A social psychologist reveals why so many marriages are falling apart and how to fix it

Marriage has always been a gamble, but the modern game is harder and with higher stakes than ever before.

Research has revealed, for example, that people in a healthy marriage are some of the happiest couples in history.

Whereas those who are struggling in their marraige are more unhappy today than in the past.

When social psychologist Eli Finkel sought to understand why marriage is more extreme at both ends today than in the past, he discovered something intriguing and disturbing:

Marriages in the US are more challenging today than at any other time in our country’s history.

The suffocation of marriage

Finkel is a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University and is known for developing a surprisingly simple marriage-saving procedure, which takes 21 minutes a year.

Together with his colleagues of the Relationships and Motivation LAB at Northwestern, Finkel and his team have gone on to publish several papers on what they call “the suffocation model of marriage in America.”

In one of their latest papers on this front, they explain why — compared to previous generations — some of the defining qualities of today’s marriages make it harder for couples to cultivate a flourishing relationship.

The simple answer is that people today expect more out of their marriage. If these higher expectations are not met, it can suffocate a marriage to the point of destroying it.

The three models of marraige

Finkel, in an Opinion article in The New York Times summarizing their latest paper on this model, discusses the three distinct models of marriage that relationship psychologists refer to:

  • institutional marriage (from the nation’s founding until 1850)
  • companionate marriage (from 1851 to 1965)
  • self-expressive marriage (from 1965 onward)

Before 1850, people were hardly walking down the aisle for love — the point of marriage was mostly for food produciton, shelter, and protection from violence.

People were often satisfied if they felt any emotional connection to their spouse at all, Finkel wrote.

Those norms changed quickly, however, when an increasing number of people left the farm to live and work in the city for higher pay and fewer hours.

With the luxury of more free time, Americans focused on what they wanted in a lifelong partner, namely companionship and love. But the counter-cultural attitude of the 1960s led Americans to think of marriage as an option instead of an essential step in life.

Marriage today

As good as it gets jack nicholson with puppy

This leads us to today’s model, self-expressive marriage, wherein the average modern, married American is looking not only for love from their spouse but for a sense of personal fulfillment.

Finkel writes that this era’s marriage ideal can be expressed in the simple quote “You make me want to be a better man,” from James L. Brooks’ 1997 film “As Good as It Gets.”

These changes to marital expectations have been a mixed bag, Finkel argues.

“As Americans have increasingly looked to their marriage to help them meet idiosyncratic, self-expressive needs, the proportion of marriages that fall short of their expectations has grown, which has increased rates of marital dissatisfaction,” Finkel’s team writes, in their latest paper.

On the other hand, “those marriages that succeed in meeting these needs are particularly fulfilling, more so than the best marriages in earlier eras.”

The key to a successful marriage

So, what’s the key to a successful, flourishing marriage?

Finkel and his colleagues describe three general options:

  • Don’t look to your marriage alone for personal fulfillment. In addition to your spouse, use all resources available to you including friends, hobbies, and work.
  • If you want a lot from your marriage, then you have to give a lot, meaning that in order to meet their high expectations, couples must invest more time and psychological resources into their marriage.
  • And if neither of those options sound good, perhaps it’s time to ask less of the marriage and adjust high expectations for personal fulfillment and self discovery.

Other researchers, like sociologist Jeffrey Dew, support the notion that time is a crucial factor in sustaining a successful marriage.

Dew, who is a professor at the University of Virginia, found that Americans in 1975 spent, on average, 35 hours a week alone with their spouse while couples in 2003 spent 26 hours together.

Child-rearing couples in 1975 spent 13 hours a week together, alone, compared to couples in 2003 who spent 9 hours a week together. The divorce rate in America was 32.8% in 1970 and rose to 49.1% by 2000.

While that doesn’t necessarily mean less time together led to divorce — or that the people who stayed together were happy — Finkel’s research suggests that higher expectations and less investment in the relationship may be a toxic brew.

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