Marriage has always been a gamble, but the modern game is harder — with higher stakes than ever before.
Struggling marriages make people more unhappy today than in the past, while healthy marriages have some of the happiest couples in history, according to a comprehensive analysis published in 2007 regarding marital quality and personal well-being.
When Eli Finkel sought to understand why marriage is more extreme at both ends today than in the past, he discovered something intriguing yet discouraging: Marriages in the US are more challenging today than at any other time in our country’s history.
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. (The procedure involves three seven-minute online writing sessions, where couples describe their most recent disagreement from the perspective of a hypothetical neutral bystander — something they are also encouraged to try out in future arguments.)
Finkel, together with his colleagues of the Relationships and Motivation LAB at Northwestern, have gone on to publish several papers on what they call “the suffocation model of marriage in America.”
In their latest paper 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.
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. In fact, American couples at this time, who wed for food production, shelter, and protection from violence, were satisfied if they felt an emotional connection with their spouse, Finkel wrote. (Of course, old-fashioned, peaceful-seeming marriages may have been especially problematic for women, and there were an “array of cruelties that this kind of marriage could entail,” Rebecca Onion wrote recently in Aeon.)
Those norms changed quickly 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.
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, 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.
Marriage has become as tricky but also as potentially rewarding as climbing Mt. Everest: Obtaining a sense of personal fulfillment from your partner is as hard as achieving the summit. This is both good and bad because it means that you are reaching for the pinnacle of what marriage has to offer — which explains why couples in healthy marriages are happier now than in the past — but it also means that meeting those expectations and feeling satisfied in marriage is harder than ever.
“The good news is that our marriages can flourish today like never before,” Finkel writes for The New York Times. “They just can’t do it on their own.”
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