A collection of Einstein’s letters auctioned off in 1996 contains a list of marital expectations for his wife, Maliva Maric. The list includes daily laundry “kept in good order,” “three meals regularly in my room,” a desk maintained neatly “for my use only,” and the demand that she quit talking or leave the room “if I request it.” The marriage ended in divorce, but the list lives on as an illustration not only of Einstein’s darker domestic side, but also of assumptions commonly held about marriage in 1914.

Compared with Einstein’s requirements, modern marital expectations have surely evolved for the better. Or have they? An insightful study by Sarah K. Balstrup theorizes that as people abandon religious institutions, they start expecting romantic relationships to satisfy a host of needs that formerly were satisfied through religion. If you think clean laundry and regular meals require effort, try meeting the demands of relationship-worship circa 2018 by providing transcendence, unconditional love, wholeness, meaning, worth, and communion.

The Western fixation on romantic love creates a crushing burden for mere mortals. It engenders a powerful myth regarding love, courtship, and marriage: that a fallible human partner can not only share our passions but sate our existential yearnings. Contemporary couples expect much more from marriage than it can realistically deliver, a phenomenon noted by social psychologists. As Eli Finkel of Northwestern University observes, “most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship.”

The problems arising from the myth of romantic love affect not only the secular culture but also people who, while trying to adhere to their faith, must deal with the competing ideology-mythology surrounding them. We all fall prey to the lore, and so the rise of the romantic-love myth has coincided with an increase in marital breakdown, emblematized by a 50-percent divorce rate. A recent survey by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen reinforces the breakdown narrative by showing that marital satisfaction has declined in the last several decades. In the 1970s, 68 percent of Americans said they were “very happy” in their marriages; today, 60 percent say they are.

Though reasons for marital discontent abound, Cohen teases out a correlation of religion with marital happiness. This correlation suggests that, in order for a relationship to flourish, existential needs should be met outside it. In study after study, the most successful marriages tend to unite religious couples whose shared beliefs conduce to stability and satisfaction. These marriages not only buck the trends of divorce, abuse, neglect, violence, and dysfunction, but also benefit from the incentive religion offers for couples to work together for something outside the self. Through years of serving, sacrificing, problem-solving, and forgiving, couples derive the experience of being profoundly known, understood, and loved.

The myth of romantic love promises a faster, easier route to transcendence. Balstrup writes that relationships have “become the primary mythology of the sacred in the collective tongue” of Western culture. The initial rush of endorphins that accompanies falling in love and the sexual experience imitates the “religious experience of ultimacy.” Desire for this experience drives men and women forward in a quest for mythology’s unattainable lover. Proliferating online matchmaking services, part of a two-billion-dollar growth industry in which 15 percent of adults participate, attest to the appeal of this quest, as do dating coaches. These and other cottage industries offer seekers a form of providence oriented to romantic redemption.

Traditionally arranged marriages—the kind Tevye’s children rebel against in Fiddler on the Roof, with each successive daughter’s marriage involving an increased ratio of romantic love to tradition—provide an interesting contrast to the romantic myth. In general, arranged marriages exhibit the same levels of passion and intimacy as non-arranged marriages. Yet one study of Asian Indians in the United States showed that arranged marriages tend to be happier and last longer than non-arranged marriages. Another study suggested that “choices made throughout a marriage have more to do with marital happiness than [does] choice in mate selection.” But this hard-won happiness faces stiff competition from the temporary euphoria of romantic connection.

Secularization has not undone the connections we feel among beauty, love, truth, and the Ultimate, but simply rewritten the holy journey. In today’s lore, writes Balstrup, “all individuals have a soul mate, yet all must prove themselves worthy of this Ultimate gift,” enduring trials of faith that enable salvation by romantic love. Converts on film and the Internet preach that you, too, can be saved. Americans increasingly value romance over the institution of marriage, just as they shun religious institutions for the ethereal appeal of spirituality. But even as we fall out of love with institutions, we continue to have the needs they once satisfied, displacing those needs onto relationships that collapse under a weight only God and faith can lift.

David C. Dollahite is co-director of the American Families of Faith Project. Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer in Salt Lake City.

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