neoliberalism and the massive ask of marriage

Modern relationships are suffering because people have started looking at relationships through the lens of neoliberalism, as if dating was a market. The result is that sensible ideas are mixed with insidious ones, so that the sensible ideas are neutralized.

A recent example is this article in The Atlantic, in which Olga Khazan interviews a social psychologist about marriage.

Olga Khazan: How has what we expect from our marriages changed since, say, 100 years ago?

Eli Finkel: The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.

Khazan: As in our spouse should, just to give a random example, provide interesting feedback on our articles that we’re writing?

Finkel: That’s obviously a white-collar variation on the theme, but I think up and down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it isn’t totally crazy these days to hear somebody say something like, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.”

The misunderstanding is that staying together for 30 years IS growing, so bailing out for personal growth reasons is counterproductive. Negotiating the Therapeutic Alliance, one of the first therapy books I read, says that real therapeutic progress is achieved in the process of repairing ruptures. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy with Trauma Survivors says good relationships are better than therapy.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering or dissatisfaction, caused by craving, attachment, and aversion. Lacanian psychoanalysis emphasizes the lack at the core of the subject, which makes satisfaction of desire impossible. Acceptance of life’s limitations is part of growing up. This isn’t the same as “settling.” It’s just avoiding the mistake of using feelings inherent to the human condition as a reason to blow up your relationship (and the next one).

Only you are ultimately responsible for your own personal growth. If life is stagnating, you can work on that, but it’s unfair to blame your partner. A good relationship makes personal growth much easier, but being single doesn’t preclude personal growth.

Khazan: Why has that become something that we are just now concerned with? Why weren’t our great-grandparents concerned with that?

Finkel: The primary reason for this is cultural. In the 1960s, starting around that time, we rebelled as a society against the strict social rules of the 1950s. The idea that women were supposed to be nurturing but not particularly assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not particularly nurturing. There were relatively well-defined expectations for how people should behave, and in the 1960s, our society said, “To hell with that.”

Humanistic psychology got big. So these were ideas about human potential and the idea that we might strive to live a more authentic, true-to-the-self sort of life. Those ideas really emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, but they got big in the 1960s.

I go to a Gestalt-ish place for psychotherapy, without being part of this trend. An authentic, true-to-the-self life is easier to achieve with a stable partner, because stress is soothed and practical burdens are shared. All of the energy spent on dating or moping becomes available for other pursuits. It’s true that traditional gender roles get in the way of that.

Khazan: You write about how this has actually been harder on lower-income Americans. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Finkel: People with college degrees are marrying more, their marriages are more satisfying, and they’re less likely to divorce. The debate surrounds [the question]: Why is it that people who have relatively little education and don’t earn very much money have marriages that, on average, are struggling more than those of us who have more education and more money?

There basically is no meaningful difference between the poorest members of our society and the wealthier members of our society in the instincts for what makes for a good marriage.

[However, lower-income people] have more stress in their lives, and so the things that they likely have to deal with, when they’re together, are stressful things and the extent to which the time they get together is free to focus on the relationship, to focus on interesting conversation, to focus on high-level goals is limited. It’s tainted by a sense of fatigue, by a sense of limited bandwidth because of dealing with everyday life.

Yes, capitalism is destructive to human relationships and turns life into an emotional hellscape.

Khazan: Is it risky to have your closest partner also be your harshest critic, so that you can grow?

Finkel: My New York Times op-ed piece focused on the challenges of having a partner who’s simultaneously responsible for making us feel loved, and sexy, and competent, but also ambitious, and hungry, and aspirational. How do you make somebody feel safe, and loved, and beautiful without making him or her feel complacent? How do you make somebody feel energetic, and hungry, and eager to work hard without making them feel like you disapprove of the person they currently are?

The answer to that question is, it depends.

You can do it within a given marriage, but they should be aware that that is what they’re asking the partner to do. They should be aware that in some sense, the pursuit of those goals are incompatible and they need to be developing a way of connecting together that can make it possible.

Another way of looking at it is that a good life finds a “middle way” that balances these things.

Shunryu Suzuki said, “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.” Seeing the perfection in imperfection is the idea of spiritual growth. Nirvana and samsara are not separate. The mindset of always looking elsewhere is the opposite of spirituality.

It’s like Finkel is struggling to understand the ideal of unconditional love. This is due to the neoliberalism.

Khazan: That’s the idea of having a diversified social portfolio, right? Can you explain how that would work?

Finkel: There’s a cool study by Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University, where she looked at the extent to which people look to a very small number of people to help them manage their emotions versus an array of different people, to manage different sorts of emotions. So, one person for cheering up sadness, another person for celebrating happiness, and so forth.

It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.

I think most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship. I’m not saying that people need to lower their expectations, but it is probably a bad plan to throw all of these expectations on the one relationship and then try to do it on the cheap. That is, to treat time with your spouse as something you try to fit in after you’ve attended to the kids, and after you’ve just finished this one last thing for work. Real, attentive time for our spouse is something that we often don’t schedule, or we schedule insufficient time for it.

The circle of people close to you is not a “portfolio” that you invest in to benefit yourself. Relationships do benefit you, but this is a side effect.

The underlying evidence is much flimsier than the way it’s presented. This is the key sentence in the methods section:

All participants also completed measures of loneliness (3-item Loneliness Scale; Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004) and well-being (Satisfaction with Life Scale; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffen, 1985) [removed irrelevant statistics].

On that basis, The Atlantic says:

It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.

The internet allows me to find the scale itself. It consists of 5 items, rated on a 7-point Likert scale.

  1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  2. The conditions of my life are excellent.
  3. I am satisfied with my life.
  4. So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Scoring high on this scale is fully compatible with being a narcissistic jerk. Is this really enough to conclude that we should copy people’s lifestyles if they score high on this scale?

This is the kind of scientific skepticism that a lot of self-described skeptical people can’t be bothered to do: read the methods, look up the references, and evaluate the conclusions. The key point is that I didn’t know what my opinion would be until after gathering the basic facts of what was done. I understand that social science doesn’t measure anything like “overall well-being.” It measures something much more specific, which is thought to reflect overall well-being. It’s easy to get sloppy and conflate the instrument with what it’s supposed to measure. There are multiple measures for just about everything.

Notice that none of these points have to do with disputing the facts of how people in the study filled out the forms. What does it mean if people filled out the forms in that way?

What I just did wasn’t hard, but very few people would go through the “trouble” (it took a few minutes). The reality, speaking from experience as a teaching assistant in a psychology department, is that citations are a difficult concept for many people, and undergraduates struggle mightily to write an APA format paper with 3 citations. These were people who went to college and were taking prerequisite classes to declare psychology as their major, so it was a cross-section of the most popular major on campus.

I conclude that most people are probably not great with bibliographies. The important thing is that fascists know this. This is the basis of things like the Damore memo, and a lot of propaganda in general. The general public will not follow Damore’s references, read the methods, evaluate the conclusions in the papers, and evaluate Damore’s presentation of them. As long as someone with decent writing skills says what they want to hear, “science says women belong in the kitchen,” and there’s no convincing them otherwise. People writing detailed refutations are doing God’s work, but the average person probably can’t tell the difference between that and something nonsensical on InfoWars.

The conclusion here is hard to argue with:

Khazan: So what is “going all-in,” and what are the risks and rewards of that?

Finkel: The question isn’t, “Are you asking too much?” The question is, “Are you asking the appropriate amount, in light of the nature of the relationship right now?” The idea of “going all-in” is, “Hell yes. I want to ask my spouse to help make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to love somebody else and also [be] somebody who’s going to help me grow into an ideal, authentic version of myself. And I’m going do the same for him or her. I recognize that that is a massive ask, and because I recognize that that’s a massive ask I’m going to make sure that we have sufficient time together. That when we’re together we’re paying sufficient attention to each other, that the time that we’re investing in the relationship is well-spent.”

But isn’t it gross that marital vows are called a “massive ask,” which sounds like business jargon from work? It doesn’t strike me as a very warm stance to take towards someone.

There’s also the self-hating assumption that being helped is always unpleasant for the helper. Why is it a massive ask instead of something the partner is self-motivated to do?

The ethos of neoliberalism is there again. Marriage is a contract in a competitive environment. Why not pleasant, mutually beneficial cooperation? Neoliberalism is based on social Darwinism, not the way evolution actually works.