In his new book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage, Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel explains how the modern institution has very little in common with matrimonial arrangements of yore. The good news: Marriage today offers greater opportunities for fulfilment than ever before. The bad news: Good luck getting there.
Here, The Globe talks to Finkel about evolving ideals, whether best friends make the best spouses and why date night doesn't work if you don't do it right.
In your book, you say that self-expression has replaced love as the marital ideal. How so?
Our expectations for marriage have changed so much over the past 200 years, but really the past 50 years. Increasingly, we look to our marriages to make us feel not only loved and loving, but also to help us grow into our ideal selves and to help us achieve our most challenging goals. It used to be that we didn't look to our spouses to help us achieve that many of our goals, and we certainly didn't expect our spouse to be our best friend or to help launch us on a voyage of self-discovery and personal growth.
You also say that while the best marriages are better than ever, the average marriage is in crisis. Was it easier to be married before we expected a spouse to be a BFF?
That's exactly right. We used to look to a lot of different people to help us meet our emotional and psychological needs. As we've continued to pile on these expectations, a marriage that would have been considered fulfilling is no longer so. But then you can see that if you have a marriage that does fulfill those increased expectations – how that would be so satisfying.
How is it that marriage became such an island?
To a large extent, we started losing those larger social connections when society became suburban and people started moving away from their pre-existing social networks to a place where they could afford a single-family home. Over time, people built a very nuclearized family life, which separated the mom and the dad from their siblings, friends and made them increasingly dependent on each other. And then television made it easier to achieve entertainment in the home, which meant people were less likely to go out to socialize and participate in civic institutions.
How have evolving roles for women been good or bad for marriage?
They've mostly been good. When second-wave feminism launched in the 1960s, it was part of a stream of forces that pretty much shattered the 1950s model of marriage. This is the same time as civil rights, Vietnam protesting, birth control – a set of different movements that were all oriented around the theme that people should have the right to create their own destiny. For marriage, the feminist movement meant that women increasingly entered the workplace, and ultimately that meant that men increasingly played a role in things like childcare. This was so consequential, because when you fast forward a generation or two, you actually get two people in a marriage who can really understand what each other's daily lives are like. Try to imagine a stereotypical 1950s husband and wife – they can certainly cherish each other and love each other and respect each other, but how much empathy can they really have for each other's daily experiences?
In this modern marriage model, a partner is supposed to be both a cheerleader and a critic. Aren't those two roles in opposition of each other?
That is an absolutely massive challenge, especially since we really haven't stopped to reflect on how marriage has changed and how tricky it is to be responsible for making our spouse feel loved and safe and sexy, while at the same time making sure that he or she understands and feels eager to change and grow. How do you make the person feel happy with who they are, while also encouraging them to resist complacency and strive towards real excellence and personal growth? I don't have a definitive answer other than to say that if people are aware of what they are asking from their relationship, they can make more sensible decisions. And one of those decisions could be that you don't need your spouse to play all of those roles and you can look to other people in your life to help.
The book includes a collection of what you call marriage hacks. Do you have a favourite?
We did a study where we randomly assigned people in a relationship to think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for everybody – this allowed people to be less emotionally attached to their own points of view and we found that people who had done this over the course of a year ended up having happier and hotter marriages.
Let's talk about hotter. Any tips on how to keep the flame alive?
How to sustain that heat in a long-term marriage is kind of the Holy Grail for relationship researchers. In the book, I talk about techniques for increasing passion. I also talk about ways to figure out how we can ask less and reduce a sense of sexual disappointment, so there are two different approaches.
I'm more interested in the first approach.
Ha! Well a lot of people are given the advice that you should have date night, and it turns out that date nights are great, but how you use your date night has a pretty big influence on the consequences. If you're going to spend your date night watching reruns of a show you both like, that's maybe good for overall relationship satisfaction, but it's not going to help increase passion. For that, you need to go outside the box and doing things that are new.
Do the novel ideas need to be innately sexy, or could you increase passion by couples bird watching?
Definitely you could. People often do try ballroom dancing, which I guess you could say is a sexy thing to do, but they also list things like shucking oysters.
Aren't oysters are an aphrodisiac?
That's true, but I don't think it mattered whether they ate them or not. What's crucial is breaking up the mundanity or everyday-ness of marriage.