Marriage & Life Partners

Working At It: How to Have a Better Relationship

The divorce rate continues to hover at around 45 percent, and it is widely accepted that marriage is not easy. Having a happy marriage is even harder. Yet marriage expert Eli Finkel has done research that shows that happily married people are happier than ever before. The bad news is, the unhappily married are more miserable than ever.

In his new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, Finkel describes how our concept of marriage has changed over the years. With these changes have come consequences for how happy marriage actually makes us. He writes. “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.”

Finkel traces the history of American marriage through three phases:

  1. Institutional marriage—from the nation’s founding until around 1850.
  2. Companionate marriage—from roughly 1850 until 1965.
  3. Self-expressive marriage—since around 1965 until the present.

In the first kind of marriage, people wed for practical reasons, such as joining two farms together, producing children together to work them, and meeting the demands of daily living. If your partner was loving, companionable, and attractive to you, it was a bonus, but not a necessary feature in choosing a spouse.

Companionate unions became prominent when the work of daily living was made less arduous after the industrial revolution. Couples were brought together by the wish to meet their intimate needs for love, sex, and companionship. Usually there was plenty of help from the community at large, such as family, church, neighbors, etc., to provide for extramarital needs for intimacy, support, and friendship as well.

Self-expressive marriages are based on the idea that spouses should not only meet our needs for intimacy, they must help us grow, develop, and become our best selves. This is a tall order, and with the growth of our expectations about it, marriage has become more disappointing. In general, even people who stay married are less satisfied with it—except for those who rate themselves as very happily married, who are happier than previous generations have been. In Finkel’s words, “The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than the best marriages of yore.”

Partners who seek to satisfy these “higher-level” needs for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth must invest considerable time in their relationship. In contrast, the institutional marriage could coast along as long as each partner was doing his/ her job meeting lower-level needs for shelter, food, etc. Spouses were not prone to complaining that the other wasn’t helping him/her to “self-actualize.” Likewise, personal growth, especially for women, was not traditionally a demand placed on the companionate marriage. But the self-expressive marriage requires constant tending.

These days, people are in a time-crunch, trying often to juggle work, family, and other pursuits and finding at times that all three suffer. Not surprisingly, low-income people suffer the most, as many now have to work more than one job to make ends meet. The discrepancy between rich and poor, in terms of marital satisfaction, is growing. The less money you have, usually the less time you have to invest in the relationship.

While time is not the only factor, Finkel’s research revealed that those who spent the most time together were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage. This was described as “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once per week. Though at first glance it may not seem like much, many couples find it extremely difficult to do this. Putting it another way, without the partners’ making it a conscious priority, time alone together tends to fall by the wayside in many marriages as other pressures mount.

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