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Spring 2018

The All-or-Nothing Marriage

Traditional marriages were about meeting basic needs. But today spouses expect more.

Image: Illustration by Neil Webb

Eli Finkel started out thinking he was writing a requiem for marriage.

His book was going to be called The Freighted Marriage, a bleak warning that we are demanding so much from our spouses — that they be everything from our best friends to our romantic ideals to our social networks — that the institution of marriage is buckling under the strain.

Only a funny thing happened as social psychologist Finkel ’97, director of the University’s Relationships and Motivation Lab and one of the nation’s leading marriage researchers, widened his research into the history and sociology of marriage.

Modern marriage — at least one kind — was starting to look thrilling.

It’s a tale of two marriages — both arising from changes in what we expect, he explained last fall at a Science Cafe, the University’s monthly science talk for the community.

In some ways, we are asking less of our marriages than in earlier times. We no longer need a spouse to help us get food, clothing and shelter.

But in other, deeper ways, Finkel says, we are asking for much more. We want our spouses to help us lead richer lives, to spur us to become our best selves. As he put it in a September 2017 essay in the New York Times, “Today, we expect our spouse not only to make us feel loved but also to be a kind of life coach.”

But such high aims have a downside — they are hard to achieve. Spouses who succeed in meeting them can craft a marriage that soars. But those who fall short — and many do — end up disappointed. Marriage has diverged into two kinds: The “all-or-nothing marriage.”

The average marriage is indeed in decline, he told the audience, but “the best marriages may well be the best marriages we’ve seen anywhere.”

The Freighted Marriage became The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work (Dutton, 2017) — an account of the divergent kinds of marriage in America and a pragmatic road map to achieving one of the best.

The book has brought the 42-year-old Finkel, a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, even further into the general public eye. But his work is firmly anchored in his research field, where he is held in high regard.

“Eli is widely recognized as a leader in the field of social psychology, not only because of his pathbreaking research on the nature of human romantic relationships but also because of his methodological wisdom and creativity,” says Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. “He is surely one of the most significant and innovative social psychologists of his generation.”

The Biggest Challenge to Marriage

Finkel says relationship research and counseling have changed in recent years. The focus used to be on how to navigate conflict, but that isn’t the biggest challenge to long-term marriage — it’s boredom.

As in “the sense that we’re not growing, we’re not changing,” he says. “We haven’t had sex in a long time; the passion and the interest are gone. It’s not like we’re fighting; it’s like we’re living with a sibling.”

Happily, “there are various ways we can try to spice things up a bit, in the sexual domain and otherwise,” he says. His book lists a number of them. Some require meaningful attention and time, but others are so easy he calls them “lovehacks,” simple tweaks that “can provide good bang for the buck — notable improvement in marital quality for modest investment.”

A central idea of Finkel’s book is that people want a spouse who will further their inner growth.

It’s a view that reflects Finkel’s affinity with psychologist Abraham Maslow, the philosophical father of the self-actualization movement. Maslow wrote that people have a “hierarchy of needs” that form a triangle. At the bottom are basic needs for food and water. People move up the triangle to seeking safety, then belonging and love, then self-esteem — and then at the top to pursuing things like discovering their unique character traits and living accordingly, which he termed self-actualization.

In terms of marriage, Finkel sees the concept as a mountain. At the bottom are the basic needs people used to want fulfilled in a marriage, like help surviving. At the top are what we want today — qualities in a mate that will help us toward self-expression and personal growth.

“One of the major theories in my field is self-expansion theory — the idea that we have this fairly basic motivation to grow as individuals,” he says. Studies have found that people say they want a spouse who will help them do so, although they don’t always put it in those words.

“One of the major things they list is ‘somebody who brings out the best in me.’ That’s pretty close,” he says.

The goal isn’t to reach the marital summit and stay there, he says; no marriage can maintain a permanent state of bliss. The best marriages, he writes, are peaks and valleys. They periodically reach stratospheres of joy and delight, but the rest of the time exist at conventional levels — and occasionally dip lower into rough patches.

Not everyone subscribes to the notion of marriage as a path to personal fulfillment. Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman has warned that expectations of achieving lofty marital heights can weigh down a marriage with too much pressure.

And New York Times columnist David Brooks, while praising Finkel’s insights and research, criticized the idea as self-centered.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always pointed toward a chilly, unsatisfying version of self-fulfillment,” wrote Brooks last September, arguing for a notion of marriage as partners surrendering their individual needs and melding into one unit. “Most people experience their deepest sense of meaning not when they have placidly met their other needs, but when they come together in crisis.”

His column sparked an intellectual debate, with humanist psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman taking to Scientific American to defend Finkel and Maslow. Maslow saw self-actualization as a necessary step before transcending personal needs to serving others, Kaufman wrote. Moreover, he added, surrendering identity can be emotionally dangerous.

Finkel relished the back-and-forth. He thrives on debate and disagreement, and he put Gottman’s objections in his book — and responded that he sees his point. “Lofty expectations can help us achieve marital bliss, but they can also produce disappointment and resentment,” Finkel wrote. And having a spouse urge you to reach your life goals isn’t necessarily pleasant; some people prefer a marriage offering just love and support.

The important thing is for spouses to agree on what they want, he says — and if they want to reach for the marriage heights, for them to be willing to expend the time and effort to get there.

Illustration by Neil Webb

Scenes from a Marriage

As a marriage researcher, Finkel is studying the stuff of everyday life — including his own. His marriage makes several appearances in the book. He writes about how his wife, Alison, endured two nightmarish pregnancies, suffering such severe nausea that she was repeatedly hospitalized, and how he found caring for an infant an exhausting change in life. He ended up descending into depression — and their marriage plummeted from the mountain summit.

“Things were really rough,” he recalls. “The pregnancy was so bad, and I struggled so much during the first year that I decided — and this was partly the depression talking — I’m going to stop trying to have fun. Because when I try to have fun, when I try to make things great, I just realize the discrepancy between the way life used to be and the way it is.”

They found themselves taking the advice that now informs his book.

“We kind of stopped trying to hit the top of this hierarchy for a while,” he says. “We seriously set aside the aspirational version of our marriage and instead got into a soporific one-foot-in-front-of-the-other state where we simply tried to make sure that our kids didn’t stick their fingers into electrical sockets.”

Their children got older (they are now 8 and 5); parenting got easier. “And slowly but surely, the pleasure comes back,” he says.

Alison didn’t mind her husband writing about that rough period; in fact, she suggested it. “His life and his science are so intertwined; I thought it was something he should address,” she says.

And she was one of his first readers. “Maybe his harshest critic,” she confesses. “The most common word I used was ‘jargony.’ ”

She wasn’t the only family member who was tough on him in early reads. “I argued with him about the theme of the book,” says his mother, Candida Abrahamson ’80 MA, ’84 PhD, who, as a relationship counselor, addresses marriage from a different point of view. “I think the search for an authentic self is an elite enterprise.” Moreover, she contends, history saw plenty of marriages that weren’t simply for survival.

“In some sense, marriage is absurd. What, you sample experiences together from ages 26 to 28 and say, ‘Perfect! Let’s do it!’ as if you really have the information that you need?" — Eli Finkel

The Northwestern Connection

Finkel’s reputation is international, but his work and life revolve around Northwestern, where he got his undergraduate degree in psychology. He thrived on campus energy then — he was social chair of Willard Residential College — and still does now. He has served as a faculty fellow of both Willard and the Residential College of Cultural and Community Studies, where he has also been master, now called faculty chair.

Today he and Alison (who runs the undergraduate Reunion Weekend for Alumni Relations and Development) live so close to campus that they used to put their kids’ splash pool in their front yard so they could watch them while chatting with students passing by. As the kids got older, the splash pool made way for a lemonade stand.

And it was at Northwestern that Finkel found his life’s work, in J. Michael Bailey’s introduction to psychology class and in a social psychology class taught by now-emerita professor Joan Linsenmeier ’76 MA, ’77 PhD.

“I just thought, ‘Is it possible that you can really make a living asking questions about relationships and then trying to develop innovative ways to answer them and then teaching about it?’ It sounded sort of like almost an impossibly good deal — and it has been.”

He can’t imagine a better subject. “Isn’t this what everyone’s interested in?” he asks. “What if you could figure out what makes a marriage more versus less successful? What if you could figure out which sort of behaviors would make for a hotter first date?”

After graduating from Northwestern, Finkel did a doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2003 Finkel returned to Northwestern, where he holds appointments in both the psychology department and the Kellogg School of Management. A much-sought teacher, he holds the Martin J. and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Professorship.

“He’s fantastic to work with, and he cares a lot about his students,” says Lydia Emery ’16 MA, a fourth-year doctoral student who works with Finkel in the lab. “He’s a deep theoretical thinker. It’s fun thinking through research ideas with him and coming up with creative study designs.”

Alison ended up thrilled with the book (which Eli dedicated “to my wife, Alison, who finds it hilarious that I’m a marriage expert”). And on a personal level, she pointed out that the traits that make him an insightful researcher also make him excellent company.

“He’s a great guest at a dinner party,” she says. “He’s very interested in what attracts people to each other and what their life experience is like.” Their friends sometimes seek Eli’s marital advice, she says, and it’s not so much for his expertise as his empathy.

As for their own marriage, “truthfully, we go through all the same challenges and triumphs as anyone else does,” she says. The two of them can also use marriage-improving advice the same as anyone else, she says. One time after reading an article that outlined one of his “lovehacks,” “I emailed him and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ ”

In fact, they do practice what Finkel preaches. The “lovehacks” and other strategies are backed by research — and research is the lens through which he views the world. Finkel sees relationships as behavior that can be studied and quantified with the same rigor as physics.

“I think there are laws or principles that guide how we interact,” he says. “And if there are, then you should in principle be able to develop ways to study those things in a quantifiable way.”

Is the scientific approach an unromantic view of marriage? Actually, he says, quite the opposite.

“In some sense, marriage is absurd,” Finkel says. “What, you sample experiences together from ages 26 to 28 and say, ‘Perfect! Let’s do it!’ as if you really have the information that you need?

“We obviously don’t have enough information to make a decision of this consequence for 50 years from now. There’s no way that that’s a sensible thing to do. So let’s figure out a way to make this work — which is really what marriage is at its best.”

That, to Finkel, is the romance of marriage — the daring notion of throwing rationality to the wind and then committing to making it work.

“I feel like it’s beautiful to say, ‘This stuff we’re about to do is crazy. Let’s do it anyway.’ ”

Barbara Brotman is a freelance writer in Oak Park, Ill., and a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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Reader Responses

  • Although I agree with much of what Eli Finkel has to say regarding what makes for a fulfilling and lasting marriage, for him to say that “We no longer need a spouse to help us get food, clothing and shelter” is just reflective of present public discourse, in which poor people, including many of those employed in the services industries/businesses, do not exist.

    In the Chicago college where I taught, I encountered numerous students who exist in families that depend on not just a spouse but on other family members who need to work to meet basic family needs. Such a reality places a great deal of stress on family dynamics, in which economic survival, not boredom, was the major impediment to a successful marriage. This is not to say that those of lesser means do not want their partners to foster self-expression and personal growth, but it is much more difficult to do so when your mind is on how are you going to pay the rent.

    Louis Silverstein ’70 PhD, Evanston, via Northwestern Magazine

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