Friday, February 3

On Companionates and Passionates

Despite not thinking much of the book, one of the Good Things™ I did get from my recent reading of Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance was a more precise and possibly more accessible vocabulary. Vocabulary is quite powerful: its primary use is to communicate thoughts and ideas to other people, but even if you never use it outside of your own head it also has the power to cement and crystallise otherwise nascent "languageless" thoughts and ideas that you might have floating around in the attic that is your brain. This in turn helps you figure out, challenge and nail the stuff you probably already know, and the fact that most of the notes I made during the book were not really about the book kind of demonstrates this. Of course for the sake of full disclosure those who know me will already suspect where my biases lie. Oh and yes, a relationships and marriage post is probably a bit cringeworthy especially after so much time has elapsed since the last one... but I know you all love these anyway.

So then to start, here's some of the vocabulary I learned. We'll start with the objective, that is, a marriage. There are generally two types of marriage that people (perhaps subconsciously) look for, the respective levels of popularity of which have largely shifted over time and generations. A "Companionate Marriage" is something quite functional and perhaps a little prescriptive, the given solution to real practical life problems like survival and organisation. It was largely associated with classic gender roles, tying the knot at a young age and "being happy with what you have" rather than stressing the pursuit of larger and potentially more ambitious things. It would have been pretty tribal too - so you meet people in your family, or neighbourhood, or your community. The primary point of this type of marriage is the marriage itself, that is its effect on those around it as well as those in it - so it was more of a duty or responsibility than something to enjoy. It's the model that some of us may have witnessed our parents following, and it might even have been what we learned to expect for ourselves and so perhaps then something we took for granted.

The contrary then is a Passionate Marriage, one in which there is no clear functional point except for those in the marriage to be able to feel a certain way. Intensity is important, particularly during the discovery phase, as is the excitement and, as it says on the tin, the passion. Although it can often be about sharing unique external experiences together, this is usually to extract individual value and effect. And on the theme of individuality, the practical needs from previous years are less important in such marriages as many in them are more rounded independent agents themselves. As the results of this type of marriage are largely subjective, there tends not to be a perceivable upper limit to what can be achieved, or put another way, the success of such relationships can sometimes be difficult to ascertain; one can always be happier after all. It would be pretty crass to lay the increasing popularity of passionate marriages at the feet of the media and marketing, but the two are correlated to an extent.

From these two perspectives, we see the respective consequences on related behaviours like searching and love: you have the search for a companion versus the search for a soul mate, or the essences of companionate love vs passionate love. But here's the tricky part: although the concerns of companionate and passionate marriages are largely orthogonal (that is, you can have them both), in practice they're largely mutually exclusive.

Two possibly related factors appeared to have changed over the past couple of decades, probably as technology and modernity improved our way of life and living: firstly people have practically become more independent and were able to look after themselves both financially and domestically, which in turn largely removed a lot of the practical basis of companionate marriages; and secondly people become more interesting and interested in the world - all of a sudden it was important to become a unique individual and consume as much of what was out there as possible. For a lot of women before, a (companionate) marriage was her ticket to the world; such a concept is laughable these days, although in contrast it's interesting to see how those who are looking for companionate marriages are less interested in exploring the world as an individual. Even before marriage, they would be less likely to relocate for things like work or education, perhaps since they give less value to the self development such actions bring. Conversely companionate marriages were usually seen as a barrier to this self development, and so we see a correlation between those who were pursuing self development and those who get married later, and once you don't need or value the facilities a companionate marriage offers the only real reason left to get married is, well, for the passion.

Since companionate marriages were seen as a barrier to self development, it started getting a lot of bad press. At best it was seen as a bit of the default goal, the boring or "easy" way or merely settling with the norm, offering a fixed ceiling to the amount of happiness that can ultimately be achieved. At worse, it was seen as repressive to one or both parties, and something which took away the free choices of those partaking in it (usually explicitly of the women who were expected to focus on traditional goals, but the same would apply to men who had to pick jobs based on income rather than personal preferences). It's probably apt to see companionates as "satisficers" and passionates as "maximisers", which seems to settle the argument early until you learn that satisficers usually enjoy more happiness in the longer term.

There's also a distinct difference in who profits from the respective marriages. By its nature, a companionate marriage tends to focus on the external results of the union and the benefits it brings to both the family to which it belongs and even the wider society - so for example companionate marriages would tend to stay local to respective in-laws, while others would be willing to literally search far and wide for a soul mate. Put bluntly, even if those in the marriage are not the happiest the fact that familial objectives are being achieved would be enough for those involved. Such a concept would be alien to those looking for a soul mate, for whom no achievement is counted unless it brings explicit joy and happiness to them as individuals. In fact, for them, the situation actually reverses and as long as a certain level of passionate love is achieved, the practical issues aren't really relevant. In other words, love really is their answer to all problems and issues that a marriage can face, and if the issues remain then it implies that the love is not strong enough.

That last point raises an interesting question: Are those looking for a soul mate then more willing to compromise? It's clear that, on a practical basis anyway, they are more flexible in what a prospective partner should look or be like. However this is balanced by what could be an even tougher barrier of entry - how that prospective partner makes them feel. And going by what people say, finding someone who rocks their boat in that way seems to be pretty difficult. On the other hand for someone looking for a companionate marriage, although some things are quite rigidly set in stone, the need for immediate clicks, unagi and bantz seems largely a distraction. That's not to say that companionates are looking for loveless marriages, but more that they know (or perhaps hope) that these things can be developed and nurtured over time. In some ways then their compromise is on the initial passion and attraction required and I think then that on balance both types have their set ways and flexibility.

The above discussion highlights the incompatibility of the two approaches. Companionates need someone who is able to commit to their practical concerns, whether it's the need for financial security for the woman and her children, or the need for a man and his children to be looked after in a more direct way. Those looking for a soul mate will dismiss such requirements in the first instance as "details". It's arguable whether it actually has to be this way: those looking for soul mates will claim that they will adapt to the needs of those who they love eventually, whereas a companionate really does believe that a level of passion will be inevitable later. So why can't things eventually fall into place between candidates of the two types?

On paper a passionate marriage is more of a dynamic target since it's based on an internal process that can change, so then the question becomes this: if person A, a companionate, can by all measures be seen as a soul mate by person B who is looking for passion, then should it matter to person B that person A isn't looking for a soul mate in return? It appears that this is important after all, the conclusion being that those looking for a soul mate are also largely reflexive - they cannot accept someone who won't consider them in the same way. The same argument can probably be applied to companionates, who seek a literal commitment that far outweighs one that is based on internal feelings.

So if we decide that these two camps aren't compatible, why is that an issue? Surely each to their own and all that? Well, ironically, each camp appears to be a victim of their own requirements and the type of marriage one looks for has an effect on the search too. Put bluntly, the approaches differ in pace, objective and how a match is determined.

In the search for a companionate marriage, the criteria for a match is much more objective: perhaps guys would need a decent job, and possibly the girls some expectation of domesticity. As such, the companionate search is much more formal, deterministic and even less risky and historically resulted in things like arranged marriages, getting married straight out of school, and minimal dating periods. It was quite literally the checkbox process some fondly (or perhaps not) reminisce about, and a successful meeting would usually get turned around to a marriage pretty quickly.

Those looking for a soul mate appear to take the brunt of the bad times, with complaints about time wastage, indecision, a constant lack of immediate rapport and some quite frankly shady behaviour from participants of either gender. It appears that in looking for a soul mate it is inevitable certain personal investments and risks need to be made and taken and until a marriage happens these can take their toll. Time is also required to see if successes are transient or longer lasting - the former sometimes being seen as a success in its own right - and as well as spending time, this experimentation phase might present its own problems in the face of faith or religious teachings, particularly in communities where extended time with the opposite gender or general "longer term dating" might not be as acceptable. Of course I'm largely referring to Asian and Muslim communities, but there's way too much to say about this now so perhaps keep an eye out for a follow up post. In short, almost by its very definition, the search for a soul mate has to be tough and fraught with challenges, since that's what makes them unique and valuable.

In contrast even if by its nature a companionate search is more formulaic and transparent and can therefore be seen as "easier", this is by far overwhelmed by the lack of numbers and availability of the respective counterparts. It doesn't matter how easy the determination of a match is if those who are also looking for a companionate marriage are so few in number. In that sense, companionates are hampered by the rigidity of their search - most avenues for marriage are dominated by those looking for soul mates and so there's much more dependence on community networks and introductions, facilities which are thin on the ground in this day and age.

Of course in reality most probably sit on a gradient between the two options, but not many realise that the scale is linear and that these are not orthogonal concerns. It's true that generally those looking for companionate marriages are an ever shrinking group and eventually everyone will be looking for a soul mate, so apart from the challenges mentioned above inherent to such an approach the problem of compatibility perhaps isn't going to be an issue. However those in Asian or Muslim communities may have their own challenges related to the topics mentioned above... which is something best left to a future article.

For now however terms like "companionate" and "passionate" and phrases like "the search for soul mates" lend themselves to a much more helpful framing than "backwards" or "looking for a halal boy/girlfriend" or "Muslim dating" when talking about the issues single people face today in their searches for marriage, and they are terms I will probably make use of quite heavily in the future.

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