Want a Happier Marriage? Stop Asking So Much of It

Happiness lies in managing your expectations better.

by Adam Bulger

Hundreds of years ago, judging whether a marriage was good or bad was brutally simple. If you weren’t starving to death, the marriage was fine. If you had enough children to help empty the slop buckets, it was good. And if you survived to a ripe old age of 27, you’d be the envy of every pig-herding peasant within walking distance (or, as it was known at the time, “distance.”)

Marriage criteria is much more complicated today, at least for those of us #blessed enough to not have to rely on subsistence farming. In our modern world of Seamless deliveries and abundant Chipotle franchises, our needs are just as urgent but more abstract.

Eli Finkel, who runs the Relationships and Motivation Lab at Northwestern University, contends that modern married couples continue to value love and comfort as much as previous generations. The difference is they now expect much more than that from their spouses. Now, partners turn to their spouses for love and material assistance — including but not limited to making money, maintaining the home and raising kids — as well as emotional support.

“These days, that isn’t sufficient,” Finkel said. “It wouldn’t be surprising to hear someone say, ‘Well, you know, I love him. He’s a great man. He’s a good father, but I don’t feel like I’m growing in the relationship,” or ‘It just feels like it’s growing stagnant, and I’m not going to live that way for the next 30 years of my life.’”

Modern marriage demands a lot of responsibilities — responsibilities that require considerable time and energy to juggle It’s not surprising then that people are starting to ask if we’re expecting too much from our marriages. Indeed, recent social science research suggests that lowering expectations of our marriages could help. But there are important caveats. Lowering expectations won’t help all marriages. And when it does help, it’s likely to be more complicated than you might expect.

A wide-scale psychological study published in April, 2016 explored how expectations influence marriages. Florida State University Psychology Professor James McNulty observed 135 newlywed couples from eastern Tennessee for four years. The couples were surveyed every six months about their expectations for their marriages and whether their marriages lived up to those expectations. In that same period of time, the couples participated in recorded interviews where researchers observed their behavior and how they communicated with each other.

McNulty found that expectations affected couples differently. For couples capable of providing mutual care, support, and independence, high standards improved marital satisfaction. When members of weaker marriages had high expectations, tension arose between their demands from their marriages and what they were capable of attaining. Ultimately, those expectations eroded the already vulnerable relationships.

“Some people demand too much from their marriages because they are requiring that their marriages fulfill needs that they are not capable of achieving, either because they have limited time, energy, effort, or skills to apply to their marriages,” McNulty said.

The Tennessee couples didn’t only go suffer from high expectations. McNulty also found that expectations for marriages could be too low. “Other people demand too little from their marriages, he said. “Their marriage is a potential source of personal fulfillment that they are not exploiting.”

McNulty said expectations for marriage should be tempered to a Goldilocks-esque “just right” point resting between too high and too low. He advised spouses to ask of their marriages only as much as their marriages are able to give them.

Finkel, a reviewer on McNulty’s paper, said the study closely related to the research he undertook for his 2017 book, The All or Nothing Marriage. When Finkel started the book, he expected to find that people needed to expect less from their marriages. His research, however, pointed to a more complicated answer. It revealed that the most successful marriages of today are far more fulfilling than ones that came before. But not every marriage is a supremely high performing marriages. Moreover, those marriages require time and effort that are beyond the reach of most married couples. Nonetheless, all married couples expect those ideal results.

“What I realized as I delved in a little bit deeper is that it’s not good or bad to ask that much [from marriage], Finkel said. “The important thing is to calibrate your expectations to what the relationship can realistically provide.”

Finkel views the evolution of marriage expectations through the psychological concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a five-tiered pyramid that has basic survival as a foundation and peaks with abstract needs such as self-actualization and love. He believes American marriage expectations have shifted from the bottom to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and writes that today, married couples generally expect their partners to help them attain the best possible version of themselves.

These emotional expectations can box spouses into tight corners. They might have us assure our partners we love and accept them as they are one minute and inspire them to improve in the next. Sure, it’s possible to tell someone they’re perfect but can also be better, but the margin of error is razor-thin. It’s also exhausting to keep up with.

While it’s sometimes helpful to acknowledge the difficulty meeting marriage expectations entails, Finkel said the answer isn’t to lower our expectations of our marriage overall.

“From my perspective, the issue isn’t whether you should have high expectations, low expectations, or something in the middle,” Finkel said. In other words: neither relationships or people are monolithic. A spouse might communicate well but not be responsible about keeping up the house. Or while they’re a great parent, you feel they don’t prioritize your shared sex life. In light of the differing aspects of marriage, we need to break out the different aspects of our marriages, recognize where our spouses are succeeding, and where they’re falling short and set our expectations à la carte.

“The issue is where should have high expectations?, where should you have low expectations?, and how can you play to the strengths of this particular relationship?” he said. “Who you are, who I am, who we are together in order to leverage or strengths, and how can we ask a little bit less for those areas where we’re not as good.”