By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC
“And they lived happily ever after. Like, what the hell?” Eli Finkel exclaimed. “That’s a foolish way of thinking. Really what you’re doing is stepping on the welcome mat of what’s actually going to be interesting, of what’s actually going to be challenging.”
Finkel set out to write a book about how the quality of American marriages have declined. But while the modern marriage is nowhere near a fairy-tale ending, it’s not as doomed as Finkel predicted.
“The initial version of the theory was the suffocation of marriage, that we’re suffocating this institution,” Finkel explained. “Now it’s a story about divergence.”
In fact, Finkel found the best marriages are getting better.
But he wasn’t completely wrong either; the average marriage is getting worse.
“We in America have changed marriage from something that can grow when neglected to something that requires constant care and affection, but if you get it right is pretty special,” the Northwestern psychology professor said.
This is the idea behind Finkel’s new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.”
A better marriage has always been correlated with a higher quality of life. What’s new is the effect of marriage on an individuals life is increasing in importance.
To explain this change, Finkel breaks up the evolution of marriage into three stages.
The first was the pragmatic era during the preindustrial times. Life was fragile and couples married to meet basic needs to survive.
Then around the 1850’s, industrialization allows young people to be economically and geographically free. Finkel said this freedom was used to seek marriages for personal fulfillment and love.
“This marriage has a particular structure that had been the fantasy of people for generations,” Finkel elaborated.
By the 1950’s this idea of the wife as the homemaker and husband as the breadwinner was fully established. For Finkel, this is problematic because it assumes that men and women are fundamentally different and restricts them to two different roles. Data proves both genders can be assertive and nurturing.
People begin to revolt against this idea around the 1960’s. This is the third and current stage of marriage. Finkel calls it the expressive model of marriage. Now, in addition to love and personal fulfillment, people want a spouse who will help them grow.
For Finkel, these stages are mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the base of the pyramid are basic needs then the psychological needs of love and belonging are positioned in the middle. At the top of the pyramid are self-fulfillment needs, which is what he views American couples need in a marriage today.
“In my mind, the story of rising expectations is not one where we are expecting too much,” he said. “There’s something special about looking to your marriage to do things up there. There’s something special about saying ‘what if I had a marriage that was not only loving but really helped turned us into the ideal versions of ourselves.’”
Finkel continued that such lofty expectations from a marriage are hard to achieve. Thus, the all-or-nothing state.
So how can we make our marriage meet these higher demands?
The author laid out three options.
“It’s an interesting time to be married,” Finkel concluded. “The average marriage is a little bit worse than before but those of us who are able to flourish while asking these ambitious things are able to have a level of marital fulfillment that was out of reach previously.”
The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.