Do we expect too much from marriage?

Cristen Conger

Recently, a poignant exchange between two "Masters of Sex" characters jumped out to me and got me thinking about a sort of "having it all" perspective of marriage that seems to dominate our millennial ideal of what that long-term commitment should look like. The "Masters of Sex" scene took place between Margaret Scully and her closeted husband Barton Scully:

MARGARET: We didn't sleep together before we were married because you weren't interested in sleeping with me. And I excused it away by saying passion is for teenagers and nymphomaniacs. Passion is not what makes a good marriage. This is a perfect, beautiful man who loves me - who doesn't care that I'm tall and athletic, who doesn't - doesn't want me to act stupider than I am. This is a man who understands me. BARTON: And 30 years later, we're still the best of friends. How many people can say that? MARGARET: It's not enough.

And, no, it's certainly not enough considering Barton Scully is a closeted gay man who had begun seeing male prostitutes in attempt to quench his conflicted desires.

Yet the clear love and friendship interwoven in their troubled marriage caught my ear because there's so much focus and concern (partly thanks to the pioneering Master and Johnson research depicted on "Masters of Sex") on sex in long-term relationships and marriage, that when you toss on those other precious qualities of genuine regard and companionship and multiply that by "'til death do us part," this sort of 360-degree nuptial fulfillment seems like a very tall order for a marriage to meet over time. It's the best case scenario, of course, but in practice it can be a challenges to maintain and nurture, and statistics bear that out.

Respected relationship psychologist and scholar Eli J. Finkel found that, on average, marriage satisfaction has declined over time. But! The happiest ones have gotten even happier. Finkel attributes this peculiar gap to the post-1965 era of the "self-expressive marriage," or the kind of "you not only complete me, but also inspire me to be the very best me."

We're the best of friends! We have sex every day! We split chores according to our personal strengths and preferences, not prescribed gender roles! Cue the rousing acapella indie band chorus!

But before we hightail it to the courthouse, Finkel expounds:

Though satisfying higher-level needs yields greater happiness, serenity and depth of inner life, people must invest substantially more time and energy in the quality of their relationship when seeking to meet those higher-level needs through their marriage. To be sure, it was no small feat, circa 1800, to produce enough food or keep a house warm, but the effort required to do so did not require deep insight into, and prolonged involvement with, each other's core essence. As the expectations of marriage have ascended Maslow's hierarchy, the potential psychological payoffs have increased - but achieving those results has become more demanding. HERE lie both the great successes and great disappointments of modern marriage.

Nor does it seem coincidental that the rise of the "self-expressive marriage" has happened alongside the growing body of research about what makes marriage boom and bust. We know, for instance, that a majority of straight American married couples have sex a couple times a month at most and that having a successful marriage is a top priority for more women than men. Even more tellingly, we know that men and women are waiting longer than ever before to tie the knot (29 and 26.6 years old, respectively), which probably has to do with that lofty goal of a "self-expressive marriage." Oh, and we know, too, that a hefty percentage of divorces are attributed to unrealistic expectations for marriage.

So what can we make of this unromantic information overload? As Finkel's research found, reaping those "great success" is most achievable among the better educated and more socioeconomically privileged among us. Though cliche, "time is money" rings true. More often, the demands of work, childcare, housework and more after-hours work eats away at available quality time together -- one of the strongest correlates of a successful "self-expressive marriage" -- and cramps our sex life. (Even the knowledge that work and stress cramps over sex life further cramps our sex life, which we are often -- too often? -- reminded is a consistent barometer of relationship satisfaction.)

So what does Finkel, who along with other researchers is publishing a pair of studies on this "self-expressive marriage" in late 2014, advise?

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.

In other words, don't expect a magically self-propelling "have it all" marriage; just like our parents, married or otherwise, have probably told us, relationships take work and even more crucially, downtime.