tl;dr micromarriages aren't fully analogous to micromorts, which makes it tricky to define them satisfactorily. I introduce an alternative unit: QAWYs (Quality-Adjusted Wife Years), where 1 QAWY is an additional year of happy marriage.

I once compiled a list of concepts which I’d discovered were less well-defined than I originally thought. I’m sad to say that I now have to add Chris Olah’s micromarriages to the list. In his words: “Micromarriages are essentially micromorts, but for marriage instead of death. A micromarriage is a one in a million chance that an action will lead to you getting married, relative to your default policy.”

It’s a fun idea, and helpful in making small probabilities feel more compelling. But upon thinking about it more, I’ve realised that the analogy doesn’t quite work. The key difference is that micromorts are a measure of acute risk - i.e. immediate death. For activities like skydiving, this is the main thing to worry about, so it’s a pretty good metric. But most actions we’d like to measure using micromarriages (going to a party, say, or working out more) won’t lead you to get married immediately - instead they flow through to affect marriages that might happen at some later point.

So how can we measure the extent to which an action affects your future marriages, even in theory? One option is to track how it changes the likelihood you’ll get married eventually. But this is pretty unhelpful. By analogy, if micromorts measured an action’s effect on the probability that you’d die eventually, then all actions would have almost zero micromorts (with the possible exception of some life-extension and existential risk work during the last few decades). Similarly, under this definition the micromarriages you gain from starting a new relationship (or even from literally getting married) could be mostly cancelled out by the fact that this relationship cuts off other potential relationships.

An alternative is to measure actions not by how much they change the probability that you’ll get married eventually, but by how much you expect them to causally contribute to an eventual marriage. The problem there is that many actions can causally contribute to a marriage (meeting someone, asking them out, proposing, etc) and there’s no principled way of splitting the credit between them. I won’t go into the details here, but the basic problem is the same as one which arises when trying to allocate credit to multiple contributors to a charitable intervention. E.g. if three different funders are all necessary for getting a project off the ground, in some sense they can all say that they “caused” the project to happen, but that would end up triple-counting their total impact. (In this case, we can use Shapley values to allocate credit - but the boundaries between different “actions” are much more arbitrary than the boundaries between different “agents”, making it harder to apply Shapley values to the micromarriage case. Should we count the action “skipping meeting someone else” as a contributor to the marriage? Or the action “turning your head to catch sight of them”? This is basically a rabbit-hole without end - and that’s not even getting into issues of marriage identity across possible worlds.)[1]

Fortunately, however, there’s another approach which does work. When thinking about mortality, the medical establishment doesn’t just measure acute risks, but also another category of risk: chronic risks, like smoking. When smoking, you don’t get a binary outcome after each cigarette, but rather a continual degradation of health. So chronic risks are instead measured in terms of the expected decrease in your lifespan - for example, with units of microlives, where one microlife is one millionth of an adult lifespan (about half an hour); or with quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), to adjust for ill health and disability.

Analogously, then, the most straightforward metric for guiding our romantic choices is the expected increase in the time you’ll spend married - which we could measure in microwives (where one microwife is an additional half-hour of marriage). But I don’t think this is the best unit, because most people could accumulate many more microwives by dropping their standards, even if that’ll lead to unhappy marriages. So it’s important to adjust for how good we expect the marriage to be! My proposed unit: quality-adjusted wife years (QAWYs). Note that these are gender-neutral: QAWYs can involve either being a wife or having a wife (or both).[2] An intervention gains 1 QAWY if it increases the expected amount of time you’ll spend happily married by 1 year (or the amount of time you’ll spend in a half-as-happy marriage by 2 years, etc). We do need some benchmark for a “happy marriage”; I’ll arbitrarily pick the 90th percentile of marriages across the population. Some factors which affect QAWY evaluation include spouse compatibility, age of marriage, diminishing marginal utility, having children[3], and divorce probability. Conveniently, QAWYs don’t require the assumption of lifelong marriage - they can naturally account for the possibility of multiple consecutive (or even concurrent) marriages. With QAWY’s combination of theoretical elegance and pragmatic relevance, I look forward to their widespread adoption.

(To borrow a disclaimer from Chris' original post: seriously? Nope. I'm about 90% joking. I do think the general idea can sometimes be helpful, though.)

  1. ^

    Some version of micromarriages may still be useful - we just need to adjust them to measure an acute one-off event rather than a continuing chronic contributor to marriage. The most natural one is probably to think of a micromarriage as a one-in-a-million chance of first meeting your future spouse at a given event.

  2. ^

    Unfortunately, this is still not fully inclusive. In formal contexts please use Quality-Adjusted Wedded Years instead.

  3. ^

    The likelihood of which should of course be measured in units of microchildren (but not microkids, which I'm reserving for a very small chance of a very small joke, like this one).

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Good point, though I would prefer we name it Quality Adjusted Spouse Years :)

but it's such a good pun!

+1, you could make it Quality Adjusted Wedded Years if you want to keep the acronym.

(That's what I thought it stood for when you (= Richard) first told me about it)

It was, but I succumbed to the pun.

IMHO the pun is hilarious and I'm glad you went with it.

The "Wife" can refer to one's years AS a wife or one's years of HAVING a wife

Monogamy Adjusted Wedded Years

But I'm not sure how to adjust for monogamy. More research is needed.

On the Devil's Advocate side: "Wife" just rolls off the tongue in a way "husband" doesn't. That's why we have "wife guys" and "my wife!" jokes, but no memes that do much with the word "husband". (Sometimes we substitute the one-syllable word "man", as in "it's raining men" or "get you a man who can do both".)

You could also parse "wife years" as "years of being a wife" from the female perspective, though of course this still fails to incorporate couples where no wife-identifying person is involved. it doesn't work well in a technical sense, but it remains very catchy.

I think wife rolls of the tongue uniquely well here due to 'wife' rhyming with 'life', creating the pun. Outside of that I don't buy it. In Denmark, wife-jokes are common despite wife being a two syllable word (kone) and husband-jokes are rare despite husband being a one syllable word (mand).

My model of why we see this has much more to do with gender norms and normalised misogyny than with catchiness of the words.

This partially solves the problem that I had with the micromarriage concept, which was that dating that was unlikely to lead to marriage (high school relationships, for me) didn't really count for a lot outside of "get better at dating in this relationship, which will make you more likely to marry one day". However, I'd add that maybe the QAWY would be more helpful as a general measurement of total, for lack of a better word, utility gained from relationships; e.g. I would say that the total happiness/satisfaction/fulfillment from dating my girlfriend for a year would count as 0.x QAWYs, if that makes sense.

I think this topic is important, and thus I want to add to the pushback against the name!

I see that you've said "Note that these are gender-neutral: QAWYs can involve either being a wife or having a wife (or both)", and I agree that the noun phrase does not semantically commit to a direction. But what matters in the name is not what your intended meaning is, but instead what people will think when they read it. And I'm pretty confident that a lot of people (or especially a lot of women) will read "Quality Adjusted Wife Years" and feel some sense that it's objectifying the wife. That, plus the fact that it doesn't apply in some non-hetero cases (as you mention), plus the fact that the community has always had a pretty rough time with gender balancing etc, I think makes a good case for not using that name.

Somewhat unrelatedly, you might also consider a name that doesn't single out marriage qua the legal thing? A lot of people are just looking for something like "committed life partner", and that doesn't always involve legal marriage.

These considerations also seem more important given how much of the community is queer/polyamorous/otherwise non-standard.

Great point! (Though I may just enjoy this post because of the beautiful pun of Quality Adjusted Wife Years and microwives... Sadly I can't think of a similarly good pun with flipped gender roles!)

[+][comment deleted]10

Footnote 3 really gets my goat