Gasping Through Marriage: Are We Asking Too Much?



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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  • H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP®

    Being married has been the best and most difficult challenge that I’ve ever undertaken, but it’s been my critical support as we go through a serious medical issue with our daughter. My relationship with my wife has been the catalyst for my personal growth and I’m a far better person because of it, which means I’m one of the lucky ones. Thankfully I know it and we work on our relationship together.

  • Henry Sude

    Marriage is tied with necessity of prostitution. Here is the view of prominent Russian author Armalinsky: the essay “A She-Savior” see
    The main idea is that the legalization of prostitution must be based on a return of its divine, sacred character, so that prostitution will be considered the most honorable profession, the one closest to God, the holiest.

  • jeffsd

    A hooker on the side usually helps.

  • moriantrajan

    If the only questions i asked about marriage were about me then the only answers i would have would be about me……marriage is a commitment….to your partner..not yourself… start from there or you wind up nowhere…..

  • calesuar

    Are we asking too much? It depends on WHO you are asking too much of. If the person is you, then you are not asking too much. If you are asking someone else to fulfill your emptiness then yes you’re asking too much. And, the solution is not to find sex somewhere else. That’s just being delusional. No one is responsible for your happiness but yourself. The problem arises when you expect or want someone else to give you happiness. It is not going to happen. It’s childish. Instead, build your happiness yourself first, THEN, share it with that special someone; assuming that special someone you took the time to find out if he or she was compatible with you in most of your core values, whatever they may be, and it better include sex, money, how to raise children and religion or lack there of. If you already made the decision without first making sure your special person shared most of your values then it’s either open communication and honesty to see if both can change their values for a better match or walk out and star over again with someone else who doesn’t have to work hard to match you but he or she is already, naturally and willingly walking in the same direction as you are. To err is human, to change and do over is responsible, to continue knowingly in the same erroneous path is not honorable but stupid and unhealthy for both persons in the relationship regardless if one still loves the other person. Marriage is not charity but it should be the consensual unity of two people who want to share their Love, dreams and aspirations in exclusive ways.

  • Sarah Trammel

    Okay, so these “Common Health” segments are not up to the standard I expect from NPR. Please divorce yourself from WBUR’s pseudoscientific articles, or I’ll be cancelling my Cornerstone membership.

  • Taylor Dotson

    What seems strange to me is that the author went from the observation that a single relationship cannot fulfill all of one’s psychic needs to polygamy/polyamoury. Constantly confusing relational intimacy and help with self-realization with sex is a bizarre contemporary obsession, overlooking how many previous generations of humans maintained much stronger and longer-lasting extended family relationships, friendships and community ties. Just take Ray Oldenburg’s study of the decline of the kind of community provided by neighborhood cafes and pubs or “third places” where everybody did indeed know your name. The problem is not enough unconditional support from different sources companionship, NOT that we don’t have a chance to fuck enough different people.

  • BumbleBebe

    I think that part of the problem we’re experiencing in marriages (high expectations, low energy) is that we’ve gotten in the habit of marrying people that we are “in love with”. I’m as much of a Beatles fan as the next person, but when they convinced a generation that “live is all you need”, it was a huge disservice. Love is not all you need. You need similar expectations for your lives, similar desires for lifestyle and family, compatible personalities, even complimentary personal habits. My parents finally divorced when I was in my twenties because my father, a musician, didn’t mind living like a starving artist whereas my mother had a very practical career and wanted to live an upper middle class lifestyle. They’d been arguing about it for as long as I’d been alive, and the stress of it overpowered the love in their relationship.

    I love my husband, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been “in love with” quite a few people during my lifetime and I didn’t marry them all. I married my husband because we have similar goals and expectations for our lives (and because he makes me laugh). So even though it’s not the most sensual or romantic relationship I’ve ever been in, that is less important to us because, for example, he’s supportive of my PhD and I don’t mind that he works weekends. It may sound unromantic, but we just work well together. Love is important, but unless the relationship is convenient as well it will always be a battle to keep that love afloat.

    • calesuar

      almost. Love is certainly not everything, but neither is just compatibility. Most people love extremes. So they either go for “I’m crazy about her”, “I just love him” or “he makes me laugh”, “she’s a great mother”. The hard answer is you need both, and that takes some homework and perseverence. Otherwise, the results is what we get, high divorce rates coupled with people trapped in bad marriage. The few Happy Hot marriages indicate most don’t do the required work BEFORE marriage, which is mostly working on improving oneself while looking for a love/compatible match, which in turn makes the work after marriage significantly less. It’s no different than the success of most businesses, no one recommends that you do the littlest amount of preparations and planning before you start your business, to disregard your passion for the type of business you want and that just hard work will ensure its success.

  • Elizabeth Rose

    “…with fewer ‘Mad Men; and more cloth-diaper-washing dads, our sex lives are diminishing.” I find this pretty offensive. Since men and women are having more equal roles it is destroying sex? I don’t think so. It’s irritating to read articles from journalists who think they can read scientific studies. All the outcomes just get manipulated.

  • Capryce Rose

    Everyone can benefit from learning to communicate and listen with more skill. Hopefully in the process recognizing and sifting out what is defensive or out of date baggage to uncover the gold underneath. No one can accomplish this and no marriage can thrive without trust. When each of our lives have moved beyond just physical needs the major new frontier is psychological and the rewards are hopefully becoming more emotionally balanced, evolved and satisfied in all our relationships.

  • Michelle Burnett

    I have been married for 15 years this year; I got married very young by today’s standards. My husband is my best friend and we are excellent partners and co-parents. But I don’t rely on him for all of my emotional needs, and he doesn’t rely on me for his. If I get into a passive-aggressive dispute with a female coworker at work, my female best friends are much more likely to empathize and help me figure out what to do. Likewise the conflicts I feel about being a working mom or the anxieties of being a mom in general – I have fellow-mom friends to talk to about that. My mother is a big source of emotional support and friendship for me. I have mentors I can go to when I need to make decisions about which direction to take in my career. I am still a friend, a sister, an employee, and a daughter, in addition to being a wife. I guess I’m confused – do other people get married and completely abandon their other social relationships? In my case, my husband and I like to do some things together – and some things apart. I don’t feel the need to know absolutely everything he’s thinking at every given moment. Nor do I feel that when we are together, he needs to pay attention to me at the exclusion of whatever else he might be thinking about or doing at the moment – people who need that kind of attention need to grow up a little, IMO. I think people who want to “mind-meld” in a marriage, or who expect the marriage to provide a constant stream of praise, happy emotions, ultimate fulfillment and unreserved joy have been watching too many Disney movies, where the story ends right after the wedding, or the couple falls in love. Marriage isn’t going to be fun all the time – just like parenting is not fun all the time, or a job is not fun all the time, or even hobbies and friendships are not 100% fun all the time. I don’t know how we, as a society, got here – that if something is the least bit difficult or unfulfilling, we should abandon the endeavor in favor of something else. There’s always going to be “something else” that looks better when whatever you’re doing is at it’s low ebb. But the low ebbs don’t last, just like the high highs don’t. The success of a life, in my opinion, is measured by how well you ride out the highs and lows and offer love and support to the people who need it in your life. So the answer, for me, is: yes, if you are expecting your marriage to “complete you,” to never get tedious or boring, and to make you a happy, self-fulfilled person? You are asking way too much of the institution, and would be better off getting a dog.

  • lcags14

    from a heterosexual female perspective, the Sweet Potato Queens suggested long ago that it is near impossible to have All needs met by one man. In addition, anyone that knows anything about women knows that female friends (and counselors, I daresay) meet psychological needs. Challenging monogamous relationships in modern day society may cause utter chaos and additional psychological mayhem

  • C M Concepcion

    Just stay single, that way you’ll never have be disappointed.

  • Joe Buck

    I have always believed that the greatest punishment for a bigamist is that second wife.

  • Sue Koehler-Arsenault

    One of the best ways to prevent disappointment in marriage is taking the time before the wedding day to discuss dreams, desires, and expectations for marriage. Too often couples just presume things will unfold automatically. Being clear about the vision for the marriage and then revisiting hopes and expectations as major life events unfold (children, job changes, aging parents etc) can do a lot to help a couple be aware of what all too often are unstated expectations.

  • David Polacheck

    I find it a curious oversimplification that we burden a single word, marriage, to describe the myriad unions that we form, each as unique as our individual human conditions, and that we assume all marriages can be described by a single study with success defined universally as its continuation until death. I would trade nothing in my marriage, my kids, and my divorce which, in its own way, was one of the bigger positive accomplishments in my life. I’m sure there is a slice of the population for whom spending their time differently during the marriage or realigning their expectations could help it last longer, perhaps forever, but I’m not sure how big that slice is. And while it is cliché to say, for many marriages “’till death do us part” does not look or feel like success. I am not pro-divorce or anti-marriage, I just think that these words describe a nearly infinite set of circumstances, and therefore a study that doesn’t make any effort to categorize them by their vast differences before ascribing a single definition of success is likely to fall short in accurately identifying the conditions for that success. I am grateful for my marriage and subsequent divorce. A study that describes these circumstances as failure, and strives to figure out how it might have been averted, just doesn’t seem particularly relevant and may be lacking scientifically as well.

    • Christy

      Thoroughly enjoyed this post, in fact, more than the article itself. It’s true that longevity is typically seen as the “success” of a marriage and I agree it’s not necessarily the best measure.

    • peds

      Thank you – I also feel that my divorce was a success and great learning experience for me, and cringe at the thought of our focus to be how to stay in our marriages, instead of how to be in healthy relationships. I too hope for the ideal of a long lasting, beautiful marriage, but did not look to my spouse for all fulfillment, as the article suggests. I did look to him for faithfulness and honesty though – which, I do not feel are higher level psychological aspirations. What is interesting though, is that despite my experience, I am always sad whenever I learn of a marriage ending, as I still hold on to the ideal of a long lasting marriage….

  • Jessica Shier

    So here is the issue I have with this argument, first what exactly is a consensual non monogamous relationship for most people? I know I would not want to live with a “sister wife”, and I have no interest in having another partner. Do the people who support this believe we need more prostitutes? And who are those prostitutes? It doesn’t seem to me that those who end up in that line of work are balanced, emotionally healthy, or even really willing. So are they suggesting extra marital affairs? if so what happens to the “Other Person” when they fall in love with the married person? Because that DOES happen. Or maybe casual encounters from a bar?

    If the people who believe this are suggesting people be more understanding of affairs that happen, maybe that is true but I still do not feel that is an excuse. Maybe we should stop seeing that 10 year marriage that brought two lovely children into the world as a failure. Maybe we need to seek other platonic friendships for some of our emotional support during long relationships. Maybe we need to lower the expectation that we should feel “fulfilled” by our relationships. It is after all the big picture that gives meaning to our lives. That experience of joy for our accomplishments, not day to day happiness that defines us.

    • Michelle Boyer Baker

      I understand your questions and hesitations… But none of that is the basis of consensual non-monogamy. Affairs, cheating, abandoning a relationship… None of that happens when the partners are honest with each other. Being non-monogamous doesn’t mean banging whomever you want whenever the urge strikes. Some times it doesn’t involve sex at all, as some people use it to get their emotional needs met.

      And although some people engaging in non-monogamy jokingly refer to themselves as sluts (read: The Ethical Slut), they are not whores. So no, no one is suggesting more prostitutes in the world–having sex does not make you a whore. Nor is anyone suggesting that the only way to be in a non-monogamous relationship is to take a sister wife. That’s be like saying all Christians end up like the nuts at the Westboro Baptist Church. There are those who engage in that, but they are a very small percentage and not at all indicative of the rest of the population.

      If either partner has another relationship, and just expects the other to be more understanding of it, then it’s not consensual, it’s not honest, and it’s not respectful–it’s blatant cheating by someone too lazy to try to hide it. And it’s wrong.

  • Deborah Rebisz

    This article reminds me of a life-altering realization I experienced in my mid-20s. After a series of broken engagements, I went on an 8-yr dating hiatus. My goal was to learn to rely upon myself for my own happiness. It took a lot of time and effort but result was rewarding. Expecting someone else to fill that spiritual, psychological, or emotional gap in my life was unrealistic, not to mention there was little chance of finding someone who could do all that. When you realize that you don’t need a man/woman to obtain your own happiness and fulfillment in life, you become a complete person. And you then have the freedom to share your life with someone you want, not someone you think you need.

  • Juanita Smith

    My fiancé and myself have both been married before. Both of us with similar issues and the length we went through to save our marriages. When it comes to our relationship we don’t focus on what we can get from the other partner, but what we can give. By doing this we both feel completely satisfied in ever part of our relationship. We talk all the time about what we enjoy from each other and our wants and desires. this doesn’t mean we are telling our partner we expect these things from each other. This just enlightens your partners so he/she knows what you would like to do or try. Men not women can not read minds. Open up and share. You might be surprised to find out you share a lot of the same thought. This doesn’t just apply to the intimate part of your relationship. Talking is the key. This doesn’t mean you telling him/ her what they’re doing wrong. Focus on what you love about him/her and tell them the good things. Good luck to you all.

  • Juanita Smith

    My fiancé and myself have both been married before and have had simular issues with our previous marriage and the lengths we went through to save our marriages. I am very confident in our future marriage to each other. We

  • James

    Notice it’s always the women they portray as Unhappy and Unsure ! Men feel the same but do not let those feeling take over their minds.

    • Christy

      It seems possible the allowance of our feelings to run our lives, or to be pushed to the back of the closet, exist on a spectrum. Each end of the spectrum causing its own problems. One could argue women are at one end and men at the other, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Perhaps we should all achieve the middle ground in this area before we consider marriage.

    • Souris

      Notice that you said “they portray.” It’s more that people don’t write articles about it because it’s culturally still not acceptable.

  • Annie Zirkel

    We do put too much on this one relationship to take care of so many of our needs. And having other outlets and connections are important, but they don’t have to be sexually intimate. Friends and family, others with similar interests, a community that supports you – these all take some of the pressure off your partner to ‘be everything’.

    Of course the point in the article about putting in the time is critical! Showing up and investing. ‘turning toward each other’ as Dr. John Gottman says. This and having reasonable expectations on top of a kind and loving heart that keep couples happy.

  • Tracy Shields

    I found that the secret to a wonderful happy marriage is to have minimal shared responsibilities or territory–like children or finances. Ours is a second marriage. We each have our own kids, our own jobs, our own money and came together with our own interests and hobbies that we didn’t give up. When couples remove the expectation of financial dependency, the need to be taken care of and any shared responsibility where either party might start keeping score, the underlying connection (if it’s built on shared values, good communication, kindness, respect, great sex doesn’t hurt either) can blossom.

    And about expectations…one of the greatest things I ever learned, later in life, was that you can and should have high expectations, but only from someone CAPABLE of meeting those expectations.

    • chitchens

      It’s interesting you suggest non-monogamy is a sign of the times. Polygamy has existed for millennia and the pursuit of partners outside of a marriage is probably as old as sex itself. I think the article touches on the somewhat unspoken desire to experience a different partner, no matter how willing you are to accommodate your spouse’s needs. I also think this desire is stronger in men than women. Talk to your husband about this area of your marriage. You may find his thoughts revealing.

  • Ross Shaw

    We are not lacking in time or energy to provide oxygen to the relationship. We are lazy, incompetent, selfish, mindless sycophants whose only goal is our own satisfaction. We need that greener gra….I mean cleaner, newer oxygen. Get it right man!

    Why struggle and put in time/energy when a newer model ca…babe…oxygen is right around the corner. Man can’t type at all today. :)

    *sarcasm intended—for the critical reader who may be impaired*

  • Swen.Ardere

    Polygamy is starting to look like a better alternative.

  • Ray Fischer

    How to make a woman happy:
    Be a friend, a lover, sympathetic, understanding, adventurous, safe, dangerous, exiting, secure, a good father, a good cook, a mechanic, an electrician, a spider killer, a dish washer, thoughtful, honest (but not too), encouraging, empowering …

    How to make a man happy:
    Show up naked.
    Bring beer.

    • chicory

      Ray Fischer, will you marry me?

      • Ray Fischer

        Sorry, I’m just about to enjoy by 21st anniversary

    • Jennifer Carter

      You have obviously never made a man happy.

      • Ray Fischer

        You’re quite right about that, but it still makes for a good joke

      • Ray Fischer

        No, but it’s still a good joke.

  • Alex DeLuna

    This issue hits the historical/biological/neurological nerve of pair bonding. It seems that our expectations of what marriage accomplishes should be balanced, rather than increasing the number of individuals who have very little chance of fulfilling psychological, emotional, and higher purpose desires. If anything, the increase of partners would just mimic the monogamous model, with their own short-term “honeymoon” phases being followed by the same unrealistic expectations that hamper monogamous marriages, probably with diminishing results. What seems to be unrealistic is not marriage, but something unbalanced about the people participating in marriage.

    Polygamy in the ancient past was based around attempts at increased reproduction in an environment that produced high mortality rates. It was not based upon being “fulfilled” in the modern sense. In fact, anthropologists note that in (at least patriarchal) polygamous marriages, there is typically a “head” wife or spouse, who is generally favorited anyways.

    I find that in scientific articles surrounding pair bonding and monogamy, there is far more data that suggests that sticking to the commitment and not relying on the spouse as the source of fulfillment is the healthiest model. I also notice that many contemporary opinions about marriage do not include the children, who benefit best from stable family dynamics. There are plenty of studies of children suffering emotionally, academically, and neurologically from a lack of contact with, or investment from, either their biological mother or father.

    The end goal of fulfillment is purpose. Specifically higher purpose. For 99% of history, the general purpose was pretty clear: stay alive until 30, raise as many children as possible, keep the community connected, and so forth. Higher purpose involved religion, science, faith, meditation, morality, and ethics. Marriage is not meant to be the purpose of one’s life. It is supposed to mark the transition from self-interest into being an adult who is responsible for another person’s life and having the honor of raising a child with him or her.

    If anything, a spouse should be a co-pilot in helping both people find and harness that sense of fulfillment. What fulfills a person will change over time. When I was 5 my fulfillment revolved around toys and love, when I was 15 my fulfillment revolved around understanding the world around me and fitting in, and at 25 my fulfillment revolves around spiritual happiness and working hard at my job. At 35, 45, 55, and so forth, what fulfills me is going to change. It would be insane to expect any girl to try and come close to being my purpose in life, and vice versa. Neither of us are God, and that’s a relief.

    Here is an interesting analogy. As I age and I lose the same sensitivity to, and happiness from, seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, or smelling, do I divorce myself from those senses? No. I regard these as worth the effort to either find a resolution to reigniting those senses or I learn to appreciate them as they are. Although we do not bicker, lie to, or hurt the feelings of our five senses, we do have a relationship with them where we take care of them and invest in them. In the same way, if we regard our spouses as worth the effort and focus more on investing in their fulfillment, rather than our own, we might find a much more satisfactory commitment being made. Who knows? We might even grow to really like the love of our lives all over again.

    • Achilles

      That was beautifully articulated.
      Thank you.

    • Dave Paisley

      That reply was about 100 times more insightful than the article.

    • C. S.

      Will you marry me?

    • Bill

      As someone who has moved into the world of polyamory, I must say that if you believe that non-monogamy merely mimics the monogamous model in a serialistic manner, you are incorrect. Totally and completely. But that is understandable, since to pontificate about what it is or isn’t is akin to making an educated guess as to what a plum might taste like if you have never experienced a plum.

      For the rest, and specifically with reference to the ideas of “pair-bonding”, I would refer you to the book “Sex at Dawn” or the other writings and seminars of Chris Ryan.

      There is more than one way to live, and while I have nothing against those who choose monogamy, that is but one path…

      • Souris

        Okay. I’m not AED, but that’s the pattern I see in the relationships of the polyamorous people around me. They get a new s.o. everything is sunshine and roses and they are obsessed with them while they seem to put their previous partners on hold… until they either drop the shiny new person completely or relegate them to the line of people waiting in the wings as they move on to a newer, shinier playmate.

        Maybe you and your relationships are more evolved, and congratulations if so, but AED isn’t “totally and completely” “incorrect,” just because his observations didn’t happen to apply to you.

        • Bill

          Yes, Souris, I suppose that is true – perhaps a bit too much to say “totally and completely incorrect”. I used that strong language in the same way someone might when addressing any sweeping stereotype or generalization. I can’t really argue with someone’s perceptions, but do feel the need to point out that one shouldn’t be too quick to generalize.

          And yes, new relationship energy exists and can influence a person’s behavior with regard to other partners. I have not witnessed in being done in such a serialized pattern as has been suggested, although it certainly could happen. There is a difference between what can happen, what does happen, and what must happen.

          Thank you for sharing.

        • Neesi Hansen

          I have been polyamorous in a 2 year relationship. The intent was to marry, and did not go through, which had nothing whatsoever to do with our sometime-polyamory, but rather some health issues I was going through. It was successful and happy and required a level of communication that brought us closer together. When we began living together, we became monogamous again, with the understanding we would open again our relationship in the future.

      • AED

        Dear Bill,

        Thank you for posting your comment! Obviously I am not terribly attached to non-monogamous models, thus my attention to them is not as acute. I do apologize for being reckless with my perception about polyamory, and after spending a small portion of time reading up on it, I would not mind reading your narrative about its methodology. Looking back, however, I think the main thrust of my point was guided toward the “fulfillment” aspect of the marriage article, and the effect of applying this need to increased individuals instead of increased implementation of higher purpose, rather than the pragmatic applications of the polyamorous model.

        Although I have not read Sex at Dawn, I have read plenty of professional comments, debates, and analyses about it. (Example: There is a rebuttal book, titled “Sex At Dusk,” which forms a counter-argument to Sex at Dawn, and has gained discussion as well. Dusk’s subtitle is cringeworthy for me, as I prefer subtle debate, but I find its points valid and very thought-provoking.

        I am still noticing that biological, evolutionary, and neurological data collected since the release of Dawn’s publication still links general human mating and pair bonding as being related to other monogamous mammals (such as This includes very similar neurochemicals that women’s brains experience in attachment with their child overlapping (in a non-creepy way) with the chemicals experienced with their spouse/partner attachment during mating, and men’s neurochemical reactions paralleling this pattern as well. In conjunction, there are early reports that male sperm counts diminish in the presence of raising a child, at least in the infancy stages (granted, correlation, not causation). I have the feeling that we both agree that the chemicals that arise during pair bonding/mating is important, but are in different philosophical camps on its general implementation and longevity.

        I will say that modern humanity is at an interesting crossroads on understanding itself on a biological/evolutionary level. For the overwhelming majority of human history, the life expectancy for a human being almost guaranteed that one’s mate would likely die before the age of 30. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that human beings do not have a permanent injection of dopamine, oxytocin, and other neurobiological chemicals to constantly reinforce pair bonding, as that would draw too heavily from nutritional intake for the resupply of those chemicals and exhaust an individual. Plus, it would enable an individual to eventually move on to another suitable mate after a period of grief, mourning, and emotional healing. I do not believe, however, that the diminishing of these neurochemicals signals a breaking up, and in fact may be an opportunity for fidelity to mature along different experiences and adventures that accompany longer life expectancies.

        I personally do not ascribe to an evolutionary paradigm as described in Dawn, as the neurological and biological data just does not add up for a pre-industrial, hyper-egalitarian paradigm. I do not think that this has much to do with academia being conservative from a Darwinian perspective, as plenty of researchers are attempting to go at this from neutral ground. The debate seems less to swirl around whether romance or enduring relationships are a reality, as they are seen near-universally across recorded human history, experience, and cultures (even in cultures that attempt the egalitarian model). The debate instead seems to focus on why human beings break from these pair bondings, and whether this is an evolutionary design or a moral choice.

        Obviously, I throw my lot in the latter camp. I think that moral choice accompanies the need for higher purpose and fulfillment, and that human beings definitely have the capacity to implement philosophies and decisions that are directly counter to their biological design. Infidelity, in my viewpoint, falls under that category, and from my understanding of the biological, emotional, psychological, and neurological aspects of humanity, is rather a decision of selfishness and lack of discipline instead of love, selflessness, or honor. I am assuming that under the polyamorous model, the aspect of fidelity encompasses a different meaning, thus I am limiting it in this case to monogamous (and even polygamous) unions.

        What I do appreciate from my preliminary research about polyamory is that there seems to be a huge emphasis on communication. Lack of communication appears to be the primary reason for divorce or adultery in Western society, followed by feelings of incompatibility and general unhappiness. As I have learned myself in relationships, and have been taught by people who have gone the distance in their marriages, is that communication is key! I think that the rise in divorce/infidelity in Western culture has less to do with being unburdened from a Dawn narrative of sexual repression and instead has to do with modern people being burdened with unrealistic and misinformed expectations about sex and marriage, which promotes distorted communication channels during romance and marriage/cohabitation.

        In conjunction, if I may assume beyond my experiences, that modern marriages neglect a vital aspect that has been the crux of human development and survival: community involvement. The phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is equally applicable to marital unions. Much of human history has been defined by extended families, close-knit communities, and the benefit of both individual and society. I am not advocating a rejection of Enlightenment inspired, individualistic philosophy, but it seems to me that the polyamorous model is attempting to bridge a gap that was automatically satisfied in human development and is less so today. Granted, it depends on the level of interaction of the individuals with one another and their children. I may be totally off base here, but at least I am trying to gain some understanding and insight about a model completely foreign to my own.

        I am all for increased communication and community involvement in the pursuit of a satisfying marriage model that fulfills both the general purposes of human beings and the achievement of long-term, higher purpose fulfillment.

        • Bill

          I appreciate your clarifying your perspective, AED. I would agree that regardless of one’s model, communication is essential. Another thing I have found in my poly experience is an emphasis on being aware of and mitigating selfish or self-centered behavior within one’s relationships. Of course, the discipline to consider the needs of someone else before your own benefits any relationship model.

  • stephanie

    This perspective has helped immensely in my relationship. What I still can’t figure out is if my sexual needs are not being met and I normally would choose to be monogamous, what options do I have for fulfilling these aspects of my life? I am happy with our relationship elsewhere, but it is clear that my husband finds it difficult to be truly intimate, despite the fact that we seldom fight and I no longer pester him about our very sporadic sex life. I no longer see this as a reflection of his overall view of me, but I do have the natural urges of anyone else. I want sex and sharing, and he just isn’t willing to give it up. Since, to me, this begs the question of what we actually do share, we have a deep sense of camaraderie and sharing life. We hang out a lot and enjoy each other’s company, but no sex and little talking.

    I don’t think this is going to change. We’ve done all the standard things for trying to mediate this issue (counseling, medical visits) and I don’t think he’s willing to truly explore the root of this issues honestly. So I need a solution. Do I just start “seeing” other guys, repress my sexuality and loneliness, or …..what? FYI, I don’t find solo work satisfying.

    • Tracy Shields

      It sounds like you married a friend, not a lover. And sex is a basic human need that should be expected in a marriage. You’re not asking for any big ticket item. Seeing other people won’t work. Even though that would be the liberal new agey thing to do it would also devastate your H. I would suggest writing out a list of your most important values and if sex is one of them then you need to consider if marriage to this person in particular is worth it. And remember to keep it in perspective. A lack of sex in a relationship is a biggie. It’s no small thing like, “My husband doesn’t do the dishes.” There’s not such a fine line between having your preferences met (I want a partner with blond hair who wears suits to work) versus having your core values met (I want a partner who does not neglect me). You have a lot to think about. Good luck!

      • Jessica Shier

        As an asexual woman I bristle at a view point that sexuality is somehow a universal big deal issue. Ever since puberty I never understood the fascination around me about sex. I was lucky growing up becasue my first boyfriend was also low or asexual and I had friends who also seemed low or asexual so I never felt odd, like my feelings were unnatural. Coming from one extreme of the spectrum it is very important to me that people understand Sexuality exists on this spectrum, needs, views and desires vary greatly between individuals. If I never had sex again I would go on to lead a happy complete life, and with a partner I could still feel like I had a completely happy and fulfilled relationship. Sex to me is something I do for my partner. He is a more sexual person and together we have to both compromise our needs in our relationship. Me to give something I don’t really understand or need to be happy and he has to understand that his sex life will never be as thrilling or frequent if he were to be with someone closer to him in sexuality. It’s important to both of us to ride this balance and communicate so we always have that understanding. I give some and he gives some so neither of us is necessarily satisfied entirely in this area but we both appreciate the other just the same. My advice is to try and understand and communicate with her partner more, and understand she may never have this area competently fulfilled for her, but that this is NOT as uncommon as some people think and this should not be a deal breaker if you can learn to express your love in other ways. Sorry if I sound preachy here. I just want to spread awareness that sexuality like every other aspect of personality varies person to person, and differences person to person should be expected, understood, and dealt with like other differences.

        • sjl4evr

          It’s not only that they are not having sex, it’s also that they are not talking. Translation: Her husband has a problem with physical and emotional intimacy, and part of that comes with sex. If she was content with just “getting one”, she could take care of it herself, but she states that they have done the usual methods to mediate this issue and he refuses to be honest and forthcoming in “working through it”. So the problem is not the lack of sex. That’s just the symptom.

          • Jessica Shier

            I agree, and my comment was not directed at the original poster it was directed at the reply, specifically “And sex is a basic human need that should be expected in a marriage.” My point is that the majority of people are sexual to some degree but it can very person to person and is not universal to everyone. I’ve been in a long term sexless relationship that was very meaningful and fulfilling to me (though it did eventually ended for other reasons). I absolutely agree that communication is the key between partners who are sexually mismatched. If a partner is not willing to talk about it it will likely erode the relationship, but if you can openly communicate and understand each other, and if you are not wildly miss matched I think you can find a compromise in your relationship that works, but yes communication, openness, and intimacy are key.

          • sjl4evr

            I can agree with your points here. To be honest, I have read some articles about asexuality and how asexual people manage romantic attachments in a world in which they are a clear minority. However, I have never known an asexual person, (or at least been close enough to someone to have knowledge of such), so I will have to defer to your expertise on the subject.

            I will say, however, that a lot of what people say to each other, especially in forums like this one, is incredibly dependent on how each participant is defining the words they are using. For instance, in my prior post, I mentioned how my boyfriend defined “sex” as “foreplay leading to intercourse” and felt that if intercourse was not going to be involved (because his knees/legs were hurting too bad for him to “do the deed”), there was no point in making the effort.

            I had to explain to him that my definition of “sex” was far more elaborate, from the physical intimacy of kissing and cuddling to the emotional intimacy of the whole encounter, from start to finish. Perhaps the person that you replied to was defining “sex” in a similar way. You yourself may not have a sexual libido, but if I might be so bold, you probably to like to at least be touched, caressed, and hugged (in non-erogenous zones and not for the purpose of leading to foreplay).

            Almost all humans need some type of caring physical contact with other humans. (Witness the “attachment disorder” problems of Eastern-European orphans who were warehoused in rows and rows of cribs and rarely held or comforted as infants, even for feeding purposes.) The physical contact, whether or not it is sexual, is what allows the emotional intimacy to happen, along with the communication and such that you have already described. That’s why I said that the OP’s “problem” of lack of sex was really the symptom of her husband’s refusal to be physically or emotionally intimate with her. Does this clarify my position?

        • chitchens

          I’m curious, Jessica, since your partner is more sexually oriented, how long will this compromise last? Has he talked about finding another person to address his sexual needs? Or would you turn the other cheek if he needed to fulfill those desires? My sense is that you may be underestimating the desire that many people, especially men, feel. If you two are truly happy with the arrangement, fantastic. But the “has to understand that his sex life will never be as thrilling” raises a major flag.

          • Jessica Shier

            Openness is important here. My sexual identity was never a secret. I communicated it with my partner from the start of our relationship and we continue to discuss periodically as any issues arise. We have created an intimate relationship that works for both of us, and we are both understanding of each others needs and desires. I am not going to say it is always simple, it takes work to make it work! It also helps that we are not wildly mismatched, if he was hyper sexual then I doubt our relationship would have made it this far. The most important thing is keeping the lines open and creating intimacy both sexually and in other ways. It’s possible to find a compromise that works.

    • subway2venus

      Nothing like fishing for a lover in the comments section of an online ar5icle.

    • sjl4evr

      If he is not willing to work on this problem, the situation will never change, which I’m sure that you know. You say that he “finds it difficult to be truly intimate” and that there is no sex and little talking. He has a wall around himself, and he is not going to let you or anyone else in. For you, it does not matter why his wall is there, just the fact that it is, because he is the only one who can break it down, and if he chooses not to, then he has shown you what is most important to him, and that is NOT you, your needs, or your marriage.

      Wanting sex is completely normal, not just for the sexual urges, but for the physical and emotional intimacy that comes with it. Any romantic relationship NEEDS that intimacy to survive, like the “oxygen” that the article talks about. Now, if you want sex every day, three times a day, without fail, and then get hurt or angry if he says “No”, then there might be a problem on your end. But that does not sound like what you have described.

      My boyfriend and I are kind of in the same boat. However, there are issues for both of us that limit our abilities to be sexually active. I am disabled and have mobility issues and chronic pain, so I am limited to one position and he must “do all the work”. We are in our 40′s and he has some physical issues also (arthritis), so sometimes that is hard for him. For a long time, he felt like if he couldn’t perform well enough to have intercourse, there was no point in trying.

      I explained to him that his issue was “a man thing” and that there was much more to sex than intercourse, and I needed for us to be sexually and emotionally intimate, even if intercourse was not involved. He is learning to accept that as we speak, but it is a process.

      The bottom line is this: If you are not having sex and you are not talking, you have no emotional intimacy in your relationship and every relationship needs to have emotional intimacy if it is to survive. Not only that, but asking for emotional intimacy is well within your rights as his lover/wife/partner. If he is not willing to work on it, then your only choice may be to file for divorce. I’m sorry.

    • brassyhub

      I feel for you Stephanie. I’m in the mirror position to you, and when I really pushed, my wife ‘came out’ to me as a lesbian after 33 years of marriage. I have some hope of change, and that we can stay together and make a new relationship work, but it took the nuclear shock of saying on our wedding anniversary that I wasn’t sure that there was going to be another one. A marriage/friendship is great, but not enough for most of us.

    • calesuar

      The trick or the problem which ever way you want to look at, is to marry someone who you are sexually attracted to and sexually compatible with (that is frequency, yes there is such a thing, not everyone is born to want sex twice a day, or once per month), as well as, compatible in the other core values of your particular life, that is generous, honest, sweet, hard working, good parent, loves animals, art etc, etc. Everyone is somewhat different in what they want to do in their life, so it makes sense one finds a partner with similar values and goals. He or she better meet 85% of your particular list you created before you settled for one. Do you have a list? Making a list of those unique values makes you also realize how little you know of what you even want for yourself, how do you expect to find someone you don’t even know you really want, or expect someone else to fulfill or know what you want if you don’t even know yourself for sure? It’s madness and unfair for your partner. It’s amazing how we expect the same results as someone who did wait to marry until such person met his/her list. It’s why divorce has the same percentage as randomness: 50%. Most of us indeed leave this most important task to chance, or gods, same thing.

  • I like Pie

    some people believe love is a noun, others an adjective -for me it’s always been a verb.

  • Eric

    I think the lessons here are clear – have fewer kids and work less.

  • Pitboy

    When a relationship is truly working towards what Finkel describes above ie:
    “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
    … and it is the ultimate goal of a spousal relationship in our modern world.

    Those who state the level of importance that their spouse has in their own life, and stop there, miss the essence of that statement. The truth is in our partners capability in recognizing that they provide clues towards our own self realization.
    That might sound singular and selfish, but it actually isn’t.

    Its about finally realizing that our own growth is primary, but when you combine that with the gratitude we feel, while sharing the journey with someone who is aware that they are on the same personal journey, you begin to see it as an extremely powerful experience and may seem nearly impossible to navigate … but it is not. It takes a sense of commitment towards not just the other person, but to the quest that you are on towards discovering who you are.

    The details of daily life may seem mundane in comparison, but they play a role by providing situations and circumstances to learn. The reward IS managing the trials and tribulations of life together. Marriage by historic definitions and expectations are not capable of sustaining a relationship on its own, it takes a far more massive amount of work than your average couple can even envision. This is why the paper referenced in this article recommends reevaluating the monogamous relationship: “one relationship is unlikely to meet all of the psychological needs”. I would agree, for most people. Its far more a task than most can handle.

    I am blessed and challenged in the relationship I am in, as it really does provide this journey, and I get to suffer the challenge of finding out who I am at a level far removed from the usual definitions. I dont need other intimate relationships to be satisfied, I have all I need.

  • Trav Kidd

    The biggest issue to most marriages is in fact having too high of expectations for the relationship and marriage as a whole. This is one area where it helps to ‘keep things simple’.

    I remember being in marriage counseling years ago and the psychologist told us that what he noticed from years of a therapist, was of exaggerated expectations by at least one partner in a marriage.

    He explained it pretty bluntly and with as much humor as he could by putting it this way: “You’ll generally ask a husband what it will take to be fulfilled by his wife as far as expectations go, and most men will jokingly say something to the effect of ‘if she shows up at the door naked holding a plate of dinner when I come home from work’, then my life’s expectations are likely fulfilled’. A little off-color humor maybe, but it humorously highlights that his list was very small in regards to changes or expectations for the marriage.

    The same psychologist would ask the wife what they would need from their spouses and he found that they typically had an entire laundry list of changes they wanted to make to their marriage or relationship–many of them expectations that would probably never be met because the demands were so unrealistic for the relationship.

    Again this is meant just an example, I’m not saying that women have higher expectations than men in relationships–as the road can go both ways, but instead rather to highlight that couples should re-assess their expectations to be more realistic for their specific marriage or relationship.

    • Angela

      TravKidd, you have hit the nail on the head here. But see, therein lies a big source of problems from the woman’s side, since she can now support herself quite well and often very comfortably. She asks herself, “What is the role of a husband in my life if I can tend to the lower echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy myself?” Many men have not caught on to the change in what constitutes a desirable mate, and still are thinking about it in the same terms they did in 1930.

      • Angela

        That said, when the kids come, emphasis goes back to the lower echelon, because having children often necessarily means a mother has not the luxury to think of the higher needs.

        • Chris Calfo

          Or vice versa. Currently my wife is going to school for her master’s degree. As such I am moving to more of a primary role in the household. Thats fine by me. I took off eight or nine weekends last year from work and it’s nice to be more involved than just increasing our bank account.

      • Trav Kidd


        It’s true, since the middle twentieth century the entire patriarchal system which has been in place for millennia has had a rude awakening of sorts as the pendulum of society in general has shifted it’s focus on the feminist aspect of ourselves.

        While there are many positives to come out of this, some of the negatives do warrant consideration:

        Over 50 percent divorce rate in U.S, some would say even as much as 66 percent. The good news is this has been going down the past few decades.

        This has also meant more single parents and latch-key children, along with a general ‘liberalizing’ of societal norms, values, or related morals of what exactly makes up a family unit. In essence, a large shift in perception of how we all relate to and value each other’s similarities, but also our differences.


        (1) PolitiFact New Jersey. “Steve Sweeney claims two-thirds of marriages end in divorce”. Truth-O-Meter. Retrieved February 27, 2012.

      • mcshez

        This has been on my mind lately, and my fiance and I have had some discussions about it. We already live together in my house (my mortgage, anyway) and we don’t want kids, so I’m not sure what would change if we do get married. Makes it difficult for me to go ahead with it, which I know breaks his heart, but I noticed that since he proposed 2 years ago I became more critical – asking myself each time I saw some less-than-desirable thing he did, “can I live with that for the rest of my life?” I see a lack of ambition, which means that for the rest of our lives I will carry the heavier financial burden. I see a lack of intimacy based on poor physical health, which means that at some point I will need to get my sexual needs met elsewhere (DIY is fine most of the time, but I frequently crave a physical connection), and that I will continue to feel like his mom as I urge him to take better care of himself, brush his teeth, etc. I see a lack of curiosity about the world, which means that when I want to travel, I will continue to go by myself or find someone else who wants to go too. Same with movies, museums, and that kind of thing.

        I do appreciate all that he DOES do for me/for us, but still question why getting married would improve anything about our lives and/or our relationship. I think I would feel stifled and trapped, but I think he would feel safer and more comfortable. I realize that therapy is probably in our near future, as we try to find out what makes sense for both of us.

        • McKenzie

          mcshez, you need to seriously reconsider your relationship if you already feel you’ll eventually need to get your sexual needs met elsewhere, and if you have to tell this person to brush their teeth. I think from your comment that it’s clear you’ve already made your decision, and in my mind, it’s a smart one.

  • dellacucinapovera

    very well articulated article. I fully believe that if psychological fulfillment isn’t coming from your partner, you should seek it yourself through personal activities ands (thats why we have them!) Less expectations from your partner mean higher opportunity for growth as a couple.

    • mcshez

      I wonder about this – if we have fewer expectations for a partner, at what point does it stop making sense to have one (or that one, anyway)? Not arguing with your point – it’s thought-provoking for me!

      • calesuar

        Right. So you find fulfilment by yourself, that is, learn to be happy by yourself. Once most of us are fulfilled or taken care of, it is when we are ready to share. When two people are at that stage, no fixing anyone here (that is, find someone who is already fixed ), the sharing with a special partner who attracts you physically, emotionally, intellectually and compatible in most of your core values, becomes greater than the sum, a new happiness you can’t achieve just by yourself. And the secret is that the most you focus your time and efforts sharing your happiness with that special person the greater, the deeper it becomes. Warning, the reverse is true also, so, if you want to experience “sharing” your love with more than one “special” person the more shallow the relationship gets overall. There seems to be a natural incentive to spend most of your time once you find that special person. It’s like being completely fed most of the time with the right amount of healthy nutritional meals but then you get to share this fresh, warm piece of chocolate mousse tort with another satisfied beautiful person across a little bistro table, soft music in the background, a warm spring time breeze brings to your nostrils a bit of the essence of his or her sex. OK, this is not the same as a craving from malnourishment as chugging down ice cream from a bucket while watching tv.

  • Amy Sylvester Peck

    Love is like an onion. Every layer is a little stinky and makes us cry. But what would life be without it? Bland. Lacking.

  • Richard A Hill

    It’s a commitment and you have to remember every day that your partner is so important to you. Whether you are consensually monogamous or not, it is so vital to repetitively remind your self of how little the little shit is and how important that woman or man is to you.
    My wife and I tell each other ‘I love you’ every day. more than once a day; not because we ‘should” and not because of rote, but because we want to remind, celebrate and express to ourselves and each other than we are the most important people in our lives.

  • Linda Morse

    Marriage is like life, filled with high mountains and broad valleys. Life has transitions, so does marriage. What you probably expect from and are willing to put into life, you also probably expect from and are willing to put into your marriage. It is all about choice, participation, serious effort, forgiveness (of yourself and your spouse) and attentiveness. Remember why you married. Don’t expect one person to be everything – can you be everything for anyone?

  • Vandermeer

    Ultimately, we are all alone! And at the same time… we are connected to every person and living thing … balancing the two is the ONLY ANSWER and it isn’t even an answer just a goal.