For decades, relationship researchers have sought to identify the pathway to successful long-term partnerships. Everything from “opposites attract” to “like attracts like,” and from the primary importance of companionship to primacy of sex has become grist for the theory mill.
Now a recent New York Times op-ed by Northwestern University’s Eli Finkel puts a new spin on our understanding of relationships by suggesting that the most satisfied couples are those who can achieve self-expression with their long-term partners.
Let’s take a step back and examine this idea in more depth: According to Finkel, whose published research on the topic will be available later this spring, contemporary couples have raised the stakes for what constitutes a successful relationship. It’s no longer enough just to be satisfied with your partner, he writes. In the new model of successful relationships, you must also be able to achieve true self-expression within your relationship.
Finkel likens this desire to achieve self-expression to Maslow’s classic pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs in which our "lower-order" needs (hunger, thirst, etc.) form our base set of motivators, and "higher-order" needs (such as the desire for self-esteem) are at the top. In fact, Maslow himself talked about so-called deficit needs, in which people try to fill a void, compared to “meta-needs” in which people seek growth and fulfillment.
What I find fascinating about Finkel’s proposal is that it revamps psychology’s traditional approach to placing a metric on marital satisfaction. In the past, couples were asked how happy or satisfied they were in their relationship, but not how personally fulfilled. Yet, in my research on long-term personality change in adulthood, I found that what mattered more to people’s well-being was not "happiness," but whether they achieve a deeper sense of meaning in their lives, in the spheres of relationships, work, and family (Whitbourne, 2010).
It’s frustrating to me to see so many positive-psychology researchers focus on fleeting states of euphoria as their criteria for positive adaptation. Here's why: You may be miserable right now because you’ve had a bad day, but your overall feelings of gratification will depend on whether or not you’re fulfilling your life goals. In fact, if you’re headed in the direction of fulfilling your goals, you are likely to have your share of bad days. You often have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to achieve a deeper sense of meaning in your life. Perhaps it means getting up extra early or staying up into the wee hours of the night to prep yourself to get out of a job that is “comfortable” but unfulfilling. Having children is another area in which your short-term discomfort may be highly acute, but you still wouldn’t want to go through life without being a parent.
Similarly, in relationships, upping the ante so that your goal is fulfillment rather than happiness could create some anguish. Arguments with your partner may not be about who takes out the trash but on whether both of you feel that you’re able to grow and change separately and together. Raising the stakes might also mean that relationships are more likely to fail, as people decide they don’t want to just “settle” for the comfort of having a long-term committed spouse. The fallout from those failed relationships can be painful, both for the partners themselves and for those affected by their decision, like children and other family members. However, staying together for the sake of the children isn’t necessarily the most successful strategy to maintain family harmony.
The personal cost of ending of a long-term relationship can be substantial if not brutal. Yet partners can find ways to grow if they are able to achieve a level of forgiveness, whether or not they’re the instigator of the breakup. Treading into those uncharted waters that follow after a relationship’s demise, while painful, might help stimulate new growth in your personality and ability to form new close partnerships.
According to Finkel, if you want your relationship to survive the many threats that may come its way, you need to be able to invest time and energy into it. If you and your partner are going to feel that your needs are being met, you both need the opportunity to explore your individual and joint desires.
Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.
Finkel points to statistics showing a higher divorce rate among the sectors of the population which are struggling economically. Couples with lower incomes have more real-life stresses to confront that make it difficult for them to devote the mental and physical resources needed to keep their relationship vital. When you’re juggling two jobs to put food on the table, you may not even be eating that food from the same table at the same time.
Education plays a role in the equation as well: People with a college education have higher earnings, better health, and less stress, compared to high-school educated counterparts. As a result, they can put more investment into the relationship rather than into so-called lower-order “maintenance” needs (as in Maslow’s hierarchy). Further, people with a college education tend to get married later, and of the many factors predicting divorce rates, later age at the time of marriage remains an important one.
You can put this new relationship theory to use in your own life if you take this three-pronged approach:
- Identify your own needs for growth. Understanding your identity is step #1 in finding growth in your relationship. By gaining insight into your own values, goals, and commitments, you make it more likely that you will be able to share them with your partner.
- Understand your partner’s needs. Think deeply about what your partner seems to want out of the relationship, but if you don’t know, ask. You can base part of your insight on observing your partner’s behavior. However, if it still mystifies you that your partner spends hours tinkering in the garden instead of relaxing in the shade, find out what it is about being in touch with plants that gives him or her a feeling of inner satisfaction.
- Establish open lines of communication. You’ve heard this advice millions of times. However, in the framework of the self-expressive relationship, good communication means that you don’t just share thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the mechanics of daily life, but that you seek a deeper level of values clarification. You may need to resolve some of the logistical problems of not enough time or energy to make room for these soul-searching conversations in your schedule. But if you make open communication a priority, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
The world may not need another theory about relationships. But to help achieve greater fulfillment in yours, the self-expression theory has a great deal to offer both now, and in the long-term.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Whitbourne, S.K. (2010). The search for fulfillment. New York: Ballantine.