Relationships Under Review in New Book ‘The All-or-Nothing Marriage’

Eli Finkel studies relationships and marriage, and in his new book “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” he argues the best marriages of today are the best the world has ever known.

But with 45 percent of all marriages ending in divorce, what exactly are some couples doing to make their marriages succeed and thrive? 

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Finkel joins us in discussion. He is a professor at Northwestern University in both the psychology department and at the Kellogg School of Management, and also the director of Northwestern’s Relationships and Motivation Lab.

Below, an excerpt from the preface to Chapter 1 of “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.”


Panic in Evanston

I was working hard to look relaxed, as ii the two of us were just having a regular research meeting. Professors meet with graduate students all the time to work through the sorts of thorny conceptual issues that arise when writing articles.

Grace Larson had just finished her first year as a doctoral student at Northwestern, and she was looking to me for answers. But what she told me in that meeting had, in under an hour, shattered some of my most central assumptions about marriage.

Meanwhile, a deadline loomed. I had promised to submit a fea­ture article presenting an ambitious new theory of marriage in America. The article, which would eventually clock in at a novella­-length thirty thousand words, was due in October of 2013. Three of my students and I had divided up the initial tasks, and Larson was, in chat meeting in June of 2013, reporting back to me on what she had  learned.

The Invitation

Two months earlier, the psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman had invited me to submit a Target Article for the scholarly journal Psychological Inquiry. This journal has a distinctive structure: Each issue consists of a Target Article, around a dozen expert Com­mentaries, and a Response to Commentaries from the authors of the Target Article.

I proposed an article on an idea I'd been playing with: that di­verse forces had increasingly freighted marriage in America over time, pilling so much expectation and responsibility on this one re­lationship char it threatened to buckle under the strain. We Americans increasingly look to our spouse to be our best friend and closest confidant, to provide sizzling sex, to help us grow as individuals­ the list goes on. At the same time, we spend less time with our friends, parents, and siblings, and we are less engaged in organized civic activities outside the home. Collectively, these forces place tre­mendous pressure on the marital bond, and few marriages are able to withstand the stress. Janoff-Bulman approved this topic, and my students and I scarred scouring the research literature for evidence that marriage is in trouble.

As social psychologists, our primary expertise revolves around the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that enhance or undermine relationship quality. We study topics like commitment, forgiveness, and sexual desire, and we do so by collecting data on people who are involved in serious romantic relationships. Neither historians nor sociologists, we lack primary expertise on how the institution of marriage has changed over time. Larson's first cask was co start delving into the history of marriage.

Her findings, as preliminary as they were, revealed that my cen­tral thesis was wrong. The idea that Americans have, over time, been asking more and more of our marriage sounds reasonable, but the historical record makes plain that we are, in crucial respects, asking less and less. During the colonial era, people looked to their mar­riage, and to the broader familial alliances linked to it, for things like food production, shelter, and health care; in a literal sense, they looked to their marriage to help them survive. We're asking a lot of our marriage today, but few of us are asking for life itself.

Afrer the meeting with Larson, I became consumed with the ef­fort to reconcile chis stubborn face with the theory l had proposed for the Target Article. How, exactly, had American marriages changed, and how did these changes influence marital success and failure? I didn't know the answer. I felt like a skydiver who realizes after jumping out of the plane that he isn't sure how to deploy his parachute.

An Unfinished Task

In the ensuing weeks and months, I worked with my collaborators­—not only Larson, but also the doctoral students Chin Ming Hui and Kathleen Carswell—to overhaul my theory of marriage. Correcting a theory like this is a scientific duty, but doing so also had a happy, unexpected consequence: The story changed from one of pessimism to one of optimism. It's true that the institution of marriage in America is struggling. But I came to realize that the best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras; indeed, they are the best marriages that the world has ever known. ln addition, although the average marriage is shaky, many floundering or pass­ able marriages can flourish by adopting strategies pioneered by the best marriages.

l was pleased  with the Psychological  Inquiry Target Article­—and with our Response to Commentaries—but not entirely. Some of my reservations derived from the sorts of minor imprecisions and omissions chat are inevitable in deadline-based scholarship, but oth­ers were more troubling. I have written this book, which presents a heavily revised version of my all-or-nothing theory of marriage, to address these reservations. Along the way, I reverse engineer today's best marriages, gleaning insights that the rest of us can use to achieve the sort of marital fulfillment that modern economic and cultural forces have, for the first time, placed within reach.

Excerpted with permission from the new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work by Eli J. Finkel. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 Eli J. Finkel.

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