Adding air: ‘Re-oxygenate’ marriage in an era of suffocation

Today’s couples are using marriage as a tool to better themselves and expect a more intense partnership  — but that means they spend less time alone, according to Eli Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

That intense togetherness can lead to what Finkel describes as suffocation.

Eli Finkel, professor of psychology and management and organizations at Northwestern University, speaks about the modern of suffocation of marriage at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago Sunday.  Natalie Pacini/MEDILL
Eli Finkel, professor of psychology and management and organizations at Northwestern University, speaks about the suffocation of modern marriage at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago Sunday. Natalie Pacini/MEDILL

As factors such as work responsibilities and time spent with kids interfere with this crucial quality time, Finkel noted that couples can “re-oxygenate” their marriages. This means optimizing their communication with one another and trying to evaluate conflict from a neutral standpoint, and increasing “couple time” while mutually expecting less of each other at times.

Finkel spoke about his research on marriage at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

He described the history of marriage models in the United States and how they have transitioned compared to a hierarchy of needs developed Abraham Maslow developed in the 1940s.

In what he calls the Pragmatic Model of Marriage, unions in the 18th and 19th centuries focused on Maslow’s levels of more basic safety and physiological needs.  Civic institutions were much less prevalent than they are today to ensure basic needs, so spouses turned to each other mainly for food, shelter and safety.

But in the mid-19th century, as basic survival became less of a concern for most individuals, couples began to seek more than just the basics from one another; they sought love and belonging.  This transition required a greater mutual understanding of each other’s feelings than most marriages in decades prior.

In contrast, today’s marriages are looking to fulfill the esteem and self-actualization portions of Maslow’s hierarchy.  This is not to say, according to Finkel, that modern marriages are more demanding than those of the past.

“As you go up Maslow’s hierarchy, what you’re asking of the marriage itself is deeper, more profound insight into each other’s core essence,” Finkel said. “You must understand him at a pretty deep level to know that his unique psychological constellation of strengths and limitations are. And the way that you need to do that… is time – quality time together.”

“I do not believe,” Finkel said, “that we are asking more of our marriages today than we did in 1800 or in 1900 or in 1950 or any other time… What we are asking is different.”