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:
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:
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?
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.