Psychologists confirm: married couples need to lower expectations

Keller's book mostly agrees with this psychologist's diagnosis.
Keller’s book mostly agrees with this psychologist’s diagnosis.

This op-ed in the New York Times was a wet blanket for Valentine’s Day: A psychologist from Northwestern University, Eli Finkel, and his team of researchers, argue that, in general, we married couples in America need to lower our expectations in order to have a happier marriage.

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

A couple of hundred years ago, before industrialization and the growth of cities, married couples’ expectations for one another were low: they “revolved around things like food production, shelter and protection from violence. To be sure, Americans were pleased if they experienced an emotional connection with their spouse, but such affinities were perquisites of a well-functioning marriage rather than its central purpose.”

From about 1850 to 1965, as people migrated from farms to factory jobs in cities, “American marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life.”

Since around 1965, “Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” As Finkel says, our attitude toward marriage is reflected in that famous line that Jack Nicholson uttered to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets: “You make me want to be a better man.”

If you’ve read Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, none of this should surprise you. He calls this emphasis on marriage as a means of personal growth a “Me-Marriage.” He says that few potential marriage partners can possibly live up to our high ideals:

To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that out there to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time…

[Some people] do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation—a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. This will indeed require a woman who is a “novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling” or the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.[†]

Both Finkel and Keller agree that if a Me-Marriage is going to succeed, it will require a lot more work than most couples are willing to put into it. Keller would likely say that those couples who will put in the necessary work are those fortunate few who are at least relatively “well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work.” The problem is there just aren’t very many of those people around! And since Keller is a theologian and not a psychologist, he gets to explain this deficit in terms of sin.

Regardless, both Finkel and Keller agree that since many if not most of us aren’t willing or able to make a Me-Marriage work, we need to change our expectations about what marriage can do for us.

Keller, however, unlike Finkel, wouldn’t say it’s a matter of “lowering” expectations: instead, it’s properly centering our expectations on the cross of Jesus Christ. If we understand what Paul is saying about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, then we understand that marriage isn’t about me in the first place. As with the rest of life, marriage is about denying myself and loving my neighbor: the one who lives under my roof, raises a family with me, and shares a bed with me.

Does that sound disappointing? It shouldn’t. God knows it’s the only path to true happiness and fulfillment anyway. The least effective way to achieve happiness is to aim for it directly, as the Me-Marriage does.

For those of you who are taking my “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study, I’m sure I’ll say more about Finkel’s article this Sunday!

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 34-5.

2 thoughts on “Psychologists confirm: married couples need to lower expectations”

Leave a Reply