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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is Marital Trust Overrated?

A second very interesting presentation from the International Family Law Scholars conference I attended last week was Jill Hasday's presentation on her forthcoming book about deception. I had not really thought about it before, but deception, specifically fear of deception and punishment for deception, is a significant theme running through many family law cases and statutes. I look forward to reading the book when it is published and I think I was particularly interested in the topic, because discussions of mail order marriage often bring up concerns about deception.

In Buying A Bride, I don't focus on deception specifically. However, the fear that the intended spouse is not being honest about their background or marriage motives is a fear routinely expressed by both men and women considering mail order marriage. Therefore, what is so interesting to me about Hasday's project is that it demonstrates that deception and the fear surrounding deception is not something unique to mail order marriage rather, it is an aspect of many types of intimate relationships.

In mail order marriage, the fear of deception is heightened because the unknowns surrounding the intended spouse are obvious. Men worry that the women are using them for their money or citizenship while women fear the men just want sex or power. American law is sensitive to these concerns, particularly with regard to the women, and offers a number of protections aimed at reducing the risks of mail order marriage. For example, mail order brides are provided with information about their prospective husbands such as their criminal history and if they have sponsored any other mail order brides. In addition, the law protects against abuse by ensuring that abused immigrant wives are able to self petition for permanent residency. This law enables the women to leave their abusers and still remain in the United States. Men using seeking mail order marriages marriage don't have as many specific protections as the women but they often use contract law, specifically prenups, to protect their assets in the case of divorce. 

I think it is possible that the uncertainties inherent in mail order marriage may actually make deception less likely than in other types of relationships. Men and women considering mail order marriage are well aware of the fact that they are marrying a stranger. As a result, these couples may be more vigilant and thus less likely to be fooled by a partner's deception than spouses who meet the traditional way.

One of the interesting points that Hasday made during her presentation was just how common deception is and how bad spouses are at detecting it. In some ways, this is not surprising.  There are strong disincentives, both legal and social, for being too mistrustful of one's spouse. In general, we expect spouses to trust each other and the law tends to discourage suspicion. Mail order marriage however is an exception to this rule.

Ostensibly, the reason we give mail order brides, but no other potential wives, information about their intended husband is that these couples do not have the luxury of a long courtship period during which they can get to know one another. However, plenty of domestic couples get married quickly and they are not provided with similar information. When I mention this fact to people, they typically respond that it is easier for two Americans to check up on each other because each has a better understanding of American law and culture. This is certainly true in theory, but I am not sure it is true in practice. How many Americans actually do a criminal background check on their boyfriend or girlfriend? I think most people probably do one google search and call it a day.

In the past, an unwillingness to deeply research one's partner didn't matter than much. Most people married men and women they met through their communities and thus, they could rely on third parties to vouch for the person's trustworthiness. Today, the rise of online dating has changed that immensely.  The majority of single Americans have attempted online dating and it is now considered neither shameful or strange. In most respects this is good, but it may also mean that online couples are now too trusting.

Like online dating, mail order marriage rates are also increasing. However, unlike online dating, mail order marriages continue to be viewed with high levels of distrust. Exact numbers regarding these relationships are hard to pin down, (many mail order marriage couples prefer not to disclose how they met still), but  it appears that the divorce rate for mail order couples is not greater and is probably  lower than the rate for couples who meet other  ways. Given this fact, Hasday's presentation made me wonder if perhaps, the wariness with which mail order couples approach their marriages may actually be a benefit for the long term stability of the relationship. If the average couple approaches their relationship with too much trust than maybe they are more likely to fail to uncover the the deceptions that could ultimately doom the relationship. If, on the other hand, a healthy does of skepticism helps people weed out untrustworthy marriage partners than perhaps marriages that begin with a little less trust are actually more stable. It's counterintuitive, but interesting to think about.

Posted by Marcia Zug on May 31, 2016 at 10:41 AM | Permalink

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Posted by: Guardiandebtrelief | Jun 5, 2016 2:54:50 PM

Both books sound very interesting, looking forward to their release.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Jun 5, 2016 2:40:50 AM

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