We all know the saying ‘marriage takes work.’ But according to a newly published paper, “The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage in America Is Becoming an All-or-Nothing Institution,” the average marriage requires more hard work than ever before. Why? Well, in part, we’ve all become too needy.
While we may consider it the norm to demand our spouses be “our other half,” this wasn’t always the case. Marriages have shifted in their fundamental purpose, beginning as a way to meet physiological and safety needs (like food production, shelter, economic security, and protection from violence), and evolving into a way to meet needs for love, sexual intimacy, and belonging. Today, we actually expect our spouses to help meet our deepest psychological needs for self-actualization (if you recall Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from that Intro to Psych class, that’s the highest level—no pressure, right?).
In other words, rather than just expecting love, trust, or intimacy, we now look to our marriages to fulfill needs like self-esteem, self-expression, and personal growth. And those needs require a whole lot of extra time and energy to achieve. The only problem? We’re actually investing less time and energy in our marriages than ever before.
The amount of time that childless Americans spent alone with their spouse declined from 35 to 26 hours per week from 1975 to 2003, according to the study authors, with much of this decline resulting from an increase in time spent working. And for those with children, the amount of time spent alone shifted from 13 to 9 hours per week, thanks to an increase in time-intensive parenting.
The combination of investing less in our marriages but demanding more than ever from our partners means that the average marriage has become way less satisfying compared to those in earlier eras. Silver lining: The marriages that do succeed in meeting our lofty needs are particularly fulfilling, the paper concludes. In fact, the best marriages today are more satisfying than the best marriages of our grandparents’ generation.
How can we make sure we fall into the latter category? According to lead study author and Northwestern psychology professor Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., it isn’t necessarily wrong to expect our spouse to be our best friend, but we could stand to be a bit choosier with our demands. “I would encourage people to select those qualities that are especially important to them in the marriage, and then be flexible about everything else,” he says. “Is sexual monogamy crucial? Best friendship? Successful co-parenting? Emotional security? It’s a big risk to ask one person to satisfy virtually all of you major psychological needs, so figuring out which ones are especially important to fulfill via this particular relationship is wise.”
So yes, a satisfying marriage that meets our deepest needs is still very possible, it just requires putting in the extra work. The other option? Adjust your expectations. In the meantime, check out the 8 Relationship Checks All Couples Should Have for a Healthy Love Life and these 5 Relationship Tips from Divorce Experts.