article discussion: the suffocation model by finkel et al.

This month’s topic for discussion is an article called “The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage is Becoming an All or Nothing Institution” by Eli J. Finkel, Elaine O. Cheung, Lydia F. Emery, Kathleen L. Carswell, and Grace M. Larson. It’s a short article and is more of a summary of a research program than a self-contained argument.

Basically, it goes something like this. As societies get wealthier, marriages fundamentally change from being institutions for physical survival to institutions for personal fulfillment. Another article by Finkel and collaborators call it “climbing Mount Maslow,” to suggest the contemporary people don’t have the resources to make the current version of marriage work. The main point made by these researchers is that modern people are investing less time at home so it makes it harder for modern marriages to succeed in being satisfying.

I am not a sociologist of the family, so I tread lightly here because I know there is a huge literature that deals with these issues. I won’t evaluate the evidence because this article is a summary of other work and thus doesn’t present much.For example, how do we know that earlier marriages were more “satisfying?” Maybe people just stuck with them because divorce was insanely expensive. I.e., if a women left her marriage, it might be nearly impossible to find employment that would provide a desirable level of income and material comfort. This argument is presented without a systematic discussion of opportunity costs nor do we have a discussion of how certain ideas (e.g., “fulfillment”) are measured over the centuries. Like I said, this could all be answered in the related literature, but it is not presented in this brief article.

So I’ll offer this as a discussion point: Let’s take Finkel at al.’s argument as essentially correct. Maybe modern marriage is a contradiction. It’s about fulfillment, but that is made possible by a wealthier society that draws people away from marriage. But so what? Why is that suffocating or bad? Aren’t institutions allowed to evolve? Another discussion point: can technology help us resolve that tension? For example, could working remotely allow people to have more time in the home? Or allow people to allocate time more efficiently so that are more “at home?”

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Written by fabiorojas

July 20, 2016 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, family, uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. The normativity behind marriage is very powerful AND getting a divorce was very difficult. As divorce become easier through No Fault Divorce, the divorce rate increased and the marriage rate decreased. But, the normativity behind getting married has not relaxed its hold. Only people seeking welfare assistance maintain head of household status with illegitimate children in order to receive the benefits. The government is responsible for this situation but the status marker that marriage is has not been modified. The government also provides tax breaks for married persons which while not a huge difference it does significantly improve their household income over that of single persons, living together or not. The issue is to understand why marriage, as a legal arrangement and as a social arrangement is considered by so many people, in a very authoritarian manner, to be so important. The social competition for mates with particular traits of beauty, capital, skills, etc is so intense that it is humiliating in many cases to participate in the sexual/marriage marketplace.

    Liked by 1 person

    Fred Welfare

    July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

  2. Makes sense. There is steady rise of “Live-in” relationship to bypass legal married status in India. Seems for autonomy and personal fulfillment. Though slowly it may come under the purview of law, as few recent cases show..


    Santosh Sali

    July 20, 2016 at 12:59 pm

  3. Finkel chose the term “suffocation” because Maslow’s pyramid is like a mountain, and as you get to the top of the mountain, oxygen becomes increasingly scarce. Figure 2 here shows what he’s talking about:

    Click to access 552d4fcf0cf29b22c9c4f145.pdf

    Here’s the structure of the longer version of this paper: “First, we introduce the Mount Maslow metaphor and discuss how American marriage has been both freighted (asked more of) and defreighted (asked less of) over time vis-a-vis the essential functions it is intended to serve. Then we introduce the suffocation model’s oxygen deprivation and suffocation metaphors, discussing various ways in which American culture is sapping away precisely those resources that are most essential for meeting the higher altitude demands that American place on contemporary marriage.” He also goes into how to improve marriage in the concluding section.

    To your question about whether fulfilment can be measured consistently across centuries, I think the answeris probably not. What Finkel is concerned with, however, is that marital satisfaction has become more critical for life satisfaction. The correlation between those two factors used to be weak but it’s now strong.

    I think work flexibility is double-edged. One of the issues that Finkel describes in the longer paper (at the researchgate link above) is that there’s reduced access to social outlets outside of marriage. If you’re given the flexibility to work from home, and you literally work at home, there’s no increase. But if you take your laptop to a neighborhood coffee shop or co-working space, that could solve the problem. Coworking is getting to be quite popular. I would have thought there were just three or four spaces in Atlanta, where I live, but according to the Coworking Wiki, there are 17. Because these spaces are good for developing weak ties, and capitalizing on them, I expect they’ll become more popular over the next decade.



    July 21, 2016 at 5:21 pm

  4. […] week, we discussed “The Suffocation Model” by Finkel et al, suggested by Chris Martin. Before Finkel at al., we had two posts on Tanya Golash-Boza’s […]


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