Prof. Eli Finkel has not yet published his book on the current state of marriage in America, but he has offered a tease in a New York Times column.
In part, his study involves statistical surveys. In part, it involves cultural analysis.
The data tells us that the marriages of college graduates are far more durable than the marriages of high school dropouts.
One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.
Some have taken offense at the notion that a good marriage seems increasingly to be the preserve of an elite, but the data tells us that marital happiness correlates with financial security. There is nothing strange or bizarre about the correlation. The data also affirms Joel Kotkin’s analysis of a new American proletariat.
Pychologists like Finkel are not satisfied with mere statistics. They want to know how happy today’s marriages are.
By his report, the results are not very encouraging:
Consider, for example, that while the divorce rate has settled since the early 1980s at around 45 percent, even those marriages that have remained intact have generally become less satisfying.
Finkel believes that our expectations about marriage have changed. Over the past few decades we have decided that marriage should be all things to a couple. The worst part is that people expect it to be a therapeutic experience. When it does not provide us with a therapeutic uplift, we feel that something is wrong.
Psychologists believe that the new expectations require more time. They conclude that people would be happier in their marriages if they spent more time at home and less time on the job.
Speaking for his co-authors, Finkel explains:
Our central claim is that 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. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.
But, if people work less and spend more time at home they will usually earn less. They will have fewer promotions. They will enjoy lower status and prestige.
Will any of those contribute to your marital happiness? Maybe they will; maybe they won’t. Obviously, the division of household labor and the gender differences also play a role.
I am naturally intrigued by the notion that today’s couples believe that their marriages should be like therapy. Isn't therapy working well enough all by itself? Why do people need to take therapy with them into their marriages? Unsurprisingly, the advent of the therapeutic marriage dates to the Vietnam counterculture.
In Finkel’s words:
Since around 1965, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment. “You make me want to be a better man,” from the 1997 movie “As Good as It Gets,” could serve as this era’s marriage ideal. In the words of the sociologist Robert N. Bellah, love has become, in good part, “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”
Unfortunately, this feels like taking a bath in psychobabble. It shows that when therapy becomes a culture it tells people how they should conduct themselves in their marriages. By presenting its opinions as science, it has succeeded in imposing them on more than a few people.
When Bellah says that marriage is about “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves” you come away with the impression that people today are full of themselves.
In place of this absurd task of mutual exploration, how about a little sex? Are modern couples so absorbed in their journeys toward self-actualization that they neglect to make love?
As Finkel notes, credit or discredit for this ethic of self-actualization belongs to Abraham Maslow.
The Economist described its basic tenets:
Dr Finkel told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week that most married Americans expect their spouses to develop profound insights into the essential qualities of their other half, fulfilling their needs for esteem and self-actualisation. A spouse, these days, can be expected to be a confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist. This, he concludes, makes being happily married harder than it was in the past.
Unfortunately, depending so much on your spouse is more a symptom than a cure. If you expect your spouse to be everything for you, you probably do not have very fulfilling friendships, family ties or work.
But, then again, it might be the other way around. If you try to make your spouse the only other person in your world, you are not likely to have very many good friendships, family ties or very much career success.
Finkel is correct to call thes the new mode “the all-or-nothing” marriage. He should have added that all-or-nothing thinking characterizes depression. This type of marriage should count as a symptom, not as a cure.
I have little doubt that more and more people conduct their marriages and their lives as therapy. Witness the television show “Girls.” Just because it’s the newest thing that does not mean that it’s a good thing.
How does it happen that people who are pursuing a self-centered goal can function within a cooperative social relationship? Bellah seemed to believe that mutual exploration will do it, but if each spouse is devoting him or herself to actualizing all of his or her full human potential, it becomes impossible to do anything more than to pay lip service to the other person. In some cases, lip service works just fine, but still….
These definitions leave no place for responsibility or for negotiation. They ignore the importance of a couple's rituals and routines. But, since these are the ways we affirm our commitment to a marriage, we are left with two souls baring themselves soulfully and trying to create a connection that they would better affirm by developing more couple routines.
Still, expectations do contribute to our happiness. If we believe that all marriages are as fulfilling as the therapists pretend, and if we judge our own marriages against the fictional accounts we read in the media, we are likely to be dissatisfied.
An unrealistic expectation can make a marriage more difficult. If someone chooses to spend more time at home trying to have a therapeutic marriage and less time at work or with friends, he will be dislocating himself from his social network and expecting that his wife will provide something that she cannot reasonably provide. If he sacrifices friend time for wife time, he might believe that she owes him something. When she cannot provide it, he might demand it.
This is not a formula for a happy marriage.
Finkel understands that in many cases the self-actualization solution is a dead end. So he recommends readjusting expectations:
But if couples lack the time and energy, they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.
Whatever he means by an “affectionate bond” it sounds like he is encouraging them to sit around exchanging feelings. Surely, a woman would be more comfortable and at home doing so than would be a man. If she expects that her husband will provide something that she should be gaining form her girl friends, she will be dissatisfied.
Those who want to bond with their spouses should, as I mentioned, developed couple routines. They should also treat each other with courtesy and respect, to be trustworthy and reliable in all things great and small.