In his new book The All Or Nothing Marriage, Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel makes a nearly contradictory claim: that marriage in America is the most challenging—and best—that it’s ever been.
As he explained to Thrive Global earlier this week, that’s because Americans are moving up Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs: 200 years ago people married for survival—so there’d literally be enough food for the winter. Then in the 1950s people started marrying for love. But now newlyweds want even more. “Americans have been marrying not only for love, but also for a deeper sense of personal growth, self-expression and authenticity,” Finkel said. “We know that fulfilling those needs toward the top of the hierarchy is the best way to achieve a deeply enriching and fulfilling life.”
But with that, Finkel says, we need to appreciate the magnitude of the ask that’s being made with the whole til-death-do-you-part thing. And that requires examining the kind of marital happiness you and your partner are pursuing.
Aristotle—and contemporary psychologists—distinguish between two kinds of well-being, Finkel explained in a follow-up conversation. There’s hedonic well-being, which is all about maximizing pleasure and minimizing discomfort. (It has the same root as “hedonism.”) Then there’s “eudaimonic” well-being, which has a far wackier etymology—it could be roughly translated as having a satisfied soul. (Technically, it’s “having a good daemon,” or a kindly guiding spirit.)
In his research on happy and meaningful lives, influential Florida State social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found that the former depends on getting what you want and need, including from other people or through spending money. Meaning, on the other hand, results from doing things that express and reflect the self. But the price of meaning is turbulence. “Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness,” Baumeister and his colleagues write in their 2013 paper. Going after a meaningful life, in other words, means that you’re going after bigger fish than having as much fun as possible. To Finkel, organizing yourself around meaning is “characterized by a tendency to embrace pursuits that are difficult but important rather than settling for pursuits that are easy but less important,” he explained over email.
That’s why the meaning-centric are better primed to weather the inevitable turbulence of long-term monogamy. “People pursuing a meaningful life don’t balk at the idea of working hard to build a strong marriage,” he said, similar to how kids with a “growth mindset” see mistakes as challenges, and thus perform better in school. Eudaimonic folks are “less likely to cut and run during the difficult times, and their courage to confront rather than avoid relationship challenges turns those challenges into growth opportunities,” he added. If both people involved are already oriented to the difficult richness of trying to lead a meaningful life, then they’ll be better positioned to be bolstered by their trials, rather than undermined. Rather than trying to “win the argument,” they seek resolution, and thus further undergird the relationship.
Finkel says that if we’re trying to go after those highest-level psychological needs, like self expression, then we worry less about momentary pleasure and pain and instead try to cultivate the best versions of ourselves—and help our partners become the best versions of themselves. “With that mindset, the small stuff seems small, and we can keep our attention focused on the big stuff,” he says.