The Bar to Happiness in Marriage Is Reachable but Higher Than Ever

CHICAGO -- A happy marriage today requires more time and energy than many spouses are giving each other, but those couples that do make the investment are enjoying great payoffs, according to a new study presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Instead of seeking the security that was the primary goal of marriage during pre-industrial times, or the love and companionship that spouses began to expect in the 19th century, "increasingly what we've been looking for marriage to do in the last 50 years is to have somebody help us in our voyage of self-discovery," said Eli Finkel, who is a professor of social psychology and management and organizations at Northwestern University.

In successful 21st century marriages, spouses are helping each other to achieve professional and personal goals, and to become their "best selves," Finkel said.

The bar to marital satisfaction is high, however. "The best marriages today are flourishing more than the best marriages [of yesterday] but the average marriages are limping along," Finkel said, citing rising divorce rates and a decrease in satisfaction reported by married couples.

Providing the emotional and psychological support that is necessary for a thriving modern marriage takes concerted time and energy, and most spouses, preoccupied with the demands of work and parenting, are not putting in the effort, said Finkel.

In fact, Americans are, on average, spending less time alone with their spouses than they did several decades ago, according to Finkel.

Eli Finkel | Kathleen Dooher/Whitehead Institute

With colleagues at Northwestern and the University of Chicago, Finkel has written a review of the literature on marriage as published by a broad variety of psychologists, economists, historians, and other scientists. The article, which was released at the AAAS Annual Meeting, will be published in Psychological Inquiry later this year. Finkel spoke to reporters at the Annual Meeting during a news briefing on 13 February and is delivering a Topical Lecture entitled "The Suffocation of Marriage" at noon on Sunday, 16 February. (View a webcast of the news briefing.)

So what are couples with limited time and energy to do? If investing such support in one's partner is unrealistic, "it's sensible to be sober," Finkel said.  "All of us aren't going to be able to have the best possible marriage at all times." He suggested that couples temporarily agree to "dial back" and not expect this type of support until other life pressures ease up.