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Marriage Has Never Been Harder … Or Happier, Argues New Book

By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) According to the Chicago Tribune's Heidi Stevens, "Northwestern University professor Eli Finkel has written a fantastic new book that looks at our complex history with the institution, exploring how marriage has changed and evolved, and how we can change and evolve along with it."

Chicago Tribune

A reporter once asked Gloria Steinem why she changed her mind about marriage and got hitched to activist David Bale at age 66.

"I didn't change," Steinem famously replied. "Marriage changed."

Indeed it did. Had Steinem married in her 20s, during the 1960s, she wouldn't have been able to get a credit card in her name, she'd have had no legal rights to her husband's property and, depending on where she lived, she'd have had little say in her birth control options.

By 2000, Steinem and Bale's union could be a partnership of equals, a radically new phenomenon in the long history of marriage.

Fewer institutions have changed more, in fact. We don't need marriage for the things we used to need it for, survival, financial security, the opportunity to raise children, social currency. We don't need it at all, really. But it retains a gilded spot in our culture.

We celebrate its onset and mourn its dissolution. We argue, in living rooms, in houses of worship, in the highest court in the land, over who should be allowed to partake in it. We glue ourselves to reality shows that glimpse the path, however chardonnay-soaked, to wedded bliss.

We remain in its thrall, that is, even if we regard it with a bit of wide-eyed bewilderment.

And who can blame us? When a marriage is going well, there's nothing like it in the world.

Northwestern University professor Eli Finkel has written a fantastic new book that looks at our complex history with the institution, exploring how marriage has changed and evolved, and how we can change and evolve along with it.

"The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work" (Dutton) looks at how marriages moved from pragmatic institutions to partnerships based on love and sentimentality. Our unions, Finkel argues, have the potential to make us happier than any time in history, but we have to commit significant energy to get there.

"We've made marriage harder," Finkel told me. "But we've also put within reach something pretty special that would have been difficult to achieve when spouses simply cherished each other across the breakfast table."

As the importance of "self" has grown in the last half-century, Finkel maintains, so has our expectation that marriage will feed and sustain not just the couple at the center, but each of its two halves. Spouses are now expected to facilitate each other's voyages of self-discovery and personal growth.

"For many Americans," Finkel writes, "building a successful, long-lasting marriage is a central means through which we pursue self-expression and a meaningful life."

But focusing too closely on oneself isn't always "marriage-promoting," as Finkel puts it. Just ask someone who's married to (or divorced from) a narcissist.

The key, he argues, is to focus on finding meaning, rather than simply happiness, in your life, and to help your spouse do the same.

"We work hard to make our marriage strong," he writes, "in part because doing so helps us become the best version of ourselves."

You may have grown up with exactly zero examples of such a marriage. Facilitating a voyage toward self-discovery wasn't something couples in the 1800s, or the 1950s, for that matter, had to attempt.

It can feel daunting.

"There are those lamenting how much we're asking of marriage, 'We just keep piling on more responsibilities; no wonder everyone's getting divorced,'" Finkel said. "But we used to ask marriage to help us survive, which is kind of a big deal. And I don't think it's a bad idea to ask a lot of marriage."

Because the payoff, when both spouses deliver, is tremendous.

That's not actually the point Finkel set out to prove. When he began delving into marital research in 2013, he planned to write a scholarly journal piece with a far different thesis:

"That diverse forces had increasingly freighted marriage in America over time," he writes, "piling so much expectation and responsibility on this one institution that it threatened to buckle under the strain."

His research, though, began telling a far more optimistic story.

"The best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras," Finkel writes. "Indeed, they are the best marriages that the world has ever known."

He devotes one chapter to "lovehacks," easy-to-implement procedures aimed at improving your marriage. Many can be completed in five minutes or less, and they're aimed at making conflicts less heated, frustration slower to surface and passion easier to ignite.

As Finkel points out, marriages go through challenging periods (young children, a job loss, serious illness), and lovehacks can sustain them.

"They say, 'I value the relationship. I want to have high expectations for it," Finkel said. "'But for now I really need to do the best I can until we get more time and energy together.' It can help sustain a sense of good will, love and happiness until there's time to do significantly more investing in the marriage."

There's power, I think, in anything that shifts your focus away from the trouble at hand and toward the shared goal of keeping your marriage strong long-term.

Finkel opens the lovehack chapter with a quote from Marcel Proust: "Mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes."

"It's trying to see something beautiful," Finkel said, "underneath the familiar."

The same can be said of his book.

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