Wendy* and Tony* look like the perfect couple. Married for 12 years, they appear to enjoy one another and their two children. Both teachers, they are successful in their careers and seem comfortable with their financial situation. They own a moderate-sized home and two older-model cars. They hold hands in public and laugh and chat easily with one another and friends at social gatherings.
Yet in private, Tony frequently comments on Wendy’s inability to lose the weight from her last pregnancy; and Wendy complains about his impatience with their younger child, who is having some difficulty in school.
These may seem like small concerns, but such complaints often reflect larger problems in a relationship. Tony and Wendy rarely have sex anymore. Family meals have become increasingly tense. They try not to argue in front of the children, which means that they sometimes go for days in an icy silence.
With something like 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, Tony and Wendy are clearly not alone. But what’s going on here? Why are so many of us so unhappy in our relationships?
A colleague sent me a copy of a recent study that addresses this question. A group of psychologists from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that the problem may not be in our relationships, but in our expectations. If you are in a relationship that, like Tony and Wendy’s, looks good from the outside but seems to be crumbling from the inside, your own expectations and your partner’s may be at least partly to blame. If your marriage is destroying your self-esteem instead of making you feel good about yourself, these authors suggest that you and your partner look at your goals for the relationship. The study's authors report that the major problem with most marriages today is related to a shift in what we look for from the person we plan to live with till death do us part.
In the past marriage was primarily expected to provide for physical care and satisfaction, but today we look to our partners for much more. Contemporary spouses are expected to facilitate one another’s psychological, emotional, social, personal, and professional growth. A happy marriage, this research tell us, is one in which a couple feels physically and emotionally safe, and gets their physical and social needs taken care of. Even more important, these authors say, is our need for our life partners to support our life goals. We want to be with someone who understands and backs us as we develop into the person we want to be.
The Challenges We Face
Here’s the problem: You and your spouse may genuinely love and respect one another. But whether one or both of you is working full-time or whether one of you is home taking care of children, a modern lifestyle does not provide a lot of spare time or energy for carefully making sure you are both feeling good about yourselves or each other. More likely, when you see each other, the first thing you think to do is complain about the things you each feel the other hasn’t gotten done, or hasn’t done right.
Feelings get hurt and you hurt back in retaliation—when what you both really want is someone to say what a good job you’ve done and how hard you’ve been working. These are what the authors of the study call the “high altitude needs” of contemporary relationships; they say that because most relationships operate on this higher emotional level while at the same time the partners are so busy and overwhelmed with life tasks and goals, they feel deprived of the emotional “oxygen,” or support and nurturing, that they both need and expect from each other.
There is good news, though.
First of all, if this is how you feel, there's a good chance your partner feels the same way. Hard as it may be to empathize with one another, it can help if you start to acknowledge out loud that you both need more nurturing, admiration, and respect. That simple step can spontaneously put some oxygen back into your relationship.
Talking about your goals and your expectations, your hopes and aspirations—not just in your marriage, but in all aspects of your life—can also help. Give each other legitimate (not phony) credit and praise. Be honest about the things you admire about each other. Surprisingly, even expressing feelings of envy for something your partner does better than you can have a positive effect, since that kind of envy is also an expression of admiration.
Fortunately, this was what happened with Tony and Wendy. As they stopped attacking one another for what they were not doing and began to acknowledge the things that they appreciated and admired in one another, they both began to feel better. As Wendy pointed out, there were so many layers to their arguments that they had lost track of all of the good feelings that had brought them together in the first place. “If I was mad at him for not putting his dishes in the dishwasher, I would start to think about all of the other selfish things he did that bothered me. And then I would feel mad at him and bad about myself for being married to such a selfish, ungenerous man.” He would pick up on her feelings and get mad at her for the things she did that were selfish. As he put it, “I didn’t like being seen that way, so I needed to prove to her that she was every bit as bad as I was.”
The end result was that they both felt unsupported and uncared for. But they also felt badly about themselves for being angry and critical all the time. In truth, they are both nurturing, loving people, but they had lost sight of this in their relationship.
As they consciously began to re-invest in the nurturing and emotional feeding of one another and their relationship, they both felt better about each other and about themselves. As their self-esteem improved, so did other parts of their lives they had not even realized were dragging them down.
This result fits well with the findings of the Northwestern report, which says that marriage today “requires constant care and attention” from both partners. The investment of energy and time can seem daunting, but it can pay off. The new data shows that when couples invest time and energy in supporting one another, they are happier and more fulfilled.
* names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
Reference article: The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen by Eli J. Finkel (Department of Psychology and Department of Management and Organizations, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois), Chin Ming Hui (Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois), Kathleen L. Carswell and Grace M. Larson (Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois). Psychological Inquiry, 25: 1–41, 2014