Two years ago Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel had an article in The New York 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; overall, 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 marriages, 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.
Their logic is that you need a few years of passionate love to fuse you together so you’ll stay together when times get hard. It’s a process beautifully described by a character in Louis de Bernières’ novel “Corelli’s Mandolin”:
“Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”
In “The Good Marriage,” Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee concluded that 15 percent of couples maintain lifelong romantic marriages.
The third lens is the moral lens. In this lens a marriage doesn’t exist just to exist or even just for procreation. It exists to serve some higher purpose, whether it is seeking God’s kingdom for the religious or in service to some joint cause or humanity-enhancing project for the secular.
In “The Meaning of Marriage,” Tim Keller argued that marriage introduces you to yourself; you realize you’re not as noble and easy to live with as you thought when alone. In many marriages there’s an unspoken agreement not to talk about what you don’t admire in the other, because the truth from a loved one can be so painful. But in a good marriage you identify your own selfishness and see it as the fundamental problem. You treat it more seriously than your spouse’s selfishness.
The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love. Every day there’s a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self. In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better.
It’s probably best to use all three lenses when entering into or living in a marriage. But there are differences among them. The psychological lens emphasizes that people don’t change much over a lifetime. Especially after age 30, people may get a little more conscientious and agreeable, but improvements are modest.
In the romantic view, the heart is transformed by love, at any age. In the moral view, spiritual transformation — over a lifetime, not just over two passionate years — is the whole point. People have great power to go against their own natures and uplift their spouses by showing a willingness to change, by supporting their journey from an old crippled self to a new more beautiful self.
The three lenses are operating at different levels: personality, emotions, the level of the virtues and the vices. The first two lenses are very common in our culture, in bookstores, songs and in movies. But the moral lens, with its view of marriage as a binding moral project, is less common. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the quality of the average marriage is in decline.