There is no one secret to a successful marriage. Whether your spouse is or isn’t your best friend, whether you decide to have five kids or none, and whether or not you got a pre-nup, a happy and healthy marriage means different things to different couples. That said, it never hurts to brush up on basic relationship skills with some expert-approved marriage tips — especially when said expert is an author and prize-winning Northwestern University professor who runs a relationship lab (yes, you read that right).
Enter Eli Finkel. He wrote his latest book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work ($18), in an effort to demystify “modern marital bliss.” Finkel argues, by using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a foundation, that because we no longer need our spouse to meet our basic needs (shelter, food, protection), we now rely on them to help us achieve those higher, more elusive needs — including self-actualization. Finkel believes that while meeting these expectations requires hard work, the payoff is well worth it.
Of course, this can be a tough role to fill, even for a soulmate, which is where Finkel’s research, findings, and practical advice comes in. In the book, Finkel takes a deep dive into the history of the American marriage, the fundamentals of the all-or-nothing marriage, and how to use something he called “love hacks” to strengthen your marriage on the spot.
Even if you’re not the marrying kind but want a long-term relationship to work, Finkel believes these rules still apply. But before you run out and buy the book, be sure to take a look at our quick interview with the New York Times op-ed writer.
Brit + Co: Let’s start with the basics. What, exactly, is the all-or-nothing marriage?
Eli Finkel: The idea of the all-or-nothing marriage is that today’s best marriages are better than ever (the “all” marriage), even while average marriages are getting worse (the “nothing” marriage).
B+C: How is this modern marriage trend different from previous decades?
EF: Relative to the 1950s, for example, we expect so much of our marriage today: best friendship, sexual fulfillment, personal growth, and so forth. Asking so much of our marriage is risky because it means that a marriage that would have been satisfying in the 1950s will fall short of our expectations today, yielding disappointment. But seeking to meet those deep psychological needs through our marriage places within reach a level of marital fulfillment that wasn’t available in eras when people didn’t even try to fulfill those needs through the marriage. For this reason, those of us who work hard to make our marriage as strong as possible can enjoy a truly marvelous union.
B+C: Why do you think this “method” of marriage works so well for the modern couple?
EF: The all-or-nothing theory of marriage that I introduce in this book boils down to supply and demand: Are we investing enough “supply” in our marriage — time, attention, vitality, and so forth — for it to meet the demands we’re making of it?
B+C: So you’re saying the all-or-nothing marriage is all about meeting high expectations?
EF: From this perspective, asking whether it’s good or bad to have high expectations is silly. The correct question is whether our expectations are properly calibrated to what the marriage can actually provide. If we’re asking more than the marriage can provide (when demand exceeds supply), we’ll be disappointed. The most fulfilling marriages are those in which we ask a lot of the marriage and have those demands met.
B+C: What are three easy things a couple can do right now to start working toward a healthier “all” marriage?
EF: I play with big ideas in the book, but one of my primary goals is to provide concrete guidance for people seeking to make their own marriage stronger. Over 1,000 people have devoted their academic careers to conducting scientific studies of marriage, but virtually all of these insights are cloistered within academic journals. My book distills the major findings and presents them in a user-friendly manner.
Building on the supply-and-demand perspective we discussed a minute ago, those of us who wish to improve our marriage have three general strategies at our disposal. First, we can increase the “supply” (time, effort, etc.) to match our high demands, such as making a concerted effort to engage in new and exciting activities together.
Second, if we’re unable or unwilling to dedicate significantly increased attention to our marriage right now (perhaps because we have young children at home or major stress at work), we can try to use our available supply more efficiently, such as by trying to think about conflict in our marriage from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for both of us.
Third, we can lower our expectations to align more closely with what the marriage can realistically provide, such as by turning to our friends for the sorts of emotional support that our spouse isn’t skilled at providing. Each of these strategies gets its own chapter in the book, where I provide concrete guidance about how we can implement them in our own marriage.
Pick up a copy of The All or Nothing Marriage and tweet us @BritandCo to share your thoughts!
(Photo via Getty)