Happy Valentine’s Day!

roseThe Suffocation of Marriage” doesn’t sound terribly romantic or upbeat. Yet a new research paper—issued just in time for Valentine’s Day—isn’t nearly as negative as its title suggests.

Actually, the full title of the paper by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago is “The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without Enough Oxygen.” Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who explored how people seek to fulfill a hierarchy of needs. Lead author Eli Finkel presented the researchers’ findings at a briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago today.

The institution of marriage in America has gone through three distinct phases, say the study authors. In each phase, partners have sought to fulfill different needs through marriage.

The first phase focused on subsistence. During America’s early years, you’d look for a partner who could help meet your basic needs for food, safety, and shelter. “The idea of marrying for love seemed a little ludicrous at the time,” says Finkel. If you wound up liking or even loving your spouse, that was great. But that wasn’t the main goal, he says.

Starting around 1850, companionship became the top focus in marriage. “That model stayed dominant for probably over 100 years,” notes Finkel.

Now marriage in America is patterned on a “self-expression model.” People still want a mate who can provide for basic needs and be a companion. Beyond that, we want “someone to help us on our voyage of self-discovery,” says Finkel, so we can “become the ideal version of ourselves.”

So, where does suffocation come in? Well, helping your mate become the best he or she can be takes time and effort. You have to get to know and understand your partner, and you need to invest part of yourself in traveling that road of self-discovery together. Unfortunately, the amount of time people are investing in their marriage has been declining.

“People are spending less and less time than in the past alone with our spouse,” says Finkel. And that’s taking a toll. The divorce rate among Americans is up, especially among less-educated Americans. In other words, Finkel and his colleagues suggest, people aren’t investing the time and resources to meet the expectations we now place on marriage.

Having insight into the problem offers strategies for avoiding such suffocation. First, couples can make a conscious effort to invest more time in their marriage.

Second, couples can reevaluate how they use that time. Instead of watching reruns on old sitcoms, perhaps they can do something that involves more direct communication and personal sharing. “Most people have some amount of freedom to use the limited amount of time with their spouse a little more productively,” notes Finkel.

And if someone really doesn’t have that time, Finkel says it’s sensible to recognize the limits and address them. “All of us aren’t going to be able to have the best possible marriage at all times,” he says. For those periods, he suggests, couples can temporarily dial back their expectations. “Let’s be realistic,” he suggests. Communicate about the issues, cope with the present, and work towards a better future.

Ultimately, Finkel says he’s optimistic about this era of marriage. “The best marriages today are flourishing more than the best marriages in earlier years.” The trick is finding the time and committing the resources to really understand your spouse.

So, go ahead and celebrate Valentine’s Day this February 14. If you’re married, though, don’t stop there. Aim to celebrate at least a little bit every day with your spouse. Then your love story doesn’t have to end.


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