The All-or-Nothing Marriage

SOLO 154 | Contemporary Marriages


To understand single living, you need to understand non-single-living – especially the 800-pound gorilla of relationships: marriage. In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to Eli Finkel about contemporary marriages, which are focused on self-growth and self-expressiveness. Eli shares insights from his book The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

Listen to Episode #154 here


The All-or-Nothing Marriage

As you may know, I’m working on a book. As part of that book, I’m dedicating an entire chapter to the invention of marriage and the relationship escalator. That may seem strange, but to understand single living, you need to understand non-single living, especially the 800-pound gorilla of non-single living, marriage.

In this episode, I speak to Eli Finkel about the most recent permutation of marriage, a marriage of personal and professional growth and self-expression. Eli shares his insights from his book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. A Professor at Northwestern University, where he has appointments in the Psychology department and the Kellogg School of Management, Eli is the Director of Northwestern’s Relationships And Motivation Lab. Its acronym is RAM Lab. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.

Welcome, Eli.

Thanks for having me.

Let’s set the stage. You are pro-marriage but don’t believe that everyone should do it. I’m not anti-marriage, but I believe it’s over-prescribed. Correct? Fair?

That sounds fair.

It means we’re not far apart.

I bet we’re not. It’ll be interesting to see where we converge and diverge, but my take at a very high level is that marriage seems to be a lifestyle choice that has a lot of upsides or at least is correlated with a lot of positive things, including for kids. Certainly, it’s not the only way to build a good life or the only way to raise healthy children. I don’t know where you stand relative to that, but that’s basically where I am.

I wish it was more of a choice. The problem is there’s such the default that a lot of people who don’t benefit from marriage still don’t try to do it.

It’s interesting to hear that because as I hear you say that, I wish it were more of a choice. I hear echoes of something that I often say or lament about defaults. It’s like got a different flavor, but overlaps somewhat. For me, it’s about the choice to be monogamous. Usually, people are asking me about marriage, and I say, “Why is it that we assume that there are lots of things we’re going to ask of our marriage?” Of course, that one’s a given. That one Titanic ask is a given and everybody is going to do it, and we’re not going to have discussions about it. It’s interesting to note that that’s the one that I feel is an excessive default. You feel like the decision to marry in the first place is and it’s a good point.

In some ways, they’re so closely tied together. I do talk about monogamy as the 800-pound gorilla of marriages of long-term relationships and that a lot of people are like, “That’s the sacrifice I need to make in order to have this important thing in my life.”

Also, pretend it’s not a sacrifice.

Even better. You focus in your book mostly on America. I’d like to take a little bit of a historical approach of what marriage is and how it’s changed. One of the things that I have been looking into is the invention of marriage. There was a time where no homo sapiens were ever married. There was no word for marriage, and thus there was no word for single in a sense. At some point, this got rolling. Marriages have changed in recent history.

You document three categories of marriage in the US in particular. How far back can you go in terms of talking about the invention of marriage before we get to colonial America? When you look back on human history, the development of this invention, now it is so ubiquitous and accepted. We don’t even think that it’s invented. It seems natural.

Let’s get to the outer ether of my knowledge base. You’re right. At one point in history, there was nobody who had ever heard of marriage. Now we are at a moment in history where pretty much everybody has heard of marriage. There was some process of getting there. The distinction that I find useful when thinking about these vast historic trends almost evolved, but certainly many tens of thousands of years level of analysis.

I find it useful to think about what the nature of human architecture is. The idea that people would pair bond, fall in love with somebody and form some long-term, although maybe not until death do us part relationship. That was often linked to the creation of children and often to the raising of children. That stuff’s been around for something on the order of a couple of million years in our lineage.

When did people start building a formal structure somewhere in the hunter-gatherer era about dyads matching up and having legal or semi-legal official status? I am not exactly sure when that happened, but the broader point clearly stands that human psychology seems to be quite real. It’s something that it would be difficult to deny that humans bond in ways that, like chimps and bonobos, for example, our closest evolutionary relatives. They don’t tend to do that. They don’t pair bond in the same way. Calling it marriage, I don’t know, some cultural development that swept the world somewhere in the last tens of thousands of years.

I have a few notes. The first one is that I’m diving deeply into this. For the reader who’s unsatisfied, we’re going to have a better answer of that soon. Another note is that these pair bonds aren’t monogamous typically, or weren’t monogamous typically in the way that we tend to like to assume, especially the religious folks. Lastly, I would argue that what makes humans so good at this, and our bonobos, chimps, apes, monkeys, etc., not good at this, is our ability to cooperate and our ability to agree on rules and exact punishments for deviating from those, especially even the unwritten rules that are there.

I agree with most of the things you said, and yet we have rapidly gotten to some fun places of real disagreement. Do you want to launch in or should we wait on that?

We should because people want to know why I’m wrong.

Why you and I have different assumptions about how humanity may want to go about, it’s relating in romantic lives. I don’t know if I would characterize it as a disagreement, perhaps something closer to a bone to pick with how you characterize things. You said that those pair bonds didn’t involve monogamy. If what you meant is that, as best we can understand, the moral strictures surrounding absolute romantic and sexual monogamy didn’t exist, then I’m inclined to agree with you as best I understand the situation. If you mean something much stronger than that, that is, once people find somebody and pair bond, we could call it falling in love, whatever it is, caught feelings for, those things seem to be real. We didn’t create them as a social phenomenon.

They’re biological.

Yes. There does seem to be a correlation between catching feelings and the desire to have a lot of emotional and physical intimacy with that one person, often at the expense of other people. Saying that they’re not monogamous depends on how you mean the term. I agree with you that they were not strictly monogamous from now until death do us part, come hell or high water and moral condemnation. I agree with you there, but there’s no doubt that the experience of falling in love with somebody makes us not all that interested on average in having sex with other people, at least relative to our own pre-falling-in-love baseline.

Just a friendly reminder is that those catching feelings often don’t last an entire lifetime.

That’s part of it. If what you meant by monogamy is lifelong with the moral strictures, then yeah, often the feelings last for some number of months or years, possibly decades, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll last in perpetuity and often, they don’t.

We should probably be careful about what time period that we’re talking about. If we’re talking about 1 million years ago or 200,000 years ago, which is when homo sapiens started rolling, I’d say we’re close.

The second thing that you said, again, this is more of a bone to pick or a quibble than maybe a full disagreement. If I understood correctly, it seemed like you were suggesting that the major things that humans have done relative to a lot of our closest evolved relatives, other species, are about cooperation and broader groups. That I agree with you entirely on, but it seemed that you wanted to say that that existed almost at the expense of or to the exclusion of romantic pair bonds.

Let me define them as feelings of emotional bond and connection toward one particular con specific, one particular member of one’s own species. Often, in fact, probably typically tied up with sexual feelings. For me, those adaptations both occurred in our evolutionary lineage. The interesting thing that I think your perspective, as I understood it needs to confront is we split off from chimps and bonobos about 6 million years ago.

They don’t have pair bonds. It’s not that mothers don’t bond with their children. They do like with the offspring, but adults forming pair-bonded relationships and using that to some greater or lesser extent in the service of raising children, our closest genetic relatives don’t have it. I know that from the perspective of attachment theory and perspectives that I find generally compelling, the evolution of the pair bond is something that happened relatively recent in our evolved past. It does involve deep, emotional connections often to one significant other in a way that is specifically tied up with what we think of nowadays as sexual and family-type relating

I would agree. I’d say often, but not exclusively. Also, there are humans who lack that ability. People who are asexual and so on. What we’re dancing around is there’s an element of biology and evolution. There is the notion of social norms, rules, structure and culture, of which marriage is the latter. Pair bonding is the former. For example, you could imagine creating a system that still has some of the biological architecture built into it, but doesn’t look like the marriages that we know.

Here, we might be entirely aligned. One of the themes of my book is this stuff didn’t come down with Moses from Mount Sinai. That is the way we think of as what marriage is, not what marriage was in 1950 or in 1800 in the US, much less how it has existed across all cultural contexts across all times. Plus, there have been all sorts of ways of relating that wasn’t called marriage.

I totally agree with you and I find enormous power or let me say it differently. I find it to be enormously empowering to realize there is something like a buffet. There’s a bunch of different ways people have done this. You might be like, “The Asian buffet has delicious stir fry, but the Greek buffet has delicious feta and I want to create like a stir fry feta marriage.” I want a fusion marriage.

That’s your follow-up book.

The Fusion Marriage. You’re exactly right. I love that.

I will say this, Eli. I’ve always been very fond of you and have always appreciated your work. I read your book and did not find myself frowning or groaning like, “Here we go again.” I thought it was quite even-handed and, in many ways, quite vulnerable that that the average married person who reads it can understand their struggle a lot more.

They thought there was something wrong with them. There’s this fascinating phenomenon among singles, people who have done marriage and don’t want to do it again, who are disinterested in it for now or forever, or are interested in doing a fusion. I call them the new ways. They want to do relationships, they want intimacy, they want sex perhaps, and they want to do it in a different way. All of those people feel like there’s something wrong with them because they can’t do the default.

What’s fascinating is the people who do the default, some of them feel like there’s something wrong with them because they’re struggling to do the default. They’re the ones oftentimes who most want you to get also married because it lessens the threat that they might have made the wrong choice that’s there. In your book, you talk about these different functions of marriage through time. My suspicion is that there’s always friction within each of those permutations, but there’s that, “Something wrong with me,” friction, especially the case now.

The amount of pressure that we put on having a good marriage is a pretty modern invention. It’s not like it only started in the 1950s or whatever. Sometime in the 1800s, this idea emerged that marriage was fundamentally even about the well-being of the spouses. It was a sacrament before God. It was a social institution when there wasn’t anything like Target. There weren’t police forces. There were all sorts of social functions of marriage that weren’t about like, “Am I happy?”

In the 1800s or so, you start getting this idea that marriage is for love. It’s also for economics and other things too, but it is for love. That’s a primary function. That was the first time that we started to think that this institution, that this type of relationship, was about the personal emotional fulfillment of the individual spouses. That was the big thing and it remains the big thing.

The only major shift in terms of our cultural ideology of marriage started around the 1960s, but we’re still in the throes of it, which I call the self-expressive era of marriage. In addition to looking for this love, intimacy, and emotional connection, this personal fulfillment on those dimensions, above and beyond that, we now want to live a more authentic life through our marriage.

That is, “Dave’s a good man and he’s a good father, but I don’t feel like I’m growing as a person, and I’m not going to suffer that for the next 30 years.” That’s something that’s acceptable now to a much greater extent than it was two generations ago. Back to you, the way you posed the question or the comment before I was talking about the history, I find interesting.

You quite correctly point out that there’s something oppressive about the marital ideology or ideologies of marriage. That there’s one way to live a good life that it involves exact pair bonding formally sanctioned by the church and the state, that it involves this type of relating that that is oppressive. It’s a lot less oppressive than it was circa 1950. Do you share that view that by the standards that you’re laying out, the concerns that you’re raising, we’re heading in the right direction?

Yes. You’ve only mentioned a few of the list, but the fact that you have to live with this person. Not only to live with them, you’re supposed to share the same bed with this person. You’re supposed to vacation with this person. They’re supposed to support your career. You’re supposed to share the same leisure activities and religious beliefs and so on and so forth. In the book, you use this example of Jasmine and a world in which Jasmine as a married person lives in this all-or-nothing marriage. Talk to me about Jasmine and her partner’s lift. It’s a heavy lift.

If I remember that example correctly, it was something like, let’s imagine Jasmine at 28 and she has a friend named Kyoko that she does yoga with. She has a friend named John, who she studies for the MCATs with. I went down the list of the various goals and needs that she has that she uses her social network to help her achieve. I don’t want to make it sound selfish. Some of which involve relating to other people, expressing love and affection, and taking care of others. It’s not a selfish perspective. There are all sorts of needs that we have, many of which are generous and pro-social. I caricatured it a little bit, but then you fast forward to Jasmine at 40 and let’s say she has those same needs.

Now it’s John. John is the one who’s supposed to help her with all of those things. I recognize that as an exaggeration. People do sustain relationships with their siblings, with their friends, but look at the data. On average, people are replacing everybody else with their spouse. I don’t want to overstate it, but if you look at the time people are spending and the priorities that they’re setting, suddenly, John is the person for all of that stuff, at least to a much greater extent than before. I am posing the questions that you’re also posing, which is, “Is John good at yoga or good at inspiring?”

Does he even want to do it?

Does he get grossed out by being in the workout studio or even by the metaphysical aspects of the yoga experience? I push hard in the book, which is ultimately, like you said, a pro-marriage book. I push hard in the book for people to be pretty specific. Not only like, “What is it that we’re going to look for from each other? What is it that we’re demanding of the marriage?” Many of which we’re not even aware that we’re asking.

Lifelong monogamy is not one that people are like, “Should we not do that? What are the implications of trying to do that in terms of how much I need to diet in my 50s?” There are all sorts of things that we’re asking that we don’t even realize that we’re asking. The main thing we are not doing is saying, “I am not going to hold you responsible for helping me meet the following needs and goals. Therefore, you are pre-given for any failures that you exhibit in all of those ways.” Who does that? Almost nobody does that.

It came up in an episode where I asked a guest, “Do you feel bad for married people?” The answer for both of us was like, “Yes, in some ways.” On the one hand, you’ve got the privilege, you’ve got the wind on your back, and you have all these things that go along. On the other, it can be hard, especially because if James says to Jasmine, “I don’t want to do yoga anymore,” and then she can say, “If you loved me, you would do this.” I have a very good friend who’s a night owl. I’m a lark and he’s a night owl. It feels like sometimes a very small window in which we can interact in the day, between 2:00 PM and 9:00 PM.

He had a live-in girlfriend who was also a lark, and she could never get over the fact that he went to bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. She believed this. It’s unfortunate. “If he loved me enough, he would change his schedule,” versus, “That’s the way he is. I’m going to take the eight hours. It’s a lot.” Instead of The All-or-None Marriage, you were going to call this, you were going to call it The Freighted Marriage, which is a good choice not to, but why were you going to?

My initial thesis aligns with some of the way you’re thinking about these things. I don’t think it was in a significant way wrong. I ended up thinking it was a little bit more complicated. The idea of the freighted marriage, the metaphor I had in my head as something like a freight train. That’s basically how much more are we going to load onto this one relationship, this one pair of shoulders, this one engine?

I was concerned, and not only was I concerned about the amount of asking, the sheer magnitude, the sheer tonnage of expectation that we were putting on this one person, but I also was aware of some cultural trends over time with Americans getting less alone time with their spouse than they did before. It is a little bit hard to reconcile because, on the one hand, I want you to do all of these things, these are emotional and psychological things we’re less dependent on our spouse than in the past for things like staying warm, having enough food, and making sure we have clothes.

That’s even true of poorer people. We’re asking a whole lot less in those sorts of ways, but in terms of this psychological stuff, we’re asking so much. For me, one implication of that is you’re welcome to ask whatever you want of this one relationship, this one partner, but if you want to do all this emotional stuff, you probably are going to need to invest a lot of time and emotional energy.

The more you ask, the more is expected.

That’s my view. When you asked me why I talked about the freighted marriage, it was a blend of the amount of emotional tonnage that we’re putting into this one train car while simultaneously, like, “How much energy are we putting in the engine if we want to go all in on this? Do we have enough coal or fuel to do all this?” I was worried that right around the time that we were asking for all this additional stuff, we were investing a little bit less, at least in terms of alone time. A major reason why is because of how intensive we got about parenting.

Right around the time we expected so much from this one relationship, we also are trying to cultivate self-expression from our children. We no longer open the door and say, “Be home by 8:00 or dinnertime.” We were sitting there doing activities with our kids. Sometimes our spouse was with us, sometimes, our spouse wasn’t. Usually, what we were not having was adult conversation and hot sex. We replaced it with time with our children.

It’s funny. I was a child and I remember that and I played sports. I regularly have phone calls with my friends who are at their child’s soccer game or baseball game who often practice, and  a single adult sitting there. My mother never went to a practice. It was like, “Walk to practice.” If she had been married, she could have been spending time with her husband or having sex with him or whatever while the kids were out of the house. The parenting lift is very real.

By the way, just to make it clear because there are lots of people reading, I don’t know where the cost-benefit analysis from all this ultimately goes. It’s very complicated. That time we’re investing in our kids has significant upsides. It also seems to have pretty significant downsides. It’s not like investing time in your kids if they have upsides is bad for your marriage. This thing ends up being very complicated, but what isn’t complicated is the basic math. Now, we’re asking so much of this one relationship partner. The amount of alone time we’re getting that with that person has gone down.

I teach undergraduates. You teach undergraduates. You’re at Northwestern. I’m at the University of Colorado. These are privileged kids. These come from upper middle-class families largely. There’s a tremendous amount of resources spent on these children. These are the families that we’re essentially talking about, that feel this most in terms of having the means by which to invest in their children. I’ll tell you this, at least half of what parents do makes no difference at all. It’s hard to know. Plenty of these kids have everything going for them, and yet they still fall short. It’s very difficult, but you’re right, it comes certainly at the cost to this other heavy lift.

My reading of that literature is that it is hard to draw a clear conclusion. Jon Haidt is among the high-profile people who talks about coddling children. He is more of a lefty than it may sound like, at least from the title of that book, The Coddling of the American Mind, that maybe there’s a real downside that we’re not giving enough in independence and helicopter parenting. There’s also very little doubt that growing up as a child, knowing my parents love me, care about me and are responsive to me and are there when I need them, that’s also a good thing.

Yet alongside this, we’ve got these surges in emotional distress, especially among our teens and especially among our teenage girls right around the time that parents are investing more. This is a little bit beyond the scope perhaps of this exact show, but this question of how best to parent is open at the moment where good smart scholars are reading the evidence in different ways.

The takeaway from this is that it is zero-sum from a time standpoint. Marriages moved from this very pragmatic function. In an agrarian society, division of labor, “Let’s team up and I take the household, you take the fields” thing. By the way, those marriages were arranged largely, so it was expected that you might grow fond of your partner. The gender dynamics are impossible to ignore. It’s hard to think of this being especially good for women where your husband essentially owned you and could rape you as he liked.

You don’t have to go that far back. To some degree, you’re talking until the 1970s. It’s pretty shocking. You and I are sufficiently young that we thought laws like that must have been on the books forever. You can’t rape your spouse. Women are allowed to get their own credit cards. It was sobering for me to realize as an adult that my parents lived in a world where those weren’t laws. That doesn’t mean everybody behaved badly, but it was legally possible to behave badly very recently.

Now we introduce love. You get to choose. There is personal freedom, the enlightenment and so on. How exciting. Now it’s about companionship, sexual fulfillment, etc. As you pointed out, in the ‘60s, this idea of self-expression. You talk about Maslow’s Mountain, so you have a new take on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a fun metaphor. How does it work?

It’s a friendly variation on what I was initially playing with that locomotive idea, the freighting. The real upside for me of switching from the original metaphor, this freighted train metaphor to the Mount Maslow metaphor is that it allows me to incorporate some of what I learned that surprised me when I was writing my book.

If the initial thesis was like, “Ladies and gentlemen and everybody else, what are we doing? Why have we done this to this poor institution of marriage and we’re making ourselves miserable?” The story ended up being one less of a decline in terms of how marriages are doing and then one of divergence. That’s the idea of the All-or-Nothing Marriage.

I wasn’t totally wrong. The average marriage is indeed getting worse, but for a significant minority. Fewer than half of couples, but not a tiny proportion, are able to find a new way of relating in this very intensive era. It looks like those people have extremely fulfilling marriages. Let me come back now to the Maslow Mountain. Many of your readers will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy. Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist in the middle of the 20th century who made the case that there’s a hierarchy of needs.

One of the major elements of our motivational system is that when some needs become a high priority, you can’t focus on others. He didn’t talk this way necessarily, but at the bottom of his hierarchy or physiological needs, you’re meeting your boss for the first time and you feel a need to vomit, try being like, “No, I don’t want to,” or like you have diarrhea or something.

That’s an extreme case. That will command all of your motivational resources and attention. He argued that at the bottom were needs like physiological and safety needs. In the middle, you had more psychological needs, like love and belonging. Finally, toward the top of his hierarchy, you had things like esteem, not only self-esteem but respect from others. At the very top, at least for most of his career, at the very top of his pyramid was self-actualization.

What does that mean? It means living an authentic life that is being true to who you are. I could quibble with the philosophy underlying this, and in the book, I engage a little bit with what that means. Let’s engage with it for now because the ideas have taken hold in our culture, regardless of whether they hold up to philosophical scrutiny.

The idea that I presented is that there’s this hierarchy and at the bottom is physiological and safety needs, and in the middle is love and belonging, and at the top is esteem and self-actualization. That should sound a whole lot like the discussion that you and I have been having about how marriage has changed in the US over the last couple of hundred years.

SOLO 154 | Contemporary Marriages
The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work

Insofar, it’s true that marriage used to be about the basic stuff and has now gone all the way up to the top in terms of self-actualization or self-expression. Maslow’s is very clear that if you’re starving, getting food is great. You need it. There’s something truly profound about meeting the higher needs. If you imagine not meeting the need for hunger versus meeting the need for hunger, that’s a big deal.

Does it give you a sense of serenity and richness of the inner life? According to Maslow, not really. Belonging needs, esteem needs, and especially self-actualization needs, if you’re feeling like, “These days, I’m fulfilling my need to be the true version of who I am, I’m living my authentic life,” that is the way to a deep connection.

The third thing that he said that’s relevant to our discussion about marriage and to this Mount Maslow metaphor is he said, “Self-actualization is hard.” It’s not like eating is easy if there’s no food around, but as long as there’s food around, you can eat it. I’m setting allergies and stuff aside for the moment. Self-actualization, the reason why our therapy rooms throughout the country are filled is because people are trying to live more meaningful, authentic lives. It is difficult.

For me, you can think of marriage over the last couple of hundred years in the US as a mountaineering expedition. That took us from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, these physiological and safety needs, over to the middle section, call it something closer to base camp, which is the love and belongingness. Now, we’re looking up to the summit of that hierarchy of that mountain and saying, “What if this marriage could do that? What if this marriage can deliver not only a sense that we love and belong together but that we might be able to live a life together that makes each of us more authentically fulfilled?”

I call that the summit. The reason why I like the metaphor is I also talk about like deoxygenation. Anybody who’s done mountain climbing, I’m a big fan. You live in Colorado. I presume you’ve done some. Up there, the air is thin. The argument is you can’t do this summit attempt. You can’t look to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, the top of Mount Maslow and say, “I want the marriage to make each of us live our most authentic lives together,” without thinking, “I’m going to need a lot of preparation.

I might get altitude sick.

What altitude sickness in this sense means is for those of us who are disappointed in a marriage now, that would’ve been fine for our grandparents because our grandparents weren’t looking up to the summit of Mount Maslow. They wanted a sense of love, connection, and stability. They wanted all that stuff, but they didn’t think, “This is the way I’m going to have my most authentic existence.” They weren’t even saying on their wedding day, “I want to marry you because you’re my best friend. You complete me.” That stuff wasn’t on the radar. Altitude sickness is those of us who are trying to summit when you’re involved in a relationship that would’ve been better off at base camp. Base camp is just fine.

I spoke to Scott Barry Kaufman, and I’ve been developing my own model of well-being that works especially well for solos. One of the things that were discovered was that that pyramid that everybody knows was made up by some management consultants. I like your take on it as a mountain. My friendly amendment, if I could, would be that people’s mountains look different.

The power couple who wants to build a business together, their mountain might look different than others. While there are the foundational stuff and you need to take care of that, what I would say leads to flourishing can be more of a choose-your-own adventure. Nonetheless, the idea of doing it together with someone else, where that person is supposed to be pushing you and you’re supposed to be pushing them, you’re supposed to be supporting each other along the way, and you’re supposed to agree on where the summit is also gets difficult.

The version of you that you want to become isn’t the version of you that I want you to become. What happens there? You could agree to disagree, but not in the self-expressive vision. Not if you’re shooting for the summit together. That goes from like, “We still get along very well and we’re going to make a nice life together,” to an existential threat to the quality of the marriage. Once you start to say, “The version of you that you like the best isn’t the version of me, the version of you that I like the best,” you end up with an existential threat to the marriage these days that wouldn’t have been one in 1950.

Someone might have to leave the country for months on end to do what they want and then also remain monogamous during that time, of course. The Michelangelo marriage is part of this phenomenon.

Yet another metaphor. This one I didn’t make up. This is one that my PhD advisor made up, but she brought it into psychology from a novel she read. Some of your readers might be no more knowledgeable about art than I was. One thing that is very fun about this idea is it leverages how the great sculptor, Michelangelo, the Renaissance sculptor, Florentine, talked about the sculpting process. most of us think of sculpting as a process of creating, but he didn’t. He thought of it as a process of revealing, he said, “The David was in there. I scraped away the extra marble. I did some chiseling and buffing. David was always in there, longing to get out.”

This is oversimplified. it’s too essentialist, honestly. I do like the metaphor that my mentor, Caryl Rusbult, brought into social science, which is that to some degree relationship partners are hammer and chisel to each other. There’s a better version of me inside me than the current version. There’s the actual self and then there’s the ideal self. None of us has already achieved personal perfection. All of us have room for betterment.

The question is, are we with people who bring us closer to the direction that we would like to go, don’t affect us very much at all or, heaven forbid, push us further? One thing that if I were making a case for the solo life like if I were building a social advocacy case for why that should have more prevalent discussion in our culture, and I might know somebody who is making such a case, this would be part of my argument.

If we were to stipulate that all marriages push all partners in the correct direction, that is into a direction where both partners feel like this relationship has made me a better person rather than a worse person, there’s a pretty strong case for marriage. What percentage of the time do people end up significantly crankier or otherwise less close to their ideal self as a function of being involved in the relationship? Certainly, something other than 0% of the time.

Given the responsibilities, there’s nothing quite like the fact that anyone’s able to get together and stay together in some ways in a sense because, like the unconditional love of parent-child is easier to do because there’s no choice or there’s much less choice in that. Friends, you get to pick and choose in the way that Jasmine picked Harry for pottery and Susan to dish. The fact that you’ve got to find this person who checks all those boxes, they’re also supposed to be super hot and a great lover even when they’re 80, want to live in the same place, want to keep the same hours, etc. It is quite difficult.

It’s why solo is not about being single. Solo is about seeing yourself as complete and then having a sense of self-reliance and embracing unconventional living. It allows you that if you do enter into this style of partnership, A) You can do it with less pressure and B) You can also relax the rules as you need to and to be able to Michelangelo it in many ways. I practice what I call relationship design. Essentially, it is that when I have someone.

This is not limited to romantic partners, but it’s especially on display with romantic partners where I say we get to decide the rules. We’re not going to opt into these things. We’re going to talk about our expectations. We’re going to regularly check in on how it’s going and so on and to make sure that we still want to keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it.

I want to return to that notion of an unconventional relationship because you are pro-fusion. One of the things that your book corrected was that I was under the impression that marriages have never been better. The reason I was under that impression was, first of all, now you can opt-out in a way that you couldn’t before, not easily. You could divorce. There’s essentially a survivorship bias here. That alone is the existing marriages are better because they’re more related to choice.

Moreover, a lot of the stresses that have come from that might have caused problems in marriages can be lower. For example, the division of labor is not as great anymore. Men are contributing a bit more. We have all these energy-saving devices. There’s more potential income for the family and so on. You show, and you’ve already alluded to it earlier in this episode, it’s much more of a mixed bag. Some are doing well and some aren’t. Tell me more.

The overall story, if we were to date it from the beginning of the self-expressive era, let’s call it 1965, isn’t good., divorce rates did skyrocket. That’s why I’m surprised that you had the intuition because the cultural talk is that like divorce rates are skyrocketing and whatever happened to commitment and so forth. That sounds like that’s not your sense of things and you’re correct, but I do think that’s a pretty widespread view that marriage is in crisis or something. That was true in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. The likelihood of your marriage ending in divorce had been increasing slowly for as long as we’ve been keeping stats way back in the 1800s.

Circa 1965 until about 1980, it doubled from a 25% likelihood to about a 50% likelihood. Since then, it’s trickled down a bit. Your generation and mine is much less likely to divorce than our parent’s generation. That’s especially true among the college-educated. There’s a glass-half-empty version of it, which you’re starting to articulate. Call it 43% or something like that of marriages nowadays are likely to end in divorce.

Even still, the average marriage is a little less satisfying than the average marriage of earlier eras. That doesn’t even include all the people who are already divorced. That is true, legitimate, and a glass-half-empty version of the story. The glass-half-full version, which I tried to tell in my book, surprised me in the process of writing the book.

I want to say I didn’t set out with this ideology or to tell some story about how marriage is getting better. The glass-half-full version is marriage shattered in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, but something specific shattered. You brought this up right at the top of our conversation, which is there is no one version of what marriage is. What shattered in the ‘60s and the ‘70s was the 1950s Leave it to Beaver marriage and it shattered fast.

It was like a seismic social change for an institution that generally changes very slowly over time. A lot of people who got married before then were like, “This isn’t what I wanted.” People who got married right into the teeth of that found themselves disappointed. Starting around 1980 and accelerating, and we’re at a pretty good place right now, more and more people have figured out, “If I want this marriage, what are the things that I’m going to prioritize?” A lot of it involves marrying later and figuring out better who you are before you get married.

In 1960, the median man, the 50th percentile man, marry that 22 and the median woman was 20. I know. Now we’re at something like the median. The 50th percentile person is like 29 and 28 for men and women. If you’re trying to build a self-expressive marriage, that’s a very good thing. It gives each of you some amount of time to learn about yourself, frankly, to date around, figure out what things work for you, what don’t work for you, and what your life priorities are likely to be.

We’re making some good decisions. You could call this relationship design, but it’s more like a sociocultural design for relationships. If you want this marriage, if this is the marriage that our culture is going to say, “This is what marriage is and what we should be shooting for,” then you might want people not to marry at twenty.

Can I add something to that? There’s another benefit to the delayed onset. You don’t have to build as much together. You get to choose a path and then you get to select someone whose path is more complimentary. If you think about it, for example, for you and me, when I was 29, I was in a graduate program. I’m guessing you were around then.

I graduated from that one young, but I was a young assistant professor.

We had chosen our career, for example. Now we’re not ever faced with, “Honey, I got into the PhD program at Ohio State. We need to move.”

I know what you mean. Previous generations solved this problem by not caring about her job. I’m talking about the heterosexual case, which is, all that anybody cared about back then. In terms of careers, it was clear whose career mattered. The current generation solves it in part by what you’re saying, but the PhD example, which is a very idiosyncratic example, happens to be relevant to you and me. That one still has this problem.

The academics regularly confront all of us know the phrase two body problem. You’re 29 or 30. You’re finishing your graduate program. There’s variation course. Let’s imagine a heterosexual couple. She gets into a postdoc at Ohio State and there’s a faculty position that he could get to at UCLA. Both of those are spectacular job opportunities. What do they do? They still are confronting some of those complexities. In fairness to your point, which is mostly accurate, academia has a very slow process by which you’re settled in your career.

My point is that you’re more formed and then it makes the matching process a little bit easier. You’ve also done research looking at things like online dating and so on, which also can help a matching process.

I’m one of the higher-profile skeptics of this stuff. Online dating had three generations, or at least, I don’t know what you want to say about the recent stuff, but broadly speaking, there were three massive developments. The first was the internet came and Match.com came a few seconds later. That was in 1995 including Netscape Navigator, and the ability web browsers.

It was the supermarket’s way of thinking about online dating that is like, “Here are a few thousand profiles. Pick the one you want.” There were no algorithms in those early stages. In 2000, eHarmony came along and launched the second generation, and they pitch themselves not as the supermarkets but as real estate agents. They say, “We have an algorithm and we know who’s going to be compatible with you, and therefore you should spend a lot of money on our service.”

It’s no surprise I’m solo because I remember getting on eHarmony, filling out all the stuff, and it came back and said, “There’s no one.” More or less. Do you know what I mean, given where I was in my life, where I was living, what I wanted, who I was, all those things? There was no one like me on eHarmony.

There are a couple of issues there. I’m not claiming that I know this what was happening under the hood at eHarmony, but I think some of that was a marketing ploy. You’re knowledgeable about decision-making science. How does it feel when they say, “You filled out those 45-minutes worth of questionnaires. We don’t have anybody,” and then three days later they say, “You found one?” Part of it was manipulative, but part of it’s true that they had a particular vision for how matching was supposed to work. Let me cut to the chase and say they were wrong.

I am sure that nobody can do what they claimed they could do and we’re taking people’s money to do. To put closure on it, the third generation was with iPhones and with the app store. Everyone’s doing online dating on apps, which adds some of the spontaneity back. I am skeptical about the supermarket’s approach, the Match.com 1995 approach. As you know, that’s not how people make decisions. That’s like, “I don’t know. I saw several thousand and I’ve figured out who was compatible with me.”

That’s basically impossible from a profile. The matching algorithm stuff is great, but it doesn’t work. In principle, that could have worked. I would’ve loved it. I’m a relationship scholar. If I could have improved people’s relationships, if the whole field of relationship science could have improved people’s relationships by 5%, we’d be doing it.

By the way, we improve people’s relationships, but not by setting them up with certain this person versus that person. It seems like nobody can do this matching thing. I study matching a lot. The ability of people to take information about Joe and Jane and say, “You guys are going to be much more compatible together than Joe would be with Alice and Jane would be with John,” there seems to be nobody who has solved that problem. Anybody telling you they solved that problem to take your money is probably lying.

To me, the value is essentially reached. I get to meet people that I would never stumble across. The more niche your desires are, let’s suppose you’re into kink, you’re into BDSM or into polyamory, again, it becomes easier to reach those people in a place, in a way that you wouldn’t have any.

I would like to say two quick things on that. The first is that reach thing is enormous. For me, the online dating, the advent and now pervasiveness of online dating is terrific. That doesn’t mean it’s flawless. It has all sorts of inconveniences and so forth. In terms of enhancing or expanding the size of the pool of possible eligibles, people complaining about online dating right now should go back to 1980 and talk about a single person who says, “I haven’t met anybody in nine years.” That was feasible back then.

They were filling out personal ads in the local weekly independent paper

There were tons of shame that have largely gone from online dating. The second thing is with regard to the niche thing. This isn’t about niche, but one of the things I love the most about online dating, again, setting aside whether those first two generations did what they said they were going to do, which they didn’t, but this reach thing is incredible. One of the things that I like about it is how progressive it is.

Do you know who’s benefited the most? Gay people or people who are physically handicapped in some way. There are people who don’t think it’s that easy to go through regular everyday life and encounter a bunch of people of their preferred sexual orientation that are going to be able to engage with them and chat them up at a bar. Those are the people who benefit the most. From my perspective, is a terrific boon that online dating exists for exactly the reasons that you’ve said.

There is a couple of things before we finish. The all-or-nothing model makes it difficult to have an unconventional relationship. What you’re saying is the fracturing of this ’50s-style relationship, people are hacking it in some ways. they’re largely doing it quietly. They don’t announce it at the dinner party that we sleep in separate bedrooms. They don’t announce it at the dinner party that they swing. They don’t announce that we’ve decided we’re going to prioritize this or that along the way.

I’d roughly say that half my readers are disinterested in dating or relationships at the moment, and the other half would welcome it. I wouldn’t say it under different rules, but they have different expectations with regard to it. For example, they don’t feel like they are failures if it doesn’t happen. I want to pause and say that because that’s one of the most powerful things to come out of this project for me.

If you allow yourself to move from a fairytale to a choose your own adventure, you only have one life and is in no way less than if you don’t do this thing. It’s not less than if you try it and it doesn’t work out. It’s not more than if you try it and it does work out. That’s where this notion of shame and stigma comes from because there’s only one agreed-upon way that it’s supposed to work out.

Honestly, this is where you and I are very aligned. The details of where we’re focusing our attention differ, but reducing stigma, pretending that there’s a particular set of decisions, a particular life course that’s the good one and that the others are less than, I completely agree with you. If there’s very little I do in my career other than help there be a broader understanding of how people can relate in greater acceptance of various ways of relating, I would be delighted.

I enjoyed the book. I wasn’t frowning. What I liked about it was how even-handed it was. You are a researcher, so you have a lot of data and you’re able to show these expectations. Early in my career, I studied emotions. You can’t study emotions without studying expectations and desires. Humans have the ability to think into the future in the way that other animals don’t or even other homo sapiens do in a way that is striking. When you imagine a better future, in some ways, it’s good. In some ways, it’s a lot.

If there’s a take-home message from the book, it is that we live in a pretty cool moment where we get some amount of choose your own adventure. Even those of us who decide we want to get married, we get to decide how we might want to be married. In some sense, the book is a supply and demand perspective. It says, “You can ask for whatever you want, but if the marriage is unlikely to deliver it, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”

In one sense, what you can do is invest more in the relationship so it can meet these lofty expectations. Another thing you can do is bring your expectations to a reasonable level where your marriage can plausibly deliver on those expectations. I talk about a third possibility, which is something that I call love hacking. There are ways of thinking better, thinking more constructively, looking with fresh eyes at the relationship that doesn’t require a lot of time, doesn’t require date nights, doesn’t require that we break through our sexual stalemate or anything like that.

Are there generous ways we can think about the relationship? I divide those into three separate chapters. The first one is going all in. The second is recalibrating down your expectations. The third one I call love hacking. I have separate chapters on all of that on each of those. The last chapter is the essence of the book, which is, no marriage lives at the Maslow’s summit all the time.

For all of us, the best way to improve our marriage isn’t to decide, “I’m going to go all in. I’m going to love hack. I’m going to ask less.” The best way to have a good marriage is to figure out where do we have strengths and lean into those things and demand a lot about those things. Where is it that we’re chronically disappointed with each other?

We’re chronically a little sad. We’re frustrated or angry. Is it that important that this happened through this one relationship? Maybe not. Ask less. There’s the good value of the love hacking. I talk concretely about it in the book. How can we look with fresh eyes on these things in ways that are beneficial? The story isn’t one of investing more and you only can have a good marriage at the summit, or nobody should be shooting for the summit. Go for base camp. The answer is the best marriages have a set of adventures that are base camp and summit attempts, and then the cancer diagnosis comes, or the kids are like babies. You’re never getting any time alone together.

Go back down to base camp. Lay off the expectations, not because the marriage was a failure or because you might never ask for those things again in the future but because it’s not the right time. We do this calibration of going all in and altering our expectations and trying to love hack, be generous with the way we think about those things to the degree that we can do that strategically, we can have the best marriage possible.

Eli, I want to finish with two quick questions. You are involved in a Marriage 101 class at Northwestern, yes?

Not really. There are two classes. There’s a Marriage 101 class run by Alexandra Solomon and I teach a Relationship Science class that’s like a big lecture.

Why isn’t there a Singles 101 class at Northwestern?

I don’t get blamed for this one because I have nothing to do with that class. The question is good, regardless of whether I’m to blame for it. it’s a very legitimate question. There seems to be some default that people know how to live their life and what they need training for is to try to do this other thing, like merge their life with somebody else. Now that you posed the question, does that strike me as credible? Probably not. It could be like a Well-Lived life 101. I don’t know. It seems like an awesome class. To some degree, people are teaching positive psychology sorts of classes. Maybe that’s related to this idea.

I only say this because everybody’s single at one point in their life and even married people, half of them will be single. I’m being cheeky.

If I’m guessing correctly, there’s a subtext to your question, which is why does marriage get this privileged status. I grant you the point that for many reasons, some of which I do talk about in the book, our culture tends to value this one relationship quite a bit. We don’t have Friendship 101 and Siblinghood 101, and therefore you ended up with lots of books on the topic. You end up with collegiate classes on the topic.

I agree with you that there is a cultural arbitrariness to the amount of attention that marriage gets. That cultural arbitrariness has significant costs in terms of both making it seem like this is the correct lifestyle for people and, therefore, people who aren’t doing it are failing in some way and in terms of giving short shrift to other sorts of considerations. For example, maybe everybody should have like a Money Management 101 and we don’t get around to that class.

Last thing, I had this experience where I run into someone who I hadn’t seen in a few years, often as a colleague, always they’re married. They say, “Peter, I’m impressed with the Solo project, but what happens if you meet someone?” As if I meet someone, I fall in love, I pair bond, I decide to do something akin to a traditional long-term relationship that it undermines all the work that I’ve done that I need to go, “It was wrong all the time. Marriage wins,” kind of a thing. You live in another world where you have a project about marriage and you are a family man. Does that create a similar conversation? Does that create pressure?

No. It would be awkward for me if I got divorced.

I know the sequel book.

It turns out the nothing marriage wins. That’d be a good title. It would be costly to me in terms of my reputation. People would say like, “You claim to know how marriage works and your marriage is a failure.” Those people who want to judge me for that should read the dedication of my book, which is something like, “To my wife Alison who thinks it’s hilarious that I’m a marriage expert.”

She is like, “This is the marriage guy? It’s ridiculous.” I agree with you again. The subtext of your question is why we have the strict cultural default. Why have you failed at soloing if you built a life around solo principles and then ended up wanting to find a life partnership with somebody? There’s nothing that’s a failure about that as far as I understand the project.

You’d be better able to articulate it than I am, but as I understand, the project is here I am, I get this one life, and I would like to live it in the most ambitious and meaningful way that I can. That doesn’t in any way require that I yoke my life in perpetuity and in a very significant way to any one person. It also doesn’t say that I’m not allowed to do it. Did I get it right?

Absolutely. Certainly, I’m not going to be sitting around waiting for this thing to happen as if life is less than until it does. You said that even better than I could say it, Eli. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Thank you for writing such a wonderful, well-balanced, well-researched book. it’s worth reading regardless of whether that is a goal, something you’re doing, or something even that you’re considering. At the very least, even if you’re not considering it, it’ll give you a lot more empathy for the friends and family around you who are trying to do it. Thank you.

One of the hopes about this book is not a self-help book. It’s a book that has some of that in it, but it’s a book about what is this thing that we as a culture are doing and what are the pros and cons? I hope it would be interesting to single people. Peter, it has been way too long since we’ve chatted. I’m delighted that we had an excuse to get together again.



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About Eli Finkel

SOLO 154 | Contemporary MarriagesEli Finkel—author of the bestselling book The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work—is a professor at Northwestern University, where he has appointments in the psychology department and the Kellogg School of Management. He studies romantic relationships and American politics. In his role as director of Northwestern’s Relationships and Motivation Lab (RAMLAB), he has published 160+ scientific papers and is a Guest Essayist for The New York Times. A survey of his peers identified him as the most influential relationship scientist in the 21st century; the Economist declared him “one of the leading lights in the realm of relationship psychology.”