Love

The Future Of Marriage (From A Couple's Therapist Of 14 Years)

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man and woman looking at each other in sunset

I have worked with couples in my practice for 11 years, and I find this work extremely interesting and rewarding.

In addition to helping individual couples, I am able to see patterns emerge over time across couples. Over the past decade, I have observed significant changes in how the couples I see think about their marriages and marriage as a larger construct.

These trends may predict large-scale shifts in how marriage is viewed in our children’s generation. More immediately, this may be relevant for some of my readers who are in or hoping to get into second marriages.

One massive shift that I have noticed even over the relatively short time span of 10 years is that women are more often the breadwinners in their marriages, or at least are earning a similar amount of money to their husbands.

This eliminates one major historical impediment to divorce, which was women’s financial anxiety. The wives I see in unhappy marriages now, versus even 10 years ago, are more likely to feel that divorce would be a viable financial option.

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In the same vein, I see more couples who are having children later, starting in their mid or late 30s. Both men and women want to focus on their careers before having kids. This shift means that the couple has had a much longer pre-kids phase in their relationship, and the changes inherent in starting a family may hit them much harder.

It is much more challenging for a couple to change a decade-plus pattern of interaction than a shorter one.

If a couple is used to being two separate entities, focused mainly on individual careers, hobbies, and friends, for ten years before having kids, the transition to being a family unit will be more complex. Often, in these cases, I see couples do a “turn-taking” model of childcare for their first baby, and when a second baby requires all hands on deck working as a team, the marriage suffers tremendously.

I also see many more child-free couples than in earlier years.

When a couple is either child-free or undecided about kids, it puts a lot more pressure on their relationship in terms of compatibility. When you’re planning on having children, a prime focus of the marriage is to raise kids as a team.

But when you’re not, then being compatible is the prime focus. Child-free couples often have higher standards for emotional compatibility than couples with kids, who may implicitly or explicitly believe that the differences between the partners will be good for their kids.

Overall, the shift in increasing emphasis on personal compatibility in marriage is well documented in the book The All Or Nothing Marriage by Eli Finkel. In this book, he discusses how more is expected from marriage nowadays than ever before, and how this leads to increased feelings of dissatisfaction.

In prior generations, spouses were not expected to be emotionally, intellectually, and sexually compatible as well as being equal partners in housework and childcare. Men and women alike thought that many of these needs could be met outside the marriage, by friends and family.

As nuclear families become more and more isolated from extended networks of friends and family, the demands on marriage grow ever steeper. There is also an idea that your spouse should make you a better person, and grow with you intellectually and emotionally over the course of the relationship; this is improbable for most people.

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In the age of dating apps, compatibility across a tremendous number of domains can be computed. Personally, I had a score of something like 96% compatibility with my husband according to the dating app on which we met.

This did, in fact, end up meaning that we were very compatible across a range of domains that I had never even thought about as being necessary for happiness when I was first on the dating market prior to my first marriage (in a basically pre-dating app era). Today’s young single people are seeing these compatibility scores, or at least thinking about compatibility in dating profiles, from the inception of their dating experience.

Dating apps also allow people to access a vastly larger pool of potential mates than ever before in the history of the world.

This means that people can be more selective, for better or worse. It also means that there may be more ambivalence about remaining in relationships that are less than wholly fulfilling because you are aware that a better match may be a click away.

The extreme child-centeredness of American society also contributes to the shift that I see in how people perceive marriage, as well as how they perceive divorce. Parents are expected to focus on their kids for all of the kids’ waking hours, and the parent's own waking hours often mirror those of the children because they are so exhausted from their parenting demands.

I have written a great deal about how unhealthy I feel this child-centered culture is for parents and children alike (see here and here), but there does not appear to be much sign of this societal trend abating, especially as parents now have fewer children (thereby focusing more on each).

Because of the burnout caused by this intensive parenting model as well as the shift toward 50–50 custody splits (or at least 50–50 on weekends in many cases), it often seems like my divorced clients are the only ones who get breaks from high-impact parenting.

This observation is not lost on their married friends; often, burned-out and exhausted female clients tell me that divorce would be better for them because at least they would get a break and their husbands would be forced to “step up” and parent on their weekends.

In practice, I see many female clients in the early stages of divorce who cry and grieve the fact that they will miss half of their weekends with their kids; I have never seen this feeling last past the first month of the new schedule, after which the women greatly look forward to their 48-hour recharge breaks.

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I believe that the future of marriage will be greatly impacted by all of these variables.

At some point, marriage may stop being the predicted and expected default state for adults. Rates of marriage among the middle and lower classes are already declining.

The only stable rates of marriage are among the upper class, who may be able to buy themselves out of some of these issues, especially the burnout related to the expectations of our child-centered culture, because they can afford childcare, including live-in help. However, the expectations for deep emotional compatibility are only increasing, commensurate with the amount of available “options” via dating apps.

I believe that, over time, the confluence of these factors will mean that only the most highly compatible will marry.

The combination of fewer women needing a man for financial security and the existence of seemingly infinite dating options will mean that women become less inclined to settle for anything less than what they feel is the best mate for them.

Men also will be less inclined to settle if there is a wider pool of women they can potentially access online. I honestly cannot see anything wrong with this so I truly hope it comes to pass. A shift like this would mean fewer divorces and fewer children impacted by marital disharmony.

Lastly, am also hoping that the fact that therapy has become so popular is not only a positive trend for individuals but for couples as well.

There are more college-age people in therapy than ever before.

People in their early 20’s are wonderful to work with. When they explore themselves and their family issues, this can be a game changer. They are much more likely to be able to make healthy decisions in their relationships if they understand the link between their upbringing and their romantic choices.

It would be great if young people’s increasing utilization of therapy can protect them even partially against entering into dysfunctional relationships, whether this means they delay marriage entirely or get into marriages that are likelier to last.

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.