What Marriage Is Becoming

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.   

What Marriage Is Becoming

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.

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Great tweet of the week:

We came back from the brink of divorce and are BEST friends today. If God did that for us, He can certainly do it for you too!@SongSix3

Links to blog posts that stood out to me this last week:

Gary Thomas

The Bubble Busting Spouse ◄ No matter who messed things up, both spouses need to work on being better.

The Generous Wife

Take A Technology Break ◄ Yes, you!
His Dream Job ◄ Applies to women too.

Heaven Made Marriage

Choose the Road Less Traveled ◄ You have a choice – choose well!

Intimacy in Marriage

Sex as Stress Relief? It’s Like Exercising Naked, Right? ◄ Sacrifice for her needs!
Finding Lost Diamonds. And the Elusive G-Spot! ◄ A G-spot road map.

Kevin A Thompson

5 Acts of Kindness to Add to Your Marriage ◄ Because EVERY marriage could use more kindness.

7 Comments on “What Marriage Is Becoming

  1. Very good as always, Paul. Thank you.

    I think Finkel’s “all in” message is good, but what really concerns me about Finkel’s historical “stages” of marriage (or of marriages) is that none of them, even the older forms, seem tied *explicitly* to those things called children.

    In the real world, either children remain a concern–and, then, the “evolution” of marriage forms is not really as absolute as the schema purports; OR, we are actually working along (or developing) an anti-natal model of society that Finkel is just uncritically chronicling.

    In other words: sure, we are moving into an personal growth model of marriage–if we are really willing to remove children from our consciousness.

    Do you have any thoughts on this? Again, many thanks for your strenuous labors.

    • @Min – I would agree Finkel is for the most part chronicling – which is useful for me.

      I hear what you are saying about children, and there is some truth there. But I think the same change can and is happening with couples who have children as well. It means parenting differently, but I’ve seen some who have used this as an opportunity to parent better. (And I’ve seen those who failed as parents too.)

      Another part of it is that the child raising years are a smaller part of most couple’s lives than was once true. If you have two or three children a couple of years apart you have 20-25 years from birth to they are all on their own. That leaves a whole lot of time before and/or after kids for the couple.

      I do see couples getting married who say they don’t intend to have children. I have my concerns about that (although I think God does call a limited number of couples to this) but I’d impressive they still want to be married even without kids being part of their assumed future.

  2. I’m not well-versed on Finkel’s work, but while I found myself agreeing with his general idea about survival vs fulfillment, I wondered if some might take the pendulum swing too far. That is, if you put all or most of your personal fulfillment eggs in this basket, isn’t that more than God intended? Those who expect to find fulfillment in marriage are sometimes putting too much pressure on a single relationship (e.g., “he completes me”). Don’t we gain from having other institutions and relationships adding to our quality of life?

    Curious what you think, Paul!

    • @J. Parker – I had the same thought. Finkel does address the too much issue, but not God’s place, with a few suggestions. In short you either expect less or you are very clear with your spouse about what you expect.
      I’m going to follow up on this next Sunday, and perhaps the one after that.

  3. I don’t know that I fully see the point in traditional marriage without children. If you aren’t going to have kids, what is the point? My wife and I, who are in a pretty happy fulfilling marriage, both say that if our union were to end for some reason, neither of us see any real point in getting married again….especially because neither of us would want more children.

    • @mykidsmademedoit – I can understand your point, but I don’t share it.

      For me marriage is about two people sharing their life. For most that includes a desire to have children together. I see that as another way of sharing life together. The children are born of the marriage as it were.

      So for me not being able to have children would in no way change my desire to be married.

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