I don´t normally talk about relationships but….

A few weeks ago, Flavia Richardson from Funding London, made this post. It contains a link to an article: “Women aren’t freezing their eggs because of their careers — it’s because they can’t find the right partners” and then Flavia requested: “Someone, quick, please write an article on unrealistic expectations of both genders.” I read the article, noted that the headline was a bit of a stretch given the research detailed therein, and then, in an attempt to answer Flavia´s request, I went looking for research about “the unrealistic expectations of both genders”.

I thought I should practice what I preach and use the lessons of critical thinking in my search – so I started by looking for facts. The first notable fact I found is that the number of single people is, indeed, increasing at faster rate than those in relationships. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) produced an article stating that “The single, never married population aged 16 years and over in England and Wales increased by 3.9 million from 2002 to 2017 whilst the number of married people only increased by 1.2 million over the same period.” The same statistics also show a small shift over the same period from conventional marriage to cohabitation. Finally, despite these changes, 61.4% of the over-16 population are still living in a couple – so there seems to be plenty of life left in relationships. These are UK statistics but there are similar patterns in the US and other richer economies. So it leads to the question “Why?” – is it because women “can´t find the right partners?” as the egg-freezing article states, or is it because of “the unrealistic expectations of both genders” as Flavia hints.

After trawling through a significant number of articles I managed to find the following paper from 2014: “The suffocation of marriage: climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen” by a team of Psychologists from Northwestern University in Illinois. Despite the rather melodramatic title the paper does a good job of bringing together a lot of the research into relationships that has taken place over the past 40 years or so into an overarching theory to explain the changing patterns we see in relationships. The paper is quite long so I will attempt to distil it here.

Most business people have a passing acquaintance with Maslow´s hierarchy of needs – this is an attempt to describe what motivates our behaviour. At the bottom of the hierarchy we have basic physiological needs such food, sleep etc. The model states that as we satisfy those needs we move up the hierarchy until our behaviour is motivated by “self-actualization” which is described as the desire to fulfil our potential.


The Northwestern University Psychologists take Maslow´s model and apply it to relationships. In particular they theorize that the changes we see in the nature of relationships through history can be equated with moving up Maslow´s hierarchy. In other words, for the majority of the population, 200 years ago relationships helped to satisfy the needs at the base of hierarchy: food, shelter etc. However, for increasing numbers of people, especially in the richer parts of the world, over the past 40 years or so, people have been looking to their relationships to help satisfy needs higher in the hierarchy. So we expect our partners to help provide us with self-esteem or even fulfil our true potential. This is where “The suffocation of marriage” comes in – in the paper it states:

We also suggest that, just as mountaineers find it easier to scale major mountains when they have access to plenty of oxygen, spouses who ask their marriage to facilitate the fulfilment of their higher altitude needs find it easier to achieve success when they have built a deep emotional bond with, and have developed a profound mutual insight vis-`a-vis, their partner, as these relational properties serve to fuel effective higher altitude goal support.”

At this point, I should probably offer up some personal information. I have been married for over 30 years. I got married very young. There was no outside pressure to do so, and it is hard for me to remember what, if any, decision making process I, or my wife, went through at the time. I am asked occasionally the reasons for the longevity of the relationship, and I normally say that we never tried to plot our relationship too far into the future. I was always very aware that as there were two of us involved in this endeavour it would only last as long as we had shared aims and goals – so both of us have always worked hard to align around those. Earlier in our relationship these were mainly things like “go for a nice holiday”, “buy a car” and so on. In recent times, as well as “nice holidays”, they tend to be things like “get the kids a decent education”, “volunteer at the Olympics” and so on. We have different interests and talents, but we work hard to support each other in progressing those. So the Northwestern psychologist´s model makes sense to me, as the “emotional oxygen” of building shared aims has allowed us to move slowly (though not always in the same direction!) through the hierarchy of needs.

Now we come back to the increase in numbers of single people. The Northwestern psychologists say that richer populations are now, in general, less reliant on existing or prospective relationships to meet the needs at the bottom of Maslow´s triangle. So there is less need to enter a relationship early. The paper also quotes research showing that, for many people, their social life outside of work, and outside of their relationship is diminishing. Membership of social organizations is diminishing, and research shows that, in general, people have fewer “confidantes” outside of their relationship partner than in previous eras. This exerts pressure on those in relationships in that they may now be the only person fully trusted by their partner. So, as well as expecting relationship partners to help deliver goals aligned with the higher levels of Maslow´s hierarchy, they are expected to do it with less support from a wider social grouping. It is probably not surprising that some relationships break-down under this pressure (the air is getting pretty thin up there), and that others fail to get started as expectations are not met.

In general, though, I am left with an optimistic view of the future of relationships. Increasing numbers of people are now no longer forced into relationships to satisfy physiological needs. Increasing numbers of people now enter relationships because they want the higher levels of Maslow´s hierarchy. The authors assertion that some are unable or unwilling to invest the time and effort to generate the “emotional oxygen” for such an ascent feels true, and research provides some evidence to support this. High expectations of your relationship are unrealistic unless you put in the effort to build trust, and make the necessary compromises to create shared goals. However, this also, reassuringly, suggests that investing time in others needs, or, to put it bluntly, not being selfish, is the path to true happiness in your relationships. I, for one, am happy with that – it sounds like love to me.

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