- To understand marriage today, it is important to see how we got to where we are. Throughout America’s history, its populace has experienced three distinct models of marriage, as scholars like the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin and the historian Stephanie Coontz have chronicled. In the era of the institutional marriage, from the nation’s founding until around 1850, the prevalence of individual farming households meant that the main requirements Americans had for their marriage revolved around things like food production, shelter and protection from violence. To be sure, Americans were pleased if they experienced an emotional connection with their spouse, but such affinities were perquisites of a well-functioning marriage rather than its central purpose.
In the era of the companionate marriage, from roughly 1850 until 1965, American marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life. This era overlapped with the shift from rural to urban life. Men increasingly engaged in wage labor outside of the home, which amplified the extent to which the two sexes occupied distinct social spheres. As the nation became wealthier and its social institutions became stronger, Americans had the luxury of looking to marriage primarily for love and companionship.
Since around 1965, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment. “You make me want to be a better man,” from the 1997 movie “As Good as It Gets,” could serve as this era’s marriage ideal. In the words of the sociologist Robert N. Bellah, love has become, in good part, “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”
This historical ascent is, on its own, neither good nor bad. But it has major implications for marital well-being: Though satisfying higher-level needs yields greater happiness, serenity and depth of inner life, people must invest substantially more time and energy in the quality of their relationship when seeking to meet those higher-level needs through their marriage. To be sure, it was no small feat, circa 1800, to produce enough food or keep a house warm, but the effort required to do so did not require deep insight into, and prolonged involvement with, each other’s core essence.
This piece, The All-or-Nothing Marriage by Eli J. Finkel, is food for thought. Generally, as society has gotten more affluent and urbanised, our expectations of life itself -- not just marriage -- have moved up Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For example, no longer are we satisfied just to have a job which will put food on the table; we want jobs where we can feel a sense of achievement or fulfillment, experiencing the satisfaction of using and developing our various skills and talents. We want jobs where our contributions are recognised and we feel we are doing something worthwhile.
I'm not surprised to see the study's findings show that we want more from marriage than ever before. Finkel does say that if couples don't have the time and energy to invest in their marriage, "they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other's self-actualisation". But how to adjust expectations is another matter altogether. It's not quite as easy as it sounds.