For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in (pause for effect) … south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 13 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.
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Let me begin by describing an unrecorded but important event – unrecorded because this event took place before there was a means of recording anything. I am referring to a neolithic-age marriage. Specifically, this is the first time ever for a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage.
This is the tale of two neolithic lovers, Oogie and Boogie, who had the first monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage. This happened so many years ago the years don’t matter. Let’s just say that these two stone age social innovators decided they loved each other so much they wanted to be together forever and ever. (Sound familiar?) To announce this commitment to their tribe, they held some kind of primitive wedding ceremony to officially proclaim their commitment. Again, because this is pre-history, we have no records of what the ceremony looked like. The important thing is that there was a social element in this strange new idea – a ceremony to announce to the tribe a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage.
Oogie, the boy, was only 15 and Boogie, the girl, was only about 13 but that was sufficient in neolithic times for them to be considered adults. (Although, even back then, there were probably some old people muttering, “They’re too young to get married.”)
However, being a neolithic hunter/gatherer was a hazardous occupation, so hazardous that most of them didn’t live too long. Various things like dangerous animals, untreated/untreatable diseases and infections, physical exhaustion from the hard manual labor of hunting and gathering, intertribal warfare, intratribal warfare, and seasonal starvation, all contributed to make the average lifespan quite short compared to our modern expectations.
Actually, although Oogie and Boogie had just invented the first monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage, choosing a mate was normal behavior – just not the same mate for the rest of your life – or, maybe, even the rest of the week. Because of the high casualty rate among the adults, children were welcomed and necessary for the continued survival of the tribe. But these children were raised by the whole tribe, not necessarily by their biological parents. The children knew who their mother was. The identity of the father was less clear. It didn’t matter.
So, Oogie and Boogie were married. (Not legally married since laws hadn’t been invented yet.) We hope they were quite happy, living together in a little hut. But actually, they probably didn’t even have a little hut because they were nomadic hunter/gatherers who wandered from place to place, depending on the season and the availability of whatever they were hunting and gathering. Houses and domesticated animals and private property – and divorce lawyers – all came much later.
So, what happened to our teenage, stone age lovers after they created the first monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage? Well, a couple of years later, Oogie died at the age of 17 when he became an hors d’oeuvres for a hungry sabertooth tiger. After that sad event – not sad for the sabertooth tiger, of course – Boogie went on to have two or three other mates, although without the bother of a ceremony or promises of fidelity. Then Boogie died at the age of 18, mostly from exhaustion, caused by continual illness, multiple pregnancies, food poisoning, starvation, and various other hazards.
Oogie and Boogie did indeed live “til death do us part” as we still say in modern times but, for neolithic marriages, that usually wasn’t too long. Even if they managed to defy the odds and stick around to die of old age, for them, “old age” would be in their thirties. A lifetime commitment would have been, for most of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, a few years.
Now, let’s skip forward a whole bunch (an astronomical term meaning a very large number) of generations and meet their descendants, a modern-day Oogie and Boogie couple. Pick any pair from the many young lovers around you who also declare they want to spend a lifetime together. If these modern descendants of Oogie and Boogie decide to have a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage today, what similarities and what differences can we see?
Buried deep in our DNA are the social and personal drives that allowed our hunter/gatherer ancestors and their tribes to survive. Because of that legacy, our social behavior today still has many similarities. Despite being thoroughly modern individuals, we still have an inherent need for social acceptance and approval. True, it is not essential for actual survival that a modern adult be a member of a tribe in our times but it is still an important factor. We deeply desire to be liked by the other neolithic descendants around us. (Gotta be cool, right? Gotta look and act like everyone else, right?) And, yes, there is still the built-in, almost universal drive to find a mate and become a parent. This was necessary for the neolithic tribe to survive so it became part of our personal DNA.
And, yes, there are still old people around gleefully muttering that the couple are too young to get married. Hmm. Is that gleeful muttering part of the tribe’s survival DNA or just something that old people do because they are old?
But what about the differences between Oogie and Boogie and our modern-day couple?
First, today, we live in an era in which new developments come so rapidly that a full human generation – historically, about 25 years – sees so many changes that it is hard to compare the expectations and experiences of modern parents and their children. For Oogie and Boogie and, indeed, for most of our species’ history, change brought about by technology and by social mobility were almost non-existent compared to today’s standards. Modern technology also makes it possible for us to live much longer, more comfortable, and safer lives than Oogie and Boogie could have imagined. Notice that I didn’t say the modern couple would be happier. Happiness, too, is possible in modern times but we haven’t yet found a way for technology to help in this area. We do, however, persist in believing that having more toys will make us more happy. In addition to the increase in life expectancy because of technology, there is also the huge range of opportunities and lifestyle choices available to the young, marriage-age individuals today.
So, what’s the problem? How does this affect the modern couple’s prospects for a happy marriage, Oogie and Boogie-style?
First of all, you, as an individual, keep changing. Think about the person you were five years ago. Remember your activities, goals, values, relationships, and expectations. Now, compare that person with the person you see in the mirror today. Undoubtedly, you will see a vastly different person with a very different set of activities, goals, values, relationships, and expectations. Furthermore, I promise you that, five years in the future, there will be another vastly different person looking back at you from the mirror – probably with even more changes than the previous five years have brought.
Now, suppose you have been very, very lucky and found the perfect mate – Mr. or Ms. Right. You two are deliriously happy and compatible in every way. Life is good and you are ready to make that lifetime commitment with this delightful partner.
But, let’s face the hard mathematical reality: If you are certain to change in the next five years, and go through a metamorphosis, it is equally certain that your Mr. or Ms. Right will have undergone similar dramatic changes. Thus, despite the best of intentions when they exchange vows to have a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage, in a few years, you will find two very different persons looking back at you and Mr/Ms Right from the mirror. Ask yourself what are the chances of you and your perfect mate (perfect today, at least) developing along exactly parallel lines so that you still share the same activities, goals, values, relationships, and expectations in five years? Honestly, not great.
But that’s not the end. It’s not just for five years. Today, the descendants of our prehistoric lovers can expect to live much, much longer than poor Oogie and Boogie. Decades longer. A lifetime commitment today might mean 40 or 50 or 60 years of having breakfast together. Unless you are living in a Walt Disney world where people really do live happily ever after, you must admit that it is more realistic to expect you and your perfect mate to have moved in different directions. Each year will bring more separation rather than less. Perhaps you will move in very different directions. That breakfast conversation together may be mostly filled with awkward silences, if not actual hostility.
Take a moment and think of all the people you see around you today as you walk through our modern society. Almost everyone gets married, usually with honest intentions of living in a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage… for the rest of their life. Unlike Oogie and Boogie, however, for the rest of their life for modern married couples may mean fifty or sixty years together. For the moment, we will ignore the rising divorce rates and assume that everyone stays together after their wedding day.
Now, look around you. Consider all the married couples you know. (Not your own relationship. I’m sure you and your partner are perfectly happy with each other. I mean everyone else.) Thanks to an unprecedented abundance of resources and a higher standard of living than the original Oogie and Boogie could have imagined, people live better and longer today than ever before in history. But what about their quality of married life? How many of those couples today are really happy with their marriage partner? They may have a higher standard of living and they may be more self-directed than any previous generation – but are they really happy?
Most, I submit, are not. Even if, for a combination of reasons, they choose to stay with their partner, most people in modern marriages are not very happy. A truly happy marriage is as rare as (insert name of something highly improbable, verging on impossible). In making a monogamous, lifetime-commitment marriage vow, they are trying to beat the odds, almost a mathematical absurdity. They are married and, for various reasons, they may choose to stay married. But, for the greater number of people, the very best they can hope for is if they can say that they are happy with their life… but maybe not so happy with the life partner they chose long ago. (Again, I am not talking about your marriage. I’m sure that you and Mr/Ms Right are still deliriously happy and compatible in every way. I mean everyone else.)
What can be done to remedy this horrible degrading of what was a fine idea in neolithic times? Tune in next time for the solution.