There’s an easy way to strengthen a struggling marriage — and too many people ignore it

Your spouse doesn't have to be your everything.

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Your spouse doesn’t have to be your everything.
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REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Reading Eli Finkel’s new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” I had a moment where I felt part enlightened, part deflated, part empowered. Suffice it to say it was weird.

I’d reached the point in the book where Finkel, who is a psychologist at Northwestern University and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, talks about ways to strengthen a struggling marriage – temporarily or permanently. The bit that really got me was Finkel’s simple directive to ask less of your relationship.

This counterintuitive piece of advice makes sense in the context of Finkel’s overall philosophy on relationships.

All-or-nothing marriage” is the term Finkel and colleagues developed to describe modern relationships. We’re placing more expectations on our relationships than ever before – we want our partner to be our best friend, our lover, our intellectual sparring partner, maybe our co-parent – while simultaneously investing less time and energy in the relationship. The inevitable result is that we’re disappointed.

Finkel says sometimes you’ll have the wherewithal to spend time and energy perfecting your partnership so it matches your ideal vision. Other times, you won’t. Maybe you just had a baby; maybe you’re super stressed at work; maybe there’s a health crisis going on in your family.

Asking less of the relationship means adjusting your expectations of what your partner is capable of doing for you.

When he visited the Business Insider office in September, Finkel said, “There’s no rule that says you absolutely have to ask [certain] things of your marriage. We get to choose that we’re going to expect the marriages to do [some] sorts of things, but not [some] other sorts of things. And our spouse also gets a choice.”

He went on: “If you find yourself chronically disappointed in one element of your marriage, one of the really good ways of dealing with that is to think about: Is it really essential that I try to meet this need in particular through the marriage? … There are many things we look to our partner to help us meet that we could just as easily look [for] somewhere else.”

That is to say: Maybe your partner doesn’t care to have philosophical debates late into the night – they’d rather be sleeping or watching TV. Or, maybe they’re not the type to plan a big bash for every one of your birthdays, even though you’d love them to be.

Instead of feeling disappointed in these situations, accept them for what they are. Most importantly, try to get those needs met elsewhere. Maybe you’ve got a coworker who absolutely loves to talk existentialism. Maybe your childhood best friend would be delighted to be your party planner. Your partner doesn’t have to your everything.

This isn’t the most romantic idea. I kind of hated it when I first read about it. But it’s a realistic – and freeing – approach to one of the hardest relationships you’ll ever form.