Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The State of the American Marital Estate

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.

Finkel reports:

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.


Lastango said...

I've long felt that marriage is, at its core, about children. Simply put, there's no overarching reason to get married except to raise a family. Lovers can simply live together.

So, if I were trying to research why lower economic classes divorce more often, family values is where I'd start looking. I'd also look at out-of-wedlock births (a condition glorified in you-go-girl culture), and consider its origins. Are young single women having babies out of carelessness? Desperation? By choice? Because they will be eligible for government entitlements? And does the baggage a child represents then become an important barrier to marriage?

Then I'd look at race. Martin stratifies by college degree/no college degree. While that's valuable, we might discover that marriage/non-marriage is (like single motherhood) much more clearly a white/non-white thing.

There are other factors too. Progressivist culture, including feminism and generic leftism, has been devaluing the nuclear family model for decades. College students get soaked in that ideology for four years. More recently, feminists have begun to talk out of both sides of their mouth on this as they try to reposition feminism to broaden its appeal to both men and women. After spending the last 40 years demonizing men and devaluing the homemaker/caregiver role, it's hard for feminists to convince men to embrace feminist values as New Dads. (The feminist goal isn't strong families; it's to trick men into staying home so women are free to move along career tracks into positions of power.)

One other thing: there's a lack of marriage-enabling social skills. Here's a snip from the web:


Based on nine thousand interviews, focus groups on thirty campuses, and surveys of three hundred chief student affairs officers, Levine's study found that young men and women are hooking up more, but making fewer forward-looking commitments to see each other -- what was once quaintly referred to as dating -- than any previous generation. "They have extremely high hopes and aspirations for a successful, happy marriage," Levine says, "but they're doing nothing to work toward that goal."

Many of the students in Levine's survey said their parents' divorce was the most shattering event in their life-and the most life-shaping.


The marriage thing is a mess. Sometimes we're told not to worry about the large cohort of young unmarrieds because these people will simply marrying later. But I don't believe it. And even if they do marry, it might not last. Another web snip:


What you can't know at twenty-five but learn, unhappily, by thirty-five is that, like the brief but critical period during which a mother and infant can form a deep, mammalian attachment, the life stage during which it's possible to adjust to the foibles and weird habits of someone who may want to sleep in your bed for the rest of her life may not last long, either At thirty-five, according to some oftcited research, a woman has a 5 percent chance of marrying... Desperate, lonely, under pressure to produce some grandchildren for the folks but perhaps a little too set in their ways, couples who marry late may be setting themselves up for failure-just like those of us who married too young.


I'm leary of all that self-expressiveness stuff too. A while back, Margaret Wente wrote a piece about how self-actualization is best achieved from an orientation toward the relationship and one's partner, and embracing that in all its complexity -- not by a what-can-you-do-to-fulfill-me focus on abstracted psychosocial wellbeing.

K. Herman said...

I wonder if so many people are relying on marriage to fulfill all of their social needs is a result of divorce.

I know from my own experience and my husband's that having divorced parents makes family relations very hard. Each side pulls at you until you don't find anything of value, just relations to be endured. Sides are drawn up all the time. After a time, they also try to assuage their guilt in what they put you through. They also don't understand when you put an importance on your marriage that they did not place on their own.

Divorce also dislocates friendships. Some of my friendships have waned because my friend would divorce and enter that other culture where they were dating and had the responsibility of children every other week. That is completely alien to how my life is set up. I don't go out til all hours because 1. the kids have to be attended to each and every day which is darn hard if you only came home 2 hours before they get up and 2. I have a responsibility to my husband not to be out partying all night (not necessarily put in order of importance). My divorced friends have a much different culture than I do.

Anonymous said...

K. Herman I am a kindred. Married 25 years. Both our sets of parents divorced. All you say is also our experience. Selfishness characterizes the relationship. I had one second wife say it didn't matter she didn't approve of me because as a first wife I wouldn't last. That was over 20 years ago. They see us as temporary so don't invest emotionally in us but then both parent and spouse get angry that we don't also have the same emotional depth towards the partner as with the parent. I had another say to us both recently that married people just tolerate each other- implying no one really loves over the length of a marriage. They don't see us still after all this time. They don't understand the richness that a shared history gives- something that grows with every passing year. No one talks about it but I think family relations are also deteriorating terribly due to the current culture.

Anonymous said...

The divorce rate is actually 50% for first marriages, not 45%.

And if I need to continually work on my marriage to avoid losing my house, kids, retirement account and freedom, well then, it's not worth it. I'll continue to play the field and enjoy my life on my terms.