Thursday, June 18, 2015

Marriage As Therapy

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.

Dahl writes:

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?


Ares Olympus said...

From the title I figured this topic was going to be advising against complete honesty in marriage. I'm skeptical about romantic love, but not completely against it's expression. Rather I think it takes a subtle distinction to what it means to do it right, to not fall into nonsense.

The (sentimental?) idea that most attracted me when I was younger was over the nature of love, and that choosing someone to love was less about "finding" the right person, but "being" the right person, that love was a choice, and loving one person was simply a necessity of the limitations of space-time, and that our task was to represent our love for humanity in part through that one relationship. But its still just one of many wider relationships, an ever widening circle.

At least that idea protected me from the nonsense that you can love someone one day and hate them the next, which is what dating looked to me watching foolish teen love from the outside. I didn't want any part of that crazy love.

I think Erich Fromm's quote is good here. Would this be therapy or practicing good character?
“Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is in different to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. ... If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, “I love you,” I must be able to say, “I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.” ~ Erich Fromm from The Art of Loving

Jim Sweeney said...

As for romantic love, it is insufficient for a lifetime, even, perhaps, for a year. The old MGM romantic movies did all of us a great disservice. A better solution is the arraged or, better still, the semi-arranged marriages such as the Clintons' who, despite all, is still extant. The practicalities of modern life seem better suited to that type rather than the movie type. I also think that polygamy can be beneficial to those who wish to deal with whatever issues it may present. Notice that many transdender/transracial types are also opponents of polygamy. Too bad I won't be around to enjoy it multiple benefits. But, then, I'll have 72 virgins to contend with.

Webutante said...

Murray Bowen of Bowen Family Systems Theory suggests that within each human being there are two equal and opposite forces/needs at work all the time--- a tug for togetherness and an opposite tug for separateness. Every relationship finds its stasis on some part of that spectrum though it can and often does change. He found the healthiest and most mature of relationships gave each person plenty of spacek for other things in life, along with varying degrees of intimacy and togetherness.

It seems that many marriages falter today on the rocks of too great expectations and sentimentality. Learning that no one can be or do it all is an incredible freeing experience hopefully we all come to sooner rather than later.

Sam L. said...

Reminds me of the old story that a man needs a woman who's a good cook, a woman who's good in bed, w woman who's fiscally responsible, a woman who's a good mother, and the good fortune that they never meet. Similar for the woman.

Don't all wives psychoanalyze their husbands? From time to time?

Ares Olympus said...

Webutante, I don't remember hearing of Murray Bowen before, but found a wiki bio: (1913-1990)

It talks about differentiation helping people face conflict in relationships, triangulation, and emotional cutoffs when conflicts can't be resolved.

Differentiation: "Differentiation of self is one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family. Bowen spoke of people functioning on a single continuum or scale. Individuals with "low differentiation" are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions. (A related concept is that of an undifferentiated ego mass, which is a family unit whose members possess low differentiation and therefore are emotionally fused.) Those with "low differentiation" depend on others' approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are thus more vulnerable to stress, defined as stressor(s) and psycho-physiological "stress reactivity," and theirs is a greater than average challenge to adjust/adapt to life changes and contrary beliefs"

Triangles: "In family systems theory, whenever two people have problems with each other, one or both may "triangle in" a third member. Bowen emphasized the idea that people respond to anxiety in a relationship by forming a triangle, shifting the focus to a third person. In a triangle, two are on the inside and one is on the outside."

It sort of reminds me of like gravitation, where there are two stable systems - a single star at the center, and two stars in orbit around each other, while 3 major bodies fail to produce stability, but can allow periods of dynamic change where things otherwise hidden can come out, but you'd better be comfortably autonomous knowing the result of any three-way conflict is you might be the one who is thrown unfairly out of the solar system.

Maybe that's why I prefer to live in temporal ambiguity, so I allow contradictory parts of myself (like needs for closeness vs autonomy) to express themselves at different times as circumstances change, and then claim both of them as me and work backwards to see what they have in common. So I just need one other person at a time to keep a triangle dynamic turning and don't need others to always represent a single side of any tension either. But perhaps some of this inner work keeps me undifferentiated anyway, holding an army of competing interests internalized?

Dennis said...

A truism,

A woman thinks about what a man will forget and a man thinks about what a woman will remember."

The fact here is that the definition of love changes, does not go away, over the lifetime of marriages that last. As "Webutante" states both have to have the closeness that love brings, but also has to give space to the aspirations of both partners. Eventually a good marriage takes on all the elements of a well functioning business by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each person and utilizing them in a manner that improves the marriage. One has to be aware of the fact that it is not about me it is about we.
In over 52 years of marriage it took a while before my wife finally recognized that I could love being a musician and all that entails and still love her. Understanding what makes each other happy goes a long way to making life easy and productive at the same time.

It is one thing to be an individual and another to be selfish.

David Foster said...

"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."

"for the good of society"....a tad idealistic, I think. Arranged marriages were typically the patriarch of family "A" marrying his daughter into family "B" because he wanted a business connection, or a feudal lord arranging a marriage because he sought military advantage. I doubt that the good of society, or even of the local peasantry, came into it all that often.

Also, I don't think romantic love is really all that recent a phenomenon. I again cite Michael Chevalier, a French engineer who visited America circa 1833 and whose observations went way beyond engineering. He asserted that Americans were the most money-obsessed people he had ever met..but that, paradoxically, this obsession allowed them to be much more romantic than the French when it came to marriage:

“I ought to do the Americans justice on another point. I have said that with them everything was an affair ofmoney; yet there is one thing which among us, a people of lively affections…takes the mercantile character very decidedly and which among them has nothing of this character; I mean marriage. We buy a woman with our fortune or we sell ourselves to her for her dowry. The American chooses her, or rather offers himself to her, for her beauty, her intelligence, or her amiable qualities and asks no other portion. Thus, while we make a traffic of what is most sacred, these shopkeepers exhibit a delicacy and loftiness of feeling which would have done honor to the most perfect models of chivalry.”

The quote suggests that (a) marriage for love was quite common at the time, and (b) the desire to marry for love existed in France but typically was carried into practice only by the small minority who could financially afford to do so.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wrote about romantic love and marriage at some length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst so I did not go into it at length in this post.