science of us

How Self-Expression Replaced Love As the Most Important Part of a Marriage

In 2004, HBO aired the final episode of Sex and the City. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), the self-centered but appealing journalist, has moved to Paris to pursue a relationship with Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov), the brilliant but distant artist. Aleksandr, preoccupied by a major exhibition of his work, neglects Carrie, who increasingly pines for New York and her friends there.

We, as viewers, aren’t surprised when she leaves him, and we aren’t surprised by the explanation she gives for breaking off their relationship. She’s disappointed because her love with Aleksandr is insufficient, but her larger concern is that the relationship fails to afford the expression of a central aspect of her identity — “it’s time to be clear about who I am,” she tells him, with emphasis on the I. We cheer her on, especially because we know something she doesn’t — that the love of her life, Mr.
Big (Chris Noth), has conquered his emotional avoidance and wants to commit to her. But few of us consider her breakup explanation in historical context, and the fact that not long ago, it would have seemed absurd.

America has witnessed three major eras of marriage. The first, which extended from the colonial period until around 1850, had a pragmatic emphasis in which marriage was primarily oriented toward helping spouses meet their basic economic and survival needs. During the second era, from 1850 until around 1965, marriages had a love-based emphasis that placed a premium on helping spouses meet their love and intimacy needs. During the third era, from around 1965 to today, marriage has a self-expressive emphasis that places a premium on spouses helping each other with their authenticity and personal-growth needs.

The sociologist Paul Amato offers an elegant summary of the transitions from the pragmatic to the love-based to the self-expressive eras: “Marriage changed from a formal institution that meets the needs of the larger society to a companionate relationship that meets the needs of the couple and their children and then to a private pact that meets the psychological needs of individual spouses.” We continue to view our marriage as a central locus of love and passion, and we continue to view our home as a haven in a heartless world, but, for more and more of us, a marriage that achieves those things without also promoting self-expression is insufficient.

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In the mid-1960s, Americans began to prize a new brand of individualism, expressive individualism, that cherishes self-discovery and psychological growth. Expressive individualism is characterized by a strong belief in individual specialness; voyages of self-discovery are viewed as ennobling.
“There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself,” the philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman declared in a 1980 commencement address capturing the essence of expressive self. “Nobody like you has ever been born, and no one like you will ever be born again — you are the only one … If you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in your life, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

More recently, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Michael MacKenzie argue that the self has become a fundamental value base, an entity “that is itself accepted as an inherently positive good on its [own], without reference to other, even more fundamental values.” Religious people typically view God’s will as a value base; they don’t feel compelled to ask why it’s important to prioritize God’s will. As Western societies have secularized, “the self has taken on ever more luster as a powerful value base.” The pursuit of self-expression has become a moral good in and of itself.

The moral righteousness of achieving authenticity has powerful implications for marriage. “Not long ago,” observes the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “someone who was dissatisfied with his or her spouse and wanted a divorce had to justify that decision. Today it’s the opposite: If you’re not fulfilled by your marriage, you have to justify staying in it, because of the tremendous cultural pressure to be good to one’s self.”

The rise of the self-expressive marriage has also overhauled our views about the optimal ways for spouses to interact. Consider changes in the advice offered in women’s magazines. According to the communications researcher Virginia Kidd, “putting aside of self was defined as loving behavior” during the long decade of the 1950s, “and conversely thinking of self first was unloving and displayed lack of genuine concern for others.” Starting in the mid-1960s, the emphasis shifted to the development of one’s authentic self and bringing spontaneity to the marriage. In one study, researchers coded advice in women’s magazines from 1900 to 1979 for the presence of traditional themes like “love means self-sacrifice and compromise” and self-expressive themes like “love means self-expression and individuality.” This period witnessed a strong long-term trend toward self-expression, an effect that would have been even stronger if not for the brief self-expressive surge during the Roaring Twenties. Whereas 20 to 30 percent of the relevant articles expressed self-expressive themes in the 1930s and 1940s, nearly 70 percent did in the 1970s.

In a 2014 study, when American college students were asked to define what the term mate value means to them, they recognized the standard domains like compatibility, commitment, and physical attractiveness, but they also emphasized the importance of having a partner who brings out the best in them. In the words of one student, “I really feel like someone of ‘mate value’ would be someone who helps me become the best person I can be, the best version of myself.” This student’s definition strikes to the heart of the self-expressive era: All of us have many possible selves, but most of them are inferior variations of our authentic or best self; we are looking for a spouse who elicits that version of ourselves.

Adapted from The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work by Eli Finkel, published on September 19, 2017 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2017 by Eli Finkel.

How Self-Expression Replaced Love As the Ideal for Marriage