Purpose//

Why American Marriages Are the Best (and Most Challenging) They’ve Ever Been

'Americans have been marrying not only for love, but also for a deeper sense of personal growth, and self-expression, and authenticity.'

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

While headlines regularly decry the decline of marriage, Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel, PhD, says that marriage in America is the best it’s ever been. And he’s got the data to prove it.

The reason for this golden age of matrimony, as he argues in his new book The All Or Nothing Marriage, is that people are asking more out of their marriages than ever before. In a nutshell, being married is harder overall today, but it’s also more rewarding for the people who figure out how to make it work.

Thrive Global spoke with Finkel to learn more about where our contemporary conceptions of marriage came from, where those conceptions are going, how the best marriages work, and what the heightened, self-realization-level stakes of long-term monogamy mean for those of us looking for a partner.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

THRIVE GLOBAL: You make a pretty strong claim at the top of the book that today’s best marriages are the best the world has ever known. How and why is that?

ELI FINKEL: I leveraged the famous hierarchy from Abraham Maslow. Anyone who’s had Psych 101 will remember this idea where the basic physiological and safety needs are at the bottom, and then love and belonging needs in the middle, and then finally esteem and self-actualization needs at the top.

A couple hundred years ago people married primarily for those needs at the bottom—they literally married to avoid freezing and to produce enough food. Those were the things people looked for, and then over time, starting after industrialization and up until the 1950s or so, they married primarily for love.

TG: Now people are marrying for more than love?

EF: Americans have been marrying not only for love, but also for a deeper sense of personal growth, self-expression and authenticity. We know that fulfilling those needs toward the top of the hierarchy is the best way to achieve a deeply enriching and fulfilling life.

TG: You cite Arthur Aron, the renowned relationships researcher, in saying a thriving couple helps one another “climb the mountain” of becoming their most true selves.

And you say that both members of heterosexual couples today are more psychologically similar than they were in the 1950s. Women have been socialized to be more assertive, and men to be more nurturing, so they’re more able to empathize with each other and better navigate conflicts.

You also reference the movie Sideways, the 2004 wine-centric comedy wrapped around a trip through Napa Valley, in saying that marriage today is a difficult but rewarding grape.

EF: Paul Giamatti’s character Miles is talking about pinot noir, but he says, “Hard grape to grow, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental … only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.” Then he has a line that says, “You know, it’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere, and thrive even when neglected.”

That I think is a really good metaphor for the way marriage has changed. Our expectations about what sort of fulfillment we were gonna get through marriage were once like cabernet. The expectations weren’t that high, but meeting those basic expectations wasn’t that hard. Whereas now, we’ve got a much more fragile, delicate, temperamental marriage, but the flavors, if you’ve tended to it and nurtured it, can be exquisite.

The idea is not that’s it’s good or bad to have these high-level, complicated expectations of our marriages. The idea is that we should make sure that the expectations we’re bringing to our marriage are appropriate in light of what the marriage can realistically offer. Once you start thinking that way, the story isn’t about what type of expectations are appropriate, or what type of marital dynamics are appropriate, but calibrating things.

TG: Calibrating?

I think the best marriages these days do a combination of asking more of the marriage in these pretty high level psychological ways, but in ways that the marriage can realistically meet. It’s also figuring out ways that you can actually ask less of the marriage, so that you’re not asking every single thing of this one person, of this one relationship. You’re being mindful of how you seek to meet your needs across your marriage, and your social network, and of course, you’re helping other people meet their needs too.

TG: What about those study results suggesting that higher expectations lead to less satisfaction?

EF: On average. I really believe in this idea that you’re welcome to shoot for the stars. I would never talk to a journalist or a friend or stand on a stage and say, “Look, don’t expect so much.” I would say, “If you’re gonna expect that much, be aware that you’re doing it. Be deliberate about how you’re gonna go in your life in light of those expectations.”

Almost all of us simply assume that we’re gonna have lifetime monogamy, and I have no objection to that. I think that’s probably the best option for the majority of people but there’s no real understanding of the magnitude of that ask. And because we don’t seem to appreciate the magnitude of that ask, we don’t do things. We don’t invest the time, energy—including perhaps eating healthfully to make sure that we’re sexy to our partner 30 years from now.

Those are the sorts of things that I think you’re committing to if you want lifetime monogamy. You’re asking a lot, which is fine, but you probably need to be investing some in the marriage, to make sure that it actually is sexually fulfilling in the long run.

TG: And this is empirically tested, rather than just anecdotal advice.

EF: One of the things I really like about the book is that over the last 50 years, there have been a thousand or more social scientists who have dedicated their careers to trying to understand how relationships work and how we can make them better. But by and large, this wisdom has been cloistered within academic journals. So one of the things that I hope to do with this book is to bring a lot of the collected wisdom of what we can call “Relationship Science” to the masses.

TG: The last third of the book is full of advice. What’s some of the best wisdom in there?

EF: If you are really trying to stoke the fire in the relationship to increase the passion in the relationship, you’re especially well served by engaging in exciting, new and adventurous sorts of activities. They don’t have to be physically adventurous; they could be intellectually adventurous. They just have to be something new that gets us out of the mundane realities of everyday life.

TG: These relationship-enhancers are called “self-expansive” activities in the literature.

You also note how the average age of first marriage has gone way up—22 years old for men and 20 years old for women in the 1950s to 29 for men and 28 for women by 2013. That means we’re single longer than we used to be. With that in mind, how does this Maslowian view of marriage inform dating?

EF: There are two implications of the All or Nothing perspective. The first is date a lot. Learn about yourself. Learn about what partner behaviors are things that are compatible with you versus not that compatible with you. There’s not going to be a shortcut to that. If you are somebody who thinks, “I’m not gonna date until I find the person who’s the right fit for me,” you’re guessing. You haven’t had the life experience to know what sort of person is a good fit.

The second implication comes once you’ve actually started to single in on someone. The way it often works is that we date until we find somebody that we think we might have some marriage potential with. Then, the emphasis shifts from a general sense of self-discovery and skill development to a more targeted assessment of compatibility. So then we get a sense of “Okay, now I’ve dated a lot. I have a sense of what things are crucial for me in this relationship.” In particular, are we able to meet each other’s needs in the ways that we were talking about earlier? Can we set a series of expectations for this particular relationship and then make sure that the relationship itself actually meets those needs? If we can’t, that is we can’t get the expectations and the actual relationship calibrated properly, then that probably isn’t a good fit.

TG: That requires a great degree of honesty with oneself and with one’s partner or potential partner.

EF: Isn’t that the point of the self-expressive era? It used to be that there were relatively few degrees of freedom. Everybody wanted the same thing from marriage and it wasn’t really about psychological fulfillment. There wasn’t that much flexibility about whom you married anyway. You certainly couldn’t have married someone of the same sex.

What we have now is an era with tremendous flexibility relative to any earlier era. That affords opportunities to achieve something that’s really well tailored to who we really are but it makes it a whole lot more complicated to find such a person and then build such a relationship, which is again, the All-Or-Nothing Marriage. 

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