When Less Is More:

Exploring the Implications of Eli Finkel’s “All-or-Nothing Marriage” for Marriage and Relationship Education

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line First: In Finkel’s recent book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, he argues that marriage has been subsumed within the current zeitgeist of individualism. This new orientation creates a more fragile basis for life-long marriage and is a major force behind family instability rates. Despite the challenges and risks, he argues that contemporary marriage is primed for people to find the most satisfying relationships that married couples have ever been able to enjoy. Today we expect peak, summit marriages with exhilarating vistas that regularly inspire us. Finkel devotes much of the book to strategies to help couples achieve these high-altitude marriages. But, importantly, he also explores how to cope when we can’t reach the summit. His analysis has important implications for relationship education.

It took a while for Eli Finkel’s recent book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage,[1] to rise to the top of the book stack on my desk, but I finally finished it a few days ago. I read the book with a lens of a marriage and relationship educator, always trying to understand better how we can help couples form and sustain healthy, stable marriages and relationships in contemporary society. And while Finkel’s book doesn’t directly address the formal practice of strengthening marriages through relationship education, it certainly is relevant.

Finkel’s basic thesis certainly is not new or fresh: marriage has undergone dramatic shifts, changing from an institution historically tasked with helping people meet basic needs, to one in more recent times that nurtures companionship (albeit within pretty traditional gender roles), to one now that is oriented toward achieving greater self-fulfillment, self-discovery, and personal growth. Marriage has been subsumed within the zeitgeist of individualism.[2] Frankly, I think Finkel historical analysis is a little shaky; he needlessly buys into the recent pop history attempts to convince us that romance and deep marital love are modern inventions,[3] despite solid historical evidence to the contrary.[4]

Regardless of the historical underpinnings of his analysis, I think Finkel is correct in arguing that this new orientation creates a more fragile basis for life-long marriage and is a major force behind family instability rates. And I think he is correct when he argues that, despite the challenges and risks, contemporary marriage is primed for people to find the most satisfying relationships that married couples have ever been able to enjoy. Today we expect peak, summit marriages with exhilarating vistas that regularly inspire us. To find these summits, we are free to structure our paths in a myriad of ways that will help us get there. Strong norms for what marriage is and how we should act in it are incompatible with “all-in” marriages that must cater to individual personal growth needs. Finkel devotes much of the book to strategies to help couples achieve high-altitude marriages. But, importantly, he also explores how to cope when we can’t reach the summit.

Because we expect our marriages to fulfill so many high-order needs and wants, this puts a lot of pressure on them. And when they don’t seem like Lexus-quality vehicles for powering personal growth, then there is pressure to abandon them and seek that fulfillment elsewhere. When the “all-in” marriage falls short we are left with a “nothing” marriage, or at least a “not-good-enough” one. I think Finkel comes up a little short in his analysis here. I don’t think he considers adequately how many couples find rich personal growth and fulfillment through an epigenetic transformation of two lives and souls into one (to use a biblical metaphor) or by creating a unified “we” that is more satisfying and fulfilling than two connected “me’s” (to borrow the marriage guru John Gottman’s useful terms[5]). But I’ll leave that critique for another day and keep my focus on the strategies Finkel recommends for surmounting contemporary marital challenges.

Finkel spends a lot of time in his book explaining that we don’t need to embrace the false dichotomy of the “all-or-nothing” marriage, and that is where I think he makes his best contribution to our understanding of 21st century marriage and how we can help people find stable and satisfying marriages. He explores three general strategies to strengthen marriages given the puzzling pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into. One of them – going all in – is where the field of marriage and relationship education is already making a valuable contribution. High-altitude, summit marriages need a lot of oxygen. They need a lot of time and effort and communication skill and interpersonal aptitude to find the depth and growth and soul-level connection we seek. Marriage and relationship education, with its focus on deeper understanding of ourselves and each other and relationship skills is a good outfitter for these ascents.

Parenthetically, Finkel devotes a chapter to the reality that many less advantaged couples will struggle to achieve a summit marriage because their relationship bandwidths are narrowed by real social and economic disadvantages that produce chronic stress. He does not address controversies surrounding current social policy attempts to provide disadvantaged couples with free relationship-strengthening programs and whether this is a good idea.[6]

But Finkel focuses more on advantaged couples who don’t always have the time and psychological bandwidth for peak marriages either. Young children deprive of them of sleep; demanding periods of work suck their time and energy; and stressful external experiences roadblock their efforts to focus on their romantic relationships. Finkel has two other strategies to help deal with the reality that we usually can’t stay at marital peaks for long periods of time. During those stressful times when we can’t give our peak marriages the full resources they require, we can still do small things to show that we value each other and the marriage and help keep the relationship good enough for now. We can make small but meaningful efforts to “hold the marriage afloat until life gets simpler (p. 185).”

Finkel calls these small efforts “lovehacks,” which have three characteristics: they don’t take much time, they don’t require coordination with our spouse (they are unilateral efforts), and they don’t require us to lower our ultimate expectations for our relationships. Here he dives into the abundant social-psychology research documenting how minor behavioral and cognitive shifts can produce disproportionate benefits. For instance, giving our spouses the benefit of the doubt (or as social psychologists would say, making external and temporary attributions about our partner’s seemingly problematic behaviors) yields big gains in terms of avoiding conflict and negative thoughts. We can learn to push pause and take a few seconds to give our partner the benefit of the doubt when we know they are decent people who basically love us and want us to be happy. Or, maybe we can’t invest the time right now to help our spouse work through some deep issues and frustrations, but at least we can take 10 minutes at the end of the day to reconnect and hear about her or his day. Little efforts that don’t require a lot of energy can still communicate that we care and want to keep things from getting moldy.

I don’t think marriage and relationship education does as good a job here. We are trying so hard to help people ascend to their summit marriages that we don’t realize sometimes they just need some simple lovehacks to keep things good enough during a stressful season of life. In fact, I worry at times that we can do some damage when what couples need – what they can handle right now – are some simple lovehacks but we try to stuff their already exhausted heads with relationship skills that take a lot of time and effort to do well.

Which brings us to Finkel’s third general strategy of “recalibration”: adjusting our expectations a little, asking a bit less of our marriage for a season. This strategy is more controversial. Settling for less than we want seems downright un-American; this is the age of everything. But he rightly points out that maybe we can slake our thirst for adventurous travel with a sibling or good friend when our spouse is a DNA-encoded homebody. Is mind-blowing sex twice a week really a requirement for a satisfying marriage, or is comfortable intimacy and rich friendship just as satisfying and perhaps even more growth-promoting? If an all-in, summit marriage requires that our spouse be all and do all for us, then we are sure to end up disappointed and resentful.

Now, you can run off the rails with this, as Finkel does when he extends his recalibration strategy to a somewhat queasy approval of consensual nonmonogamy when spouses’ desires for sexual adventures are substantially misaligned (as often they are). But I can rip the pages of that section of chapter 11 out and still appreciate the basic premise that we don’t need to have all our crucial needs and wants met by a single individual, that subtracting a few expectations from our marriage can rebalance the equation at a more sustainable level long term.

I wonder how well marriage and relationship education does at this. Can we help couples recalibrate their expectations without seeming to ask them to settle for less than they really deserve? “Make more of your relationship by asking for less” doesn’t sound like an appealing marketing campaign to draw motivated couples to our classes. Yet a clever Madison-avenue version of that strategy (“When less is more”) may be just what is needed for many couples, sometimes just temporarily but other times as a permanent readjustment. Realism may be harder to market but it’s a good basis for effective interventions.

Helping couples learn these two general strategies for helping not-quite-all-in-all-the-time marriages – lovehacks and recalibrating – need more serious attention from relationship educators. We can’t devote all our attention to our great 6-session, 12-hour programs to reach marital Mt. Everests, even if we could get more frazzled and frustrated couples to stumble through our program doors. Let’s aim higher and help more couples by helping them lower the demands of what it takes to make a marriage good and strong.

Note: An earlier, edited version of this blog appeared on the Institute for Family Studies blog, February 19, 2019. I’m grateful to the Institute for permission to post this version here.

Endnotes:

[1] Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage: How the best marriages work. New York: Dutton. Finkel is a social psychologist and professor of psychology and management at Northwestern University.

[2] Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R. Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. New York: Harper & Row.

[3] Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage: A history. Toronto: Penguin Group.

[4] Gee, J. (2008). Love and marriage in the ancient world: An historical corrective. Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, 35, 83-103.

[5] Gottman, J. M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.

[6] For a critical perspective on this issue, see Randle, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity: Marriage education policy and inequality in America. New York: Columbia University. And see my critique of this book here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jftr.12272. Or, read my blog about the book here: http://relationshipeducator.org/blog/books/book-review-proposing-prosperity-marriage-education-policy-and-inequality-in-america/