This article appeared in "The Atlantic"
We Expect Too Much From Our Romantic Partners
How marriage has changed in recent years, and why staying married has gotten harder.
by Olga Khazan
Tall, dark, handsome, funny, kind, great with kids, six-figure salary, a harsh but fair critic of my creative output ... the list of things people want from their spouses and partners has grown substantially in recent decades. So argues Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in his book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage.
As Finkel explains, it’s no longer enough for a modern marriage to simply provide a second pair of strong hands to help tend the homestead, or even just a nice-enough person who happens to be from the same neighborhood. Instead, people are increasingly seeking self-actualization within their marriages, expecting their partner to be all things to them. Unfortunately, that only seems to work if you’re an Olympic swimmer whose own husband is her brusque coach. Other couples might find that career-oriented criticism isn’t the best thing to hear from the father of your 4-year-old. Or, conversely, a violinist might simply have a hard time finding a skilled conductor—who also loves dogs and long walks on the beach—on Tinder.
I spoke with Finkel about how to balance this blend of expectations and challenges in a modern relationship. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: How has what we expect from our marriages changed since, say, 100 years ago?
Eli Finkel: The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.
Khazan: As in our spouse should, just to give a random example, provide interesting feedback on our articles that we’re writing?
Finkel: That’s obviously a white-collar variation on the theme, but I think up and down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it isn’t totally crazy these days to hear somebody say something like, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.”
Khazan: Why has that become something that we are just now concerned with? Why weren’t our great-grandparents concerned with that?
Finkel: The primary reason for this is cultural. In the 1960s, starting around that time, we rebelled as a society against the strict social rules of the 1950s. The idea that women were supposed to be nurturing but not particularly assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not particularly nurturing. There were relatively well-defined expectations for how people should behave, and in the 1960s, our society said, “To hell with that.”
Humanistic psychology got big. So these were ideas about human potential and the idea that we might strive to live a more authentic, true-to-the-self sort of life. Those ideas really emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, but they got big in the 1960s.
Khazan: You write about how this has actually been harder on lower-income Americans. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?
Finkel: People with college degrees are marrying more, their marriages are more satisfying, and they’re less likely to divorce. The debate surrounds [the question]: Why is it that people who have relatively little education and don’t earn very much money have marriages that, on average, are struggling more than those of us who have more education and more money?
There basically is no meaningful difference between the poorest members of our society and the wealthier members of our society in the instincts for what makes for a good marriage.
[However, lower-income people] have more stress in their lives, and so the things that they likely have to deal with, when they’re together, are stressful things and the extent to which the time they get together is free to focus on the relationship, to focus on interesting conversation, to focus on high-level goals is limited. It’s tainted by a sense of fatigue, by a sense of limited bandwidth because of dealing with everyday life.
Khazan: What is Mount Maslow? And can you try to reach the top of Mount Maslow and maintain a successful marriage?
Finkel: Most people depict Maslow’s hierarchy as a triangle, with physiological and safety needs at the bottom, love and belonging needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. It’s useful to reconceptualize Maslow’s hierarchy as a mountain.
So imagine that you’re trying to scale this major mountain, and you’re trying to meet your physiological and safety needs, and then when you have some success with that you move on to your love and belonging needs, and as you keep going up the mountain, you finally arrive at your self-actualization needs, and that’s where you’re focusing your attention.
As any mountain-climber knows, as you get to the top of a mountain the air gets thin, and so many people will bring supplemental oxygen. They try to make sure that while they’re up there at the top they have enough resources, literally in terms of things like oxygen and warm clothing, to make sure that they can actually enjoy the view from up there.
The analogy to marriage is for those of us who are trying to reach the peak, the summit of Mount Maslow where we can enjoy this extraordinary view. We can have this wonderful set of experiences with our spouse, a particularly satisfying marriage, but we can’t do it if we’re not spending the time and the emotional energy to understand each other and help promote each other’s personal growth.
The idea of the book is that the changing nature of our expectations of marriage have made more marriages fall short of expectations, and therefore disappoint us. But they have put within reach the fulfillment of a new set of goals that people weren’t even trying to achieve before. It’s the fulfillment of those goals that makes marriage particularly satisfying.
Khazan: Is it risky to have your closest partner also be your harshest critic, so that you can grow?
Finkel: My New York Times op-ed piece focused on the challenges of having a partner who’s simultaneously responsible for making us feel loved, and sexy, and competent, but also ambitious, and hungry, and aspirational. How do you make somebody feel safe, and loved, and beautiful without making him or her feel complacent? How do you make somebody feel energetic, and hungry, and eager to work hard without making them feel like you disapprove of the person they currently are?
The answer to that question is, it depends.
You can do it within a given marriage, but they should be aware that that is what they’re asking the partner to do. They should be aware that in some sense, the pursuit of those goals are incompatible and they need to be developing a way of connecting together that can make it possible.
For example, you might try to provide support that sounds more like this: “I’m just so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and I’m so proud that you’re never fully satisfied with it, and you’re just so impressive in how you constantly and relentlessly work toward improving yourself.” That can convey a sense that I approve of you, but I recognize what your aspirations are. Right?
[What’s more], there’s no reason why it has to be the same person who plays both of those roles. I would just urge everybody, think about what you’re looking for from this one relationship and decide, are these expectations realistic in light of who I am, who my partner is, what the dynamics that we have together are? If so, how are we going to achieve all of these things together? Or alternatively, how can we relinquish some of these roles that we play in each others’ lives, and outsource them to, say, another member of your social network?
Khazan: That’s the idea of having a diversified social portfolio, right? Can you explain how that would work?
Finkel: There’s a cool study by Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University, where she looked at the extent to which people look to a very small number of people to help them manage their emotions versus an array of different people, to manage different sorts of emotions. So, one person for cheering up sadness, another person for celebrating happiness, and so forth.
It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.
I think most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship. I’m not saying that people need to lower their expectations, but it is probably a bad plan to throw all of these expectations on the one relationship and then try to do it on the cheap. That is, to treat time with your spouse as something you try to fit in after you’ve attended to the kids, and after you’ve just finished this one last thing for work. Real, attentive time for our spouse is something that we often don’t schedule, or we schedule insufficient time for it.
Khazan: What is climbing down from the mountain? Should we try to do that?
Finkel: There’s the recalibration strategy, which is fixing an imbalance, not by increasing the investment in the marriage, but by decreasing the amount that we’re asking or demanding of the marriage.
There’s no shame at all in thinking of ways that you can ask less. That’s not settling, and that’s not making the marriage worse. It’s saying, look, “These are things I’ve been asking of the marriage that have been a little bit disappointing to me. These are things that I’m going to be able to get from the marriage but frankly, given what I understand about my partner, myself, and the way the two of us relate, it’s just going to be a lot of work to be able to achieve those things through the marriage.”
Khazan: So what is “going all-in,” and what are the risks and rewards of that?
Finkel: The question isn’t, “Are you asking too much?” The question is, “Are you asking the appropriate amount, in light of the nature of the relationship right now?” The idea of “going all-in” is, “Hell yes. I want to ask my spouse to help make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to love somebody else and also [be] somebody who’s going to help me grow into an ideal, authentic version of myself. And I’m going do the same for him or her. I recognize that that is a massive ask, and because I recognize that that’s a massive ask I’m going to make sure that we have sufficient time together. That when we’re together we’re paying sufficient attention to each other, that the time that we’re investing in the relationship is well-spent.”
Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
From BrainWorld Magazine:
The Divided Brain: An Interview with
Dr. Iain McGilchrist
December 23, 2018
by Margaret Emory
How many times have you been told, “Oh you’re such a left-brain person,” meaning you think logically, are good with numbers, very analytical, and so on? And upon hearing that summation, you long for the right brain’s creative, intuitive, artistic complements. Why can’t they be part of the equation, you wonder.
We used to believe the two parts of the brain work in harmony, but according to London psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, there’s a definite shift in our modern culture which favors left-brain dominance — and it’s something we ought to watch out for and correct. In “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,” McGilchrist discusses the hemispheres and their different “personalities,” and then shows a sweeping dissertation on the history of Western civilization as seen from the context of the divided brain.
McGilchrist came to medicine later in life, following a distinguished career in academia. He is interested in a variety of psychiatric conditions, as well as neuropsychiatry. He also has a busy practice as a medico-legal expert and writes for numerous publications.
He named “The Master and His Emissary” after a parable that Friedrich Nietzsche told about a wise spiritual master who ruled a small but prosperous domain, who grew the land and appointed emissaries, one of which began to see himself as the master and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. The emissary saw his master’s self-control and restraint as weakness, and usurped his master, creating a tyranny, and bringing the land to ruin.
McGilchrist likens the right and left hemispheres of the human brain to the master and the emissary of this story, respectively. McGilchrist weaves this cautionary tale to show that while the cerebral hemispheres should cooperate with one another, they have been in conflict for some time, with our current civilization in the hands of the emissary who, although gifted in many ways, functions as “an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart.”
Brain World: Can you describe the process of how the different brain hemispheres interact?
Iain McGilchrist: The theory that two hemispheres have differences comes from a simple Darwinian point: In order to survive, we need to be able to do two things at once. We need to be able to be busily focused on something that we’ve prioritized, like the bird needing to focus on picking up a twig to build a nest. At the same time, if it’s going to survive, the bird also needs a wide-open attention, looking out essentially for predators, not just in a threatening way, but also for its fellow creatures; indeed, for its mate.
Those two ways have somehow to be combined. And yet, if you look very narrowly at something and bring it into sharp focus in the middle of your vision, it’s very different from the contextual penumbra of other experiences — intuitively based, body-based, ancient, and gathered from a synthesis of all your experience, which you also bring to bear on the whole picture. Both have to be there, too.
That’s why I think the two hemispheres have evolved in this way. They need, to some extent, to be kept apart, because you can’t really do both things at once. The two hemispheres are connected by a bridge of tissue called the corpus callosum, which is commonly thought of as the thing that communicates between the hemispheres. It does. Although a lot of the communication is activating in its original sense — the nerves are stimulating something to happen — what they’re often stimulating to happen is in fact an inhibition. So their ultimate aim in a majority of cases is not to make something happen in the other hemisphere, but to stop something from happening there. And by filtering like this, things come into existence.
BW: You believe the left brain has been gaining control over the course of human evolution. How did this come about?
IM: I think an aspect of being a conscious being is that you are aware that you can become powerful by manipulation. Other creatures, of course, are competing and manipulating, but they’re probably not aware of the fact that this is a way of becoming powerful — that it seems to work well for a lot of the things that one does as one grows a civilization.
One needs to build structures by putting brick upon brick, or stone on stone. One needs to create drainage and irrigation and so on. One creates these things that seem to make life simpler, easier, and better and make you more powerful. It’s enticing, and you can soon begin to think that everything works like this. Everything in your world seems to break down into a lot of machines that we’ve created. While this is a very interesting way of looking at things, it’s basically a practical tool for getting ahead. It’s not really a very good instrument for epistemology or for ontology — for finding out actually what the world is and how we know about it. It can lead us to narrow down the way we think about things to a merely rationalistic set of propositions, a series of algorithms.
BW: What are the effects of the left brain taking over?
IM: One of the interesting elements that comes out in research into the “personalities” or the “takes” of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. It overvalues its own ability. It takes us away from the presence of things in all their rich complexity to a useful representation — that representation is always much simpler. And an awful lot is lost in it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to simplify. For example, if you’re designing a building, or if you’re fighting a campaign, you need a map, a scheme. You don’t really need all the richness of what would be there in the real world. But I’m afraid that that representation moves into a world where we have the ability constantly to interact with the world only as a representation, over a screen.
Even Facebook and social networking may look like you suddenly have loads of friends, but what it may actually do is take you away from your real-life friends so that your life is more crowded and there’s less time, actually, to be aware peacefully of the world around you and to interact socially — a word that used to mean “with your fellow creatures.”
BW: What can we do about this?
IM: People often ask me this question. I think they’re rather hoping I’ll give them a list of bullet points — “The 12 Things You Need” — like a best-selling paperback. That is really a perfect example of the left hemisphere. “Okay. Fix it by having a little plan. We do this, we do that, and bingo!” But in fact, what I have tried to convey throughout the entire book is that the world, as it is, has its own shape, value, meaning and so on, and that we crowd it out with our own plans, thoughts and beliefs, which are going to be narrow.
A wise thing to do would be not to do certain things. Another theme of my book is that negation is creative. That by having less of something, more comes into being. So actually what we need to do is not create a world. We need to stop doing lots of things and allow the wonderful thing that is already there to evolve, to give it room to grow. That’s also true of a single human mind.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.