Last week, the Sunday New York Times had us smug marrieds worried we weren’t having enough sex. This week, the paper made us wonder if we were in the wrong kind of marriage altogether. In a Sunday Review article, “The All or Nothing Marriage,” psychology professor Eli Finkel argues that marriage, as a whole, is not better or worse, but that a small minority of marriages are stronger and more satisfying than ever before, while the average marriage is weaker. The article was accompanied by an illustration showing two couples in different rowboats. The happy couple floats under the shade of a tree as she reads to him. The unhappy pair is bailing out with buckets as the boat sinks. Demographically they look about the same, the men in J. Crew style get-ups, the women in Ann Taylor-like work wear.
The article presents itself as falling into the category New York magazine recently dubbed high-brow self help, a genre educated people read in order to improve their lot in life. But the story leaves the entirely wrong impression about the binary in American marriage. Reading it, a married person would be tempted to do an emotional inventory—do we fight a lot? Are we happier than our friends? But what he really should do is check the bank account and the wall of framed diplomas. The happiest couples are generally the ones with the most education and money.
Finkel writes that Americans today have higher expectations of marriage than ever before, but they can achieve the high quality marriage only “if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnerships.” If not, the marriage is weak or doesn’t last. This is what he means by “all or nothing.” In an era of what he calls the “self expressive marriage,” couples expect a great amount of personal growth and self-discovery in a marriage. If it doesn’t happen, they consider the marriage a failure. So couples who spent time every week talking or sharing an activity are 3.5 times more likely to be happy in their marriage, according to a study Finkel quotes.
But is talking and sharing activities really the dividing line between successful and failed marriages? Marriage, after all, is an institution that is “flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor,” argues Richard Reeves in the Atlantic. We recently passed the milestone where rates of marriage are higher for the college educated than for people who did not graduate from college. That’s the real marriage gap, and it has nothing to do with date nights. Reeves, in fact, makes a convincing case that what makes marriages stick these days is “high intensity parenting.” HIP, he writes, gives the marriage a joint purpose and cuts against the selfishness of the age of self expression. But it also takes time, and by all accounts couples of all class levels are spending less time together than ever before. It’s just that elite couples are diverting some of that together time toward their children, while the rest are just surviving.
The all-or-nothing nature of marriage does not belong in the discussion with quality time or multitasking or any of the things we readers of the New York Times often worry about. It’s part of the story about growing and radical inequality in America. New studies confirm that more than ever people are pairing off on class and education lines, that your marriage, as Matt Yglesias recently wrote, is probably making America more unequal, especially if you have the time and resources to read Sunday Review articles.
Finkel makes a nod to the socioeconomic dimension at the very end of the essay but then counsels that “first and foremost couples can choose to invest more time and energy in their marriage.” This is why couples reading the paper together on a Sunday morning probably come away feeling flattered, because it implies that their marriage is good because they are so good at marriage. But if you’re poor, even marathon pillow talk sessions probably won’t put you on the right side of the divide.