Gasping Through Marriage: Are We Asking Too Much?

(Katsunojiri/flickr)

(Katsunojiri/flickr)

Marriage — as anyone who has watched “House of Cards,” or actually experienced the giddy highs and devastating lows of a real, ’til-death-part-us union, knows — is complicated.

And, with the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, it’s reasonable to once again ask the question: What’s the secret to a successful marriage? Or, put another way, how can couples get enough relationship “oxygen” while climbing the mountain of marriage to avoid suffocating?

In a recent study, psychologists from Northwestern University present a new model of marriage in the U.S. that’s all about avoiding suffocation. (The full title of the paper is: “The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen.”) In the report, researchers say that Americans today are increasingly — and perhaps unrealistically — asking their marriages to fulfill higher-level psychological needs, such as those related to personal growth and self-realization. So, it’s not so much that we’re asking too much of our spouses, we may just be asking for the wrong things.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting earlier this month, the study’s lead author, Eli Finkel, a Northwestern psychologist whose research areas include “initial romantic attraction” and “conflict-resolution in established relationships,” said that married couples who support each others’ deep psychic, self-growth needs are pretty darn lucky.

“The level of satisfaction from having a spouse help you achieve your understanding of your core essence or your ability to come closer to the person you ideally want to be — that’s an immensely satisfying experience,” he said.

But, sadly, for many couples, such satisfaction is elusive. “Although some spouses are investing sufficient resources — and reaping the marital and psychological benefits of doing so — most are not,” the researchers report.

It wasn’t always this way. Marital expectations have evolved over time from subsistence needs — food, shelter, safety, sex and procreation — to higher-level psychological needs. But couples today often lack the time and energy needed to meet these expanding needs, which is contributing to a declining level of marital quality and well being, said the authors.

“Higher expectations can lead to greater disappointments, and they require people to keep their relationship fresh in ways that people didn’t used to feel required to do,” said Stephanie Coontz, historian and professor at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash. in an email. “The earth is not going to move every time a couple has sex; not every interaction is going to be a Hallmark moment.”

(And there may not even be any sex or Hallmark moments. A splashy story in The New York Times Magazine recently suggested that as marriages become more like business arrangements between equal partners, with fewer “Mad Men” and more cloth-diaper-washing dads, our sex lives are diminishing.)

The new “oxygen-rich” model claims marriage is an institution that requires many, many resources to meet core psychological needs. “You need the inputs of time, emotional energy, and a strong connection between the partners,” said Grace Larson of Northwestern University and co-author of the study. “We conceptualize that as requiring a lot of oxygen.”

Under this model, if people have the time and energy to devote to the relationship, the oxygen needs are met. But with so many other competing demands, such as spending more time at work or putting more energy into child care, the flow of oxygen can be cut off, thereby suffocating the marriage.

“Our suggestion is for people to take stock, to try to keep in mind that one relationship is unlikely to meet all of the psychological needs,” said Larson.

The idea of seeking fulfillment outside of one’s marriage is not new. (See, also: France.) But is it time to reconsider the consensual, non-monogamous model? Perhaps, the authors suggest, though the paper doesn’t offer specific recommendations in this arena.

“It’s a strong message within the consensual non-monogamy community that it’s unrealistic to expect one person to meet all of your most important needs,” said Larson.

But is outsourcing our needs really a great option for most of us? Or should couples simply hunker down, make more time for each other and adjust their expectations of marriage?

The model suggests that all are potentially viable options.

“We have to monitor our expectations to make sure that they are realistic,” said Coontz. “We have more potential for extremely rewarding marriages — we therefore have to try harder to meet that potential or adjust our expectations accordingly.”

If couples do decide to stick it out for the long haul, there’s something else they might want to consider: according to another new study, sex (and intimacy) remains key to a happy, healthy union. It can be a buffer against the injustices of aging, researchers suggest, and allow us to live together until death do us part.

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