A lot of what we believe about modern marriage may seem to be good common sense…but that doesn’t make it true. Here are 6 beliefs that are pretty widespread, that have been recently contradicted by high-quality economic and social science research.

1. People are more sophisticated today; infidelity is not the big deal that it once was

A few generations ago, marriage was an organizing principle with specific roles and expectations. However, we all know that modern marriage is no longer the monolithic institution it once was.

A 2010 Gallup survey discovered that while only 23% of Americans believe divorce to be a moral failure, a whopping 92% still see infidelity as a serious moral transgression. 

This was the highest negative score of any topic in this Gallup questionnaire. Infidelity is still a vital concern in American marriage, despite the fact that most modern marriages in affair recovery pull through and never divorce.

A number of fundamental values have stubbornly persisted in American culture through time. The issue of marital infidelity is a particularly American preoccupation.

Concerns and fears over infidelity, possibly as much as serial monogamy, is a characteristic of many modern American marriages. 

Ironically, just as Americans have de-stigmatized divorce, we seem to have doubled down on the importance of fidelity, intimacy, and fair play. 

In the dubious dawn of couples therapy, male privilege expected wives to assume full responsibility if their husband strayed. In the 1950’s and 60’s, gender roles were ironclad, and women were believed to benefit greatly from the institution of marriage, so it was their responsibility to maintain the status quo, no matter what.

But it was impossible for women to expand their consciousness without taking on fundamental issues of fairness, such as infidelity. In previous generations, wives enduring the economic hardship and health risks from their husband’s infidelity were accustomed to suffering in silence. 

That stance became increasingly absurd as women gained a greater degree of political, economic, and social influence in modern marriage.

2. Career women work twice as hard

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this isn’t even close to being true. Although, emotionally it may feel true for different reasons.

It is true that new working mothers spend about 2 hours more on housework and work outside the home per week than their husbands, but the math tells us that’s only about an extra 20 minutes a day.

However, once infant care is normalized after a few months, and mom goes back to work, the average total workload of both spouses (housework and work outside the home) is pretty much equal.

But the mix of total work is still somewhat gendered in modern marriage; she spends more time on household chores than her husband, but he spends more time at work outside the home. 

But here’s where it feels a bit lopsided. American culture still devalues women by subordinating them into the role as the go-to designated parent.

Although we’ve improved over the past couple of generations, women are still expected to subordinate their careers to the ongoing task of raising children. This compromises their career arc, and limits earning potential.

Modern marriage and economic justice

Corporate America still has a way to go to develop better family-friendly policies. The issue isn’t just about being family friendly. It’s also about economic justice.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics discovered that even if a woman returns to work her career outside the home for 20 years, an economic toll, over time, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars is typical.

Over a woman’s lifespan, even a brief exit from working outside the home to attend to her children may result in a subtle, but serious economic penalty rendering her more economically compromised in case of divorce.

While it is not true that “career women” work twice as hard, it is true that we’re still a long way from economic parity and justice for working women.

3. The worst way you can harm your child’s development is to divorce

No, the worst way you can harm your child is to remain in a chaotic marriage where yelling, screaming, and/or violence are the norm. 

While marital longevity is typically a positive experience, it’s not true for all couples. For some self-absorbed parents, the best gift they can give to their children is their absence. 

Although divorce rates have been falling since the 90’s, women initiate more than 66% of all divorce actions. Whether or not wives are satisfied in their relationships has never been more predictively significant.

Economic researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers took a hard look at every state that adopted no-fault divorce. 

The benefits of no-fault divorce are readily apparent. For example, as a result of their then new no-fault approach, the State of California in 1970 experienced a welcome 8 to 13% drop in suicidality among unhappy wives, and a welcome 30% plunge in reported incidents of domestic violence from 1970-75. 

Whether or not any given divorce produces a negative impact for children is a function of the degree of safety and emotional regulation in the family system. It’s pretty obvious that no-fault divorce was a win for kids, because it protected their moms.

It’s a well-established fact that children of divorce  display behavioral problems and struggle in school more than kids from intact families. More kids are stressed by divorce than not; a recent study showed that most children (55 to 60% or more) struggled in the wake of their parents’ divorce. 

But it is equally important to note that a smaller cohort, possibly as large as somewhere between 40 to 45% of kids will eventually be ok. And may even display signs of relief as cortisol and adrenaline are flushed out of their systems. 

While it is true that children of divorce are more likely to divorce as well, a recent 2018 study by the National Survey of Families and Households found that people who grew up in families where fighting and arguing were the norm, were also more likely to divorce. Even though their parents never divorced themselves.

4. We live such hectic lives. It’s no wonder parents spend less time with their kids than they did when I was little, I feel so guilty!

Wrong again. Particularly if you’re in the educated professional class, quite the opposite is true. Research tells us half a century ago, mothers spent an average of 10 hours each week attending to their children.

Since that time, all mothers are spending more time with their kids, even though most have also steadily increased their work hours outside the home. 

But look at what has happened to college-educated mothers. Despite the fact that they typically return to their careers at some point during the first year after giving birth, they actually spend more than twice as much face-time with their kids as moms with less education.

We have data from 1965 which tells us the average dad back then spent just under 3 hours a week looking after their kids. A couple of generations later (2007), research by Wharton economists Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks paints a completely different story.

Nowadays, a typical college-educated dad spends nearly 10 hours a week attending to his kids, but even less-educated dads are spending close to7 hours a week in child-care as well.

Here’s some additional data. Research also conducted in 2007, according to economists Garey (no, that’s how he spells it) Ramey and Valerie Ramey from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mothers across the economic spectrum are also ratcheting up their time with their kids. 

A typical college-educated mom spends a little over 21 hours a week engaged with her kids. And her less educated counterpart is spending nearly 16 hours a week with her children.

Over the past 40 years, we have become, seemingly across the board, a significantly more child-focused culture. This has resulted in an unusually anxious style of parenting. It’s hard to keep an eye on the struggles our kids are having now, but also on the adult we hope they eventually become. We often feel we aren’t doing enough… when we’re actually doing more than ever.

I wonder if we’re spending less exclusive time with our partners because we’re spending more inclusive time with our children.

5. Happy couples are an asset to their extended families, local community, and even to civilization itself

Sometimes therapists get a little carried away when they rhapsodize on the merits of a happy modern marriage. I’ve heard this a lot from other couples counselors, sometimes near weeping in contemplation of the profound social significance of their craft.

I’ve even said this at times, myself. It's kind of a sacred trope among couples therapists. It makes us all feel embarrassingly warm and fuzzy…like we’re all members of some sort of post-modern, secular clergy. Unfortunately, as much as I wish it were, it’s just not true.

The fact is, even before COVID, traditional marriage was a difficult undertaking for the working poor. 

According to research by Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian, poor and working-class families, happy or not,  often rely on extracting support from extended family networks just to get by. This has reshaped the demographic distribution of marriage “benefits” along class lines.

Certainly, in the abstract, healthy marriages benefit the social order, but immediate families typically receive less aid and material support from married relatives, than if they were still single (Gerstel, 2011).

There’s an emotional tourniquet as well. We also learned that unmarried men call their parents far more often than their married counterparts. (Gerstel, 2011). 

Marriage is hard when you’re poor and working non-stop just to keep your head above water. However, before COVID, wealthier dual-income families have been enjoying a steady decline in divorce rates, more family time, and an overall uptick in marital satisfaction. 

Modern American marriages in 2021 convey the most benefit, in order, to the following:

  • Children of happy, loving, economically secure families. Gottman’s research has been confirmed in a multitude of ways. Children raised by loving parents under the same roof have a 75% chance of replicating their delightful early experience for the next generation. While loving, economically secure families have no monopoly on virtue, they usually have more abundant material and emotional resources to bestow upon their children.  
Nothing known to social science can remotely approach the long-lasting impact of a happy home-life in childhood. 
  • The partners themselves. Next of course, would be the spousal benefits enjoyed by both partners in the marriage. Marital satisfaction invites happy couples to close ranks against a potentially hostile outside world. The more economically secure they are, the higher their quality of life during COVID.
  • Perhaps next might be Civilization Itself (as opposed to the local community which typically is also a lagging priority). While it’s obvious that families are the building blocks of any civilized society, it’s a passive social gain for the most part.
  • Last, the couples’ immediate extended family… and the local community at large. Although experiences may differ, your immediate family and community are probably often eclipsed by more compelling concerns closer to home. 

I suspect that the wealthier a family is, the less they need to rely on, or engage with, relatives and neighbors. It’s no surprise that extended families sometimes resent marital intimacy, as divided loyalties can often exert relentless pressure on modern marriages. 

It’s almost axiomatic that the more a couple jumps social class, the more resistant and resentful their families of origin may become. Strong couples have a moat around their marriage, and most of the benefits are closely held.

6. The divorce rate is down because Americans are spending more time than ever focusing on their relationships

Unfortunately, according to research by Dr. Eli Finkel, the opposite is true. There’s a fascinating rift between certain couples therapy thought leaders concerning our expectations for modern marriage.

In one corner you have thinkers like Eli Finkel and Esther Perel, pointing out that not only do we expect emotional intimacy, fairness, and fidelity from our partners, we also want them to provide an opportunity for our ongoing personal growth. 

This tendency to expect our partner to boost our self-esteem and personal growth may be too ambitious, warn Esther and Eli, and could set us up for profound disappointment.

In the other corner, John Gottman specifically warns against downplaying our aspirations for modern marriage. For Gottman, respect in marriage is non-negotiable.

This is an interesting paradox; while evidence-based couples therapy accepts the notion of a “good enough” marriage, the emphasis Gottman puts on clear values, shared meaning, and the need for collaborative skills also empower couples to achieve not only their essential marital expectations, but their life dreams as well. 

Are we asking too much of one another?

Esther Perel often laments that modern marriage requires that our partners not only assist us economically, they must also be our best pal, caring confidant, passionate beloved, intellectual equal, and a source of tireless praise and validation.

Finkel and Perel seem to argue that one of the reasons research finds that Americans are investing measurably less time and effort in marital maintenance than prior generations is that the expectations for a successful modern marriage are excessively demanding. 

On the other hand, I have never heard John Gottman suggest lowering marital expectations below his notion of “good enough.” 

A couples therapy bar fight
Instead, Gottman describes conflict as an unavoidable consequence of intimacy. In an unusually public throw-down, Gottman called out Eli and Esther by name and bluntly told them that they got it wrong, although he was more deferential to fellow researcher, Finkel.

Marital expectations have been carefully researched

Donald Baucom, is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, and a giant in the field of couples therapy. Unlike Perel and Finkel, Baucom is in his second decade of his research on marital expectations.

 The greatest take-away from Dr. Baucoms’ years of research is that spouses get what they expect. Ouch!

Partners with low expectations tend to inhabit marriages and relationships in which they feel neglected. Ouch again!

On the other hand, couples with clear values and high expectations tend to be in marriages where they are well treated. Gottman calls these couples “the Masters of Marriage.”

Gottman might argue that if we’re in emotional gridlock, it would be truly myopic and unimaginative for couples therapists (of all people!) to argue that our expectations of marriage should be clinically lowered. 

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Esther Perel

Marital satisfaction has less to do with ennui over thwarted expectations, and more about maintaining a strict mathematical ratio between positive and negative encounters. 

Gottman agrees with Finkel that critical issues such as Developmental Trauma, self-actualization, and spiritual growth, are not the typical purview of intimate bonds.

But while many partners may have unrealistic expectations for their relationship, unilaterally recalibrating expectations downward is precisely the wrong approach, according to Gottman.

Are marital expectations unwise?

“When you pick a partner, you pick a story… and often you will be recruited for a play that you didn’t audition for.” Esther Perel

A committed modern marriage acknowledges and accepts a partners’ human frailty… it doesn’t recoil from it. 

John Gottman’s favorite couples therapist, the late great Dan Wile, addressed the same truth as a choice… not a conscription:

“When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” Dan Wile

We are living in tough times. Now, perhaps more than ever, revisiting our expectations and aspirations is as wise as it is overdue. Modern marriage is one thing…but modern marriage during a crippling global pandemic is quite another. 

Expectations matter. What we choose to accept, or protest, from our partner matters.

Final thoughts on modern marriage and expectations from marriage

Should our commitment to one another adjust in real time to the extent to which all of our needs and expectations are met in the present moment? Should we hesitate over how hard we may have to work in couples therapy during especially tough times?

In order to prevent resentments, should we effectively lower our marital expectations? Or is “good enough” the best approach?

Clinically, I’m firmly on the side of “good enough.” And I acknowledge that for many of our power couple clients, what “good enough” looks like is directly correlated to whether or not they’ve felt they’ve set their expectations “high enough.”

“Keep working on your unresolvable conflicts. Couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.” John Gottman

A science-based couples therapy Intensive can help you attune to one another, address growing needs and concerns, and collaborate on a more compelling future that is both “good enough” and reasonably lofty as well.

Ask about how on-line couples therapy can help you both ask important questions, and clarify expectations for your modern marriage.

References:

Cherlin, A. J. (2009). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York, NY: Knopf.  

Finkel, E.J, Hui, C.M., Carswell, K.L., & Larson, G.M. (2014) The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41.  

Gerstel, N., & Sarkisian, N. (2006). Marriage: The good, the bad, and the greedy. Contexts, 5, 16–2.    

Gerstel, N., & Sarkisian, N. (2006). Rethinking Families and Community: The Color, Class, and Centrality of Extended Kin. Sociological Forum Vol. 26, No. 1, March, 2011), pp. 1-20 (20 pages)

Marquardt, E., Blankenhorn, D., Lerman, R. I., Malone-Colon, L., & Wilcox, W. B. (2012). The president’s marriage agenda for the forgotten sixty percent. In The state of our unions: Marriage in America. Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}