You may have heard about the demise of marriage in America. Maybe you were reading a newspaper or magazine article that outlined the reasons why. Perhaps you watched a lot of Sex and the City and are pretty sure things have gone downhill since. Possibly you’ve read about divorce rates. It’s even conceivable you were listening to a political argument, with pundits pitted against each other about what marriage is and should be. Or you might disagree and think marriage is alive and thriving, no matter the numbers and the hype.
Regardless, you would be right…and wrong.
As Eli Finkel points out in The All-or-Nothing Marriage, marriage—both the concept and each individual’s—is always evolving. Years ago, the idea of marrying for love was not just uncommon, it was downright ridiculous. But it shifted, and love conquered all—or the institution at least.
One of the most famous first lines of a novel in history illustrates the first big shift:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
He needs a wife to help him manage that household, but by the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam have overcome social mores, socioeconomic differences, and familial disapproval, all for love. It was right around the mid-1800s, right after Austen died, that marriage took a turn from the pragmatic to the romantic. Owing to socioeconomic factors—like jobs that made children more financially and geographically independent—people started marrying to meet their love and intimacy needs.
In the 1960s, another shift began. As Finkel puts it, “the trend toward increasingly cerebral lives, especially among the college educated, dovetailed with the countercultural revolution to launch Americans…on voyages of self-discovery and personal growth. Consequently, the nature of social connection changed.”
Though it’d be easy to blame the “Me Me Me” Generation (Millennials), this came about with the “Me Generation” (a nickname Tom Wolfe gave to Boomers for the prevalence of “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment” at the time), but it has certainly evolved since. For that matter, “Generation Me”—a term sometimes used for those born in the 1980s and 1990s—is currently “marriage age” and affecting these statistics.
We all blame a different generation, but as Finkel points out, it is not who is to blame we should worry about (it is, after all, normal cultural evolution) but what it means for our marriages—personally and culturally.
Finkel’s concept of the new self-expression marriage (the all-or-nothing theory) is best illustrated by Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw. In the finale of the show, Carrie leaves Aleksandr Petrovsky, not due to a lack of love, but due to a lack of the right kind of love: “note the emphasis on “I” in ‘it’s time to be clear about who I am.’”
Many of us can relate. A relationship isn’t considered healthy these days if the other person doesn’t support your dreams, your self-expression, the things you need for your own growth. And that’s all 100% fine—but it does mean that we are asking for different things from our relationships than we used to (perhaps not personally, but definitely as a whole). “We” time emphasis has shifted to “me” time, and the roles we’re expected to play have changed. What makes a good marriage is no longer a nice dowry and strong political alliances, nor is it someone like Alex or Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show). So what does make a good marriage nowadays?
The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work provides an in-depth look not only at the history of marriage in America and our marital expectations, but it also looks at how we have shifted focus from community and family to friends, and eventually to our partners almost exclusively. There’s no judgment around this, but there are statistics, anecdotes, cultural references, and even “Love Hacks” to help us navigate the sometimes-rocky terrain of modern relationships. Whether you are traditional marriage all the way or tend toward the more liberal (relationship-wise, not politically), The All-or-Nothing Marriage is a fascinating read about our culture’s relationship to relationships and how you can thrive in (and out) of your own.
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