Can We Both ‘Marry Up’?

It is a common assumption made by most dating resources and, indeed, most people, that relationships are a zero-sum game: that someone has to be better for having the other, and that for that to happen, the other must therefore be worse, having made a sacrifice to improve their partner. But I have already discussed why this is not necessarily the case.

What I’m getting to today, thanks to an interesting post by IB last week, is the mentality that brings about this assumption. Because there actually seems to be a step in between “I observe that most relationships are unbalanced” and “therefore there has to be a loser”. And that step is “everyone wants to marry up”.

In and of itself, the statement is innoccuous: of course everyone wants to marry up. We want the genetically fittest partner we can get, as well as a compatible one, so we look out for one who is generally an improvement on us. Sexier, richer, younger, more mature, more famous, brighter, etc. Thus, we look for something better. But the implication is that for someone to be better than us, they must be “hyper”, or “above” us. Thus, we win and they lose.

But the reality is that we also seek compatibility in our genetic fitness. The masculine seek the feminine, the feminine seek the masculine. The creative seek the scientific, the scientific seek the creative. The doctors seek the nurses or the patients. The artists seeks the muse, the model an artist. We want someone who can do what we cannot, what we either do not have the time or the energy or the skills to do. If it had a term, it would be “paideiagamy”: the pursuit of someone who rounds us out, who makes us a complete unit of society.

And this is where we find that middle ground of “marrying up”.

You see, there are two ways of marrying up.

The first is when partner A is clearly beneath partner B. Not just in one aspect, but as a sum total of their desirable qualities. In these cases, only two results are possible. Either partner B becomes idle, and lets slide the characteristics that made them better, causing an evenly married couple where partner A resents partner B for “bait and switch” and partner B resents partner A for “ruining B’s life”. Or partner B continues to work on improvement, or at least maintenance and grows distant, causing partner A to become insecure about the quality gap, causing anger on both sides. In short, you cannot just “marry up” and rest on your laurels.

But there is another kind of marrying up. This is where the partners are either equal or equivalent. Equal in that they are approximately the same in all desirable qualities. Or equivalent in that, despite specific differences, their sum total of desirability is even. However both partners are focused on improving themselves and extend that efford to each other. In working to improve each other, they end up with a continually better partner: one who gives them better access to that which they desire. But they are also improving, incentivizing their partner to also invest in them. Through this process, each member of a couple will appear to have benefitted greatly from the relationship. Their friends and family will compliment the quality of their partner for “fixing” them. But in reality both have improved.

Of course, the second kind of marrying up is all an illusion. Neither married someone objectively better than themselves. You’ve just married your approximate equal and both encouraged each other to improve, giving the impression to everyone but yourselves that one of you struck gold. But “true” marrying up is as much a recipe for failure as marrying down, or being lazy in a relationship are.

So the answer is: Not really. You can’t both marry someone better than you, not in absolute terms. But being unable to both “marry up” does not lead to “zero-sum game”. You can just as easily marry an equivalent, a slight superior or a slight inferior and end up both vastly better off for it. Which may make others assume you married up after all!

Ultimately, you can only win at the game when you play it together.

TTFN and Happy Hunting!

What is your perspective on improvement through relationships? And what would your paideiagamy look like: focus on complementarity, on similarity, on contrasts, on better qualities..? Do you think there are any more steps to the disillusion->marry-up->zero-sum-game mentality?


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18 thoughts on “Can We Both ‘Marry Up’?

  1. I think that both “CAN” marry up, in that each has certain qualities that the other may not have as much of. As long as both can appreciate what the other brings to the relationship, both can grown and learn from the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No, that was a lie. Let me correct that…

    People don’t change. They actually start to show more of who they really were all along.

    Go back to the beginning of the relationship, and the red flags were there. We just refused to see them. Or we saw them, and lied to ourselves about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the truth is a combination of both. People have underlying characteristics that stay with them their whole lives. People can work to permanently change the ways these characteristics display themselves, or to hide them. Those who hide them never do so very well, and eventually it slips through.

      You can be inherently lazy and work hard to turn it into efficiency (get the job done so you can go home], or pretend to not be lazy by working beyond your comfort zone, eventually slipping back to past habits.

      You just have to know yourself.


  3. Well said.

    “Paideiagamy,” great word. Paideia is apparently, “training of the physical and mental faculties in such a way as to produce a broad enlightened mature outlook harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development.” Enlightened, mature, and harmonious, works for me.

    I think opposites attract in some ways, so the feminine seeks the masculine and vice versa. While it’s good to have some things in common, we tend to desire the characteristics we don’t have, so we complement one another. It makes sense on a biological level and also when it comes to attraction and desire. You’re maximizing your sphere of talents and skills, so I think we are drawn towards those who have the qualities we don’t. The differences between men and women would be the most obvious example of this. Men tend to be drawn to our softness and women tend to be drawn towards men’s strength, although there’s a lot of variation in what that actually looks like.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with Insanitybytes – we are naturally (unconsciously) attracted to attributes that we don’t have. I think that my husband and I fill out each others’ missing bits really well – but neither of us were thinking about that sort of thing when we were courting, teenagers don’t.

    Even in uneven relationships, seldom is one partner marrying only for charity, so the “lower” partner is bringing something to the relationship that is desired, whatever that might be.

    Marrying poorly is another conversation entirely.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right that people do not “marry down” out of charity. Those couplings are more likely to result when people marry for the wrong reasons, like the person who marries the alcoholic because “they are good and sensitive and I can fix them”. Then it turns out the alcoholic didn’t want to be fixed!


      • I was thinking of someone rich or accomplished (or both) who married someone 15 years their junior who was neither rich nor accomplished. You say they’re marrying down, but they wanted that injection of youthful energy for reasons of their own.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As one who often quips that I “married up” I will toss in my two cents.

    I usually say it because in terms of physical attractiveness (even as a decent looking fit 22 year old bride) I did “marry up”. Husband is just very handsome by any objective metric.

    But to be sure there were -and are- gaps that we filled in for one another in significant ways particularly with regard to temperament and personality. There are areas where he would say he “married up”.

    Ideally both parties in a marriage add value to one another. Unfortunately this era only values material addition at the expense of the transcendent and so this nebulous concept of “marrying up” or “marrying down” abounds.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. FWIW, I hear men say things like “I don’t know how she puts up with me”, ” my better half”, “she’s a better person than me”, etc. All in my opinion are variation of “I married up”.

    My husband, while willing to acknowledge the gaps I fill and express gratitude for it (that is what I was referring to earlier), is completely at ease expressing the truth: that his wife is darned blessed to have him and wouldn’t be half the woman she is without him. Confidence he lacks not at all.

    A wife needs that: a man who appreciates her without placing himselfbeneath her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some more common ways men phrase the same phenomenon:

    I see you beat me to it, SSW. I didn’t notice until after I’d commented.

    Well, I’ve done my civic duty so I need to go home and get some real work done. It is impossible for me (of African descent) to be Slavis, and “Super” is probably a bit much to ask as well, but I can be productive.

    Thanks for an interesting thread, SSW.


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