“We’re asking a lot of our marriages today, but few of us are asking for life itself,” psychologist Eli Finkel notes in his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage. Over time, he argues, we have come to expect marriage to fulfill needs that rank higher in Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy. Americans no longer need to get married to avoid poverty, homelessness, or starvation. Instead, we want our partners not only to love and cherish us, but also to accompany us on our journey toward self-actualization—the summit of Mount Maslow, in Finkel’s term.
His basic thesis is that “the pursuit of self-expression through marriage simultaneously makes achieving marital success harder and the value of doing so greater. Consequently, the average marriage has been getting worse over time, even as the best marriages have been getting better.”
Keep in mind that these trends have developed even as divorce has become more accessible. One would expect marital satisfaction to have risen in recent decades since unsatisfactory marriages (which became more likely to end in divorce) would stop dragging down the average happiness of existing marriages. Yet Americans have managed to achieve the opposite: While 67.2% of married Americans reported “very happy” marriages in 1973, only 59.9% reported the same in 2014. Why would that be so?
Essentially, Finkel warns, we are demanding more of our marriages without increasing our investment in them. Married Americans see their parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends much less frequently than the unmarried, and less frequently than they did in the 1970s, making the spousal relationship all the more central to their well-being and personal development. Thus, amid its decline, marital satisfaction has become more closely linked to overall life happiness over the last few decades. Yet married Americans are spending less time alone with their spouses. In 1975, childless American couples spent 35 hours per week in one another’s company, and those with children spent 13 hours per week, while the figures stood at 26 and nine hours, respectively, in 2003.
After providing an overview of the evolution of American marriages and explaining the paradoxical effects of today’s “self-expressive” marital ideal, Finkel devotes the last third of his book to advice. Many of his tips are laudable: prioritize spending time together, celebrate one another’s successes, maintain a broader network of friends, lower your expectations of marriage during the early years of parenting or other rough patches, etc. But other ideas he deems helpful in certain cases (living apart from one’s spouse permanently, leaving monogamy behind) are more likely to destroy a marriage than to bolster it.
And I found myself recoiling from Finkel’s suggestion to “generate a new, more deliberate plan” for meeting the needs I currently expect my marriage to fulfill. It may have been the businessman-meets-therapist prose that did me in (“if we and our spouse leverage our social networks and personal skills more efficiently, our marriage will consist of two better-adjusted people”), or the utilitarian viewpoint it reinforces, in which our most intimate friends become mere vehicles for serving our needs.
My objections to The All-or-Nothing Marriage do not end there. In the course of arguing that the era of “separate spheres” for the genders is dead and gone, Finkel exaggerates the extent to which men and women’s roles in the workplace and family have converged. He also presents as a fact the debatable claim that “marriages characterized by greater gender equality—greater parity in earning, housework, and parenting—are more satisfying, more sexually fulfilling, and at lower risk of divorce.” Ashley McGuire, Laurie DeRose, and the scholars behind the 2015 World Family Map report all provide reasons to doubt this claim.
Similarly, it is premature to declare, as Finkel does, that “a new equilibrium has emerged” for marriage since divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s. The divorce rate may have dropped since then; however, the marriage rate is hitting historic lows, and cohabitation shows no signs of becoming a functional replacement for marriage.
To return to Finkel’s main point—that contemporary Americans look to marriage to express and expand their deepest selves—it may be significant that Abraham Maslow believed just 2% of people would accomplish self-actualization. Asking a spouse for love, emotional support, and practical assistance in raising a family is one thing. Expecting him or her to “sculpt [us] in ways that elicit [our] authentic self” is another. To achieve such sculpting, Finkel writes in one place,
Our spouse must understand our psychological constitution, recognize the opportunities and pitfalls dictated by the circumstances we’re confronting right now, accurately assess his or her support skills and domain-relevant expertise, take account of the current emotional tenor in the marriage, and so forth.
Complicating these efforts is the fact that “A marriage that successfully facilitates its spouses’ personal growth changes the marriage itself, ultimately altering the spouses’ ways of relating to each other.” If navigating these waters proves an arduous and at times impossible task for a relationship expert with a Ph.D. in psychology, like Finkel, perhaps we should let ourselves off the hook. Marriage may well help us to grow and develop as individuals, but it is unwise to make that its primary purpose.
Anna Sutherland is a writer and editor living in Michigan.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.