When Marriage Became About Me, Myself, and I

Today we expect our spouses to heal our wounds, justify our existence, and provide rapturous sex.

Without God and a thick sense of community and an objective ethical framework, the expectations for romantic love are so high—and our moral foundation so malleable by individual desire—that we end up asking too little of marriage. Even escape valves that erode the commitment necessary for sustaining love, such as living apart and consensual nonmonogamy, receive consideration.

 

Why do we marry today?

According to Eli Finkel’s The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, we get married—and should get married—for our individual wellbeing.

Finkel—a professor of psychology at Northwestern University—says we desire more from potential spouses than in previous eras: not just shelter and survival, or love and intimacy; we demand self-actualization, in an “all-or-nothing” paradigm of personal fulfillment. Finkel argues that such lofty expectations lead to more fulfilling marriages, but also with fewer couples able to attain them.

The book follows a historical argument to explain how we came to this understanding of marriage, and to suggest how we can make it work. According to Finkel, marriage in America has undergone three eras: pragmatic, love-based, and self-expressive.

Eli J. Finkel—a professor of psychology at Northwestern University—says we desire more from potential spouses than in previous eras: not just shelter and survival, or love and intimacy; we demand self-actualization, in an “all-or-nothing” paradigm of personal fulfillment. Finkel argues that such lofty expectations lead to more fulfilling marriages, but also with fewer couples able to attain them.

In the colonial era, marriage followed practical dictates centered on economic survival. Spouses often worked together in the family farm, shop, or business, enrolling the aid of multiple children in the effort to survive.

Then developments like urbanization and industrialization allowed people more amenable lives in cities, and the possibility that a single person could gain her own livelihood through wage labor. This, together with the Enlightenment’s celebration of the individual will and Romanticism’s elevation of feelings and love, encouraged people to desire companionship and intimacy when considering prospective spouses. The love-based marriage became more about shared feelings than shared tasks.

Factories and offices were not yet hospitable environments for women, however, so the love-based era culminated in the 1950s breadwinner-homemaker model ushered in by American prosperity, the advent of the automobile, and white middle-class flight to the suburbs. Men and women started to occupy distinct spheres and live according to roles more differentiated than in much of human history.

Interestingly, Finkel notes that our image of “traditional marriage” is a recent phenomenon. While previous ages celebrated, for instance, a woman who “works with willing hands . . . provides food for her household [and] considers a field and buys it” (Prov. 31), a mid-20th century “marker of social status” became the possibility of women’s almost exclusive dedication to childrearing and homemaking.

A number of developments since the 1960s—the introduction of home appliances, the increasing education of women, the advent of a postindustrial economy that employed women and men in shared offices—brought men and women closer in work environments and in the home. Much of this change should be celebrated, as we gained women’s contributions beyond their contributions as wives and mothers (for example, scientists and heads of state); women could choose to be full-time homemakers out of a sense of calling and not just as a social default, and fathers became more engaged in the care and education of their children.

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