Pop Psychology and the Decline of Marriage

Shaky psychological theories have taken on an outsized role in the culture and may be detrimental to our relationships.

Pop Psychology and the Decline of Marriage

It turns out that not everything I learned in college en route to getting my psychology degree has held up under the weight of time and scrutiny. Take, for instance, Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," which was featured prominently in my education and still holds a large percentage of mind share among the general population in the US. Alex R. Wendel, writing for Mere Orthodoxy, reveals that Maslow's pyramid focuses too heavily on physiological needs. Emotional needs can be just as important for flourishing. For instance, we know that infants who receive total physical care but not affection will experience failure to thrive. The biggest influence that Maslow's hierarchy has had upon popular culture, however, is shaping the perception of self-actualization as an end goal.

People are still drawn into Maslow’s concept of self-actualization not because they find it intellectually valid but because it offers a compelling vision of humanity that allows people to place themselves before all others and shed all sense of altruism or self-sacrifice. People are drawn into the idea of pursuing humanity beyond their current constraints because it tells a story that people do not need to be stuck where they are; rather, they can become something more, something that surpasses everyone else–become Nietczhe’s Übermensch–if they think the right thoughts or do the right things.

The belief in self-actualization has led to a society focused on individuals achieving their "best life," sometimes at the expense of others. For example, I’m seeing a disturbingly increasing number of posts about women leaving their husbands or just slamming their marriages. Articles about how marriage just isn’t satisfying seems to be on the way to becoming a cottage industry now. What’s most distressing about many of these essays is that the women actually like or love their husbands, they are just seeking something more. So, they leave their marriage for “radical self-love,” or some other shameless euphemism for what human beings used to call selfishness.

Author Glennon Doyle, in an interview with NPR, likens being married to a good man to “gaslighting.” She doesn’t seem to understand that gaslighting is being married to a horrible person who hates you and actively does things to make you try to question your sanity. Can we just stop people from using the word gaslighting now, since most people using it don’t seem to understand what it means? In Doyle’s case, she just didn’t feel like she could bring her “whole self” to the table when she was a part of her marriage. It was just ambiguously “unsatisfying.”

Other women just trade in the stock of “familiarity breeds contempt,” and pen screeds about how they hate their husbands in the New York Times. Still others, like Doyle, admit that their husbands are great, but are ultimately impediments to experiencing some kind of other life out there.

Honor Jones writes about this in the Atlantic.

I didn’t have a secret life. But I had a secret dream life—which might have been worse. I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself.

Feeling stifled, Jones wondered what life would be like separated from her husband.

Who could I be if I wasn’t his wife? Maybe I would microdose. Maybe I would have sex with women.

Marriage can be difficult, there’s no doubt about it. I’m not here to comment on those who take an exit out of a tough marriage. I’ve experienced too much grace in my marriage and in my life to judge. For those who want to leave their spouse, so they can embrace promiscuity or experiment with drugs and resent that the commitment that they made is keeping them from that, I can’t be understanding. Nor do I understand the “I had to get out because I felt a vague sense of malaise” rationales.