So… Which marriage camp do you pledge your allegiance to?
Do you choose Option 1, that our venerable family institution is bent and bruised, and our legal unions are far worse off than they once were? Would you incline instead toward Option 2, that marriage is “evolving” and we should be encouraged by that?
The New York Times mediates this domestic divide, offering interesting perspectives in “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” as Professor Eli J. Finkel elaborates on whether marriage is doing better or worse.
Factors in Marital Success?
Providing insights into its demise or its reinvention, Professor Finkel places the marriage discussion in a socioeconomic context. Cutting to the chase, he touches on marital expectations (that are decidedly unrealistic), and he walks us through a brief history: institutional marriage (before 1850), companionate marriage (1850-1965), followed by the ‘self-expressive’ marriage, which is apparently where we are today.
He also addresses the matter of income – rather than education – although certainly there is an association between the two.
Personally, I believe these two factors – expectations and economics – are critical to what’s happening to marriages in the 21st century.
As for expectations, try this on for size:
Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership.
Suggesting that marriage seems to have become an ‘all or nothing’ proposition in the collective psyche, Professor Finkel encourages us to consider couples in the age of self-fulfillment.
Marital Expectations in the Age of Self-Fulfillment
So here we are, all wrapped up in frequently conflicting notions of loving and being loved, perfection in parenting, pursuing our own dreams – shall we all lean in together? – and supporting our spouses in theirs. Naturally, we make time for romantic interludes to keep our sex lives fresh and fabulous.
It’s no wonder that Professor Finkel invokes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and equates our marital expectations to its summit – self-actualization, though we somehow anticipate that we will self-actualize as a couple, each bringing out the best in the other and ourselves.
How’s that for performance pressure?
And meanwhile, without the bucks to facilitate any such scenario – (Hello? Household staff?) – and even with all kinds of time and assistance – however does one manage?
Money and Marriage: Impacts of Economic Insecurity
Speaking of which, Professor Finkel heads straight in the direction of “show me the money,” pointing out the whopping difference in divorce rates between rich and poor – some 30 percentage points. As in the rich divorce less, which you may equate to having more to lose (financially), that they accept a different set of expectations, or that they’ve found greater happiness.
And the idea that those with financial freedom may actually enjoy happier marriages?
I can buy that argument, as economic insecurity and round-the-clock work do not lead to stability in any relationship. On the contrary; less time is available to connect and more stress is inevitable due to financial worries. Don’t we think that unemployment strains relationships? Don’t we think that working two jobs without benefits – or three – makes for little energy invested in a quiet moment, much less a romantic one? Don’t we think this kind of household stress flows to the children?
The problem is not that poor people fail to appreciate the importance of marriage… The problem is that the same trends that have exacerbated inequality since 1980 — unemployment, juggling multiple jobs and so on — have also made it increasingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest the time and other resources needed to sustain a strong marital bond.
Is Marriage Doomed? Not Necessarily
The answer to the dilemma, when it comes down to individual (not governmental or institutional) action, says Finkel: Either invest more (time, energy) in the relationship, or alter the expectations.
This, too, is logical. Those who carve out a date night (somehow) or set boundaries around their parenting to facilitate some measure of couple time would seem to do better in terms of quality marriage, according to research cited in the article.
Of course, if only one partner is willing to make the time or invest the energy, you’re in for trouble. If only one alters expectations and the other does not, likewise. And you may be in for trouble anyway, as economic pressures continue to bear down for millions, as the workplace-financial stranglehold may not let up, and with the juggle of work and kids, the much needed couple time may fall by the wayside.
I am happy to see that Professor Finkel includes mention of our societal infrastructure that isn’t exactly conducive to family time.
Cultural Values: Where’s Mick Jagger When You Need Him?
But I believe there is another factor that Professor Finkel approaches but doesn’t explicitly address, as he points our that for happy couples, they’re truly happy, while apparently, for the average intact marriage, people are less satisfied with their unions than they once were.
But couldn’t we say that about other aspects of life as well?
Aren’t we on a perpetual treadmill of dissatisfaction when it comes to jobs – if we have them, homes – if we’re fortunate enough to pay the mortgage without worry, and ourselves – whatever our age, size, shape and notions of “self?” Should we be looking at a bigger picture? Must we call in Mick Jagger for a refrain of “I can’t get no satisfaction?”
If we are losing touch with essentials on these other dimensions, if we are allowing our experiences of simple pleasures (and responsibilities) to be degraded, if we are all about self-expression (in the guise of self-promotion) and yes, Maslow’s self-actualization (though I doubt he had one’s Twitter following in mind), shouldn’t we anticipate the erosion of all our relationships as a consequence?
What is within our control? Taking back our common sense, our values; resetting our expectations. I consider both to be pragmatic… and possible.
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