Relationship researcher Eli J. Finkel shares a three-step process to help you identify — and get — what you most want out of your marriage.
What is marriage for? In modern societies, we can have financial security, cohabitation, sex, love, children and more without being married. This makes the institution less essential — and much more flexible.
We have the freedom to determine what we will and won’t seek from our marriage, which affords us the chance to build a relationship that plays to our strengths and circumvents our weaknesses (TEDxUChicago Talk: The marriage hack). Will we seek financial security? Emotional warmth? Hot sex? Exciting adventures? Intellectual inspiration? Co-parenthood? Cultural similarity?
Most of us haven’t thought seriously about what we’re seeking from our marriage. Sure, we probably want love, sex and companionship. Chances are, we prefer a partner who brings out the best in us. But these thoughts tend to be vague, and we rarely think about the elements in the marital buffet that we’re not choosing, which is required if we want to focus our resources on the elements that we are choosing.
1. First, do an inventory of what you want from your marriage.
In a sense, this task is impossible. Why? We’re not always conscious of what we’re asking of our marriage, we might be in denial about how important certain things are to us, or our memory during the process could be imperfect. But there’s no need for perfection. The goal is to think in a more sophisticated way about whether the requests we’re making of our marriage are reasonable — and how we might fulfill some elements outside of it instead.
We can divide our marriage requests into three categories: (1) needs that we can meet only through our partner; (2) needs that we can meet either through our partner or some other significant other (OSO), such as a friend or family member; or (3) needs that we can meet through our partner, through an OSO, or on our own.
Let me offer an example. Jasmine is 40 years old and married to James, with whom she has two daughters. She and James both work full-time and are extremely involved parents; they rarely see their friends. They live together, and their marriage is monogamous. First, what are the needs or goals that Jasmine can meet only through her marriage? These could include to develop and sustain a warm emotional climate in the home, serve as the physical and sentimental center of a happy, extended family, have a partner who is graceful at social events, have a competent co-parent, and have a healthy sex life. Second, what are the needs or goals that Jasmine is looking to meet through her marriage, but that she could also meet through an OSO? Some of these might be to receive emotional support when something bad happens at work, celebrate when something good occurs there, debate politics, attend cultural events, and be appreciated for her sense of humor. Third, what are the needs or goals that Jasmine is looking to meet through her marriage, but that she could also meet through an OSO or on her own? Some of these could be to learn to meditate, generate a long-term career strategy, become a kinder person, deepen her religious practice, and sharpen her logic skills.
This list, though far from comprehensive, helps illustrate the different kinds of goals that many of us look to our marriages to fulfill. To identify your goals, try thinking about them in terms of different life domains: interpersonal relationships, work, health and fitness, money management, pleasure, leisure, spirituality, social activism, parenting, and so forth.
2. Assess the resources and skills that you have.
After taking an inventory, we can search for places where our marriage is not doing a particularly good job of fulfilling our needs or where one partner must invest exorbitant effort to help the other meet these needs. Then we can consider if we could better meet that need through another person or solo. For example, if we notice that our spouse becomes frustrated whenever we talk about office politics, we might choose to invest in a relationship with a sympathetic coworker. Or, if our nurturing tendencies are stifled by our spouse’s independence, we might choose to reach out to friends who could use our support.
Although using our social network to fulfill our needs is less efficient than relying on marriage, it has its advantages. First, it’s unlikely that any one person has the optimal skill set for all of our needs, so it’s wise to leverage your network. Second, our spouse will not always be available. He or she may have to travel for business, get sick, or be consumed by a project. Third, our interdependence with our spouse means that stressful periods for us are likely to be stressful for him or her, too.
3. Come up with a plan to fulfill your goals and needs.
After we’ve taken an inventory and assessed our available skills and resources, we can generate a new plan for meeting our needs. For the first set of needs and goals — those we can meet only through our spouse — outsourcing fulfillment is not an option. In that case, we need to evaluate whether applying effort (from our self, or spouse, or both) can fulfill this need or goal; if so, how much effort it would take; and whether that level of effort is worth it.
If we decide the effort required is too high, we may need to recalibrate. If an insufficiently warm emotional climate results not from a lack of love but from different styles of handling conflict — perhaps our partner yells and we withdraw — we might consider letting go of that particular need or goal. Maybe we can work on ourselves instead, trying to be less conflict-averse and recognizing that expressing anger and frustration can be constructive if handled skillfully. The same process could apply to the second and third sets of needs (those we can also meet through OSOs, and on our own).
Consider the goal of learning to meditate. In an ideal world, we’d do it with our spouse, but perhaps he or she simply isn’t interested. However, we could easily meditate with an interested OSO or on our own. By assessing each of the major needs that we want our marriage to help us fulfill, we’re playing to the strengths of our spouse, our OSOs, and ourselves, as well as setting ourselves up to achieve higher levels of need fulfillment. And if we and our spouse focus on developing our social networks and our personal skills, our marriage will consist of two better-adjusted people as a result.
Excerpted with permission from the new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work by Eli J. Finkel. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 Eli J. Finkel.