I’ve been writing a lot about marriage and relationships lately, mostly because it’s an endlessly fascinating subject to me. Healthy marriages are a mystery to me. I can see seemingly perfect fits — the same race, class, and culture are in line — and see those relationships end in disaster. On the other end, I’ve seen the opposite turn into healthy, loving marriages.
As I wrote about in past blog posts, two important keys to a healthy marriage are embracing change in your marriage and kindness. But I read another piece on the New York Times called, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” that adds another piece of data to what makes a healthy marriage.
The article wisely gives much-needed context on the history of marriage in the United States and how its expectations have changed,
In the era of the companionate marriage, from roughly 1850 until 1965, American marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life. This era overlapped with the shift from rural to urban life. Men increasingly engaged in wage labor outside of the home, which amplified the extent to which the two sexes occupied distinct social spheres. As the nation became wealthier and its social institutions became stronger, Americans had the luxury of looking to marriage primarily for love and companionship.
Since around 1965, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment. “You make me want to be a better man,” from the 1997 movie “As Good as It Gets,” could serve as this era’s marriage ideal. In the words of the sociologist Robert N. Bellah, love has become, in good part, “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”
The great shift to self-expressive marriage has, like a lot of things in modern America, been useful for those in higher socioeconomic brackets.
One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference
Socioeconomics and Marriage
What’s driving the big difference between the poor and wealthy? The problem isn’t that the poor don’t know what a good marriage is or anything like that. The problem, as it always seems to be, is political. To put in bluntly, if you have more money, you have more time to spend together in leisure and with friends and have less stress around factors like unemployment or juggling multiple jobs.
And In New York City, I’ve seen this dynamic play out not only in poorer families but in middle-class families too. The reason is that New York City is so expensive and our jobs are so demanding that so much of a New Yorker’s time and stress is devoted to working and keeping one’s family afloat. And this has consequences for the family unit.
The solution, like a lot of things, is two-fold, external and internal. On the one hand, “government actions that reduce inequality and family-friendly work policies like on-site child care are likely to help strengthen marriage.” But that seems like less likely in today’s political climate.
On the other hand, a couple can try and do some very real things to help improve the relationship such as,
“First and foremost, couples can choose to invest more time and energy in their marriage, perhaps by altering how they use whatever shared leisure time is available. But if couples lack the time and energy, they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.”
Whatever the solution is, it’s clear that what makes a modern marriage healthy is more complicated than its ever been.