Marriage's 'haves' and 'have nots'

February 13, 2014

Today Americans are looking to their marriages to fulfill different goals than in the past—and although the fulfillment of these goals requires especially large investments of time and energy in the marital relationship, on average Americans are actually making smaller investments in their marital relationship than in the past, according to new research from Northwestern University.

Those conflicting realities don't bode well for the majority of marriages, according to Eli Finkel, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and sciences and professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and the lead author of the study. But today's best marriages—those in which the spouses invest enough time and energy in bolstering the marital relationship to help each other achieve what they seek from the —are flourishing even more than the best marriages of yesteryear.

What accounts for these divergent trends?

Many scholars and social commentators have argued that contemporary Americans are, to their peril, expecting more of their marriage than in the past. But Finkel, who wrote the article in collaboration with Northwestern graduate students Ming Hui, Kathleen Carswell and Grace Larson, disagrees.

"The issue isn't that Americans are expecting more versus less from their marriage, but rather that the nature of what they are expecting has changed," Finkel said. "They're asking less of their marriage regarding basic physiological and safety needs, but they're asking more of their marriage regarding higher psychological needs like the need for personal growth."

According to Finkel, these changes over time in what Americans are seeking from their marriage are linked to broader changes in the nation's economic and cultural circumstances.

In the decades after America's Declaration of Independence in 1776, the nation primarily consisted of small farming villages in which the household was the unit of economic production and wage labor outside the home was rare. During that era, the primary functions of marriage revolved around meeting basic needs like food production, shelter and physical safety.

"In 1800, the idea of marrying for love was ludicrous," Finkel said. "That isn't to say that people didn't want love from their marriage; it just wasn't the point of marriage."

Starting around 1850, the nation began a sharp and sustained transition toward urbanization, and the husband-breadwinner/wife-homemaker model of marriage became increasingly entrenched. With these changes, and as the nation became wealthier, the primary functions of marriage revolved less around basic needs and more around needs pertaining to love and companionship.

"To be sure," Finkel observed, "marriage remained an economic institution, but the fundamental reason for getting married and for achieving happiness within the marriage increasingly revolved around love and companionship."

Starting with the various countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, a third model of marriage emerged. This third model continued to value love and companionship, but many of the primary functions of marriage now involved helping the spouses engage in a voyage of self-discovery and personal growth.

"In contemporary marriages, "Finkel notes, "Americans look to their marriage to help them 'find themselves' and to pursue careers and other activities that facilitate the expression of their core self."

Finkel is generally enthusiastic about these historical changes, as having a marriage meet one's needs for self-discovery and personal growth can yield extremely high-quality marriages. Yet, he has doubts about whether the majority of American marriages can, at present, meet spouses' new psychological expectations of their marriage.

According to Finkel, when the primary functions of marriage revolved around shelter and food production, there wasn't much need for spouses to achieve deep insight into each other's core psychological essence. As the primary functions shifted to love and then to self-expression, however, it became increasingly essential for spouses to develop such insight.

"However, developing such insight requires a heavy investment of time and psychological resources in the marriage, not to mention strong relationship skills and interpersonal compatibility," Finkel said.

Those marriages that are successful in meeting the two spouses' love and self-expression goals are extremely happy—happier than the best marriages in earlier eras. Yet, according to Finkel, divorce rates remain high, and average marital satisfaction among intact marriages is declining slightly, because most spouses simply are not putting the amount of time and psychological investment required to help each other's love and self-expressive needs. Spouses with children have reallocated much of their time to intensive parenting, and spouses without children have reallocated much of it to longer workdays.

Indeed, Americans are, on average, spending much less time alone with their spouse than they did several decades ago. As such, there's an increasing disconnect, on average, between the needs Americans are looking to their marriage to help them achieve and the resources they are investing to make such need fulfillment possible.

The good news is that there are relatively straightforward ways to allow your marriage to breathe. The suffocation model is all about supply and demand.

"You can demand less from your partner, focusing less on resource-intensive self-expressive needs, or supply more time and other resources into the marriage," Finkel said.

He points to a seemingly simple, but very effective, option, a 21-minute writing intervention that he and his colleagues developed that could help preserve marital quality over time in which wrote about conflict in their marriage from the perspective of a third party who wants the best for all involved. (See link: ).

"The idea is that you can use limited resources better," Finkel said.

"In general, if you want your marriage to help you achieve self-expression and , it's crucial to invest sufficient time and energy in the marriage. If you know that the time and energy aren't available, then it makes sense to adjust your expectations accordingly to minimize disappointment."

"The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen" will appear in Psychological Inquiry later this year.

Explore further: 21 minutes to marital satisfaction: Study shows how minimal intervention can preserve marital quality over time

Related Stories

21 minutes to marital satisfaction: Study shows how minimal intervention can preserve marital quality over time

February 5, 2013
Marital satisfaction—so critical to health and happiness – generally declines over time. A brief writing intervention that helps spouses adopt a more objective outlook on marital conflict could be the answer.

Marriage can threaten health: Study finds satisfied newlyweds more likely to gain weight

April 3, 2013
On average, young newlyweds who are satisfied with their marriage gain weight in the early years after they exchange vows, putting them at increased risk for various health problems related to being overweight.

Happily married means a healthier ever after

July 3, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—New BYU research finds that people in happy marriages live less "in sickness" but enjoy more of life "in health."

Forever Valentine: Study shows marriage gets better in old age

February 12, 2014
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage – and then what?

20-year study: Happier marriages mean healthier spouses

September 25, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—"In sickness and in health." Happier marriages make for healthier spouses, whether they're still honeymooning or they're approaching their golden wedding anniversary.

Recommended for you

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 13, 2014
"In 1800, the idea of marrying for love was ludicrous," Finkel said. "That isn't to say that people didn't want love from their marriage; it just wasn't the point of marriage."

In other words, all of the operas by Mozart and others were wrong about love in marriage, Shakespeare was mistaken in his plays and writers since the beginning of recorded history in just about every country (eg the mahabharata in India) must have meant something else when they spoke of passion leading marriage?
Darlene Lancer LMFT
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
This definitely is true. There's a distinction between a relationship supporting personal growth and "finding themselves" vs. substituting it for personal growth and providing an identity. Fueling the explosion of codependency, many couples confuse the former with the latter and look to a relationship for self-esteem and to provide meaning in their lives, which is an inside job. Although a partner can be a support, it's too much to expect another person to provide that. Moreover, new expectations require relationship and communications skills most people lack. It's no longer enough to have a working partnership based on shared chores. Couples want someone who can be vulnerable, express feelings and honor theirs, need them emotionally, but not smother them. Couples who learn these skills can find real marital bliss, beyond the dreams of our parents and grandparents.
Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Author of "Codependency for Dummies"
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
According to Professor Helen Fisher, author of several books on the evolution of Love, the loving bond associated with relationships and child rearing evolved as a necessary glue to hold couples together during the period when a child is dependant on both parents, up to at least four years old.

Thus the bond driven by Love is at least 200,000 years old. Relationships are far more complex now than just the emotional content, but that has been true throughout recorded history.

Note that love creates abstract codependency in that one feels inadequate to the point that life is not worth living or unliveable without the partner even though no such need existed before the relationship.

At the far opposite end is the absolute *physical* codependence for the production of children. Curiously, although one would have thought love is an abstract version of actual dependency, the two can and often do exist entirely independently of each other :)
Darlene Lancer LMFT
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
Ideally, people become autonomous adults and then can be interdependent in their intimate relationships - this allows for space and closeness without anxiety.
Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Author of "Codependency for Dummies"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.