Marriage is struggling in America. The divorce rate hovers around 50 percent and fewer people are getting hitched than ever before. But, as Eli Finkel sees it, the best marriages have never been better. A professor of psychology at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the director of the Relationships and Motivation Lab, Finkel spent years sorting through the literature on marriage — the psychological, yes, but also the sociological and historical. The result of that research is a paradoxical understanding of the institution and his new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work — an impressive work that not only charts the history of marriage from hunter-gatherers onward, exploring all the ways marriage has evolved over the years, but that also boils down a wealth of data to simple, actionable advice.
Once upon a time, says Finkel, the checklist for what we looked for in a spouse was pretty short. Strong. Smart. Conveniently located. Things like that. But the criteria for a partner have changed drastically. Now, husbands and wives are often expected by their spouses to help them seek fulfillment in all areas of life. Spouses, we think, must not only adore us, but also drive us forward in positive directions. The weightiness of those expectations takes a toll and may account for why the divorce rate in America remains so stubbornly high. Still, Finkel is quick to point out that the best marriages, the ones that really work, have never been better. And they have one thing in common: realistic expectations.
Fatherly spoke to Finkel about the history of marriage, how modern couples can better handle today’s lofty expectations, and how kids royally screw up marriage dynamics — but only for a little while.
You argue that, by nature of society’s evolution, there are more demands today on spouses. What’s your reasoning for this?
To think about how marriage functions now, we have to consider how it has changed over time. It used to be that marriage was about the fulfillment of basic survival needs. Literally things like food production, shelter, healthcare. And so people clearly preferred to love their spouse, but that wasn’t the point of marriage.
As civilization industrialized and then post-industrialized, we’ve seen a lot of changes in what people seek from their marriage. These days, a single person can survive without being married, so we don’t have as much need. We’re not placing as much demand on the marriage for those basic-level needs, but now we have a strong desire to have a loving marriage, that is, we view a marriage that isn’t loving as inadequate.
Sometimes a loving marriage isn’t even adequate anymore. People demand a lot more. People need growth. People need fulfillment.
That’s right. And so it’s not that crazy to hear somebody say something like, “Well, I love her and she’s a great mother, but frankly, I’m not growing, and I feel stagnant, and I’m not going to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant.” So now we have the expectation not only to have a loving, warm marriage, but also to have one that promotes our personal growth and gives us a sense of vitality and fulfillment. For that reason, more marriages are falling short.
So what do you think is the driving force behind this?
Some of your readers will remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from their Intro to Psych classes. The idea is that we have a hierarchy of needs where we have physiological and safety needs at the bottom and love and belonging needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. One of the ideas of my book is that the way marriage has changed over time is that it has ascended this hierarchy. Marriage used to be about physiological and safety needs, and then it was increasingly about love and belonging needs — that’s sort of the 1950s-type of marriage. In the 1960s, people no longer were satisfied with a marriage that was just loving and belonging, and they felt stifled by the breadwinner/home-maker arrangement that people held out as the ideal. With the countercultural revolution, you have an emphasis not only on love through marriage but also on the sense of self-expression, self-actualization, personal growth. That is, we really want a marriage that helps us discover who we are and helps us grow to be the best version of ourselves.
So we’re just teetering on top of Maslow’s pyramid.
Teetering is an interesting way of thinking about it. I like that. What I like about that is what I think has happened these days is that the marriage has become fragile, so this idea that there you are up top, and it’s certainly nice up there, but don’t tilt too far to the side, make sure that you get it exactly right. I think that is a fair way to understand the thesis of the book, is that when you’re up there, it’s pretty special, and special in a way that would’ve been out of reach in the 1950s when we’re only focusing on the middle of that pyramid, but it’s precarious.
What is the key to feeling fulfilled? Is it about meeting the new expectations?
It’s about both. You can find a lot of people who say, “Look, we’re just asking too much of our marriage these days.” But I don’t believe that. Not in any straightforward way. The question isn’t “Are we asking too much?“ The question is “Is what we’re asking appropriately calibrated to what the marriage can provide?“ Because asking a lot of our marriage is a terrific thing, if we can actually meet those expectations.
Now, Maslow’s clear that it’s really those high-level needs that can produce a profound sense of meaning, purpose, and richness in our inner lives. Looking to do that with a marriage, to serve those high-level functions, is actually a good thing. The marriage can fulfill them. The problem is when you’re looking for the marriage to do those things and the marriage isn’t able to fulfill them. Then you have this disconnect and you’ve got a problem.
How does having kids factor into this?
The evidence on this is a little sad. The evidence on how the transition to parenthood affects the marital relationship is sad. Pretty reliably, people have less time together, they have less sex together, they have more fights, and consequently, they tend to be less happy in the marriage. Eventually, they readjust, but that doesn’t mean that they’re able to get back to where they were. The truth is, of course it’s hard to cultivate the relationship when you have this massive additional responsibility that requires so much attention.
Would you say that it’s about making sure to have everything in order before kids come along?
I don’t know if that’s possible. I talk openly about this in the book. I really had a hard adjustment to parenthood. What was beneficial for us is that we really did lower expectations for a while; we stopped looking to the marriage to provide a lot of what it had provided us, including things like time together, interesting experiences together, sex together. Those are all things that we just almost stopped trying to prioritize, and I actually think that on average, that’s probably a pretty good idea for people who are adjusting to parenthood for the first time.
And that’s just a pause.
Yes. It’s short-term. You’re not giving up on things forever. It’s like people sort of want a work-by-numbers guide to how to do the best marriage, but the truth is it depends a lot on what your circumstances are, and when the kid comes, it nestles into your daily routine like a grenade.
The all-or-nothing thesis you present leans heavily on class, as there’s a difference between high-income and low-income marriages.
This current approach to marriage, the era that we live in, the self-expressive era, is one that is hard to do on the cheap, and I actually mean that in terms of money. It’s hard to build a successful marriage in light of our current expectations, if you’re chronically stressed, and if you don’t get much time with each other, or by the time you get time with each other you’re so worn out with dealing with stress that you can’t really connect. That applies up and down the socioeconomic ladder. If you’re someone who’s an investment banker and making huge amounts of money, but you’re working 110 hours a week to close a deal and it’s been going on for months, you’re likely going to have trouble too.
Sometimes you won’t have some of the trouble, like you won’t be fighting about how messy things are because you’ll be paying somebody to do that stuff. I think that logic applies up and down the socioeconomic ladder, but the reality is that, who is it that has a lot of stress in their life? And who is it that, once they actually have some time together, the best they feel they can do is veg out in front of the TV? On average that’s going to be people who are poor, who are really struggling to make ends meet.
So it’s just tougher overall.
The marital ideal that we have doesn’t work that well for people whose lives are stressful, and they don’t have control over their lives, and they can’t really determine how much time they’re going to get with their spouse. Things are out of their control, and it makes it very difficult to succeed in this era.
What do you think the modern marriage should be? What do you think modern couples need to take away from this?
We should be much more deliberate about what we’re asking of our marriage and consider seriously what the strengths are of myself, my partner, and the relationship. And make sure that we’re calibrating those two things effectively. Once we’ve done that, once we’ve actually thought seriously about what it is that we’re asking of the marriage rather than making assumptions about what the marriage is going to provide — and we’ve thought seriously about the places where the marriage is likely to be successful in helping us meet those expectations — then we can decide the ways in which we really want to invest more in the marriage, the particular places where we feel the marriage can be especially strong. And we can discover places where we should look elsewhere for fulfillment.
Is there anything else to consider?
Yes. There’s no rule that says you have to ask your marriage for all of these things. We have other friendships, we have other family members, and we can be wise and strategic about where we go for different sorts of experiences. We don’t have to look to the partner to do so many different things for us.