Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Examination of Marriage: Hierarchy of Needs

Since I have some apparent issues with the subject of marriage, I thought I would read a book about it.

Reading books helps my thought process and I have to process anything that makes me fearful. It's just what I do. Please bear with me as I examine the idea of marriage and what causes my sense of dread.

The book that I chose is Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert is best known for another favorite book of mine, Eat Pray Love, which inspired this blog and my quest, in many ways. It seemed only fitting that I would continue to read about her journey in the hopes for continued inspiration of my own.

In the introduction of the book, the author explains that she felt it nearly impossible to follow up after the success of her last novel. (Who can blame her?!) Then she dives into chapter 1: Marriage and Expectations.

In this first chapter, Gilbert centers on a conversation she had with some women in an aboriginal group in Vietnam. With the help of a translator, the author asked questions of these married women to discover what marriage meant to them. What did having a husband mean to these matriarchs of families who basically shared a one room house together?

Her questions were met with confusion and laughter. After all, marriage was simply something that was done, more than likely arranged, so that families could continue to procreate and prosper. There were no emotional entanglements or defining moments of love for these women.

Gilbert goes on to say how, in this country, we are defined as individuals. We work, more than likely, not for the common good of the family or community but rather for the common good of ourselves.

Since reading that chapter, and hearing about marital views from other countries, I also believe that we view marriage differently because of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Do you remember this chart?

In societies where basic physiological and security needs are a struggle to meet, I would imagine that being especially particular about who you married never occurred to men or women. I would think the minimum requirement for a partner would be can this person provide for me as a wife or husband?

Requirements would be simple:

Can he bring home food?

Can she cook and care for children?

Even moving up the hierarchy, some marriages are arranged not only for these basic reasons but also for a sense of community, of family, of belonging. Arranged marriages, as pointed out in Gilbert's book, mean that the choices are limited. Your family or your status decides who you will marry. In having limited choices, again, there is no point of contention like, "Will this man inspire me to be a better person throughout our years together?"

Most of us are fortunate, in this country, to have our basic physiological and security needs met. We are also fortunate to have many of our psychological needs met as well. We set career and material goals that are readily accomplished. We have friends and family with whom we choose to remain in contact. Or not. We have the freedom to move away, start our own "network of love and acceptance" with friends from school, work or our communities.

Sometimes the need for love and belonging is satiated after we're in a committed relationship.

With these needs satisfied, of course we move into the upper levels of the hierarchy and seek to find fulfillment through growth and self-actualization. This, I believe, is where we decide whom we will marry.

Or this is when we become even more demanding in an already comfortable relationship.

This, I believe, is why we put so much emphasis on "What can this person do for me?" beyond the basic needs that marriage provides in other societies. We want someone to help us to reach our full potential - the feeling of complete satisfaction of needs.

With the freedoms we enjoy, we also have an endless array of choices, don't we? With so many choices, we endlessly wonder, "Am I settling? Did I choose too soon? What if this choice is wrong?"

Too many choices can be debilitating.

Even after we've made our choices, our satisfaction is temporary. We want more. We aren't happy. We feel uninspired.

After all, we are still attempting to have those upper hierarchical needs met. If my current partner isn't satisfying those needs, there are still so many others to choose from.

For more info:


  1. well it seems if you have confidence in your decision then you should be able to feel like you aren't settling that you are choosing.

    Confidence and a good contract should make any relationship work out.

  2. I started reading Committed a while back and got distracted. It's an interesting read, for sure, and even the little bit that I have read has helped me to think about the whole marriage idea and how it applies to me and my life.

  3. It seems, to me, that you are describing the old "the grass is greener over there" syndrome. I think everyone suffers from it to a lesser or greater extent. I guess sometimes you need to take a step back and ask if you're happy and if so do you need anymore.

  4. I'm thinking that an arranged marriage would be a whole heck of lot easier than this online dating thing ... does anyone have a Jewish grandmother who could take me under her wing :)

  5. Don't forget that Maslow's hierarchy is open to a lot of criticism - it was based on a small sample, ignores how needs actually have to co-exist and much else. For example, you can't sit on top of the pyramid and self-actualise all the time, you still have to eat, make the beds and get the kids off to school. And arguably that's got more to do with a marriage than peak experiences.
    Zen and other perspectives would argue that self-actualisation is to be found right in the heart of the ordinary, come to think of it. In fact, these psychologist replace self-actualising with Parenting -
    (Note to self - There's got to be a post in that somewhere)

  6. @dadwhowrites - that was a very interesting article. And yes, I definitely agree that the basic needs don't go away, but I don't think they are conscious needs all of the time if they are being satisfied. I don't believe they become conscious until they are threatened. That article was interesting at how it brought us all down to one level: the highest need being continuing our gene pool. Fascinating point.

  7. I love Maslow's hierarchy of needs and think it makes a lot of sense. I've had arguments with friends about this. It's hard to concentrate on self-actualization when you're wondering where your next meal will come from or you're dodging bombs. We are very fortunate not to have to deal with most of the subsistence issues that 99% of humans throughout history have dealt with.

    My whole blog would be pointless and silly if I were still trying to meet my basic needs. Maybe it still is. :)

  8. If my current partner isn't satisfying those needs, there are still so many others to choose from. - But if you're truly working at the higher part of that pyramid, why do you need a partner to meet your needs? Once you meet those needs within yourself, mightn't you see your partner through different eyes? And then perhaps not be so critical of potential partners and afraid to couple up?

    Just thinking out loud... I don't think we have one soul mate for all our lives, but I do think two people can stay together in a marriage forever - as long as they respect and support each other, and allow each other to evolve. And as long as they are happy together.

  9. Oh yes, dadshouse, YES! Exactly!

  10. I wrote about marriage today before I popped over here to read about what's up in your world.

    It seems to me that divorce is contagious. Everywhere I look friends and family members are divorcing.

    I'm not sure, in our society, that it's possible to stay married to one person for our whole adult lives. We're programmed from an early age to strive for MORE, to want MORE, to demand instant gratification. Most of us seem to have an unhealthy need for approval.

    It seems like a recipe for disaster.


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