Any couple will tell you that a successful marriage takes a lot of work. Past the honeymoon stage and after the kids arrive, there will be instances where you might find yourself asking, “Where is the person I married?” Moments of doubt are perfectly normal — the key is working through the challenges, learning to forgive, and managing your expectations.
But what is marriage all about? Romantic comedies often depict relationships and love as a means to self-completion and marriage as a means to self-fulfillment, but surely not everyone would agree.
Eli Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, seeks to answer this question. In his book, he explores what constitutes a good or bad marriage, and why people’s relationships turn out this way. He also breaks down what makes a “fulfilling” marriage, and how it has evolved through the centuries. From 1620 to 1850, food, shelter, and protection from violence were the primary functions of marriage. A marriage's purpose became about love and companionship from 1850 to 1965. Now, it’s oriented toward self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.
In an interview with Vox.com, Finkel discusses his thoughts on what makes a bad marriage — and what couples can do to salvage the relationship:
1. Spouses set unrealistic expectations on their marriage. “We’re welcome to ask as much or as little as we want from our marriage,” he says. “But we better make sure that our expectations are calibrated to what the marriage can realistically provide.”
Setting expectations is ideally done together. You should at least let your spouse know what they are to avoid disappointments (and conflicts). Finkel says it’s important to learn about yourself first, then learn about your partner and the dynamics between the two of you, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
2. We expect our marriage to do things it can’t do for us. We often hear that relationship troubles begin when one half of the couple expects their marriage to fulfill certain needs — to love love them, help them become better people (or for the other person to become better), to fulfill their sexual needs — but then their needs aren’t met, and they become resentful, angry, and distant.
“These days, love and belonging aren’t even enough. Now we want personal growth, personal betterment, from our marriage,” says Finkel.
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But Finkel says modern marriage is not just about fulfilling your needs — it’s a two-way street. “The best marriages take the responsibility for trying to help each other grow and live authentic lives,” he says.
3. Most marriages end because the supply can no longer meet the demand. By supply, Finkel means compatibility, time, commitment, and effort. We can set our demands or expectations, but we should ensure that we are also doing our part to meet it. If your relationship hits a rough patch, “Don’t wait until it’s time to seek marital therapy. Be proactive,” Finkel advises.
On average, a married couple’s happiness declines over time, and it often starts after the wedding day. So, early on, learn how to invest time in the relationship. And by time Finkel means the kind that will count. “If one of the things you really want to do is try to get back some passion in the marriage, then it’s not just any date that will do that. It’s dates that get you out of your routine — novel and exciting sorts of dates rather than just any date.”
Keeping a marriage healthy is always any couple's goal. We all want to grow old with the person we vowed to spend the rest of our lives with. But a successful marriage doesn’t just happen — complacency or the "things will work itself out" route rarely works and can lead to resentment build-up. Not do we need to be present for our spouse, we need to be mindful.
“You’re lucky to be getting married in an era that has the best marriages we’ve ever seen,” Finkle says. “If you want to try to achieve one of those sorts of marriages, try not to do it on the cheap.”