Three recent books about the state of marriage

Both personal and professional curiosity have engendered a fascination with books about the sociology of marriage. Frustrated spouses come to me looking for a divorce but what they are really searching for is to feel peaceful again. Developing an understanding of marriage helps me help them achieve that goal. It also helps me navigate my own marriage–which, like every marriage, has its own mix of pleasures and frustrations.

I’m not yet so old that I attribute the decline of traditional marriage to the breakdown of morals over the past generation or two. Humans simply do not change that quickly. Rather, marriage has changed and, unless one understands the culture of marriage, one cannot understand why long-term marital stability is declining. As I tell my daughters (and would tell my sons if I had any), who one chooses as one’s mate is likely the most consequential decision one will make in one’s life. That’s certainly been true in my case. Yet, while during our youth we devote considerable time and attention to education and career development, we devote almost no time in developing the skills to maintain long-term companionship relationships or how to find and attract suitable partners.

Three recent books address these issues in a manner I assume some readers will find interesting or novel. The most basic of the three is “Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want,” by Alexandra H. Solomon PhD. The book is the outgrowth of an extremely popular undergraduate course Solomon teaches at Northwestern University called “Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101.”

As befits what is essentially an undergraduate textbook, there are exercises/suggested tasks at the end of each chapter and most of what Solomon recommends will be obvious to anyone who’s read much on modern relationships and marriage. Know thyself; remain flexible and compassionate; focus more on your own development, rather than trying to fix your partner. This is the essence of Loving Bravely. For young adults navigating their first serious romantic relationships, this advice (and book) could be useful. Too many young people (and older people) devote their energies searching for Mr. or Ms. Right. Solomon correctly notes that they would be better off working on becoming the person who might attract such a partner. Once these folks have partnered-up, they devote much energy to trying to improve those partners. Loving Bravely suggests they would be better served devoting energy to changing their own behaviors.

The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” by Eli J. Finkel combines relationship advice with sociological research on modern marriage. Whereas Loving Bravely targets young adults, the advice in The All-or-Nothing Marriage is aimed at the folks twenty years later, when they are trying to balance career, children, household maintenance, and sex/romance. The past few years Finkel, another Northwestern Professor, has written extensively on modern relationships in the New York Times, and this book expands on those articles.

Finkel sees marriage having evolved through three distinct models over the past 150 years. He employs Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a metaphor for these transitions. Pre-industrial age marriage was simply a pragmatic method of insuring survival and the perpetration of the species. In a pre-industrial society, in which government’s role in insuring public safety was minimal, having physical access to male kinship was valuable. In an era where starvation was a real possibility, having the “safety net” of a partner, and the ability to divide and specialize in the labor of household management, greatly reduced that possibility. Under these standards, any marriage that resulted in two or more children being raised to reproductive age was a successful one.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Sex didn’t have to be satisfying in these marriages–it merely had to produce children. Arranged marriages flourished in agricultural but pre-industrial societies because safety, children, and material comfort were the primary goals of marriage. Love was a welcome byproduct of marriage but wasn’t its intent or purpose. The extremely low divorce rate in this era wasn’t due to better morals but lower expectations.

With industrialization, marriage went through a transition from a pragmatic relationship to a love relationship. To reference Maslow’s hierarchy, physiological and safety needs were more easily met without the requirement of marriage, so love/belonging and self esteem started becoming important. The traditional marriage of a breadwinning husband and homemaking wife became a cultural ideal. Children went from being a physiological benefit–a source of cheap labor when young; a form of social security in one’s old age–to an expense. As children were no longer an economic benefit, their importance as a source of love and esteem became more prominent.

Moving upward on the hierarchy from physical needs to emotional needs increased the benefits of a good marriage but also made achieving a successful marriage more difficult. The divorce rate increased rapidly during this period.

As women gained greater autonomy, education, and economic empowerment, marriage began another transition, that basically started in the 1950’s, accelerated in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, and has become more of a cultural norm (at least in most Western democracies) today. Moving to the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy, marriage is now seen as a vehicle for self-actualization: the ability to understand one’s true nature, live one’s life authentically, and achieve one’s potential. While the model of traditional marriage is still quite prevalent, many marriages are moving towards a more egalitarian model, in which gender roles are more fluid, and gender expectations less fixed. Even in marriages where the male breadwinner/female homemaker roles remain, few modern marriages would accept male dominance within the marriage. The breakdown of gender roles within marriage is the reason gay marriage went from absurd (at least to heterosexuals) to accepted within a generation.

However, if it is hard to sustain love within a marriage, it is exponentially harder to achieve self-actualization within a marriage. With this new marital goal comes a new marital role: assisting one’s spouse in achieving self-actualization. If, within a good traditional marriage, one was a cheerleader for one’s spouse (helping that spouse feel loved and esteemed), now one is also a coach to one’s spouse (helping that spouse understand his or her true nature and live authentically). There are inherent tensions between being a cheerleader and a coach; it is exceedingly difficult to balance these roles. Finkel notes that successful modern marriages are perhaps the most fulfilling marriages in history, but that it takes tremendous effort to meet these goals.

Thus, an important component of The All-or-Nothing Marriage is the numerous pointers (Finkel calls them hacks) that can be used to sustain self-actualizing marriages. Finkel recognizes that no marriage can operate continuously in the self-actualization mode. The trials of daily living frequently intrude, and stressful times make this marital model counterproductive. Seeking self-actualization while caring for a newborn (and the interrupted sleep, incessant demands, and life alterations this entails) or dealing with a crisis (unemployment; health issues; death) will destroy a marriage. In these situations, Finkel advises dialing back goals to a love or even pragmatic model of marriage.

Some of these hacks The All-or-Nothing Marriage recommends involve reframing one’s thinking to render acceptable what might be unacceptable if self-actualization was the sole marital goal. Other hacks are designed to help one achieve esteem and actualization within the marriage. Most of these hacks will be known to anyone who’s spent years in counseling. Those who haven’t will find them useful to know but difficult to apply without the luxury of time and the benefit of counseling.

Therein lies the rub of the self-actualized marriage. While such marriages can be the most important and satisfying relationship one can have, they are awfully hard to achieve and sustain. Many of the hacks Finkel suggests require more resources than even many upper-middle-class couples can devote to their marriage. While Finkel maintains that even folks with limited money and time can have a self-actualized marriage, I don’t believe him.

Modern research on marriage shows both the rate of marriage and long-term marital stability greatly diverging based on socioeconomic status as the self-actualization model of marriage has taken hold. The past thirty-five years has shown tremendous divergence in both rates of marriage (non-marital family formation started as a trend among the poor and working class and is now becoming more common among the middle-class), and marital stability (divorce is becoming less common among those with college degrees and much more common among those without). The self-actualization model of marriage has made the best marriages even better but made other marriages much less stable. The All-or-Nothing Marriage explains this trend but its proposed solutions will be unworkable for most.

The third book is Esther Perel’s “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.” This is Perel’s sophomore effort, coming out a decade after her groundbreaking debut, “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.” Mating in Captivity addressed the problem of sustaining eroticism in long-term romantic relationships. Mating noted the contradictory impulses in modern marriage of stability and eroticism, with stability requiring feelings of closeness and security and eroticism requiring distance, novelty, and a sense of the forbidden and unknown. As Perel wrote, this was “a paradox to manage, not a problem to solve.” While most contemporary scholarship on marriage attempted to find methods of reconciling these contradictory impulses, Perel’s central insight was that they were not reconcilable. This was literally a revolutionary idea and, a decade later, many couples counselors work off Perel’s ideas in addressing issues of sexual intimacy in long term marriage.

However, if the central insight of Mating was revolutionary, the central insight of The State of Affairs should be obvious to anyone who’s practiced family law (or done marriage counseling) for more than a few years. Outside the context of open marriages, adultery is frequently better understood as a symptom of a marriage that the participants have allowed to atrophy than as a sign of moral failure on the adulterer’s part. This is not to excuse the adulterer’s behavior but simply to note that adultery frequently occurs because one or both partners have checked-out on their marriage. While culturally and legally we assign a victim role to the “cheated upon” spouse, and a perpetrator role to the adulterous spouse, Perel contends, I believe correctly, that much adultery is best understood and addressed as a symptom of an unaddressed and underlying problem within the marriage.

However some adultery may also have nothing to do with the marriage and may have everything to do with the adulterous spouse’s unaddressed psychological issues. A culture that fails to acknowledge or understand this can leave the other spouse feeling responsible for something that may have had nothing to do with him or her (most often, her).

The culture’s impulse to push the “victim” spouse into goals of retribution and divorce is counterproductive on numerous grounds. First, adultery can sometimes be an impetus for both spouses to work on resolving long-standing issues within the marriage and can result in marriages that are sustained, and occasionally strengthened, by finally addressing these problems. Second, by assigning one spouse the “victim” role we relieve that spouse of any obligation into examining how his or her behavior may have contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. That spouse then reenters the dating pool without resolving, or even identifying, these issues, increasing the likelihood that these problems recur in subsequent relationships.

Perel suggests couples should work on understanding the meaning of the adultery within the context of the marriage before deciding what affect the adultery will have on the marriage. She also suggests understanding the outside party’s emotions in the context of a newly discovered affair and suggests that the ghosting recommended by many current marriage counselors is not only unethical to the feelings of that third party but also counterproductive to any healing process for the couple.

I have long believed that this culture’s view that adultery is somehow more immoral than divorce to be extremely misguided. Sometimes adultery is simply a sign that one spouse has unexamined psychological issues that, if that spouse is willing to examine, can lead to a healthier marriage. Sometimes adultery is a sign that folks have failed to properly maintain their marriage. If that marriage is worth maintaining, the discovery of an affair can be an impetus to long overdue changes in the marriage. Finally, sometimes adultery occurs in a marriage that is long broken and should rightly lead to the end of the marriage. However, in these cases, the adultery is the symptom, not the cause, of a broken marriage.

The simplistic notion that marriage is decaying because folks are less moral than they were decades ago is frankly wrong.  Moreover, this view is counterproductive to sustaining contemporary marriages. In the history of human pair bonding, marriages that are entered with expectation of routinely lasting 50+ years and are considered vehicles for self-actualization and fulfillment are a new phenomenon. These three books illuminate these changes and provide methods of thinking about the dilemmas and benefits of this new model of marriage.

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