I n case you hadn’t noticed, the secular world is struggling with marriage. Professor of social psychology Eli Finkel suggests that the reason for this is because originally, marriage was based on pragmatic considerations such as the merging of families, economic necessities, and division of labor — all factors having to do with basic survival. Marriage tended to “work” well in the sense that divorce was rare and most people were satisfied. According to Finkel, romance is a factor that only came into play in more recent times. This “extra demand,” however, made marriage more difficult.

As people “fell out of love,” divorce rates started rising. Even more recently, marriage has been seen additionally as a vehicle for self-actualization — a combination that has made marital success even more elusive. These days, marriages often end when one partner feels stifled, suppressed, bored, or unfulfilled — even if the spouse is “a nice person.”

The “New” Marriage

Our community is not immune to the culture around us. Our divorce rates have risen due to changes in economic realities and non-Jewish ideologies. Therefore, reflecting on societal trends can help us avoid the pain caused by false ideals.

For example, Finkel notes that the recent desire to “actualize” marriage can lead to the greatest satisfaction that marriage can offer — or cause marital failure. In other words, when a modern marriage succeeds in nurturing both the couple and the individuals within it, the result is the most rewarding type of relationship in the history of marriage.

But it’s very difficult to create a marriage that offers closeness, commitment, family, comfort, independence, freedom, familiarity, security, adventure, and stability. Most people will not be able to create such a high-level relationship, and consequently will feel varying amounts of frustration and disillusionment. When the goals of marriage are virtually impossible to attain, most people will not be satisfied with their real-life marriage. Many will become dissatisfied with the institution of marriage itself. And indeed, less than half of the adult population in the United States is currently choosing to marry.

Making Marriage Work

Finkel, however, offers solutions. He suggests that as goals for marriage become higher, we must work harder to achieve them. You can’t sit back and let marriage happen by itself. You need to apply concerted effort to actively nurturing the relationship (on top of fulfilling “obligations,” such as making money, homemaking, childcare, and creating the space for personal fulfillment). This work involves putting both time and attention into one’s relationship.

Finkel also suggests that married individuals “diversify their social portfolios,” or get some of their social needs met from people other than their spouse. Expecting one person to provide all companionship, entertainment, and support is simply unrealistic. People need to turn to friends and family to supplement their needs for connection.

Up to this point, Finkel’s ideas sound challenging but reasonable: If you want your marriage to be great, you have to work on it, and you shouldn’t rely on your partner to be the sole source of your emotional and social support. However, Finkel’s fatal flaw appears when he suggests that people usually need more than one partner in order to be truly happy. This notion would be laughable if it were not currently being promoted in mental-health circles as well as in mainstream books, magazines, and real life.

In an attempt to have it all, people are now left with nothing — no marriage, no home, no family. An inability to tolerate imperfection and discomfort has been the undoing of marriage in Western societies. People can no longer enjoy the security, love, and support of enduring relationships because they cannot cope with the inevitable imperfection, frustration, and disappointment that is as much a part of married life as it is a part of life itself.

Jewish Marriage

As Jews, we are used to the concept of limits: there are foods we can’t have, activities we can’t do, places we can’t go. This prepares us to live without and teaches us that we can survive the experience. This “deprivation” actually strengthens us for life and for marriage in particular.

Our partners (like ourselves), will always be imperfect and lacking. And no, we will not get everything we want from one person. But by learning to accept, tolerate, and live with this reality, we can ultimately get everything we want.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 583)