“The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than the best marriages of yore.” ~ Eli J. Finkel
Finkel has been talking about the “all or nothing” marriage for four years now. For about half that time I’ve been reading what he and others have to say about what marriage is becoming.
Finkel, says what we have today is self-expressive marriages, where marriage is seen “less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.” You can throw rocks at that if you want, but I agree with him; that is a significant part of why most people get married these days. And while Christians may be holding on to marriage as a necessary institution, they’re also taking up the desire for marriage to help them with personal fulfilment. If this is so, then we need to understand that and what it means for us.
Finkel suggests that this change is because life is not as difficult as it used to be. In the past marriage made life easier and safer for people. If a marriage provided these things, it was successful. Happiness is nice, but it’s not as important as survival. An unhappy marriage was way better than not being married. Some found far more than survival in marriage, but it wasn’t necessary and given human nature many wouldn’t spend the effort to build more.
Now we live in a time and place where a single man or woman can have a successful life on their own. What was a strong motivation for marriage in the past no longer exists. Marriage has continued because people have found other benefits to be had from marriage. Marriage can bring happiness and contentment. It can also help us grow, becoming better people. Basically, we now expect our spouse to facilitate our personal growth and fulfilment.
I’ve read several articles by Eli Finkel, and the following really hit me:
Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. [Bolding by me. The "our” in this quote refers to Finkel’s co-authors Chin Ming Hui, Kathleen L. Carswell and Grace M. Larson for articles published in Psychological Inquiry]
This is right in line with my regular nagging about the importance of giving our spouse enough of our time. If the all or nothing marriage concept is accurate (and I think it is) then what separates great marriages from horrible marriages is the amount of time and energy the spouses put into their marriage. What’s more, there is no middle ground. You can’t have an okay marriage by putting in half as much time and energy as would be required for a great marriage. The era of okay marriages is gone, as is being okay with a poor marriage. In the era of all or nothing, if you won’t work for all, you’re in great danger or ending up with nothing!
If all of this is accurate, it means we can’t continue to do marriage as usual. Frankly, I see a lot of good in the changes. I don’t think God ever intended marriage to be just a way to survive. These changes raise the bar. It means doing what was once enough is no longer be enough. Some identify this as modern society destroying marriage. I see it more as society no longer being willing to put up with mediocre marriages. I’m not saying I think it’s okay to divorce just because your marriage is mediocre, but I think knowing mediocre may not be enough is good motivation for us all to up our game.
What do you want from your marriage? What do you expect from your wife? What does she want and expect? If either of you has expectations the other doesn’t know about, that is going to hurt your marriage, and it might even end your marriage.
Please, don’t assume you know each other’s expectations, talk about it.