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Thursday, August 25, 2022

How Marriage Became Suffocating

August 25, 2022

By Arash Emamzadeh

An investigation, to be published in the September issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, by Yilmaz and colleagues, explores the importance of romantic relationships to well-being in residentially mobile people (e.g., those who move frequently).

Before discussing the investigation, I need to introduce the suffocation model of marriage.

The suffocation model of marriage

Why do people get married? One answer is that people get married to meet their needs (e.g., for safety, belonging, love). The needs that matter the most to couples, however, have changed over the years.

According to the suffocation model of marriage, “historical changes in the institution of marriage in America have paralleled the bottom-to-top trajectory of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs).”

What are these historical changes? Let us compare three eras of marriage:

  1. The institutional era (1776–1850): Many Americans lived in farming communities. The main function of marriage was to help fulfill basic needs, such as shelter and food.
  2. The companionate era (1850–1965): More Americans were moving to urban areas. The primary purpose of marriage was to satisfy the needs for love and romance.
  3. The self-expressive era (1965–present): The countercultural revolution of the 1960s-1970s emphasized discovering and expressing one’s authentic self. Therefore, a major purpose of marriage became satisfying the need for self-expression and self-actualization.

So, over the years, we have climbed to the top of Mount Maslow, which means we now get married to satisfy our higher or eudaimonic needs, such as self-esteemautonomy, growth, and self-actualization.

See Figure 1, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Mount Maslow.

Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Finkel et al., 2015)

Source: Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Finkel et al., 2015)

Because spouses have become psychologically more central in each other’s life, they are expected to understand and support each other’s needs, wants, and goals. These supportive behaviors, called responsiveness, are a major predictor of well-being.

But here is a problem: Higher needs (e.g., needs for a partner who is responsive and provides excellent emotional support) are harder to meet because they are less tangible than lower needs (e.g., need for food); furthermore, these higher needs vary significantly between people.

Thus, to meet self-actualization needs, it is necessary to invest more time and energy in the relationship. However, the state of marriage today is the very opposite: Couples are spending more time apart, working longer hours, and, worse yet, rarely make the best use of their time together.

The word suffocation refers to the “squeeze” emerging from people:

  1. Expecting more from marriage (e.g., imagining their spouse will help them discover themselves and grow) than people did in the past.
  2. Investing less time and energy into their relationship, which makes the first expectation unrealistic.

One factor that may affect people’s expectations of romantic relationships is residential mobility. Why? Because people who move frequently or far away from their birthplace (e.g., to a new city) often lose access to previous social networks, including family, relatives, and old friends. So, to fulfill their psychological needs, they rely more heavily on their spouse.

This theory was put to the test by Yilmaz et al., as described below.

Investigating the effects of mobility on romantic relationships

Study 1

Sample: archival data; 4,047 married individuals; 51 percent female; average age of 43 years old.


  • Residential mobility: Whether the individuals had lived in the same area since birth.
  • Prioritization of the spouse as a confidant: Whether participants disclosed their problems (e.g., related to money, work, health) to their spouse first or to someone else, like parents, siblings, or friends.


Study 2

Sample: Recruited using social media; 439 participants; 83 percent female; average age of 31 years old.


  • Residential mobility: Participants reported the number of times they had moved.
  • Attachment network: Participants were instructed to produce a ranked list of people in their lives who fulfilled various “attachment functions.” These included safe haven (an individual “you immediately think of contacting when something bad happens’’), secure base (someone “you know will always be there for you’’), separation distress (a person “you miss when they are away’’), and proximity-seeking (a person “you make sure to see or talk to frequently’’).

Study 3

Sample: Recruited using social media; 880 people; 66 percent female; average age of 37 years old.


  • Residential mobility: Measured as previously.
  • Perceived partner responsiveness: Agreement with three items (e.g., “My partner makes me feel understood”).
  • Hedonic well-being: Assessed by asking participants to rate their life satisfaction and indicate their mood states in the previous month.
  • Eudaimonic well-being: Evaluated using the short version of the Psychological Well-being Scale, which has five subscales (Autonomy, Self-Acceptance, Personal Growth, Purpose in Life, Environmental Mastery).

The centrality of romantic relationships for residentially mobile couples

Key findings are described below.

  • Study 1: “Individuals who moved away from their place of birth (compared to those who didn't) tended to first confide in their spouse rather than other network members on matters of work, money, and health.”
  • Study 2: “Residential mobility was associated with greater relative importance of long-term romantic partners for meeting attachment needs.”
  • Study 3: “The slope of perceived partner responsiveness predicting eudaimonic (but not hedonic) well-being got steeper as residential mobility increased.” This result agrees with the suffocation model of marriage, which suggests romantic relationships are essential for eudaimonic well-being.

Source: Michelle_Raponi/Pixabay


Compared to residentially stable folks, residentially mobile people have a greater tendency to rely on their long-term romantic partners for the fulfillment of their higher needs (e.g., self-discovery, autonomy, growth, self-actualization). This can create relationship difficulties.

So, if you are among the residentially mobile people who have an unsatisfying romantic relationship, you are not alone. Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to gain clarity about your needs and expectations:

  • Which one of my needs is not satisfied?
  • Taking everything into consideration, am I expecting too much from my romantic partner?
  • Are there ways of investing more time and energy into the relationship to make it easier for us to meet each other’s needs?
  • Are there other ways of meeting my unmet needs (e.g., support groups)?

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." - John Quincy Adams