the general frame-work and the matters currently needed, with only a rough sketch of future events, possibly in combination with a time-limit, while additional concerns are addressed in separate contracts as they arise.

    We could e.g. imagine that a couple sets up a contract for a “trial-union” for the following two years, with no mutual obligations in case of a break-up, a resolution not to have children, and a stated intention to either go separate ways or negotiate a more permanent contract, with provisions for children, at the end of the trial period. Half-way through the trial, they decide to pool their money to buy a car, the future of the car is put in yet another contract (or a contractual amendment), valid until the end of the trial period and with provisions for a break-up. Shortly before the end of the trial period, they decide to make matters permanent and draw up a full contract, superseding the previous two, for the indefinite future, regulating everything between themselves in reasonable detail, and make a very rough sketch concerning children. Another two years later, a pregnancy occurs, and further regulations for the future of the child are made.

    This procedure keeps most of the advantages of predictable expectations, and forces the parties to spend thinking time corresponding to the seriousness of their relationship; while reducing the risk of over-, under- or faulty specification based on poor assumptions (e.g. because of new information about the other party) and of unnecessary work (if they broke up after two years).

    (The treatment of this area is a little parenthetical, as I set out to find an alternative to marriage, and this was just an off-shot of the main idea. It is possible that this would turn out to be the main way to proceed; it could equally just be an overly bureaucratic way of co-habiting for two years.)

  8. These contracts and their parties would not be subject to the special treatments that often apply to today’s marriages. For instance, an obligation to cover the other party’s debt in case of bankruptcy would only exist if so stipulated in the contract, there would/must not be a need to e.g. make “married/single” choices in various forms, etc. In those few cases where there is some legitimacy to such concerns, other means need to be found (in the case of a loan, e.g., that any prior legal bankruptcy cover by the other party is replaced by an explicit co-signing).

    (While this should not, per se, be a problem, there could be considerable transitional issues due to various systems being to narrow-mindedly focused on the married–single (or e.g. married–single–co-habiting) division.)

  9. To avoid ambiguity and word-against-word situations, these contracts have to be in written form. Further, to guarantee the security of others, they have to be both notarized and semi-publicly* registered.

    *Exactly how, I leave open. The point is that anyone with a reasonable right to know, e.g. a prospective contract partner, can get sufficient information to avoid problems like involuntarily being part of a bigamy-like situation. (I am uncertain whether multiple parallel unions, with the consent of everyone involved, might be allowed. A single union of more than two people certainly is.) At the same time, privacy and other concerns could imply that the details of a contract are not made publicly available.

    As a consequence, if someone enters e.g. a co-habitation without a corresponding contract, no “marriage-like” rights will be granted—no non-voluntary support, no alimony, no “half of yours is mine”, … * In particular, this makes common-law marriages non-existent (in a legal sense); however, this should not be a problem, because the greater ability to shape the contract makes the leap implied by a union (potentially) far smaller, and the resistance that some might have against moving from a co-habitation to a marriage (resp. union) is reduced correspondingly. Indeed, in the new scheme, it is possible for a couple to choose “how married” they are, and increase their degree of commitment and mutual obligation when they feel that the time is right—a union is not the type of either–or deal that today’s marriage is.

    *However, some situations that already are problematic will remain so, e.g. if the parties disagree on who bought something and none has proof.

    (Yes, there will be additional costs involved compared to initiating a current wedding. These, however, will be dwarfed by the average savings due to smoother divorces.)

Excursion on expectations (and work needed):
This type of contract implies a lot more work and thought than is needed for a current marriage. However, this is part of the point of the system: The work and thought helps the parties to have a better idea of what to expect—and of what the other party expects. They have a greater chance to discover in advance whether they clash on important future issues, to willingly make compromises now rather than unwillingly later, etc. There will be no* issues of “I took it for granted that you would X, but you did not”, because the other party will either be aware that X is expected or will have made clear in advance that X is not likely to happen. See [1] for some discussion of related problems.

*On major points or points of such personal importance that one of the parties ensured a contractual regulation. There can, obviously, be no guarantee for every triviality that arises; however, trivialities are trivialities.

Indeed, I hope that this system would increase the proportion of unions that end up being for life, compared to today’s marriages, even though they seem more ephemeral on paper. (And the more work is put in, the greater the chance of success—and the more work necessary, the lesser the risk of a frivolous union.)

Obviously, this type of work is not a replacement for informal discussions during the earlier parts of the relationship (unless an arranged marriage, cf. [1])—it is a complement. However, as such a complement, it has the advantage of both keeping the result in writing and of forcing the parties to go through lists of issues they might not have thought of. (The aforementioned contract templates would, with years of experience, be sufficiently detailed as to include many eventualities not present in informal discussions.) To boot, it can force a discussion that would otherwise be ducked or turn the perspective of the discussion around. A good example is the stereotypical treatment of pre-nups in fiction: The rich man gives the broke woman a pre-nup, she freaks out over the fact that he can even contemplate the end of their relationship, and the pre-nup usually goes unsigned, because he does not want to upset her. (With some variations, e.g. the groom’s mother shoving it down the throat of the bride.) With contracts like the above, we have the reverse situation: Not only are the parties expected to discuss such issues (and know that they are expected to do so!), but the chairs are now turned: The party who is keen on ensuring a share of the others property or a large alimony payment, should the union end, is the one who has to insist on discussing the eventuality of the end. (And overblown demands give the other party a chance to reconsider in time whether to go through with the union. In today’s system, in contrast, overblown demands would only manifest when it is too late to reconsider.)

Excursion on romance:
True, all of this is terribly unromantic—but then a too strong focus on romance and too little on common sense is another problem with modern marriages. See [1] again.

Or so I thought at a very early stage of writing this text:

By now, giving it one last read through before publication, I am not certain that “this” (i.e. discussions/negotiations and whatnot) would be unromantic. Done the right way, at least parts of it could be made quite romantic, e.g. as a series of discussions of hopes, dreams, and plans over candle-lit dinners. It might conceivably even be a cause of nostalgia thirty years later (assuming that things work out).

I actually see a danger of the opposite problem—that various “industries” (notably, the wedding industry) will abuse the overall system to earn money through pumping the romance and whatnot factor, albeit mostly in other areas. Consider e.g. a union with a relatively low commitment: A perfect opportunity to lobby them for a second proposal, a bigger diamond, and a second “wedding” as a deeper commitment is made. Five years later: Why not throw in yet another proposal, an even bigger diamond, and a church wedding? (On the bright side, there is always a chance that the greater number of events will reduce their individual value to the point that no-one will bother.)

Excursion on existing marriages:
The question of how to handle existing marriages is tricky. Off the top of my head, the two main suggestions would be to either “grand-father”* them or to force the couples into corresponding contracts**.

*They remain unchanged and in the exact legal situation as earlier. (But with no possibility for a new union to reach the same status.) The two systems would then partially co-exist for a number of decades. Provisions should be provided for those who volunteeringly wish to convert their “old-type” marriage into a contractual union or (should a religious confirmation already be present) “new-type” marriage.

**With the state providing a “default contract” that is guaranteed to leave them in the same situation as before. This default contract might be voluntarily used or replaced by a contract of the parties’ choosing (within the above restrictions). Should the parties fail to reach an agreement within some time frame, the default contract would automatically become binding. Regrettably, there might still be need for a partial grand-fathering in order to cover e.g. pension issues.

Excursion on religion and marriage, the word “marriage”, etc.:
A fundamental observation is that marriage only has quasi-magical properties (going beyond e.g. a mere co-habitation or a mere contract) in a religious context. There might be legal differences between e.g. a marriage and a common-law marriage (in the current system); however, the corresponding laws have no “higher”, “moral”, whatnot weight—they are arbitrary. Similarly, under the suggested system, it makes no sense for two atheists to try to move from union to marriage, and it makes no sense to have a “civil” version of a marriage beyond the union.*

*Note that the new marriages would, outside “canon law”, have no legal effects beyond a union: The wedding is a religious (and/or religiously symbolic) act and the marriage has a religious nature. Its implications are religious, not legal. Similarly, there are no symbolic secular implications present than are not covered by a union with an appropriately formulated contract.

In a religious context, under the assumptions of the religion under discussion*, this is different; and a view of marriage as e.g. a “divine institution”, something having or requiring a divine blessing, or similar, moving marriage to an entirely different level, is perfectly possible. The suggested system respects this, “demuddles” the confusion caused by the perceived transfer of similar values to civil ceremonies, and differs clearly between the legal aspects of a union and the “divine” aspects of a marriage.

*Something which must be considered from the point of view of the respective religion, organization, believer, … That others might reject these premises is irrelevant. (I, for instance, belong to the atheists. As such, I am free to consider e.g. a church wedding a waste of time; I am not free to restrict the implications that, say, two Catholics and the Catholic Church draw from a Catholic church wedding, at least as long as no third-parties come to harm.)

At the same time, this prevents undue restrictions on non-believers and members of other churches/religions: The most important part of freedom of religion is the right to freedom from religion. For instance, if two homosexual men form a union, this is a business transaction—not a holy sacrament. Protesting against this business transaction on religious reasons would be entirely amiss. On the other hand, whether a given church is willing to raise the union to a marriage is up to it—as is whether it would recognize the corresponding act by another church.

Excursion on the states’ role:
One of the major advantages of this scheme is that it largely puts the state outside the equation: It is no longer in a position to make restrictions* on who is allowed to enter unions/marriages; nor is there a need for it to be. It can no longer control the rights and responsibilities of the parties in undue detail. Its ability to unduly interfere in private matters is reduced. Etc.

*However, note that the application of regular, non-marital, law will imply some amount of restrictions, including the inability to enter such a contract before reaching the age of majority.

Some countries, notably Germany, deliberately try to promote marriage through artificial incentives, e.g. potentially considerable tax breaks (at the cost of the rest of the population). Combining these with a more varying system, like the above, would be quite tricky. However, frankly, I do not give a fuck about this complication: I consider such incentives to be grossly unethical (towards those not benefiting), severely and unfairly discriminatory, and counter-productive to boot*—and I would positively welcome their removal! (However, there are likely other, legitimate, issues relating to taxation and similar that need to be addressed before an actual implementation. Exactly which will depend on the country in question.)

*I have a text in planning that will address this.

Excursion on what and how to regulate:
What and how to regulate will differ depending on whether we speak of what happens within the union or of what happens after or relating to its dissolution. In both cases, however, it is important to regulate in advance, to ensure that the parties know what they can expect and to increase the probability of regulations based on fair principles and symmetry.*

*As opposed to what is the more self-serving when an event actually takes place. For instance, it increases the chance that a regulation for alimony does not involve “Mr. Smith pays the former Mrs. Smith”, instead using e.g. the principle that the party with the higher income pays the party with the lower income. Even a highly selfish or self-centered Mrs. Smith might be agreeable to the latter at the beginning of a marriage (be it because Mr. Smith was the higher earner at the time or because she had no reason to be selfish at that stage), even though she might have a very strong preference for the former when the marriage did end and she was the higher earner.

In the former case, we have the advantage that the parties are usually still on speaking terms and willing to cooperate, implying that a mistake in regulation (e.g. something left out, or an area where preferences have changed) can usually find a retroactive and amicable resolution.

Here the aspect of regulation is secondary to the aspect of learning something about oneself, the other party, and the respective preferences in advance. A contractual regulation, per se, will mostly serve to avoid issues like memory lapses or someone changing positions, leaving the other party in the cold. For instance, assume that the first party promises the second that there will be children, that the second party agrees to a life-long commitment on this basis, and that the first party later reneges on this promise (either through a change of opinion or because the original promise was dishonest). Having a written commitment severely reduces the risk of dishonesty and gives the second party a means of legal enforcement* when it was a later change of opinion.

*However, since such enforcement would often, directly or indirectly, lead to the dissolution of the union, it might be more a matter of reparations than of actual compliance. Then again, even the knowledge that there is a risk of enforcement might make the first party sufficiently cooperative, implying that enforcement is not necessary—and make the first party be much more careful when negotiating the original contract!

Exactly what to regulate will depend on the people involved, but definitely should include everything major (see above for some examples). In the spirit of the principle, more detail is better, within what time and effort allows; however, this will still leave the vast majority of all minor issues open—this is not a a room-mate agreement by Sheldon Cooper*.

*Sheldon Cooper and his room-mate agreements show how not to do it. The general idea is partially overlapping and not necessarily a bad one; however, there are at least two crucial differences: Firstly, he uses them to more-or-less unilaterally force others to follow his rules, with no negotiation and no development of expectations. Secondly, they appear to be fraught with (for my purposes) undue detail, e.g. what exact room temperature to have. Both are quite contrary to the intentions outlined here.

In the latter case, we can no longer make positive assumptions and it is important that all regulations are sufficiently detailed that there will be no major room for negative surprises*, disagreement about interpretation, important eventualities left open, whatnot.** Notably, it is the duty of the parties to find a mutually acceptable regulation, without relying on laws for unregulated cases—where no regulation has taken place***, the laws should make no additional imposition compared to e.g. two platonic friends who shared an apartment for cost reasons.**** Fortunately, the greater need for detail is offset by a smaller amount of items that need regulation. Unlike above, calling for legal enforcement will not risk the (already lost) union, and enforcement is less fraught with danger.

*In terms of regulation. Negative surprises like one party going broke and needing support, instead of providing it, cannot be ruled out.

**But note that the intention is not to go into such detail that e.g. every single possession and asset to be divided is listed (although the more valuable ones probably should be, e.g. cars, houses, stock portfolios). The more important point is to have a sufficiently clear regulation of the principles for how the division should be made, that both parties, unless obtuse, will be able to deduce approximately the same division based on the principles, and that a court, should it be called upon, would also deduce approximately the same division.

***If this is at all possible, seeing that the law should insist on sufficient regulation of principle in the first place.

****With some reservations for special cases that are not at least theoretically applicable in both cases. However, I can think of none off the top of my head. Even children are something that could result accidentally between friends (of different sexes), e.g. because of a drunk night where the platonic aspect temporarily was out of effect. Correspondingly, the law might provide explicit default regulations for children, but it would do so with an eye at non-Unions.

Excursion on non-sexual, non-whatnot relationships:
While the above is written with an eye on replacing current marriages, much (barring religious confirmation, possibly all) of it could trivially be generalized to types of union or partnership without a sexual, romantic, whatnot component. Examples include the stereotypical two spinster sisters and temporary cohabitation by students.* Performing this generalization would be well beyond my purpose, but I have no objections should an implementation or future extension by someone else do so. (In the spirit of minimizing special treatment, it might even be recommendable.)

*I do not claim that it would actually be worth the trouble in such cases. However, the framework would allow it, e.g. in that the students stipulate only minimal mutual obligations, put “no” in the virtual check-boxes for sex, children, “alimony”, …, and include an automatic termination clause for those who move out.

Excursion on standard of living:
A patent absurdity of many current takes on alimony is that the standard of living during the marriage should be at least approximately preserved. This is problematic from both a pragmatical point of view and from a fairness point of view.

Pragmatically, it is considerably more expensive to have a certain standard of living when single than when part of a couple. (And in the case of the ostentatious or fiscally irresponsible, it might be entirely unrealistic.) For instance, having two houses or two apartments usually costs far more than having one house or one apartment (even should the two be smaller in size). The couple might have gotten by with one car; the singles might need one each. Buying and cooking once for two is cheaper than doing the same twice for one—and the extra effort per head might make it more sensible to buy more pre-cooked food, driving up the monetary cost further while lowering the quality. Staying in a hotel during a vacation will cost almost as much for one person as it does for two sharing a room. Etc. In effect, if the first party is to provide sufficiently for the second to ensure (still usually) her standard of living, it will imply compromises for (still usually) him, e.g. in that his own standard drops, that he needs more income, that he is unable to put aside the intended amount of money for his old age, whatnot.

Fairnesswise, it will often* be the case that the supported party sees a disproportionate or undeserved gain compared to a scenario where the marriage did not take place. Consider** e.g. a multi-millionaire marrying a woman with few prospects but a lot of beauty, moving her from a poorly maintained one-room apartment to a six-bedroom house with a pool and two garages, turning her from a receptionist to a leisurely lady with a house-keeper: If the marriage falls apart within, say, five years, would it not be fairer for her to be thankful for those five years of luxury and go back to her old life without complaint? (Possibly with some upgrade, but with no luxury and with the need to go back to work.) What has she actually done to deserve a continuation of a similar level of luxury?

*Among those cases where “standard of living” is an argument that will have a major impact on alimony. Browsing some pages on U.S. alimony, a generic “[maintain old] standard of living” criterion is not unusual, but in most cases e.g. a “[maintain a reasonable] standard of living” criterion would lead to the same result—if in doubt because the old standard was “ordinary” and the respective earning powers of the parties are not worlds apart. (In contrast to the above.) This version is considerably less unreasonable, less likely to be abused, and not necessarily something that I would have a problem with.

**I do not claim that all current jurisdictions and judges would grant alimony in the given example. The point is rather to demonstrate unfairness on a very clear-cut example, and thereby illustrate weaknesses of the “standard of living” argument.

Excursion on obligation to support:
A proposed* natural or moral obligation for the one spouse (of a regular marriage) to support the other post-divorce hinges on the premise that the marriage was supposed to last for ever, that both parties were set on this, that both parties were willing to endure “sickness”, “bad times”, and whatnot without wavering from the marriage. In light of today’s divorce rates, the general acceptance of “no fault” divorces, etc., this premise obviously no longer holds.** A divorce is no longer a rare event caused by gross misbehavior of one of the spouses—it is a perfectly normal and common end to a marriage. To boot, the termination of the marriage is most often called for by the woman, who still is the party more likely to receive support, making a mockery of any such obligation.

*The ethics of rights and obligations is a tough area, and I do not necessarily consider this obligation a “natural law” even when the discussed premise is fulfilled. (Neither do I necessarily reject it.) The same applies to child-support below. However, I do consider the premise, or on the outside some variation of this premise, a sine qua non for an ex-spousal obligation.

**Note that a reasoning like “others might not have been this dedicated, but we were; ergo, the premise holds for us!” fails on the fact that a divorce is taking (or has taken) place: The divorce, it self, makes a lack of dedication the prima-facie assumption, even in light of assurances otherwise. (Even assuming that the general societal situation is not sufficient.) Also note that it is not enough to be dedicated or whatnot at the beginning of a marriage—the dedication must have been present through-out, until something utterly intolerable happened; moreover, the party requesting support would have to prove a considerable and realistic expectation of this dedication from the other party, which would be next to impossible in light of current divorce rates. Factoring in the risk of an exaggerated portrayal of dedication for personal gain, and the manifestly low typical dedication, an assumption that the premise holds would, if at all conceivable, have to be reserved for truly exceptional cases. (However, in the suggested system it would never be needed, if the parties have done their due diligence.)

This implies that it is equally unconscionable to force* the one former spouse to take care of the other and to abuse various forms of spousal support to remove costs from the government. Even now, hardships for the one former spouse should be covered by the government** (and/or any existing private insurances)—not by the other former spouse. They have paid taxes, they have paid unemployment insurance, they have paid whatnot***—they have the same right to protection and support from the government as anyone else! This is clearly reflected in the above system. The common current approach is a mere legal dictate for the self-serving benefit of the government. (Notwithstanding that this might have been different in the past.)

*To be contrasted with voluntary contributions, including those regulated in the contract. (Here, again, it is the responsibility of the parties to find a mutually agreeable solution in advance.)

**Assuming that we live in a society where the government handles such issues in other cases, as is in most or all of the Western world. Note that I do not necessarily consider this general approach a good idea: The point is that a government that does normally provide such support must not discriminate arbitrarily or for its own gain, and it must not collect money from someone to cover certain services and whatnots and then refuse to perform when performance would normally be expected.

***The situation differs from country to country. In the complex German system, e.g., unmentioned posts typically include health insurance, “care” insurance (“Pflegeversicherung”), pension fees, Solidaritätszuschlag (a backdoor increase of the income tax), and Church tax—and that is just on the salary. There is also VAT, property taxes, inheritance taxes, vehicle taxes, energy taxes, … (To which might further be added taxes nominally paid by e.g. businesses that ultimately fall back onto the citizens through higher prices or other disadvantages.)

As an aside, this is another point* where child-support is different—a proposed natural obligation to take care of one’s children does not stumble on this premise. More: While spouses marry voluntarily, children are put into this world by their parents, making the obligation that much stronger.

*In addition to children not being parties to the contract.

Excursion on union as a legal person:
It might be a good idea to make the union a legal person in its own right, to make interactions with third parties easier, to handle tax issues, and similar. The idea is interesting, but I have not thought deeply enough on the issue to recommend it outright. It could e.g. turn out to be far too bureaucratic.

Excursion on potential abuse:
I briefly contemplated whether this system could fail through an increased risk of abuse, e.g. in that one party makes unreasonable promises while being infatuated or that the other pushes such through with the threat of not consenting to the union.

However, I do not see the risk as that large. For one thing, contract templates would be unlikely to contain the ability to make too poor choices; while a from-scratch contract reasonably should involve at least one lawyer (better: one lawyer per party). For another, a major point of the scheme is that people really take the time to think things through*, and the appearance of unreasonable demands before a union is better than during a marriage.

*Which, obviously, will also often involve discussions with good friends and parents, who are likely to see things more clearly.

Should people still manage to be unreasonable, well, it is their lives, and if we were to try to nanny them in this area, we would have to nanny them elsewhere too, seeing that the ability to enter idiotic contracts is already present—including relating to marriages.

In addition, most legal systems have some degree of protection against unconscionable agreements or similar that might apply in a given case.*

*However, e.g. duress or perceived extortion would hardly ever apply. For instance, “if you do no agree to this, I will not marry you” is, alone, not worthy of being duress—indeed, considering it such would make the contract too unreliable and positively invite deliberate abuse. Even a factor like the prospective bride being pregnant cannot normally be seen as a cause for duress in today’s Western world and its usually great tolerance of extra-marital children. (In contrast, a literal knife to the throat qualifies.) To boot, we have to consider issues of evidence, and most attempts to show duress would end up in a word-against-word situation.

Another possible issue could be a circumvention of laws against prostitution through a strongly time-limited union (as is apparently done today in some Islamic areas). Even discounting the fact that I am strongly opposed to such laws, I doubt that this means of circumvention would be practical (note e.g. the need for a notary and the potentially embarrassing semi-public registration per an above item). To boot, measures that give the impression of having one effect, while obviously intending another, are often measured legally by the intended effect; and a contract that e.g. stipulates a union of thirty minutes, with sexual consummation, and a one-time “divorce settlement” in cash, will have a fairly obvious interpretation. If worst comes to worst, a law deeming the union frivolous and void when of too short a duration might be conceivable, as might one that a union only goes into effect with some time delay.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 25, 2018 at 2:44 pm

Good riddance and poor colleagues

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Through the years, I have said my farewells to dozens of teams and who knows how many individual team members*. Usually, this is a more or less sad occasion, depending on how long I have worked with someone and how the personal chemistry was. Only rarely do I have a feeling of “good riddance”, and when I do, it is usually directed at the company or the politics, not the team members. In as far as I am frustrated with individuals, it is usually a matter of their incompetence, not their character.

*I work as an external contractor/IT consultant who is typically hired for three or six months at a time. My “turnover” is correspondingly far above the average.

This Friday, however, I parted with a team member so obnoxious, immature, destructive, and unprofessional, that I am truly relieved to be rid of him—a very strong candidate for worst team member in my almost twenty years of working. In fact, he was so bad that had I not known that he was quitting, I would quite possible have turned down the last contract extension I was offered…

Below I will first give some illustrations of the problems and then go into a more general discussion of the conundrums of handling certain problems. (I try not to go off on a rant. If I fail, well, that is a sign of my long frustration.)

  1. The last few months, he might have spent as little four (4!) hours a day actually working and the rest of his nominal eight hours socializing with others—of course, keeping them from their work too. Now, while I have nothing against people socializing during working hours, this has to remain in reasonable limits and time that effectively is private time simply does not count as working time. If he had been in the office twelve hours a day, well that is eight hours of work and four hours of private time and I have no major objection. He was not… If anything, he tended to leave early.* If he had spent half-an-hour socializing and the remainder working, well no-one is perfect. He did not…

    *I have not timed his daily stays in the office, so I could be wrong. However, based on my impression ofwhen he typically came in the morning and left in the afternoon, compared to my own times and factoring in that I rarely take a lunch break, I strongly suspect that he came in short of even a nominal eight-hour day.

  2. He was a near constant disturber of the peace in the office we shared with two other colleagues. This included narrating what he did on the computer, making silly voices, and trying to be funny* through humor that was barely above the fecal level. To make matters worse, although not deliberate, most of his professional discussions consisted of long stretches of “uuum”s and “eeer”s interspersed with snippets of information—which after fifteen minutes is truly annoying.

    *Generally, the Germans tend not to understand humor and comedy. There are exceptions, but mostly their attempts are merely “albern”, not funny. (I have been unable to find a good translation of “albern”. From a dictionary, “silly” or “foolish” are possibly the closest matches, when taking “fool” half way between the “idiot” and “jester” senses.) I love good comedy, but it is rarely found in Germany and I cannot recall him, specifically, providing one single instance.

  3. When the other two colleagues were not present, he repeatedly went from a seemingly jovial moron to a nasty piece of shit, to the point that I repeatedly suspecting him of deliberately trying to provoke a fight. (See also parts of the more general discussion below.)
  4. It was impossible to have a constructive discussion with him regarding his behavior or actions*. For instance, I once pointed out, perfectly neutrally and as a simple factual observation, that it was a bad idea to have a window open and the AC running at the same time—and he actually tried to start a fight over that, from zero to hundred in two seconds. (He failed only because I refused to take the fight over an issue that did not affect me that strongly—if he wants to increase pollution and run up his employers utility bill, that is on him.) On several occasions when I tried to have a constructive discussion to make it easier to co-exist, he flatly refused to even take the discussion (e.g. through just leaving the office or saying that I should complain to his superior**); when discussions did take place they were without exception fruitless, because he refused to even consider other interests than his own.

    *We all make mistakes, most of us fail in being a bit egocentric, and so on. However: With most adults it is possible to at least talk about such issues—and that makes a world of difference.

    **Not in the “OK, we disagree. Feel free to get a formal ruling.” manner but in the “I do what the fuck I like. If you don’t like it, don’t even bother to talk to me, because I won’t listen.” manner.

  5. A particular common problem was the question of ventilation. Once the summer had started, even on cold days, he suddenly wanted to have windows open, air conditioning on, or typically both simultaneously*. Something that happened again, and again, and again, was that he would open a window (which I tolerated), leave fifteen minutes later, me eventually realizing that he had not gone of for five minutes but for a prolonged time without closing the window, me closing the window, and him coming back five minutes later and insisting that the window be opened to “get some fresh air”—despite the air being as fresh as it gets. To make matters worse, he often left again another five minutes later, leaving the window open… My repeated offer that we should (on cold days!) keep the window shut for most of the time and “stoßlüften”** once an hour was ignored every time. During the last two weeks, I quite frankly found it hard to believe that “fresh air” was his objective in the first place—it instead being a case of recalcitrance or deliberate provocation. (While close to forty, he had the maturity to match fourteen, making this less far-fetched than it might seem—but remember Hanlon’s Razor.)

    *The original occurrence mentioned above took place on a genuinely hot day and was far less remarkable. I dislike boiling in the office as much as the next guy.

    **This is another German word without an obvious English equivalent. Basically, it is the approach of open the windows fully for possibly five minutes to exchange a lot of air quickly. It is recommended by e.g. heating companies as a matter of course in Germany.

    Not only was this a nuisance, but I actually had several sick days at least partially caused by having cold air blown at me for hours a day. In fact, I have gone for several weeks, in the middle of the summer, with a continually sore throat. I note that other offices on the same floor had their windows shut and the AC off during these cold days. (But I stress that I am not necessarily saying that I was in the right and that he was in the wrong, this being a matter of conflicting preferences and interests. The larger problem is his utter refusal to even discuss my point of view or even just try to find a compromise.)

Now, while getting at least some of these annoyances of my chest is satisfying, there are a few less personal issues that I would like to discuss:

  1. How should one handle a mostly internal problem (in this case a horrible employee) as an external contractor? The actual employees have it easier—if all else fails, they can go to their boss, explain the situation, get a mediation or a ruling, and in almost all cases things will at least be clearer, often better, in the end. For an external contractor, the situation is tricky for at least three (partially overlapping) reasons, often leaving him with the choice between “suck it up” and “find another project”. Taking an alpha-male stance, no matter how tempting, borders on the suicidal—Superman can stop a train; the likes of Schwarzenegger and “The Rock” would be squashed if the driver did not pull the breaks in time.

    Firstly, problems that occur are time limited for the contractor, he has a lesser personal investment, and he is normally paid far more for his troubles than the employees he works with. As a contractor, I can point out, for instance, that this-or-that is sub-optimal—but if the people who hired me insist to do it this way, that is usually none of my business. If in doubt, it is their money, future, success, whatnot on the line—not mine.

    Secondly, if an external contractor causes a conflict with or between the wrong people, he stands a far greater risk of seeing his services “no longer needed” than a regular employee does*. Notably, many companies are hyper-sensitive to criticism against local “traditions”—often the more so, the worse they are. Notably, with too many people it is a question of who knows whom the best—not of who has the best arguments. Notably, many (especially women) are unable to understand that a difference in opinion does not imply a personal dislike.

    *With some reservations for local law and customs. Note that Germany does not practice “at-will employment”; on the contrary, it is very hard to get rid of an actual employee, even when highly unwanted.

    Thirdly, taking a hard stance even against fairly junior employees is tricky. The exact organizational regulations will vary from project to project, but unless the contractor is specifically hired as a team lead, project manager, or similar, it is usually best to consider oneself outside both the formal and informal chain-of-command*. This especially since the personal and professional relationships will typically be more shallow than between the regular employees. For instance, if I had been a regular employee for the last ten years in the situation above, I could have** just set the trouble-maker down and given him a stern talking to about e.g. “the way we do things”. As is, he could just have responded with a “Who are we? What do you know about what we do?” or similar.

    *In Germany, this is more-or-less a necessity for another reason, namely “Scheinselbständigkeit”. This is too large a topic for this article, but the simplified version is that if an external contractor (working as an individual, not employed by a third-party) is too integrated into the company, the German government will see the “external contractor” part as an attempt at tax evasion, reclassify the contractor as an employee, and force both parties to shell out additional taxes and fees of various kind.

    **Or at least tried: With such an exceptional case, I might have had to escalate the issues even in the modified scenario, for the simple reason that some rare people are beyond reason…

    As an analogy, consider the options available to a grand-parent and a baby-sitter who feel that a child should be treated differently. Unless the situation is so atrocious that social services need to be involved, the baby-sitter can basically only make recommendations to the parents—insisting, starting a fight on the matter, holding a I-am-better-at-parenting speech, …, these are things that a grand-parent can often get away with, sometimes even to the point of affecting a change. The grand-parent might even have the option to sue for custody, if worst comes to worst. The baby-sitter? Not so much…

    Being able to push issues with success and lack of danger usually requires having built a considerable amount of rapport with the right people. An external contractor who actually focuses on doing what he is paid for will rarely have that rapport outside of the immediate team.

  2. How should one handle a problem that one knows will soon pass on its own? (Assuming that other constraints do not apply, e.g. the “I am an external contractor” issue.)

    Here I am a bit at a loss: I have almost always chosen to sit it out in the past. This has often worked, but I have often also been left with a potentially avoidable damage because something worse-than-usual happened between the decision to sit it out and the actual passing, or because the damage accumulated higher than I had anticipated*, often because I had overestimated the competence levels of other parties and seen even repeated screw-ups as events unlikely to repeat. My tentative recommendation would be to give someone two or three** strikes, depending on the issue, and then take action—even when it is clear that the problem or the trouble-maker will be gone in the not too far away future. Going to four or more strikes will lead to exactly the type of problems I have had when waiting; reacting on the first strike will lead to too many reasons to complain and will likely come across as pre-mature*** with the recipients of the complaint.

    *Which to some degree was the case above; with hindsight, I probably should have escalated the issues, even as an external contractor and even with the limited time frame.

    **Of course allowing for faster reactions when something truly bad happens or when there is reason to believe that the counter-part both acted out of ignorance and is likely to repeat. Other special cases likely exist, say when someone does an unfortunate web re-design, which is a one-off occurrence with a repeating damage. (I often make a deliberate point of giving feedback on such occasions, in the (vain?) hope that someone will re-consider.) Personal conflicts, like the one above, can be particularly tricky, because while the one party waits, the other party is quite possibly already actively complaining to everyone else. This applies in particular to the type of two-faced individual I discuss below.

    ***Specifically in Germany, this need not matter, because the openness to critique and attitude towards customers is often abysmal. Where e.g. the U.S. has the proverbial “the customer is king”, Germany has its proverbial “Servicewüste Deutschland”—“Service desert Germany”. In both cases, the reality does not always match the claim, but there is a reason why it has reached a proverbial status.

  3. How should one handle the superficially friendly people who are at best neutral, at worst hostile, behind the mask?

    Let me start with the remark that most people in the modern world appear to not understand friends and friendship at all: A friend is not someone you like spending time with—a friend is someone who (e.g.) hides you at a personal risk when you are on the run from the law, or gives up a kidney when you need one. “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” No matter how entertaining someone is, no matter how much you like drinking a pint with him in the pub, …, he is still not worthy of the name “friend” if he drops you as soon as things get rough or if his main interest is in getting a benefit from you.

    I have long taken the stance, and will likely continue to do so, that what matters is substance, not superficial pleasantry. This is also the main reason that my opinion of the above ex-colleague is radically different from that of most other team members—they look at his attempts to cozy up, socialize, small-talk, …, while I look at his actual actions, how he handles conflicts, how he behaves when the mask drops, … Because of this, most people (myself included before I had the time to actually understand him) think of him as a pleasant guy, someone to spend time with. I see him for what he is: The possibly worst ass-hole I have worked with in my almost twenty years in software development.

    Here there is a potential source of problems: When opinions differ, it is usually the majority that rules and the minority that is considered absurd, even when having a more well-formed and realistic opinion.

    Another issue is that these two-faced individuals are so used to getting their way with the sympathies of others, that they often cannot handle a negative reaction. Even the troublesome ex-colleague above repeatedly behaved like a complete idiot and then expected that if he smiled at me and made a little small-talk everything would be well again.* Sorry: It does not work that way with rational people—once I know what lies beneath the mask, the mask cannot change things again**. In fact, such hypocritical attempts turn me personally off just as much as the original offenses.

    *This is not to be confused with e.g. two people who like or respect each other having an argument and then mending their relation, or with a basically good guy having a rare slip and then making amends. In these cases, and assuming genuinely friendly smiles, small-talk, whatnot, the situation is very different. The above, in contrast, deals with evil bastards, psychopaths, opportunistic salesmen and politicians, and the like. Consider Carcer in Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch” for an extreme example.

    **However, a reciprocal mask of “I utterly despise you, but will keep it hidden, because we still have to work with each other for the foreseeable future” is still possible, often wise. As the remainder of his employment shrank, I grew correspondingly less inclined to keep that mask up.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 14, 2016 at 10:47 pm

An absolutely awful marriage story

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A few weeks ago, I encountered an an absolutely awful marriage storye. In fact, one that almost made me feel sick—but which the blog author absurdly proclaimed to be “great”. (From context it is not clear whether she also was the author of the story or merely a spreader of it. Either way, seeing it as great requires a near complete lack of perspective and insight.)

At the time, I left a comment explaining why it was awful. Having just noticed that this comment has been arbitrarily censored (the more in need of a comment a post is, the greater the risk of censorship, as I have noticed over the last year), I try to recreate the gist here:

  1. The woman has an entirely unrealistic and unreasonable view of what marriage and love is.

  2. She is about to throw away her promise of “until death us depart; for better and worse” based on what appears to be mere boredom.

  3. Instead of constructively discussing her issues with her husband, she waits until she has given up hope of him spontaneously changing—and then springs divorce upon him.

  4. She requires of him, in order that he proves himself worthy of the second chance he requested, that he consider his own life worth less than her (hypothetical) whim of having a particular flower. This is something that is, frankly, inexcusable: A wife may have the right that her husband risks his life to save hers (and vice versa!), but under no circumstances that it is sacrificed for a whim.

    Besides, any man who agreed to even the hypothetical situation would afterwards be in an impossible situation: How can he later refuse to buy her jewelry for a mere few hundred dollars at her asking? To take out the garbage in the middle of a Superbowl game? To letting her unilaterally decide where every single vacation is to be held? … That the man still wanted her after hearing this demand is hard to fathom—better divorced than living with such a self-centered bitch.

  5. While he declines, he does give an extremely cheese explanation for why he declines—and this explanation proves her earlier dissatisfaction to have been very, very unfair. In effect, she was about to throw away a far more wife-friendly husband than most women ever have—and one that she gave no signs of deserving.

To make matters worse, there are many elements of this story that are reminiscent of the bad marriage experiences I have heard men tell from real life, including that problems are not brought to their attention, that unrealistic expectations are raised, and that they are faced with a divorce out of nowhere and without the wife reflecting on what a marriage actually implies.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Romantic fools

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Were love is concerned, we have likely all been both naive idealists and great fools. What I have encountered on a recent poste, however, borders on the scary.

The post it self is a youthful pep-talk by a 22 y.o. single woman (Isa), making statements like

You, my friend, are worthy of great, authentic love.

Please never settle.

The person I want you to date might be making morning coffee right now or sleeping through a thunderstorm or getting a degree in Physics. Wait. I mean it. Every other person will be a cheap imitation of the real thing.

And when it comes to their love for you, YOU WILL KNOW. Their love will be the most painfully obvious thing in the world that though you will come to question many, many things in life, you will never — not even once — question them.

Nothing other 22 y.o. single women have not said before and certainly something many of them want to hear. Naive and self-deceptive—yes. Hard to understand and sympathize with—no.

The scary part is the forty something responses (81 at the time of writing, but roughly half are “thank you”s from Isa). Off these, only one (mine) is dissenting or trying to show another perspective; the others mostly go along the lines of

I love you. You are amazing, quite frankly. Thank you for writing this.

I love this. I think I’m going to print it out and mail it to my 15 year old niece…

As a single girl who’s never had a boyfriend, this blog entry gave me hope.

(a minority are somewhat more neutral or inquisitive).

Are people really that keen on believing what they want to believe and hearing what they want to hear? Scary…

At the bottom-line, those who do not compromise will have to wait long (sometimes forever), those who set their sights too high will be disappointed by any real-life partner, and those who search for “perfect” will often pass up the “good” that would have made them happy. The point is not whether someone is “the one”, but whether our lives are better off with or without her/him. If nothing else, the partner at 22 is unlikely to be the partner at 32, let alone 62—we have plenty of strikes before we are out. The question is whether we use them or not…

Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm