When Did Marriage Become So Hard? | Hidden Brain Marriage is hard — and there are signs it's become even harder in recent decades. We examine how long-term relationships have changed, and whether we might improve marriage by asking less of it.

When Did Marriage Become So Hard?

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: No matter how many you've been to, it's hard to shake the contagious optimism of weddings. Couples vow to love one another in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer. Family members dab tears from their eyes, agreeing that these two people are meant to be together forever.

But so many marriages become unhappy. Some dissolve. Some end in divorce. And even the successful ones aren't without challenges. No one would deny that long-term relationships are hard. And in fact, there's evidence they're getting harder. Why is that? This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we'll take a closer look at the history of marriage.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Most of what we think of as traditional marriage was not traditional at all but a rather recent invention.

VEDANTAM: We'll also explore the radically higher expectations we have for marriage today.

ELI FINKEL: Lots of people argue that having these high expectations is problematic and it's harming the institution of marriage. And frankly, among the people who used to argue that is myself.

VEDANTAM: And we'll discuss ways to improve our love lives sometimes by asking more of our partners and of ourselves, sometimes by asking less.


VEDANTAM: To understand marriage today, we thought it best to go back to a time and place when marriage was very different.

COONTZ: Well, I've been studying the history of family life for many, many years, but I specifically got interested in marriage as we got into these debates about what traditional marriage was.

VEDANTAM: That's Stephanie Coontz. She's a professor at The Evergreen State College and the author of the book "Marriage, A History." Stephanie says the earliest marriages had nothing to do with the feelings of two people or their attraction to one another. As you probably know, marriage was much more about economics and acquiring powerful in-laws.

COONTZ: Marriage originally arose in more egalitarian band-level societies as a way of sharing resources and establishing peaceful relations with groups that you might otherwise only see occasionally and you might not know if they were going to be friends or enemies. It was a way of circulating obligations and goods. I marry my child off to you, and that means you owe me things, but I also owe you things.

VEDANTAM: Stephanie brought up a famous example from history - the union between Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Antony of Rome.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Siren of the Nile.

VEDANTAM: This is from a 1963 film version.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Richard Burton as Mark Antony, rash, impetuous leader of once-invincible legion, dreaded adversary on the field of battle.

VEDANTAM: The Hollywood version of this story portrays Cleopatra and Antony as being very much in love, but Stephanie paints a slightly different picture.

COONTZ: I think that the theme song for that relationship could have been "What's Love Got To Do With It."


TINA TURNER: (Singing) What's love got to do, got to do with it?

COONTZ: There may have been passion, but it was more passion for power than sexual, although sexual probably entered into it, too.

VEDANTAM: Cleopatra and Antony's marriage was primarily about strategy.

COONTZ: Rome and Egypt were the two most powerful empires in the world, so getting them - anybody who got them together and got an alliance between them would be unstoppable.

VEDANTAM: The story goes that Cleopatra was married to her brother. And without getting into all the details, let's just say she wasn't too happy with that, so she started an affair with Julius Caesar, the ruler of Rome. Cleopatra became pregnant. When the baby was born, he was named Caesarion. The child gave Cleopatra and Caesar a claim to each other's throne. It was something they both desperately wanted - sounds like an episode of "Game Of Thrones," right?

COONTZ: Well, then Caesar died, and Mark Antony came along. And of course the story tells that she seduced him. But you know, when you really look at what was happening practically, this was another political alliance.


ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) First, as did Caesar, you will marry me according to Egyptian ritual.

RICHARD BURTON: (As Mark Antony) That's not a condition. That's a reward.

TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) You will declare by your authority Caesarion to be king of Egypt, and we will rule together in his name.

COONTZ: Caesarion was too young to rule, and Antony could rule in his place, so it was a great big political alliance just like "Game Of Thrones."

VEDANTAM: This marriage strategy wasn't just for kings and queens. There's a common misconception that people of lower classes in this time married for love - not true, Stephanie says.

COONTZ: You couldn't run a farm with one person. You couldn't run a bakery with one person. So people who were bakers married other bakers. If you were a peasant, you wanted somebody who had a good reputation as a hard worker, and that was much more important than this - frivolous luxury is the way it was really thought of - as how attracted you were to the person.

VEDANTAM: A different idea started to become more common in the 1700s and 1800s. Jane Austen, the famous novelist, may well have been the trailblazer. For those who don't remember the plot of her book "Pride And Prejudice," Mr. Darcy, who has been promised in marriage to his wealthy cousin, falls instead for Elizabeth Bennet, a woman of modest means, and that throws his aunt into a rage.


JUDI DENCH: (As Lady Catherine) Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Elizabeth Bennet) Only this - if that is the case, you can have no reason to suppose he would make an offer to me.

DENCH: (As Lady Catherine) You selfish girl. This union has been planned since their infancy. Do you think it can be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth? Heaven and Earth, are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted? Now, tell me once and for all, are you engaged to him?

KNIGHTLEY: (As Elizabeth Bennet) I am not.

VEDANTAM: So Stephanie, talk about this. This is the first glimmers, if you will, of the idea that in some ways love was coming to conquer marriage.

COONTZ: This clip you used is perfect because it illustrates the fact that men found it easier to embrace the love match (laughter) than women did. Men could marry down because they could go out and earn wages. Women had to be very, very cautious. You know, you could say my heart inclines to Harry, but, you know, I'd better marry who my parents want me to and the person who is most likely to be able to support me. And so there was a long period of time where men actually were more romantic than women in the courtship arena.

VEDANTAM: By the second half of the 19th century, the Jane Austen model of marriage had taken firm hold in the United States. The idea of marrying for anything other than love came to be seen as old-fashioned. And with the rise of this new idea came another - if marriage was once seen as a partnership between people from similar backgrounds and similar social classes, the new model of marriage began to celebrate the coming together of people who were supposedly radically different from one another.

COONTZ: And you got this new theory that love was a union of opposites. Now this idea came that men and women were totally different, and you could only have access to the emotions, resources, abilities of the other by getting married and staying married. You were incomplete without it.

VEDANTAM: In practice, this dovetailed with a changing economic landscape in the country where men increasingly became the breadwinners and women became homemakers.


VEDANTAM: The 1950s sitcom "Leave It To Beaver" makes clear there's division between male and female roles.


TONY DOW: (As Wally Cleaver) Whenever we cook inside, Mom always does the cooking. But whenever we cook outside, you always do it. How come?

HUGH BEAUMONT: (As Ward Cleaver) Oh, it's sort of traditional, I guess. You know, they say a woman's place is in the home. And I suppose as long as she's in the home, she might as well be in the kitchen.

DOW: (As Wally Cleaver) Oh. Well, that explains about Mom, but how come you always do the outside cooking?

BEAUMONT: (As Ward Cleaver) Well, I'll tell you, son. Women do all right when they have all the modern conveniences, but us men are better at this rugged type of outdoor cooking - sort of a throwback to caveman days.

VEDANTAM: Talk to me about this idea, Stephanie. So clearly, gender biases played a role in how we came to think about marriage.

COONTZ: Well, absolutely, but what's interesting about this clip is that the concept of the male breadwinner was unknown before the 19th century. Women worked in the home but so did men. And men didn't go out and bring home the bacon. Women helped raise the pig. Maybe the man butchered it, but the woman often cured the bacon and took the bacon to market. So again, this was part of this new idea of love that I talked about earlier, the idea that men and women were so different that the man had to do all the outside stuff because the woman couldn't do it, and the woman had to do all the inside stuff because the man couldn't do it and wasn't supposed to do it.

VEDANTAM: The idea of the love match may have been controversial at first. But when concerns were raised about how people from different backgrounds would stay together when they didn't have the bond of shared work or the larger framework of a shared community, advocates for love marriage said men and women would stay together because they needed one another to feel psychologically complete. This theory was later appropriated in romantic stories and movies. Think of the saying opposites attract. But as the divorce rate in America surged in the 1970s and '80s, many started to think that what you should look for in a mate was not your opposite but someone who shared your interests and values. It wasn't quite the same as one baker looking to marry another baker but more along the lines of people marrying others with similar educational backgrounds and similar cultural and political attitudes.

COONTZ: You know, it's important to understand that love itself, the definition, has changed. It's different today than it was at the beginning of the love match when it was a union of opposites. And today, it's really like a union of people who share so many values. And that's one of the big challenges of love today because we spent a hundred years trying to get people to see difference as erotic and the source of love. And now, our big challenge is how do we make equality erotic?


VEDANTAM: How do you make equality erotic? Where's the sizzle in consensus and compromise, in child care pickups and doctor's appointments, in a lifestyle symbolized by a Honda Civic rather than a flashy Ferrari? When we come back, we'll answer that question.


VEDANTAM: We've been talking with historian Stephanie Coontz about how marriage changed from an institution that was primarily about economic partnerships and political expedience to one based on romantic love. Once this shift took hold in the United States over the course of the 19th century, love marriages became the norm. Soon, everyone wanted to know the secrets of making love last. You've seen those documentaries and news stories about elderly couples who have managed to stay together for most of their lives.


DUNCAN KENNEDY: The newest members of a very elite club, Helen and Maurice Kaye, 101 and 102 years old, celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary.

OPRAH WINFREY: Meet Milt and Leona, sweethearts for life.

LEONA RAMOY: We've married 60 years - 60 beautiful years. When people ask me, how long have you been married, I truthfully say not long enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A heart-warming documentary about the life of a couple that has been together for three quarters of a century - 75 years.

VEDANTAM: There's something that those stories don't tell you. Social psychologist Eli Finkel at Northwestern University has studied the psychological effects of the historical changes that Stephanie has documented. Eli is the author of "The All-Or-Nothing Marriage," and he has a very dramatic term for the challenge that many couples face today. Modern marriage, he says, runs the risk of suffocation. To understand that term, Eli says you have to look at yet another shift that started in the 1960s and '70s.

FINKEL: We wanted to complement our emphasis on love - achieving love through marriage - with a new emphasis on achieving a sense of personal fulfillment in the way of personal growth. So in the terminology of psychology, we wanted to self-actualize through our marriage. We wanted to grow into a more authentic version of ourselves.

VEDANTAM: One example of this comes from the best-selling book by Elizabeth Gilbert about walking out on her husband and trying to create a more meaningful life for herself. We're going to play a few clips from the movies as we chat, and this one comes from the movie "Eat Pray Love," featuring Julia Roberts.


JULIA ROBERTS: (As Elizabeth Gilbert) We'd only bought this house a year ago. Hadn't I wanted this? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life. So why didn't I see myself in any of it? The only thing more impossible than staying was leaving.

VEDANTAM: It sounds like she was searching for her true self, Eli.

FINKEL: Yeah, that's exactly right. She, in some sense, helps to epitomize both the strengths and the weaknesses of this modern, contemporary approach to marriage, where we're looking to our spouse, again, not only for love but also this sense of personal growth and fulfillment. And for the first time, you start to see cases where people would say, as I think Liz Gilbert would say, that she was in a loving marriage, and he was a good man and treated her well. But she felt stagnant, and she really wasn't willing to endure a stagnant life for the next 30 or 40 years. And she walked out.

VEDANTAM: This would have been unthinkable, of course, 100 years ago, let alone 500 years ago.

FINKEL: Yes. This would have been a very, very bizarre thing to say. And marriage, you know, it wasn't really until the '70s that you started seeing no fault divorce laws. It used to be that you had to prove some type of serious mistreatment, like abuse or desertion. Yeah, so it's a very modern idea that we are entitled to a sense of real fulfillment and personal growth through the marriage. And if our marriage is falling short, many of us consider it to be a reasonable option to end the marriage for that alone.

VEDANTAM: You've come up with what I think of as a riff on a very famous psychological concept. Many years ago, Abraham Maslow proposed that human beings have a series of different needs that begin with physical security and end with a search for meaning and fulfillment. And you say that a similar hierarchy has come to describe how many Americans think about marriage. Tell me about what you call Mount Maslow.

FINKEL: Well, one of the most exciting things that happened to me in the process of writing the book is I learned a lot about the history and the sociology and the economics of marriage, particularly reading people like Stephanie Coontz because my primary expertise is as pretty much a laboratory psychologist. I bring couples into the laboratory, and I videotape them interacting, and I follow them over time. But these other disciplines - scholars in these other disciplines - adopt a different approach.

So I realized that marriage had, in fact, changed radically in terms of the way we expected to fulfill our needs - in America that is. And it used to be that marriage was about basic economic survival. We've seen that from Stephanie Coontz and others. And you can think of that as being at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy toward the physiological and safety needs, really survival-based needs. And then as we track marriage and it becomes more about love, now we're more toward the middle of Maslow's hierarchy. And then in the 1960s and then really up until today, we're in this new era where, yes, we're still looking for love, but now we're toward the top of Maslow's hierarchy where he's talking about things like esteem and self-actualisation. And so our expectations of marriage have basically ascended from the bottom to the top of Maslow's hierarchy over the course of American history.

And one of the ideas that emerged as I was writing this book is that we can conceptualize Maslow's hierarchy not just in terms of a triangle but in terms of a mountain, right? And the advantage of thinking of Maslow's hierarchy as a mountain in this way is that it brings to mind a number of metaphors related to mountaineering. And one thing that we know when we climb up a big mountain is the views get increasingly gorgeous as you get to the top, but the oxygen gets a little thinner. And so having a successful experience way up there at the top requires that you are able to invest a lot of oxygen - either bring extra oxygen with you on the mountain or invest a lot of time and energy in the marriage to succeed up there.


VEDANTAM: So to continue your analogy, if we want to get to the top of Mount Maslow but we have failed to bring our oxygen tanks with us, that's what leads presumably to what you call the suffocation model.

FINKEL: That's right. That's right. That is, it's lovely way up there at the top, and if we're looking to try to achieve not only this sense of love and connection but also this sense of personal growth and authenticity through the marriage but we're trying to do it on the cheap - that is, we're trying to do it without investing the time, without investing the psychological energy - then we're left up there at the top of the mountain without the resources that we need in order to succeed.

And so that is what gives us this disconnect between where we are on the mountain, the expectations that we're bringing to the marriage and what the marriage is actually able to offer us. And that disconnect is what I'm talking about when I talk about the suffocation of marriage.

VEDANTAM: What I love about that analogy is it makes physical almost this psychological process, this effect of our expectations. All of us can imagine what it would be like to suddenly wake up one morning and decide, you know, I'm going to run a marathon or I'm going to climb a mountain - a very tall mountain - without really any preparation. And we would recognize that it's not just difficult to do but potentially foolhardy.

FINKEL: That is exactly right. I think if we think about what we're really asking of our marriages these days in terms of the, you know, ambition of these expectations, then we realize that if we're too tired or lazy to invest in the quality of the relationship, that of course we're not going to be able to make the summit attempt. Of course we're not going to be able to succeed in meeting those expectations toward the very high end of Maslow's hierarchy. And so the book talks a lot about how we can in fact align what we're asking of the marriage with what the marriage is realistically able to offer us.

VEDANTAM: So there have been a few people over the years who've tried to explore the same ideas that you have, Eli. Esther Perel of course comes to mind. In her famous TED talk, she summarizes some of these challenges. And I want to play you a short clip.


ESTHER PEREL: So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging. Give me identity. Give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort. Give me edge. Give me novelty. Give me familiarity. Give me predictability. Give me surprise. And we think it's a given and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.


VEDANTAM: So I love that passage, Eli, but you talk about the same idea in your book. You give the analogy of a woman who once turned to five different friends for important things she needed. But once she gets married, she turns to her husband for those same five things, and he's not able to provide all of them. And she feels now unfulfilled.

FINKEL: That's right. In the research literature on how we achieve our goals, there's a clunky word called multifinality. And this is the idea that a given means can serve multiple goals. So for example, when I walk to work, that might simultaneously meet my need to get to work but also my needs to get some fresh air and get some exercise. And so this one activity can serve all sorts of functions.

What's interesting is that's really what we've done to marriage - right? - is that marriage for a long time served a set and relatively limited array of different functions for us. And over time we've piled more and more of these emotional and psychological functions. So instead of turning to our close friends and other relatives for nights out on the town, for deep intimate disclosure, to a larger and larger extent, our spouse has replaced a lot of what we used to look to our broader social network to help us do.

VEDANTAM: You know, as I read your book, Eli, I realized that it's not just what we expect from our partners that's changing. We also now expect that we can unlock special things in our partners. And this is also reflected in the movies. The 1997 movie "As Good As It Gets" has a scene where a woman who is fed up with, you know, putdowns by her - by the man who's trying to woo her demands that he give her a compliment.


JACK NICHOLSON: (As Melvin Udall) OK, here I go - clearly a mistake. I've got this - what? - ailment. My doctor, a shrink that I used to go to all the time - he says that in 50 or 60 percent of the cases, a pill really helps. I hate pills. My complement is, that night when you came over and told me that you would never - all right, well, you were there. You know what you said. Well, my compliment to you is, the next morning, I started taking the pills.

HELEN HUNT: (As Carol Connelly) I don't quite get how that's a compliment for me.

NICHOLSON: (As Melvin Udall) You make me want to be a better man.

HUNT: (As Carol Connelly) That's maybe the best compliment of my life.

VEDANTAM: I found this so revealing in the context of your book, Eli. Helen Hunt's character is telling Jack Nicholson's character that the thing that makes her feel really good is not what he does for her but what she can do to unlock something special in him.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. He is smitten with her, and his desire for her, his being impressed with her and the desire to make her like him more, actually makes him want to grow into a better person. And in some sense, that's the absolute archetype of what we see in contemporary marriage. Today, we're looking for a spouse to bring out the ideal version of us, the latent version that's inside of us that we can hopefully grow into with enough time and effort.

VEDANTAM: You have a wonderful term in your book. You call this the Michelangelo effect.

FINKEL: Yeah. This is a term I actually got from my doctoral adviser, Caryl Rusbult. Many of your listeners will know that Michelangelo, when he talked about the sculpting process, talked not in terms of revealing a sculpture but in terms of unleashing it from the rock in which it's been slumbering. So the sculptor's job is not to create something new, but merely to refine and buff and polish and maybe scrape away the rough edges of what was already nesting within the rock. That's a really good metaphor for how partners today try to relate to each other. That is, all of us have an actual self - the person that we currently are - but we also have an ideal self, a version of ourselves that's aspirational. Like, what could I maybe become if I could be the best version of myself? And we look to our partners to be our sculptors, to help us until we actually grow toward the best, ideal version of ourselves.


VEDANTAM: So, Eli, do we actually have this power - this power to play sculptor and bring out the best in someone else?

FINKEL: The answer is, yes, we do have this power, but it's not easy to do, and not everybody is compatible. And sometimes the version of you that you want to grow into isn't the version of you that I want you to grow into. And this is a - this is a very delicate dance that we play. And, you know, the best relationships today - the sorts of relationships that I call the all relationships in the idea of the all-or-nothing marriage - they're well aligned in this sense. They're able to bring out the best in each other and connect in a way that facilitates each other's personal growth and, therefore, helps to produce a really profound amount of emotional connection and psychological fulfillment.

VEDANTAM: You know, many marriage experts say that high expectations are the enemy of happiness in marriage. You come to a slightly different conclusion. You say that it's true that, on average, many marriages might be unhappier today than they were half a century ago, but that isn't true of all marriages. Who are the exceptions?

FINKEL: The exceptions are people who bring those expectations and are able to meet them. And this is, I think, the crux of the entire issue. Lots of people argue that having these high expectations is problematic, and it's harming the institution of marriage. And frankly, among the people who used to argue that is myself.


FINKEL: I, when I set out to write this book, thought I was writing a book about the decline over time in marriage and how we're throwing more and more expectations on this one institution and this one relationship, but we're not investing enough time, and, therefore, we've really created a seriously problematic approach to marriage. And it wasn't until I reviewed these other scientific literatures and learned more about how things have changed that I realized that's really half the story.


FINKEL: It is true that we are asking a lot more, especially when it comes to these more psychological and love-based needs, than we did in the past. But some marriages are able to meet those needs. And so what is it - what does it mean if you have a marriage that you're looking for to meet these very highest level needs, say for example, in Maslow's hierarchy and the marriage succeeds in doing so? You're able to achieve a level of fulfillment in the marriage that would have been out of reach in an era where we really weren't even trying to meet those types of needs. So at the same time that these high expectations are weighting us down and making it more difficult to achieve a healthy marriage, at the same time that a marriage that would have been acceptable to us in 1950 is a disappointment to us today because of these high expectations, those same expectations have placed within reach a level of marital fulfillment that was out of reach until pretty recently.


VEDANTAM: So this idea that some people invest heavily in their marriages at the expense of careers and friends, maybe even, you know, their children's activities, you say this is perfectly captured in a scene from another movie. In "Sideways," Paul Giamatti's wine connoisseur character explains to his love interest the difference between a pinot and a cabernet.


VIRGINIA MADSEN: (As Maya) Why are you so into pinot?

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Miles, laughter).

MADSEN: (As Maya) I mean, it's, like, a thing with you.

GIAMATTI: (As Miles) I don't know. I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow as you know, right? It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's - you know, it's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No. Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know, and in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh, its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.

VEDANTAM: So of course, Eli, when we hear this and we're thinking about this in the context of marriage, why wouldn't we all want to grow pinot?

FINKEL: Well, I think a lot of us should be pretty careful about pinot. I mean, I think that clip does an absolutely masterful job of providing an analogy to how marriage has changed in America in the last, say, 50 years or more. It's changed from an institution approximating cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected, to a much more delicate, fragile institution that requires a lot of tending and maintenance. So you asked me, who would ever want anything other than pinot noir, at least according to how Miles thinks about those grapes? And I would say a whole lot of people might not want to deal with something that fragile and delicate.

But like he says, those of us who get it right, that is - well, and he's talking about the grapes. When there's the right grower and the right context, the flavors are just haunting and brilliant and subtle and ancient. And what I think he's saying is this is a high-maintenance grape. It takes a lot of work. And if you aren't careful and attentive, you're going to be disappointed in it. It's going to fail you. But if you work hard enough, you can have something truly exquisite. And that is where we are today with the all-or-nothing marriage.


VEDANTAM: One of the conclusions of your book is that we have in some ways two major alternatives when it comes to dealing with this challenge that many of us want to be at the top of Mount Maslow, but are not investing the time and effort or the patience to actually get there. In your own marriage you describe a trip to Seattle, where in your own analogy you found yourself starved of oxygen.

FINKEL: That's right. We went through a hard time. I in particular went through a hard time with the adjustment to parenthood. And I - frankly, I think that the reason I had a hard time is the sort of stuff that I'm talking about in the book. I hadn't sufficiently calibrated or recalibrated my expectations to what life would be like with a newborn. And the research on this is, in fact, tricky. Obviously, having a - you know, a bundle of joy is a wonderful thing. And you love the new baby like crazy. And kissing that little fuzzy head is one of the most satisfying things we ever get to do in our lives.

But the reality is a recent estimates suggest that it's about 33 and a half additional hours a week of extra time, like, of care that goes into that. And I would ask the couples out there listening who don't have a kid, where would those 33.5 hours a week come from? And then you're complementing that with some sleep deprivation and, frankly, much less time for emotional connection or sexual connection with your spouse. And is it any surprise that the research evidence shows that the arrival of the first baby tends to be pretty hard on the quality of the relationship - on the marital satisfaction, for example.

And it was during that period where we took a trip to Seattle to see my closest and longest - longest-term friend, one of these life experiences that has always been a source of bliss and joy for me throughout the, you know, 30-some-odd years of my life at the time. And I was miserable. It turns out that traveling across the country with an 8-month-old is not anything like traveling across the country without an 8-month-old. And then you're together with your best friend and there's all the stuff that you used to do, but now there's an 8-month-old there and you're not doing any of those things.

And I really had a hard time. I mean, I can't really exaggerate this. I really struggled emotionally with the adjustment. And I said to my wife - and I regret saying this, it's hard for me to say out loud right now - you know, I can endure this. Like, I can get past this. And I certainly love my daughter. But I need to stop trying to have fun because if I'm trying to enjoy my life and I'm trying to enjoy you, I keep - end up disappointed. And she was very upset about that. And, you know, I made her cry. I'm not proud of this at all. But she cried and thought - what? - is this the end of us trying to live a good life together? Are we just going to hunker down and be unhappy together?

But the truth is this ended up being the lowest point, but also the starting of where I started to recover a little bit. It took that moment before I started to get serious about making life better again. And one of the major ways I did it was by recalibrating my expectations, yes, but also reinvesting in a way that made sure that I was more connected to my wife than we had been. And it took some work. And it did require that we lower expectations in some ways and then try to meet those lowered expectations. And we were, in fact, able to do it, but it certainly wasn't easy.

VEDANTAM: Eli and other researchers have found that it's not especially easy to fulfill a partner's emotional and psychological needs when you're struggling to pay the bills or working three jobs. This might be one reason that the institution of marriage appears to be especially fragile among low-income couples. When we come back, we're going to look at tangible solutions. If you can't afford to take your partner on that romantic trip to Paris, but you still want to get to the top of Mount Maslow, I'm going to ask Eli for simple hacks to get you there.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, on today's show...


PETER COOK: (As The Impressive Clergyman) Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today.

VEDANTAM: That's right - marriage.


COOK: (As The Impressive Clergyman) Marriage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream.

VEDANTAM: The priest from that iconic scene in "The Princess Bride" describes it best. Or does he? We're taking a look at how marriage has evolved over time from a partnership of necessity to a union of two very different people who need one another's love to be complete to the all-or-nothing relationships identified by psychologist Eli Finkel. Eli argues that our expectations for marriage, both gay and straight, among rich and poor, have dramatically increased. Couples who are able to meet these higher expectations are happier than couples have ever been, but couples who fall short are unhappier than their counterparts a century ago. Eli says there are things we can do - what he calls love hacks - to reorient how we think about marriage and make ourselves more fulfilled in long-term relationships.

FINKEL: Some of your listeners might be fans of Marcel Proust, who argues that mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes. And the love hacks are exactly that. They're ways that we can try to experience the same relationship but view it in a different way and therefore be a little bit happier in the relationship itself.

VEDANTAM: So psychologists have long talked about something called the fundamental attribution error, which is sometimes when we see someone behave in a way that we don't like, there's two ways to interpret it. You can either say this person's behaving badly because they're a bad person, or you can say this person's behaving badly because there's something in the context, there's something happening around him or her that's causing him or her to behave this way. And one of the hacks that you suggest is to reinterpret negative behavior from your partner in a way that's more sympathetic rather than critical.

FINKEL: Right. And I'm not saying its magic. I'm not saying it's the easiest thing to do. But I'm saying that with some effort, we can get a little better at this. So your spouse is late. Your spouse is disrespectful. I mean, ideally not in a huge way, but your spouse does something inconsiderate. You have a lot of control over how that behavior affects you. And in particular, you have control over whether you want to explain that behavior in terms of something about your spouse that's maybe stable and a characterological assessment, like my spouse is always such a jerk. You can try instead to say, look; my spouse was a jerk just now, but he's a lot - under a lot of stress at work. Or you can think, look, he probably tried the best he could. You know, there was probably some traffic or some crisis at work. I'm just going to let it ride. Now, I'm not saying these are easy things to do because we do have a default to explain other people's behaviors as elements of their character. But the fact is - and we should be better at understanding this - there are all sorts of things that contribute to why somebody engaged in one behavior over another behavior, and we have some control over the extent to which we interpret our partner's inconsiderate or rude behavior in a way that's more generous and kind. And the kinder approach will make us happier in the relationship, and our partner will probably be happier, too.

VEDANTAM: You also think that having what you call a growth mindset is a useful thing. What do you mean by that?

FINKEL: So the psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford, she's developed this idea that people differ in terms of how they think about various attributes. So she studies intelligence, for example, and people differ in the extent to which they think intelligence is something that's fixed and stable and you have it or you don't versus it's malleable and it's something that you can develop over time. Well, it turns out there's a lot of good research now on the extent to which people feel like compatability in a relationship is something that is fixed. You know, you could call this a destiny mindset. People who think, look, partners are either compatible or they're not, and that's the end of the story versus more of a growth-oriented mindset who think, look, there's a lot of room where you can develop compatibility. And, in fact, going through difficulties in a relationship isn't a signal that, oh, my goodness, we're incompatible people.


FINKEL: It's - it's an opportunity to learn to understand each other better and strengthen the relationship through the resolution of the conflict. And here, again, it's not like we have complete control over the thoughts that we have about these things. But we can try to make ourselves adopt a more constructive, growth-oriented approach to thinking about conflict in the relationship rather than a more destiny-oriented approach that can often view conflict as a deep sign of incompatibility, and that's pretty destructive for the relationship.


VEDANTAM: You also talk about more serious alternatives. So if people find over time that they are just incompatible with one another and yet they have these high expectations of different things they want from their life, you suggest that one of the alternatives might be to develop systems where people are actually getting different things from different people.

FINKEL: That's right. It's the same logic again, right? So we have this all-or-nothing approach. We expect these high-level things, and many of our marriages are, in fact, falling short of that. So one possibility is that we try to invest more in the relationship, and the second possibility - which we've called love hacks - is how to be more efficient. But the third possibility - and I actually think we should be pretty serious about this, there's nothing shameful about making these sorts of sacrifices - we should ask less. In what ways can we, in our own marriage, look to the relationship and see, man, like, I have been looking to fulfill this sort of need in the relationship for a long time. And I'm chronically a little disappointed about how we do as a couple in helping to fulfill the sort of need. Is there some other way that I might be able to meet this need I have, either through some other friends or even on my own? And there's some research by the psychologist Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University that looks at what she calls social diversification. Like, can you diversify your social portfolio, if you will? And she looks at the people we turn to when we're feeling emotions that can help us regulate those emotions. So to whom do you turn when you're feeling sad? To whom do you turn when you want to celebrate your happiness?

And she assesses how much people look to a relatively small number of people to do all of those things versus a larger number of people. And she finds, across a range of studies now, that people who've diversified their social portfolio - that is, turned to different sorts of people for different sorts of emotional experiences - tend to be a little bit happier. And so, with regard to marriage in particular, we've really lumped a lot of our emotional fulfillment on this one relationship. And for many of us, we would benefit, and our marriage would actually benefit, if we asked a little bit less in some respects.


VEDANTAM: I love the idea of diversification and the analogy with financial diversification. I mean, so the idea, of course, is that you might have, you know, bonds in your portfolio, and they don't do very well and they don't grow a lot, but they're very stable. And then you might have some stocks in your portfolio that, you know, are high growth, but they also have the potential for losing a lot. And what you're suggesting is that by having different things accomplish different parts of what you need, on the whole - your portfolio as a whole ends up being more stable than if you put all your eggs in one basket.

FINKEL: You know, that's right, and that's a neat way of thinking about it that I hadn't fully processed previously. In some sense, what we're doing with marriage these days is we've got a heavily stock-loaded portfolio. And that means that when the market is up, we make huge gains. But that's a lot of eggs to put in that one basket, and when the market goes down, we're going to get hit pretty hard. And to some degree that's also a reasonable metaphor for the self-expressive marriage, where we look to one person to fulfill so many of our emotional and our psychological needs. The payoff can be huge, but there's a lot of risk.

VEDANTAM: Now, for people to actually consider diversifying their portfolio romantically and emotionally, presumably this also creates stresses on what we think of as marriage. So if people are looking outside the marriage for emotional support or other needs, some people are going to say, well, are you really married anymore?

FINKEL: I think this is a valid question, and this is a complexity that comes up when you think about how an institution like marriage changes over time. I suspect that if somebody transported from 1750 to today, they might look around and say, whoa, that doesn't look like marriage. I don't even really get what you guys are doing. Or, better yet, if we transported back to 1750 and looked at what people were expecting and how little they were looking for personal fulfillment from the marriage, we would be bewildered.


FINKEL: So one of the more controversial ideas that I play with in the book is when I'm talking about ways that we can ask less of the marriage. By the way, when I am doing that, I'm talking about how can we strengthen the marriage by asking less of it? One of the places that I consider is in the romantic or sexual domain. So is it reasonable for some people to consider some type of consensual non-monogamy? Now, this is not cheating. That's the whole idea of consensual non-monogamy. This is an understanding that we don't need to have complete monogamy all the time, and you can negotiate an alternative. In fact, among millennials this is becoming an increasingly common way of thinking about the ideal relationship.

So this is an ideal option, especially for people who, generally, are connecting pretty well and they love each other and they're good co-CEOs of the household together, but they're really struggling to sustain a mutually-satisfying sex life together. Those are particularly good opportunities to consider, could we reduce some of the disappointment and pressure by opening up the relationship in some ways that we can both agree to? It's certainly a high-risk option, but it's an option that probably will benefit some relationships.


VEDANTAM: You say that you and Alison have developed a shorthand of sorts for the times that you want to communicate affection but are starved of time. And it has to do with this song.


BEATLES: (Singing) Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she doesn't have a lot to say. Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day. I want to tell her that I love her a lot, but I got to get a belly full of wine. Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl. Someday I'm going to make her mine.

FINKEL: That's Paul McCartney at the end of the "Abbey Road" medley. It's, like, a little 23-second bonus track. And it's interesting - I haven't heard it in a while, and even as I listen to it as you just played it, I sort of teared up a little bit because it's been a very significant song for my wife and me and our marriage. When we were first dating, you know, people are falling in love and they often say I love you or whatever, but I was very partial to this idea of belly full of wine, right? I want to tell her that I love her a lot, but I've got to get a belly full of wine. And, eventually, saying belly full of wine was our little replacement for I love you. And what was neat about the way we used the phrase belly full of wine is it was able to contain, like, a whole terabyte of information about love and respect and affection in this, like, one-second phrase. We could turn to each other and just say belly full of wine and just really communicate so much information in that very little - just those few words.

And this is an example of a broader idea that we don't appreciate enough, which is that every marriage has its own culture, that has its own language and its own expectations, and we can leverage the features of how culture works to benefit the marriage with a sort of emotional shorthand that can help express affection. And it can be especially crucial if you're going through a difficult time and maybe things are getting a little hot and maybe you're on the verge of a fight and you can say, hey, baby, belly - belly full of wine. And you might be able to diffuse some of what could have been a pretty problematic episode.

VEDANTAM: Eli Finkel is a social psychologist at Northwestern University. He's the author of "The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How The Best Marriages Work." Eli, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

FINKEL: Thank you so much for having me.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Gabriela Saldivia and Partha Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Jennifer Schmidt. NPR's vice president for programming and audience development is Anya Grundmann. Our unsung hero this week is Rebecca Sheir. If you have a child, you may know her as the host of the storytelling podcast Circle Round. She helped us find the actors who performed scenes for last week's episode. If you haven't heard that show, please check out the episode titled "Why Now?" We're really proud of it.


VEDANTAM: You can find HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please be on the look out there for a video of Eli Finkel answering questions submitted by listeners about their love lives. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


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