Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How self-actualization can produce all-or-nothing marriages

This is an interesting article in the NYT about the evolution of marriage. It argues marriage has changed in the last two hundred years as western societies have moved up Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

There have been three stages in marriage, according to author Eli Finkel. "Institutional" marriage, until about 1850, was largely a matter of mutual survival - food, shelter, and protection from violence. "Companionate" marriage, from 1850 to 1965, was more about love and companionship and intimacy, once the more basic needs were secure. And then,

Since around 1965, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.

But this has led to an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

HERE lie both the great successes and great disappointments of modern marriage. Those individuals who can invest enough time and energy in their partnership are seeing unprecedented benefits. The sociologists Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox have demonstrated that spouses who spent “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently. ...But on average Americans are investing less in their marriages — to the detriment of those relationships.

And so this leads to two very interesting points. At the higher levels of the hierarchy of needs, time and personal energy are much more important than before. And when it comes to self-actualization and self-expression, people's expectations matter more as well - perhaps especially when they become unrealistic or foolish. What can people do to improve theie marriages?

First and foremost, couples can choose to invest more time and energy in their marriage, perhaps by altering how they use whatever shared leisure time is available. But if couples lack the time and energy, they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.

There's perhaps wider lessons to be drawn from this. G remarked the other day that one problem with the Millenials is they have extremely high expectations of life, and then feel all the more crushed or resentful when they encounter resistance.

On one level, that story is as old as time. But it is almost a general truth that improvement often leads to turbulence and conflict and even violence because expectations have a tendency to rise faster than realization - which then produces frustration and anger. A rising Germany produced carnage in 19th and 20th century Europe. American cities burnt in riots mostly after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Many developing countries like Egypt have increasingly educated youth but few jobs or positions for them.

Improvement very often produces accelerated expectations. So it means we ought to pay very close attention to how expectations change over time, rather than simply immediate income levels or distribution of income. So far as I know, there is very little data that tracks those kind of assumptions or expectations, beyond very basic things like whether people expect to earn more than their parents. It isn't a matter just of expected income, or short-term economic confidence. What kind of opportunities do people think they will have? How much security do they think they will enjoy? It must be as related to education as to current economic circumstances. It also must come from medi models How quickly and why do people scale back expectations?

This also relates to the evolution of ideas about the good life - something which I will come back to. But one clear conclusion here is, once again, the diminishing marginal utility of money at higher levels of needs. It is mainly time that needs to be invested in pursuit of happiness here, not dollars. In fact, earning more dollars actually takes away from time spent together.

This is the root of the deeper problems with the modern economy, which I've talked about a great deal before. Markets are extremely efficient at producing excludable rivalrous nonpositional goods, like croissants or cars. But if the things we increasingly want are not subject to definable property rights or depend largely on other people's behavior, like honor or reputation, then the goods we want increasingly lie outside the market sphere. That's not a criticism of markets, any more than you actively criticize a Ferrari because it can't fly. It's just a fact you can't really define a contractual tradable right to a happy marriage.

The article also represents a much more binary vision of outcomes, although it's not entirely clear why this should be seen as inevitable. As society rises up the levels of Maslow's hierarchy, does it mean that this all-or-nothing phenomenon will become more typical in other areas too? Or does it simply mean we need a rethink of use of time and it how it is related to happiness? To what extent to do people who fail to onvest enough time or energy in a relationship do so out of choice? There are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories of people who spend more time at the office to avoid spending time at home, or those who are compelled to stay in the office to keep their job.

Overall, it's a very interesting illustration of how core structures in our society, like marriage, are affected by the evolution of what people want and need as basic survival needs are taken care of.


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