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Why Your Marriage Will Be Nothing Like Your Parents’ Marriage

Despite alarmist narratives to the contrary, the institution of marriage in America isn’t struggling—at least not in the way we think, or without a significant upside. “The best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras, but the average marriage is worse,” says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Northwestern University who studies marriage and relationships. This paradox is the basis of his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, which examines how great marriages actually work—and provides some essential science-backed tools to set practically any marriage on the same path. All in all, Finkel paints an optimistic picture: He contends that if we have the energy (and the desire), there’s never been a better time to be married.

Here, he gives us some historical context to our expectations around marriage, debunks some divorce myths, and outlines simple strategies for applying the research to any committed relationship.

A Q&A with Eli Finkel, Ph.D.

Q

What are some present-day advantages to being married that are unique to this moment in time? Disadvantages?

A

In contrast to marriages 200 years ago, marriage isn’t essential for basic survival. Back then—before industrialization—people generally didn’t “go to” work. The husband and the wife stayed in and around their farmhouse, working together to produce the food, clothing, and shelter required to survive.

In the West today, most of us have the luxury of marrying in order to fulfill our emotional and psychological needs, rather than to generate sufficient food and shelter to avoid an early death. As more and more of us look to our marriages not only for love, but also for personal growth and a sense of vitality, many of us end up dissatisfied with a marriage that would have been totally adequate in 1800 or even 1950. But, on the upside, our expectations are pushing us to pursue something truly special, and those of us who succeed in building a marriage that meets these new expectations enjoy a level of marital fulfillment that would have been difficult to imagine a few generations ago.

Q

How are modern marriages different than our parents’ generation? Our grandparents’?

A

Let’s get concrete about timing and focus on, say, 1980 for our parents’ marriage and 1955 for our grandparents’ marriage: Marriage today has some major similarities to our parents’ marriage, but it is radically different from our grandparents’.

In the 1950s, the cultural ideal was a love-based marriage consisting of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Husbands were expected to be assertive but not nurturing; wives were expected to be nurturing but not assertive. These social roles carved the human psyche in half. The strict social roles of the 1950s meant that many marriages served as a bridge between two people with half-developed psyches rather than between two fully functioning people.

“In our parents’ time, the needs people sought to meet through marriage were similar to those we seek to meet today, but the shattering of the breadwinner-homemaker ideal of the 1950s bequeathed decades of marital chaos.”

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s shattered the marital ideal of the 1950s, especially in the US. People were no longer willing to endure a marriage that was loving but stagnant. They sought personal growth and self-discovery. They sought passion and adventure. Divorce rates doubled between 1960 and 1980, reaching 50 percent. Confusion about gender and marital roles surged. In our parents’ time, the needs people sought to meet through marriage were similar to those we seek to meet today, but the shattering of the breadwinner-homemaker ideal of the 1950s bequeathed decades of marital chaos.

Fortunately, the chaos has started to subside. Divorce rates have declined since their 1980 peak, especially among people with a college degree. Although the average marriage today is less satisfying than the average marriage a few decades ago, more and more of us are figuring out how to flourish in the era of the self-expressive marriage. These are marriages between two fully functioning people who are loved and loving, and who facilitate each other’s voyages of self-discovery and personal growth.

Q

What do the best marriages have in common?

A

The best marriages are those in which partners look to each other for love and self-expression. They challenge each other to pursue adventure and personal growth rather than settling for complacency, even as they support each other to provide a haven of warmth and safety when needed. Ultimately, they help to bring out each other’s best selves.

Psychologist Caryl Rusbult, my mentor, viewed Michelangelo’s perspective on the sculpting process (seen not in terms of creating a sculpture, but rather in terms of revealing it) as a powerful metaphor for how relationship partners can bring out the best in each other. All of us have both an actual self—the person we currently are, akin to the block of marble—and an ideal self—the person we aspire to become, akin to the finished sculpture. In the best relationships, Rusbult suggests, partners chisel and polish each other to bring out the ideal self slumbering within.

“The best marriages also share another key feature: The partners recognize that there will be fallow periods, when they lack the time and emotional energy required to bring out the best in each other.”

The best marriages also share another key feature: The partners recognize that there will be fallow periods, when they lack the time and emotional energy required to bring out the best in each other. Perhaps they have two children under the age of three, and it’s been years since they felt well-rested. Perhaps the wife is caring for her dying mother and lacks the emotional wherewithal to connect with her husband in the typical ways. In situations like these, partners in the best marriages temporarily lower their expectations, helping to keep disappointment at bay.

Q

What do we know about divorce trends over time, and what do they tell us?

A

The divorce rate in the US peaked around 1980 and has declined a bit since then. The best estimates today suggest that 40-45 percent of today’s marriages will end in divorce.

But the major trend isn’t about the overall divorce rate, it’s about how the divorce rate has diverged by social class since 1980s. When the divorce rates were doubling-in the 1960s and 1970s, the rate of increase was similar among people within a college degree (higher social class), with a high school degree (middle social class), and without a high school degree (lower social class). Since 1980, however, the divorce rates for these three groups has diverged radically. Where the divorce rate has continued to rise among the lower social classes and has stayed stable among the middle social classes, it has plummeted among the higher social classes. It’s true that many poor and uneducated people have excellent marriages and that many wealthy and highly educated people have terrible marriages, but the general trend toward greater economic inequality since 1980s has a clear analog in rates of marital success.

“Even when people aren’t fighting, they’re often too fatigued by navigating the stress to pursue the sorts of high-energy, high-attention activities that are especially helpful in meeting those high expectations.”

Researchers are still working to figure out why marriage is struggling so much among poor and uneducated Americans. My reading of the evidence is that such individuals also want their marriage to help them achieve their highest hopes and dreams. The issue is that few marriages can actually meet these expectations when life is chronically stressful. People tend to fight more when stress is high. Even when people aren’t fighting, they’re often too fatigued by navigating the stress to pursue the sorts of high-energy, high-attention activities that are especially helpful in meeting those high expectations. As such, the harmful effects of poverty on marriage are stronger today than in the past.

Q

How has your research changed your own marriage?

A

This is one of the major narrative threads in The All-Or-Nothing Marriage—studying relationships for a living is fascinating in its own right, but it also provides evidence-based solutions to challenges in my own marriage. My research has helped me become more comfortable with emotional intimacy, more capable of helping my wife pursue personal growth, and better attuned to circumstances that require me to relax my expectations for a while.

That said, my limitations often exceed my strengths. Perhaps the most honest thing I can say on this topic comes from the book’s dedication: “To my wife, Alison, who finds it hilarious that I’m a marriage expert.”

Q

Do you have researched-backed tips for struggling marriages?

A

A successful marriage is, to a large extent, a matter of supply and demand: Are we investing enough in our marriage (supply) to meet the expectations we’re bringing to it (demand)? If not, we’ll find ourselves disappointed, and we’re well-served to pursue one or more of three strategies to mitigate that disappointment:

Lovehacking involves tweaking how we think about our partner and relationship. It provides good bang for the buck—notable improvement in marital quality for modest investment. Lovehacking involves a deliberate effort to see the beautiful underneath the anger and disappointment and boredom—to look with (appreciative) new eyes. Some promising options are to (1) consider conflict from the perspective of a third-party individual who wants the best for everybody, (2) cultivate gratitude for our partner, and (3) and savor life’s little achievements together.

“Rigorous scientific studies show that communicating effectively is much harder than it might seem, especially when things get tense.”

Going all in involves investing significant time and energy in the relationship to make it as strong as possible. The benefits of this strategy can be enormous, promoting thriving rather than mere surviving. This strategy requires focused time together, but that’s not sufficient. It also requires we learn to communicate effectively. Rigorous scientific studies show that communicating effectively is much harder than it might seem, especially when things get tense. (In the book, I talk about the circumstances under which we should challenge our partner versus let things rest.) Thriving also requires a healthy dose of play, including the sorts of activities that keep passion strong.

Recalibrating involves strategically asking less of our marriage to relieve some of the pressure or disappointment. It’s especially helpful when we can’t figure out a way to go all in and are looking to hold our marriage afloat for the time being. But in contrast to lovehacks, recalibration strategies focus on the “demand” rather than the “supply” side—they involve temporarily asking less of our marriage rather than trying to use our limited resources more efficiently. One set of options is to bolster our independence, developing greater self-sufficiency in ways where our partner is failing to meet our expectations. Another is to outsource some of these expectations to other friends or family members rather than placing so much responsibility in the marital relationship. And, for some couples—certainly not all!—polyamory or an open relationship can help. (Although advocates of such relationships often overstate the benefits, the best available evidence suggests that relationships adopting a monogamy norm aren’t much better or worse on average than relationships in which the partners adopt looser rules.)

Q

Tips for unmarried couples?

A

The tips for married couples above apply to serious unmarried couples, too. But a related issue revolves around how to date in the era of the all-or-nothing marriage, especially if we’re potentially interested in getting married someday.

Changes in marriage have two major implications for how we should date. First, singles who are dating broadly should leverage the dating process to glean insight regarding which partner characteristics are especially important to them and to develop the sorts of psychological and interpersonal skills that are likely to help them achieve a deep connection with a future spouse. Second, once we have started dating somebody we might seriously consider marrying, the emphasis shifts from a general orientation toward self-discovery and skill-development, to a targeted assessment of romantic compatibility and an orientation toward the development and growth of the relationship. Eventually, those of us who wish to marry will have a decision to make, and one of life’s great joys is saying “I do”—and really meaning it.

Eli J. Finkel is a professor at Northwestern University—in psychology and the Kellogg School of Management—and the author of the just-published book The All-Or-Nothing Marriage, from which the answers above are adapted.

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