So, marriage.

Just the sound of it rings heavy, doesn’t it? The weight of the two syllables feels lofty with ideals. We want self-enlightenment and security and passion and magic and connection. But then there’s just so much pressure to get it right and not screw it up before we even get started.

Then we spend a lifetime trying to mold ourselves and our partner into the coupling we envisioned. It seemed simpler before, back in the day of the Cleavers. But marriage isn’t any weightier now. We’re just setting the table with different expectations.

Dr. Eli Finkel, in his new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage”, shows us why what we expect isn’t more, it’s just different, and he helps lighten the load of those desires by re-framing them. Five years ago, he set out to prove that we ask too much of modern marriage. We set it up for failure. Now he’s sharing how those expectations can actually create success.

In the earliest days, marriages were built upon “economic and survival” needs, which later gave way to companionship, the highest asset until the 1960s. Now, however, personal growth has taken the lead. We seek personal actualization and want the help of our spouses to get there.

Here’s the mind-boggling part: Marriage in the present era, despite placing so much at stake with one person, can achieve a level of happiness and satisfaction that was impossible before now.

He gives readers three analogies for the finicky but wonderful complexity of contemporary marriage so we can refocus our expectations in an optimistic light. There is hope to be found here:

Mount Maslow

The premise of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that, in order to reach self-actualization and happiness, fundamental needs must be met first. Food, water, shelter, and safety precede enlightenment and creativity. After all, who has time for philosophy and art when you’re foraging for the next meal?

But Finkel argues that, when it comes to marriage, this pyramid acts more like a mountain, with the air getting thinner towards the top. He writes, “as marriage in America has become increasingly oriented toward higher rather than lower altitudes on Mount Maslow, it has required greater oxygenation – greater nurturance regarding each other’s emotional and psychological needs.” It necessitates a different kind of effort than marriages of the pre-industrial and industrial era.

We now want passion and to become the best versions of ourselves, but we are fighting circumstance. The pace of life has increased. The information overload has caused a “mental fragmentation” that leaves us weary and unfocused. While we are spending more time collectively with our kids, we are investing less time as a couple.

Yet, more than ever, we refuse to settle for less in marriage. As Finkel puts it, “a marriage that might have been more than adequate in an era with more modest expectations for psychological fulfillment may be a disappointment today.” The beauty of this battle is that the great marriages can reach “previously unattainable levels of meaningful connection.”

The view from the top of Mount Maslow is breathtaking.

From Cabernet to Pinot

If marriage needs more oxygenation at the top, it also requires a delicate touch. Finkel recalls a scene from the film “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti as the reclusive author and wine lover. He explains why he loves a good Pinot:

“It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention…. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into the fullest expression.”

This, Finkel argues, is an apt analogy for modern marriage. It takes more dedication and finesse than marriages before it. We have moved from the pragmatic marriages that were necessary before the 1850s to the love-based marriages that carried us up until the 1960s, and now find ourselves desiring personal authenticity and growth.

We have developed a finer palate.

We want our spouses to bring out the best in us and would like to do the same for them. It’s a tall order to turn the solo job of self-actualization into a joint effort. But to achieve such a feat with the one you love can make the finest partnership.

The Porcupine Dilemma

Peak marital harmony is hard to reach because we want something that’s almost impossible: complete vulnerability and complete security. We want to share the deepest and darkest parts of ourselves without fear of retribution.

This leads us to the Porcupine Dilemma, an analogy first created by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: It’s a cold night and the porcupines huddle together for warmth. It works. The cold abates, but the neighbor’s quills hurt, causing the porcupines to scoot apart again until the cold forces them closer, then – ouch – farther apart again. Back and forth. Eventually, they find the sweet spot, the happy medium where warmth without pain exists.

But getting to this spot takes effort in marriage. It takes experimentation. Because “Americans today struggle to build and sustain a balanced life – one characterized by fulfillment in both professional and personal domains,” it’s only natural that the struggle would carry over into marriage.

Finkel also asserts that children don’t make it any easier when the “first baby tends to nestle into its parents’ daily schedules like a grenade.”

So very true.

But take heart because, against all odds, we’re reaching a new level of stability in modern marriage. “Divorce rates have stabilized or declined” and contemporary marriages have found a way to “promote spouses’ self-discovery and personal growth like never before.” Beyond the angst, we have found a deeper level of satisfaction.

Any marriage really can reach its highest potential, and now, more than ever, people really care to try. To shift perspective and re-frame your desires can turn what was once a burden into a rich source of fulfillment and freedom.