Why so many Marriages Fall Apart

Marriages Fall Apart 18 Feb 16

Marriage has always been a gamble, but the modern game is harder and with higher stakes than ever before.


Research has revealed, for example, that people in a healthy marriage are some of the happiest couples in history, whereas those who are struggling in their marriage are more unhappy today than in the past.

When social psychologist Eli Finkel sought to understand why marriage is more extreme at both ends today than in the past, he discovered something intriguing and disturbing: Marriages are more challenging today than at any other time in our history.

The suffocation of marriage

Finkel is a professor of social psychology at North-western University and is known for developing a surprisingly simple marriage-saving-procedure, which takes 21 minutes a year.

Together with his colleagues of the Relationships and Motivation LAB at North-western, Finkel and his team have gone on to publish several papers on what they call “the suffocation model of marriage”.

In one of their latest papers on this front, they explain why — compared to previous generations — some of the defining qualities of today’s marriages make it harder for couples to cultivate a flourishing relationship.

The simple answer is that people today expect more out of their marriage. If these higher expectations are not met, it can suffocate a marriage to the point of destroying it.

The 3 models of marriage

Finkel, in an opinion article in The New York Times summarizing their latest paper on this model, discusses the three distinct models of marriage that relationship psychologists refer to:

  • institutional marriage (from the nation’s founding until 1850)
  • companionate marriage (from 1851 to 1965)
  • self-expressive marriage (from 1965 onward)

Before 1850, people were hardly walking down the aisle for love — the point of marriage was mostly for food production, shelter, and protection from violence. People were often satisfied if they felt any emotional connection to their spouse at all, Finkel wrote.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, those norms changed quickly when an increasing number of people left the farm to live and work in the city for higher pay and fewer hours.

With the luxury of more free time, Americans focused on what they wanted in a lifelong partner, namely companionship and love. But the counter-cultural attitude of the 1960s led people to think of marriage as an option instead of an essential step in life.

Marriage today

This leads us to today’s model, self-expressive marriage, wherein the average modern, married person is looking not only for love from their spouse but for a sense of personal fulfilment.

Finkel writes that this era’s marriage ideal can be expressed in the simple quote “You make me want to be a better man,” from James L. Brooks’ 1997 film “As Good as It Gets.”

These changes to marital expectations have been a mixed bag. Finkel and his team argues that, as people have increasingly looked to their marriage to help them meet idiosyncratic, self-expressive needs, the proportion of marriages that fall short of their expectations has grown, which has increased rates of marital dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, “those marriages that succeed in meeting these needs are particularly fulfilling, more so than the best marriages in earlier eras.”

The key to a successful marriage

So, what’s the key to a successful, flourishing marriage?

Finkel and his colleagues describe three general options:

  • Don’t look to your marriage alone for personal fulfilment. In addition to your spouse, use all resources available to you including friends, hobbies, and work.
  • If you want a lot from your marriage, then you have to give a lot, meaning that to meet their high expectations, couples must invest more time and psychological resources into their marriage.
  • And if neither of those options sound good, perhaps it’s time to ask less of the marriage and adjust high expectations for personal fulfilment and self-discovery.

Other researchers, like sociologist Jeffrey Dew, support the notion that time is a crucial factor in sustaining a successful marriage. Dew, who is a professor at the University of Virginia, found that Americans in 1975 spent, on average, 35 hours a week alone with their spouse while couples in 2003 spent 26 hours together. Child-rearing couples in 1975 spent 13 hours a week together, alone, compared to couples in 2003 who spent 9 hours a week together.

While that doesn’t necessarily mean less time together led to divorce — or that the people who stayed together were happy — Finkel’s research suggests that higher expectations and less investment in the relationship may be a toxic brew.


Adapted from an article by Jessica Orwig, which originally appeared on www.businessinsider.com


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