It may be our narcissism. It may be our refusal to respect the wisdom of the past or the experience of our forebears. Whatever it is we believe that we can remake human institutions to make them serve purposes they were not really intended to serve.
For now, look at marriage. Throughout human history most marriages have been arrangements contracted for the good of society. The notion that marriage contains romantic love is of relatively recent date. The notion that marriage should be an expression of romantic love is more recent still.
Now, the latest idea, which must have popped out of the fevered brain of a psychologist, is that marriage ought to be therapeutically beneficial, that it ought to be a panacea, a cure for your social anomie and spiritual malaise.
Apparently, therapy has not sufficed. Even Prozac has not done the trick.
The more society feels fragmented, the more people feel disconnected, the more they do not know how to function socially, the more they have been trying to make their marriages into a psychosocial balm. Rather than connect with other people through friendship people have been told that they should burden their spouses with the task of creating a hyper-meaningful connection.
Also, the more people are disconnected from religion, the more they expect marriage to provide a form of spiritual solace that heretofore had most often been provided by religion.
Psychologist Eli Finkel believes that we are recreating the concept of marriage. We expect our spouses to be our best friends, but we also want them to be our soul mates. More than that, we want them to help us to grow, to self-actualize, to self-express and to get in touch with our feelings.
Excuse me for thinking that psychologists are leading people into descend into a swamp of sentimentality.
Melissa Dahl summarizes Finkel’s belief that in marriage’s latest incarnation a spouse is supposed to be:
… the one person to whom you look to meet your deepest psychological and personal growth requirements…
Asking one person to be everything for you, to replace your friends and neighbors, even your relationship with God… seems like overreaching.
In Finke’s view, Dahl continues, the new marriage is very demanding, but it is possible. For how long, no one wants to say:
When it works, it’s bliss. But according to the authors of a new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science — lead-authored by Northwestern University's Eli Finkel — it’s also incredibly difficult to meet these huge and time-consuming demands, meaning the modern American marriage has the potential to be both much better and much worse than ever before. Because here's the twist: At the same time Americans are asking more out of their marriages than ever, they're also spending less time with their spouses.
Finkel offered his own analysis:
As we have increasingly come to look to our marriages to help us achieve our deepest psychological needs—rather than helping us harvest crops or even just loving us, for example—we need much stronger communication and responsiveness than ever before. More and more marriages are struggling to achieve those lofty standards, especially on top of all of the other stresses in our lives.
However, those of us who succeed in building a marriage that can meet our deepest psychological needs—a marriage that helps us become closer to our ideal self—are immensely satisfying. That is, achieving a successful marriage today is tougher than in the past, while at the same time the payoff for such achievement is larger than in the past.
Humans are social beings. They exist, and sometimes even thrive within a network of relationships, ranging from loving to familial to friendly to neighborly to cordial.
No single relationship can be all things to anyone. Creating the expectation that marriage can be it will produce unrealistic and unattainable expectations about what marriage is and is not.
Finkel seems to believe that the institution has evolved, that it has changed in a fundamental way. Dahl summarizes his point of view:
Helping your partner harvest crops or weather a drought or prepare for winter wasn’t easy, in other words, but these things also didn’t require deep contemplation and understanding of his or her innermost thoughts and desires. Meeting these self-actualization expectations takes some serious face time together, and yet the evidence shows that at the same time Americans are demanding more out of their marriages, they’re also putting less time into them.
Think about it: do you really want your spouse to know all of your innermost thoughts and desires? Don’t you have a right to privacy? Aren’t there feelings and fantasies that you do best not to share? What is this business about deep contemplation and understanding?
It’s all beginning to sound like a cross between sentimentality and mysticism.
By psychologizing marriage Finkel has done us all a disservice. He has opened the door for intrusive incursions into our spouse’s souls while allowing people to believe that the way they conduct their everyday life, the extent to which they observe marital routines is irrelevant to their conjugal bliss.
True enough, married couples no longer go out to harvest the crops. Yet, their life together involves a myriad of activities. Some are undertaken together; some complement each other.
One suspects that psychologists have redefined marriage to make it into a permanent therapy regime. But, if you are putting that much time into your marriage you will have less time for work and will probably enjoy less work success. Does the satisfaction gained from becoming One with your soul mate compensate for the satisfaction you would gain if you had been more successful on the job?
This is the hidden message behind the notion that those who want to have a therapeutic marriage will need to spend less time at work.
Funnily enough, despite the best efforts of psychologists to create new expectations for marriage, couples have been spending less time together and more time at work. Apparently, Finkel is advising couples to spend less time at work and more time tending to each other’s spiritual needs.
To wit, as Finkel and his co-authors point out: From 1975 to 2003, the amount of times childless couples spent together, just the two of them, dropped from 35 to 26 hours per week. The decline in togetherness-time is most likely explained by a rise in time spent working. During that same time period, couples with kids saw a similar dip in time spent one-on-one, from 13 to 9 hours per week. This decline appears to be owed to an uptick in what the researchers called “time-intensive parenting.”
Oh, there are the children. Are the psychologists suggesting that it would be best to neglect children (along with work) in order to find more one-on-one time, or in order to fulfill spiritual needs that can more easily be fulfilled by attending an occasional religious service?