In today's New York Times, Northwestern University professor of psychology and management Eli Finkel wrote a very interesting article about how marriage is changing. I get to see how marriages and our expectations for them are changing up close every week in my counseling office in Newport Beach.
After doing a year-long survey of the scholarly literature on marriage, including psychological research and commentary from sociologists, economists and historians, Finkel thinks that the average marriage is weaker, but that the best marriages now are better than ever. This means that for one group of married couples, satisfaction is lower and the divorce rate is higher. For the other group of marriages, they are stronger and provide more satisfaction and personal well-being to both partners than in past generations. Apparently, with marriage, it's all or nothing.
Finkel reviews the literature about the American view of marriage, which has evolved over time. Cherlin and Cootnz chronicled the era of "institutional marriage" from our country's founding to about 1850. Marriage was about survival: producing food, creating shelter and safety. These basics were the foundation of marriage at that time. If you had an emotional connection with your partner, that was lucky. Emotional connection was NOT the central purpose of the union.
Next up, from 1850 to 1965, marriages hit the era of "companionate marriage." This time frame mirrors the shift in American society from rural to urban life. Families became more prosperous, and men's and women's roles became more distinct and gender specific. As families grew more wealthy, they could afford the luxury of looking at marriage differently, having more to do with love and companionship, and less about survival.
The third shift began around 1965 to the present, with the era of "self-expressive marriage." American societal changes in the 1960s and the personal growth movement helped shift expectations of marriage less as a necessary institution, and more as a way to develop, fuel self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.
These different expectations of marriage parallel the hierarchy of needs designed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. There are five levels in Maslow's hierarchy, and if a lower level, such as food and shelter, is not met, then a couple can't get past that basic need to focus on happiness and self-actualization. In recent years, our expectations for marriage have soared. It requires more time and energy invested into a marriage to meet those higher level needs for connection, depth, and mutual growth.
Sociologists Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox have found in their research that couples who spend time alone with each other, either talking or sharing an activity at least once a week are 3.5 times as likely to be very happy in their marriages than those who do not. Having shared mutual friends also seems to help couples. This can be especially hard on couples with different work hours, juggling multiple jobs, or lack of support with their children, so that time alone together is a scarce resource. It creates more challenges for couples who are raising a family at a distance from extended family support.
For creating enduring marriages, the research is helpful. Don't just focus on the children or work. To the extent that you can, couples need to try to increase the amount of time spent together, whether in conversation or in shared activities. Happier couples also try to encourage each other's growth and development. Taking each other for granted is old school in marriage. Most partners are unlikely to lower their expectations of their marriage, so the importance of investing time and energy in making your relationship a priority is more important now than ever. More people now are expecting better, not worse.