Science Says Marriage Is Getting Harder. Here Are 3 Powerful Hacks to Help Entrepreneurs (and Everyone Else, Too)

Don't let the institution of marriage put you in one of another kind. These three great hacks will help you avoid that.

MirageC/ Getty Images
MirageC/ Getty Images

As I write this, my wife (and business partner/manager) is sharing an article I wrote on the most needed soft skill in 2019 via social media. I simply couldn’t do this entrepreneur thing without her.

We’re pretty good at running a business together and luckily we have this marriage thing down pretty well, too. Entrepreneurs know the importance of smooth partnerships on both fronts, especially co-founders, who are in a “marriage” in its own right. My wife and I work hard to balance the energy we put into both relationships.

But don’t misunderstand, both things are never a breeze. This article comes from a pupil’s purview, not a pedestal. My wife and I are constantly learning, and in that spirit, I share something important from NPR’s Hidden Brain:

Evidence shows marriage is getting harder.

For entrepreneurs, it’s especially difficult because of everything you’re already juggling.

NPR invited historian Stephanie Coontz to explain the increasing difficulty. Here’s the synopsis:

  • Early marriages were about economics and acquiring powerful in-laws, not feelings and mutual attraction. Similar backgrounds/classes were key.
  • By the 1950s, marrying for anything other than love seemed ludicrous. Marriage was uniting people different from one another–opposites attract. This manifested into the classic 1950s division of labor: men were breadwinners, women, homemakers. Psychology said you could supplement emotions/feelings you lacked via your partner–and that you’d be incomplete without it.
  • Divorce rates skyrocketed in the 70s and 80s, and thinking shifted to today’s predominant point-of-view: It’s more important to marry someone with whom you share common values and interests.

And that’s where trouble arises.

Northwestern University social psychologist and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel, says the increased difficulty comes from what he terms “suffocation.” We’ll return to this, but first, let’s visit an old psychology friend in a new form.  

Maslow’s Mountain

Finkel says marriage follows the pattern of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, the standard for explaining the layered human needs for fulfillment. The bottom of Maslow’s model focuses on basic psychological/safety/survival needs. Things get trickier as you go up the pyramid to the top, which is about achieving self-esteem or self-actualization.

Finkel contends that marriage has followed the same pattern over time. It was once about basic economic survival, then love (the middle of Maslow’s pyramid), and now it’s evolved to many people expecting marriage to be their sole source of self-actualization (the top of the pyramid).

Now think of the pyramid as a mountain, a mountain that married couples expect to be at the top of, and where the air is thin. We need oxygen and expect all of it to come from our partner. Guess what we do in its absence?


“That’s what gives us this disconnect between where we are on the mountain, the expectations that we’re bringing to the marriage and what the marriage is actually able to offer us,” Finkel says.

Which brings us to the first of Finkel’s hacks for a happy marriage:

1. Ask less from your marriage.

Don’t ask for all of your self-actualization to come from your partner. Your hubbie stinks at showing empathy? Bring in a friend for that. Your wife doesn’t get your sense of humor? Extra boys’ night out.

Meet the range of your emotional needs by expanding your social portfolio. Like a financial portfolio that shouldn’t depend on one stock, you shouldn’t put all your stock for self-actualization on your significant other, either.

My wife and I don’t do everything right but we try to encourage each other to “fill in the gaps” by doing our own thing at times.

2. Take a growth versus fixed mindset on compatibility.

Diversifying your portfolio aside, nobody said you shouldn’t strengthen what you’ve got. Finkel cites Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset: Don’t assume you can only learn so much and then you are what you are.

Finkel applies the theory to compatibility, saying never assume you’re as compatible as you’re ever going to get–believe you can keep growing on that front, too. The magic here is that conflict in a marriage thus no longer becomes a deep sign of incompatibility.

Pause and read that last sentence again.

Read it once more if you’re an entrepreneur as Dweck’s teaching should be gospel for you.

3. Reinterpret negative behavior.

When your partner screws up, which I do daily, it’s vital to approach the mistake sympathetically versus critically. It solves what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error,” which is believing a person behaved badly because they’re a bad person versus because there’s some context behind the behavior. Luckily, my wife has tremendous depth perception.

So see the background, not just the bad.

Marriage may be getting tougher. I hope that “to have and to hold” this article will help.

Originally published on Inc.

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