A New Toxic Trend in Relationships: Is Yours at Risk?

American expectations make it harder than ever to be in a satisfying marriage.

Posted Aug 18, 2017

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Where does your relationship fit in your life? What do you expect from your partner, and what does your partner expect in return?

These questions, which tackle issues of relationship centrality and need fulfillment, are not foreign to most Americans. We contemplate them, at least indirectly, when we date different people and try to figure out if a specific relationship is good for us, and will be good for us, in the long run. Does he make me happy? Can I be myself with her? Do I like who I am when we're together?

This seems all well and good: Find a partner who loves you, is deeply invested in you, supports you, understands you, and helps you grow towards the person you want to become. So where's the problem?

Are your expectations potentially toxic for your relationship?

Americans expect a lot from their partners. Scholars are now shining a light on the idea that long-term relationship expectations have changed dramatically in American history. We're now in a period that they believe sets the groundwork for an all-or-nothing approach to relationships. Finkel and colleagues (2014) call it a suffocation model of marriage, and it describes a new cultural push for unprecedented need fulfillment from romantic partners.

Does your relationship reflect this "suffocation" pattern?

To better understand the suffocation model, it's important to consider historical trends in marriage within the United States. A recent paper out of Northwestern University (2015) summarizes three distinct periods in which American marriage has served specific purposes:

1. The Institutional Era (1776-1850): Marriages are practical in function, serving as a source for fulfillment of safety and economic needs.

2. The Companionate Era (1850-1965): Marriages begin to have a more emotional purpose, fulfilling needs for loving and belonging.

3. The Self-Expressive Era (1965-present): Marriages are expected not only to fulfill belonging and love needs, but also to support personal growth and self-actualization.

So today, we're in the self-expressive era, a period of time when most of us are looking towards our partners to help us meet our "higher needs," which requires substantial emotional and cognitive energy from our spouses. Our relationships are bigger players in our psychological happiness than ever before.

The consequence? These new expectations mean that American standards for a happy, satisfying marriage have changed. What might have been viewed as a happy marriage in the past isn't quite meeting that standard anymore: those relationships are not as satisfying.

Does this set marriages up for failure? No, while the average relationship might be less satisfying, the best relationships are even more satisfying than ever before. The association between relationship quality and personal psychological well-being becoming increasingly strong (Proulx et al., 2007). If relationships are meeting these high standards, they're driving people's happiness and well-being, having an important and powerful positive effect. On the flip side, if relationships are struggling, the effect on people's well-being can be devastating.

In other words, people's relationships are driving their well-being more than ever before, but people are also holding their relationships to higher standards, expecting their partners to promote their own self-fulfillment. Further, as Finkel and colleagues (2015) point out, the time and energy needed for marriages to meet these new high expectations is being eroded away by a parallel cultural push away from quality time that spouses can spend together (e.g., work pressures, time-intensive parenting, stress). This creates a problem for American couples.

So what are the solutions? Finkel and colleagues (2015) argue a few alternative approaches:

1. Make more quality time with your spouse. Often this is easier for individuals in higher socioeconomic brackets, but leaning-in to your relationship, prioritizing it in the face of other demands, could be a way to support the need fulfillment necessary for a satisfying marriage.

2. Find ways to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. The authors recommend a writing intervention that helps people reframe conflict (Finkel et al., 2013), but other ways, like expressing gratitude for your partner, could foster intimacy and closeness.

3. Spread the support. Maybe at this time point, your relationship could be more satisfying if you leaned on friends or family to help you meet some of the self-expression or self-actualizing needs you have. For instance, join a team that can support your triathlete ambition, or let your friends be the people you trust to read the draft of your dream-job cover letter. If you ask less of your relationship, you might be better able to bask in the joy you take in being with your partner.

The suffocation model of marriage uses the word suffocating to reflect the joint pressures of wanting more from our relationships, while simultaneously having less time and energy to engage in the nurturing that would facilitate achievement of self-expressive needs. The typical marriage is suffocating: it doesn't have the fuel to meet partner needs, and individuals are paying the price by experiencing powerful marital dissatisfaction.

Redirecting our relationships and making more space for them in our lives may be one of the best changes we make for our own psychological well-being.

References

Finkel E. J., Hui C. M., Carswell K. L., Larson G. M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1–41.

Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in America is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 238-244.  

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