Three views of marriage

Two years ago the Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel had an article in The Times describing how marriage is polarizing: The best marriages today are better than the best marriages of generations ago; the worst marriages now are worse; over all, the average marriage is weaker than the average marriage in days of yore.

Expectations about marriage have risen, Finkel wrote. People now want marriage to satisfy their financial, emotional and spiritual needs.

But while some people spend a lot of one-on-one time working on their marriage, and reap the benefits, most people spend less time, and things slowly decay.

The way we talk about marriage is polarizing, too. If you read the popular literature, there are three different but not mutually exclusive lenses through which to think about marriage decisions.

Most of the popular advice books adopt a psychological lens. These books start with the premise that getting married is a daunting prospect.

Forty-five percent of marriages end in divorce; 10 percent of couples separate but do not divorce.

The psychologists want you to think analytically as well as romantically about whom to marry. Pay attention to traits.

As Ty Tashiro wrote in “The Science of Happily Ever After,” you want to marry someone who scores high in “agreeableness,” someone who has a high concern for social harmony, who is good at empathy, who is nice.

You want to avoid people who score high in neuroticism — who are emotionally unstable or prone to anger.

Don’t think negative traits will change over time, Tashiro wrote, because they are constant across a lifetime.

Don’t focus on irrelevant factors, like looks. Don’t filter out or rationalize away negative information about a partner or relationship.

The second lens is the romantic lens. This is the dominant lens in movie and song.

More than people in many other countries, Americans want to marry the person they are passionately in love with. Continue reading

  • David Brooks writes on politics, culture and the social sciences for the New York Times.

News category: Analysis and Comment.

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