Eli J. Finkel, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” explains three different ways you can strengthen your relationship.
Eli Finkel: We have arrived at a moment in history where the best marriages are better than the best marriages of earlier eras, while at the same time, the average marriages are getting a little bit worse. Historians divide marriage in America into three different eras. There’s sort of, from the Colonial Era until about 1850, when we industrialized, the second era is from about 1850 to 1965 or so, and then we are currently in this third era.
And the first era was really about helping people achieve their basic, physiological, survival sorts of needs, things like food production, clothing, shelter. People preferred to love their spouse, of course, but it wasn’t the reason that you married and certainly, if you didn’t love your spouse, that wasn’t a reason to get divorced. The institution was too sacred, was too important. And so spouses were workmates, rather than soul mates.
And then if you fast-forward, in the second era, people increasingly want to marry for personal fulfillment and in particular, they want to marry for love. And for the first time ever, people start to say things like, “I’m not going to marry that person because I don’t love him or her.” That was a new idea.
And then as we fast-forward to this third era from 1965 to the present, we see that, these days, we are looking not only for love, and connection through the marriage, and sexual fulfillment, of course. But also for these more tricky, complicated sorts of need fulfillment. Needs like self-actualization, personal growth, and a sense of vitality. And so these days, for the first time, if you can find yourself in a situation where you’d say, “Look, he’s a loving man and a good father but I’m not going to live the next 30 years feeling stagnant, feeling like I can’t really grow.”
Our expectations for what we want the marriage to provide us have gotten higher in a lot of ways, more sophisticated in a number of other ways, more emotional, more psychological, and because of this additional complexity, more of our marriages are falling short, leaving us disappointed.