MAUGHAN: Maybe we’re all in a simulation!
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: are long-term relationships worth it?
MAUGHAN: Grow up, try to find your soulmate, and your life will go to hell.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Mike, today, I want to talk to you about a question that our producer raised in a conversation I was having with her recently. So, do you want to know what’s on Rebecca’s mind?
MAUGHAN: I do. I always want to know what’s on Rebecca’s mind.
DUCKWORTH: So, I was talking to Rebecca about this article that she came across — it’s from the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, which is, like, kind of the encyclopedia of research as it stands today. And the title of the article is “Pathology of Relationships.” And the most surprising thing, I think, in this review is that there are data — you know, there are studies — that suggest that relationships can be triggers for psychopathology. Like, the opposite of what we’ve been taught.
MAUGHAN: Sorry. Which means what? I don’t know that I know what “psychopathology” means.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, “psychopathology” basically means mental health issues. So, it’s a very broad term. So, it can mean depression, and it can mean anxiety, but very broadly speaking, “psychopathology” means, like, anything that is pathological or not right about your psychology. So, it’s like the analog to being sick in your body. So, very broadly speaking, what this review wants to claim is that, yeah, sometimes those intimate relationships that we have in our lives can be protective, right? They can buffer us against stress and even catastrophe. But it depends, because it actually can lead to suffering and mental-health problems. I think that’s the article that Rebecca was talking about, and it’s not what we’re taught, or at least not the way I was raised.
MAUGHAN: Well no — nobody’s like, “Hey, grow up, try to find your soulmate, and your life will go to hell.”
DUCKWORTH: Right. “Let me take you to this diner so you can watch a few couples silently suffering through an entire breakfast with each other.”
MAUGHAN: Right, we’re basically taught happily ever after.
DUCKWORTH: So, I guess that’s the question, you know, are long-term, romantic relationships worth the trouble?
MAUGHAN: I’m going to give a very obvious, wise answer. If it’s a good relationship, yes. If it’s a bad relationship, no.
DUCKWORTH: I was waiting for it. I was like, “Is the answer yes or no?” But you’re saying, “It depends.”
MAUGHAN: Isn’t that the answer to all questions?
DUCKWORTH: I know, it really is.
MAUGHAN: Seriously. What is the purpose of life? It depends.
DUCKWORTH: It depends.
MAUGHAN: Okay, so, talk to me about this.
DUCKWORTH: So, yeah. I mean, when I was young, like, I guess in my teens even, I remember thinking that you know, marriage that’s all I wanted. And I probably should have thought a little harder about that, because obviously it’s not the only thing I ended up wanting, but, yeah, I was obsessed with finding my soulmate.
MAUGHAN: I think that that’s what so many people in, especially, earlier generations — not that I’m saying you’re old or that I’m old —.
DUCKWORTH: I am old. I’m in midlife. I think I might be after midlife. Maybe I’m in late-midlife.
MAUGHAN: Let’s go with late-mid — I don’t want to say “after midlife.” That’s so depressing.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, definitely not afterlife.
MAUGHAN: I hope not.
DUCKWORTH: Not yet.
MAUGHAN: If you’re in the afterlife, this is an incredible conversation, and I hope people pay me a lot of money to seance with their departed loved ones.
DUCKWORTH: Or, Mike, you’re also in the afterlife.
MAUGHAN: Or maybe we’re all in a simulation! No, but here — here’s what I think. I mean, I think that there was this idea that a long-term romantic relationship, especially in marriage, was kind of always the ideal. I think that we’re seeing cultural shifts and changes in some countries and some cultures away from that. You know, we’ve seen a lot of empowerment in different areas where people maybe say, “Hey, I don’t need to do that.” Or “I want to do that later.”
DUCKWORTH: Are marriage rates going down?
MAUGHAN: Marriage rates are, are dropping, yeah, significantly. So, Pew Research did a study in June of 2023, and as of 2021, 25 percent of 40-year-olds in the United States had never married. And just 11 years before, that number was just 20 percent. And so the numbers are definitely shifting. Marriage is happening a lot less — I mean, one in four, that’s a lot of 40-year-olds who’ve never married.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, it used to be one in five, and it went to one in four. That’s a lot!
MAUGHAN: Over an 11-year period.
DUCKWORTH: That is really shocking to me.
MAUGHAN: So, let me just read a couple more points: “Fewer than one in five U.S. adults say that being married is essential for a man or woman to live a fulfilling life.” A lot of people are just saying, “Hey, you don’t have to have this.”
DUCKWORTH: That has got to be a huge cultural shift. Oh my gosh, my grandmother would be rolling over in her grave if she knew that this poll came out, because she raised my mother — who in turn raised me — to believe that that’s your calling. I mean, it’s your calling to have a long-term marriage that you do well at, meaning: you make your husband happy. By the way, I’m not endorsing these views, I’m just saying this is how my mother was raised.
MAUGHAN: What’s interesting is that there are also big splits based on socioeconomic status, education levels, and race. So, people who are wealthier and more educated are more likely to be married. And those who are less educated and less wealthy are much less likely to be married. Now, what I don’t have data on, and I don’t know is: are they still in long-term relationships but not going through the actual act of becoming married? But as a cultural phenomenon, marriage is less a part of the society in the United States than it’s ever been.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I think, as a psychologist, I will say that there are needs that are met in a traditional marriage, in a nontraditional lifelong romantic relationship where you don’t get married but you live with the person forever. I think we do have a human need for intimacy, you know, for someone to talk about your day with, like at the end of the day. But I don’t know that it is something that could only be satisfied in that way. So, there was this research paper that was published in 2022, so really recently. And the title is “Satisfying Singlehood as a Function of Age and Cohort: Satisfaction With Being Single Increases With Age After Midlife.”
MAUGHAN: Wait, so older people are happier being single?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but only after around age 40. To quote the authors, “Perhaps it is only after midlife, around 40, when the peak period of partnering opportunities has passed for both genders, single individuals come to terms with being single and becoming better at finding ways to be happy with single life the older they get.”
MAUGHAN: Yeah, that’s so interesting. I mean, and there’s this other massive shift happening in society called “gray divorce.”
DUCKWORTH: Like, the color gray?
MAUGHAN: Yes. There’s a, a shocking amount of divorce happening in the baby boomer generation, but it never happened in previous generations. So, I think it’s catching demographers and others kind of by surprise — this idea of “gray divorce,” people getting divorced at 65+ when they’ve been married for so long.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, “gray” divorce as in —.
MAUGHAN: Gray hair.
DUCKWORTH: Older people, not, like, “conscious uncoupling,” you know, like, it’s kind of a divorce, but it’s not. You mean “gray” as in older people. Okay. The demographers are like, “What’s up with that?”
MAUGHAN: Right. But going to your point of people who are over 40 and this singlehood idea, I think people have said to themselves, “Hey, I would rather be happy and single than in this environment.” And Here’s one thing that I think is interesting that I’ve seen happen a lot — I’m sure you’ve seen happen a lot and maybe experienced it. So, there was an article in The Atlantic written by Faith Hill. To clarify, this is the “Faith Hill” who is the senior associate editor at The Atlantic, not the legendary singer married to Tim McGraw.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right, yes. Okay, good clarification.
MAUGHAN: So, this Faith talks about this idea that I loved, which — she talks about love-life balance.
DUCKWORTH: Love-hyphen-life, not like “love life,” but like —.
MAUGHAN: Yes, sorry. Love-life balance. And we’ve all had friends earlier in our lives, or maybe still, who we are good friends with, and we do things with, and then they get a romantic partner. And then —.
DUCKWORTH: And they ghost you.
MAUGHAN: In her words, “they recede into their coupledom.”
DUCKWORTH: Mmm, that’s good, well put.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I think a lot of people are like, “Oh, we used to hang out with “so-and-so” a lot. They got married. We’ve never seen them again.”
DUCKWORTH: Or even, you know, when I was in college, I remember, like, I would have, like, a girlfriend that I, like, super loved and we were having, like, breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and it was so awesome, “Yay, I finally have a BFF!” And then, they would get into a relationship, and then disappear entirely — I mean, they weren’t married, but it was just, like, I got abandoned, with some frequency, actually.
MAUGHAN: I think it’s very common. In fact, there’s an economist, Katie Genadek, who studies Census Bureau data, and she said that the amount of time the average couple spends together has increased since 1965. So, people are really building a life where their relationship is at the center, and everything else is getting pushed to the perimeter. And this is where Faith Hill is talking about this love-life balance. People need to be able to preserve sort of their individual identity while also being in a relationship with a partner. And what happens is that so often, as she talks about it, people lean on each other so much for their psychological needs, for their emotional needs, for their relationship needs that they sort of begin to lose this self-differentiation or a clear sense of who they are.
DUCKWORTH: They lose their own identity, right? Because they’re just now, like, an amalgam with another person.
MAUGHAN: Some people might say, “Hey, that’s the goal.” I mean, I think there’s a biblical passage, maybe, that says like, “Come together, and you twain shall become one flesh.” It’s this idea that, like, the marital relationship is this, like, bonding of two people. What’s interesting though, and what I love about how she’s talking about this love-life balance, is she’s saying that it’s actually really important for couples to maintain sort of these relationships outside of just themselves. And mentioned in the article one study that says that couples that went on double dates with another couple and discussed personal topics with the four of them, then the original couple went back feeling more, quote, “passionate love for each other afterward.” So, sometimes we think, “Oh, if we just focus on the two of us, it’s going to be that much stronger.” And I think what she’s helping us see is that maybe that’s not the case. And having these other relationships helps your marital relationship, or long-term relationship, be even stronger.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I was speaking to an undergraduate the other day, and they were really upset because they were going through a breakup.
MAUGHAN: Which is a very natural way to feel.
DUCKWORTH: It is. And I did say — and this is true — that when I was the exact age of this undergraduate that I came to my professor, Kay Merseth, and it was not an appropriate topic for office hours, but I, too, came to my professor and said, “Oh my God, I’m going through this breakup, and it’s, you know, devastating.” And the advice that I got on that day, and also subsequently from therapists, because, as you know, I’m a big fan of therapy.
MAUGHAN: As am I.
DUCKWORTH: Because it’s so awesome. You know, and it’s more or less what I said to this crying undergraduate in my office, which is the following: because I was described a relationship where they really were intertwined, they were, like, kind of one unit, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, now what happens to me when the person that’s the other part of the unit apparently wants to leave the unit?” And so, I would say to my younger self that you can’t expect another person to truly complete you. I know it sounds good in movies, and I took a really long time in my therapy to understand this, because my therapist, Dee, kept saying over and over again that when you get married, when you develop a long-term relationship with anyone, there is a moment in time where you feel like your job is to make that person happy, and their job is to make you happy. But that’s not true. Because only you can make yourself happy. And I remember, like, session, after session, after session, I was like, “That makes no sense. What’s the whole point of having a relationship if there isn’t that dependence?” And Dee kept trying to help me become aware of the idea that only I’m responsible for my own happiness, and even though I can love that other person and do a lot of things for that person, like, it’s not, like, kind of that passage that you just read to me, it’s not like that. And anyway, in so many words, I tried to communicate this to the weeping undergraduate, because I didn’t want her to have this view that her identity and her esteem for herself, and honestly, even that her happiness could hinge upon what this other person in her life, as dear as they are to her — like, it shouldn’t hinge on that person.
MAUGHAN: It’s almost like there are these competing priorities that you have to fight. One is: you have to be responsible for your own happiness, but your instincts were also not wrong: that the happiest relationships are when people are looking out for each other’s joy and happiness and helping one another, right?
DUCKWORTH: It’s so nuanced. Don’t you find that hard to — I mean, I really felt dumb. I was like, “Okay, let’s have therapy again, so you can try to explain to me again what it is you mean to say that I have to take care of myself.” But also, like you just said, Mike, right? Like, of course there’s dependence. It’s just — I find this such a subtle point. I find it hard to communicate. I find it hard to even truly comprehend, but I know it’s right.
MAUGHAN: Right. And the conflicting thing here is you’re responsible for your own happiness, and your relationship will be better the more you’re focused on helping the relationship be happy.
DUCKWORTH: So, Mike, I think you and I would love to hear about the experiences of our listeners on what makes a good long-term relationship. When are these long-term, even lifelong, relationships actually worth it? Please record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like No Stupid Questions and want to support us, the best thing you can do is to tell a friend. You can spread the word as well on social media. Or leave a review in your podcast app.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss the health benefits of long-term, romantic relationships.
MAUGHAN: If you are close enough to someone that you can talk to them about a colonoscopy, it means that you have deep relationships in your life.
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about long-term relationships.
MAUGHAN: I will just say that I grew up in a fascinating environment — and my siblings and I have talked about this since, as we’ve gotten older. Our parents had so many friends. We didn’t realize how rare it was for couples to have all these relationships, and granted they’ve been living in the same place, geography, for all their lives, basically. They have this group of five couples that my mom went to high school with the other four women, and those five couples have been getting together for dinner every other month for 45 years.
DUCKWORTH: No. Wow! I am so jealous, by the way. That’s the kind of thing, like, you know, you hear about a story like that, and you’re like, “Oh, I want that.”
MAUGHAN: It’s amazing. And here’s what’s even cooler about it is those five families, we all went on vacation together every summer of my entire childhood.
DUCKWORTH: No! This is, like, movie-quality. This is, like, we can make millions of people feel terrible about their own lives by comparison.
MAUGHAN: No! Hopeful —hopeful about what they can create.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, hopeful. Hopeful. Right. You can brand it that way.
MAUGHAN: But it was beautiful, because I have incredible aunts and uncles, and I have amazing cousins, but then you added in these four other families — so five families total. All of those couples feel like additional aunts and uncles, and all of their children are like additional cousins to me. But all these people are interwoven through all of our lives. And I would say that my parents’ marriage was stronger and better for the fact that they had all of these other friend groups. And I think that’s a little bit of what Faith Hill is talking about in this Atlantic article. And that’s why I resonated so much with her line, “love-life balance.” We talk about work-life balance. We talk about all these other balances in our lives.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Okay. So it sounds to me, like, in your unusual and blessed childhood, there were these lifelong intimates — but platonic intimates — that your parents had, right? Like, they had friends, but they weren’t, like, friends for a season, and they weren’t friends for a reason, they were friends for life. And I think maybe that is what I think is the universal need. I do think we have a need for a small number of relationships that are unconditional and they are — I mean, obviously, life is finite — but they’re infinite in the sense that there is no terminus for the friendship. Like, I could say that about my dearest friends now. By the way, that includes you, Mike.
MAUGHAN: Yes, I feel the same way, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: But I’m just saying, I think, in a way, the idea is that some of the things that maybe marriage gives to some people and has historically been talked about at the societal level as being, like, “that’s where you get this thing.” Maybe it just means that we can get that in other ways — like, in other relationships.
MAUGHAN: Right. And I, I think we can. I do want to bring up, which I think is interesting — there’s an article written in a publication called The Conversation in 2023 by three professors from Purdue University. And it says marriage provides health benefits. And they talk about the fact that there is maybe this self-selection, so they’re not ready to claim it’s all causal.
DUCKWORTH: So, the self-selection is just that you’re not randomly assigning people to get married or not married. So, it could be that, like, healthy people select into marriage, and then healthy people are healthy.
MAUGHAN: Yes. And, as we mentioned before, people who are getting married tend to be wealthier. They tend to be healthier on average. They tend to be more educated. If you’re wealthier, access to healthcare, et cetera, is there.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, I’m with you.
MAUGHAN: But they do say that, that what they found is that married men and married women live, on average, two years longer than their unmarried counterparts. They’re more likely to eat better, less likely to smoke and drink excessively, and they have a bunch of other longevity benefits. Now, what they found is that it’s sort of this virtuous cycle — maybe if you come home from a really bad day, and you, you don’t have, like, a long-term marital partner or long-term romantic partner, it’s easier to just go grab a beer, and then another beer, and then another beer, or eat a bag of Doritos, or whatever. Whereas, they found that people in these married relationships are more likely to want to help their partners change health behaviors. And so, exercising, or getting rid of bad habits, stuff like that — it’s helpful when you’re in these long-term relationships where someone’s like, “Hey, we’re not going to eat that way.” Or, “Hey, let’s get out and go on a walk,” et cetera.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so if I’m getting this right, they’re saying that it’s not just that healthy people, or educated people, or wealthy people end up getting married, and that’s why you see this correlation. They’re saying that there is some causal force to the relationship, because once you’re in that relationship, that other person is watching out for you — watching out for what you eat, getting enough sleep, going to the doctor, you know, getting a colonoscopy, like, who knows? Is that what they’re saying?
MAUGHAN: Yes. And everybody loves someone who says, “Have you had a colonoscopy lately?”
DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s right!
MAUGHAN: If you are close enough to someone that you can talk to them about a colonoscopy, it means that you have deep relationships in your life.
DUCKWORTH: It does. If can say word “polyp” without blushing, then you have achieved a certain level of self-actualization. But, um, I think that sounds right to me — that marriage and lifelong commitments, can make you healthier and happier for the reasons that we said. But I guess there’s the possibility — like you said, love-life balance — that that positive benefit has some downsides. Like, what does it crowd out? You know, does it crowd out friendships? I guess not, in the case of your parents.
MAUGHAN: It’s interesting, I mean, some marriages are so tight — you look at Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. One of their sons once said their marriage was so powerful that there was no room for anyone else. And he was saying that as an indictment.
DUCKWORTH: So, maybe they were so close to each other that even the children didn’t feel like they were getting enough attention? By the way, I grew up in a house that had a framed portrait of Ronald Reagan on the mantle. It was weird! It was like, you know, we’d have our Christmas stockings because, you know, we wouldn’t take them down, and at some point, you’re like, “We’ll just leave them up for the next year.” So, we would have this fireplace, and our Christmas stockings that would just hang there 365 days a year. And then, there’d be a few family photos. And then, there was a framed portrait of Ronald Reagan. That is how much my dad loved Ronald Reagan.
MAUGHAN: I think I’m more surprised that you had stockings hanging up 365 days a year than that you had the Reagan photo.
DUCKWORTH: Because then you only have a couple months, and then you’re over the halfway point, and you may as well wait until December. That was our rationale. We were like, “it’s practically Christmas!”
MAUGHAN: That’s like saying, “I’ll never make my bed.”
DUCKWORTH: We did that, too. I’m just going to mess it up again. Well, look, I think, you know, there is a Beyoncé for marriage research, just in case you’re wondering.
MAUGHAN: Can I just say, I love the description. I think that for most of my life, it was always, like, “The Michael Jordan of” —.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. Maybe I should say, “the Serena Williams of marriage research.” I don’t know.
MAUGHAN: I mean, both Serena and Beyoncé are legends in their — the legends in their fields.
DUCKWORTH: Pick your icon. But the person I’m speaking about is a psychologist named Eli Finkel. And Eli Finkel, he has this one diagram in his, like, magnum opus on how our expectations about marriage have changed over time, and he calls it “Mount Maslow,” and there’s quite literally a picture of a mountain.
MAUGHAN: And is this referring to Maslow’s hierarchy, or a different —.
DUCKWORTH: Yes! There is this hierarchy of needs that Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, who was a generation before us, gave us. And basically the idea was that we all have these kind of, like, basic physiological needs, right? Hunger, thirst, sleep, oxygen. Those are the core physiological needs that of course you have to meet before you ever worry about the next level of needs, and those are safety needs. Like, you want to be somewhere where you have economic safety, that you have psychological safety, physical safety. And then, the third stratum in the hierarchy is the need to belong — to love and be loved. You know, if you have oxygen, and you have food, and you have water, and there’s a roof over your head, and you’re not going to be murdered, the next thing you want is to love and be loved, right?
MAUGHAN: I just want to say that I love that you chose to describe safety as “not going to be murdered.”
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I have low expectations, I guess.
MAUGHAN: Such a graphic way to do that.
DUCKWORTH: Not murdered. Not clobbered. Not bodychecked into the wall. But, okay, so, if you’ve got physiological needs covered, and you’ve got your safety needs covered, and you’ve got your need for belonging and love covered, then the next two levels — so there’s “esteem,” like self-esteem, respect, you know, from other people. But the highest level in the hierarchy of needs for Maslow was called “self-actualization.” So, that’s the peak. And if I have Eli Finkel right — basically the idea is that we now have applied this hierarchy of needs to our relationships, and we expect our relationships with, for example, our spouse, but it also could apply to, you know, other relationships I would imagine — but he’s a marriage researcher. So, he would say, like, “Look, Angela, probably since you were born in recent times — not in the old days — you probably expect that your marriage is not only going to help you solve the needs for hunger and thirst; not only that it’s going to provide some level of safety; not only that — you expect this marriage of yours to satisfy your need to love and be loved. And I, “Of course,” you know, “absolutely, Eli.” And then, if Eli said, “Not only that, you want this marriage to Jason to meet your need for esteem — like, you somehow expect that because you are married to this person, you should have more respect for yourself and others because of all the things that Jason, through conversation, through support, is going to give you.” And then, finally, I think what Eli Finkel believes has changed about expectations about marriage in particular is that we now believe that this partner of ours should help us become self-actualized humans. That Jason has a job, and that is not only to help me solve all of the lower needs, but even my desire to live my best life, to be my best self. That’s partly his job. And I think his claim — meaning Eli, not Jason’s — is that that is historically unprecedented.
MAUGHAN: I do think it’s crazy how far the idea of marriage and the expectations of it have changed. And I wonder how much people are delaying marriage or not getting married because the society has changed in general, saying, “Hey, I don’t need that.” Or this idea that our expectations of it are so potentially unrealistic.
DUCKWORTH: Well, do you think it’s unrealistic?
MAUGHAN: I think that, to Beyoncé’s point — I’m calling him Beyoncé now.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think he would object to that, actually.
MAUGHAN: To Eli’s point, if you think about the 1800s, you married who was in your village. There was a very limited subset of people. And so, this idea of, like, “Oh, finding my soulmate” —.
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Which of these four people am I going to end up spending the rest of my life with?”
MAUGHAN: And it goes back to this idea of choice, and sometimes when you have so many options, then you choose none of them, versus like, “Oh, they’re one of four? Okay, that one’s going to fit the best.” And people just picked each other, and then they made a life together, because the expectation was, to your point, lower down the mountain — it was a matter of safety, to some extent, maybe belonging, hopefully love and be loved —.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe, maybe not. You’re probably, like, sharing plots of land or something, right? Like, the marriage had a transactional function. It wasn’t necessarily love.
MAUGHAN: Right. And I wonder if now — again, I fully understand that there is so much poverty, not just in the world in general, but in the United States and other places. But some of those lower-level pieces of the mountain, of the hierarchy, are more of a given. And so, maybe that is what allows people to change their expectations so fully.
DUCKWORTH: That’s exactly his theory, by the way. He was like: okay, so we’ve kind of gotten to the point where we have technologies that have made survival not our top priority when we wake up in the morning, right? You’re not like, “Oh, I wonder if I’ll starve to death today? I wonder if I’ll have enough clean water to drink?” Like, we have those things, and we have some degree of safety as well. And that is exactly his point. He thinks that the historic shift to looking to our relationships and our marriages in particular to fulfill these higher needs is because the lower ones are taken care of. And if we’re going to reach those extremely high expectations, then we have to invest a lot into that relationship. And maybe one consequence of that, like getting back to your life-love balance tradeoff is that, you know, if you’re going to invest that much, I mean, maybe it is at the extreme a Nancy and Ronald Reagan story where, like, maybe it was for Nancy Reagan the peak of what it could be. And, you know, Ronald Reagan helped her self-actualize and so forth. But maybe there was a cost to that, which is that she invested so much of her time and energy into that relationship, maybe there wasn’t enough left over, even for her own children.
MAUGHAN: I mean, look, in all things there are tradeoffs, right?
DUCKWORTH: That could be up there with “it depends” as, like, universally true.
MAUGHAN: It is true. There are tradeoffs. I think if I were to summarize, sort of, Rebecca’s question, “are long-term relationships worth it?” I think the answer is — is yes. I think that people’s long-term relationships may look different or feel different than they have in the past, but I think there are ways to have these deep relationships where you can still have a really good, fulfilling, beautiful life.
DUCKWORTH: Like, um, some scientists call it, like, a “portfolio,” like a social portfolio. It’s not just one stock, right? I think a lot of, you know, Nancy Reagan-types would be like, “Yeah, I’ve got one stock.” Like, and this is a more differentiated portfolio, and I think that’s a good description of some of the happiest single adults that I know. It’s not that they don’t have intimacy, but they don’t have it in the form of one human being only.
MAUGHAN: Yeah. And I think I have found personally that life is so much richer when shared, especially when shared with people that you’ve had along for either all or most of the journey. You know, you can’t make old friends. And I think that’s really, really powerful.
DUCKWORTH: Hashtag, family.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation: In the first half of the show, Angela struggles to define midlife, and guesses that she’s either post-midlife or in late-midlife. According to Frank Infurna — an Arizona State University psychologist whose research focuses on the “changing landscape of midlife” — this period of transition is generally considered to encompass the ages of 40 to 65. So Angela, at age 53, is pretty much smack dab in the middle — neither late, nor post midlife, and certainly not in the afterlife.
Relatedly, Mike mentions the growing phenomenon of “gray divorce,” which he describes as, “People getting divorced at 65+.” He was slightly off. Academics who study gray divorce define it as a marital split that happens after the age of 50. Sociologist Susan L. Brown, the co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, stated that “well over a third of people who are getting divorced now” fall into this category. However, instead of “gray divorce,” many prefer to refer to this trend as “silver splitters.” Divorce attorney Susan Myers explained to CNN that the term hints at the silver lining of starting anew, no matter what your age.
Finally, Mike says that one of Ronald and Nancy Regan’s sons once said that their marriage was so powerful that there was no room for anyone else. First, we should note that the couple only had one son — Ron, born in 1958. They also had a daughter, Patti Davis, born in 1952, and the former president had three children from his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman: Maureen, Christine, and Michael. I wasn’t able to locate the exact quote that Mike was referring to, but many people who knew the couple expressed a similar sentiment. For example, the late talk show host Larry King, a lifelong friend of the couple, once told People magazine, quote, “Their love affair was probably more important than their love for their children. The children were secondary to them.” That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on exaggeration.
Paul LUKAS: I understand and even applaud that you folks try to avoid getting political on the show, but I don’t see how you can do an episode on exaggeration and lying without noting that the health and success of any community depends in large measure on the assumption that people in that community are telling the truth and acting in good faith, and that the current lack of that assumption in our society, thanks to falsehoods like conspiracy theories and quote-unquote “alternative facts,” is a huge source of the problems we’re now facing as a nation. I wish you had spent more time on how our personal small-scale experiences with untruths and exaggerations can have large-scale consequences.
Stuart ANDREWS: Stuart from Melbourne here — and yes, Angela, it’s pronounced Melbourne, not “Mel-born.” The best summary on the apparent human need to exaggerate I have heard comes from the short story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” which is part of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. So, I thought I would share a short quote with you. “Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement — a compulsion to rev up the facts — and for most of us, it was normal procedure to discount 60 or 70 percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you, for example, that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn’t a question of deceit, just the opposite. He wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around.” Anyway, that’s all for me.
That was Paul Lukas and Stuart Andrews. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear about your thoughts on long-term, romantic relationships. When do they work well? And when are they not worth it? Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up on No Stupid Questions: How does word choice affect behavior?
MAUGHAN: Just go to a magic show, ladies and gentlemen!
That’s coming up on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I forgot that I was supposed to watch time, and then I was like, “Oh my God, I literally have no idea how much time went by.”
- Eli Finkel, professor of psychology and of management and organizations at Northwestern University.
- Katie Genadek, economist at the U.S. Census Bureau and faculty research associate at the Institute for Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
- Faith Hill, senior associate editor of culture at The Atlantic.
- Abraham Maslow, 20th-century psychologist.
- Katherine K. Merseth, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
- “A Record-High Share of 40-Year-Olds in the U.S. Have Never Been Married,” by Richard Fry (Pew Research Center, 2023).
- “Divorce Skyrocketing Among Aging Boomers,” by Sharon Jayson (AARP, 2023).
- “Don’t Let Love Take Over Your Life,” by Faith Hill (The Atlantic, 2023).
- “Marriage Provides Health Benefits – and Here’s Why,” by Libby Richards, Melissa Franks, and Rosie Shrout (The Conversation, 2023).
- “The Benefits of Diversifying Your Social Portfolio,” by Samantha Boardman (Psychology Today, 2023).
- “Satisfying Singlehood as a Function of Age and Cohort: Satisfaction With Being Single Increases With Age After Midlife,” by Yoobin Park, Elizabeth Page-Gould, and Geoff MacDonald (Psychology and Aging, 2022).
- “Pathology in Relationships,” by Susan C. South (Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2021).
- “Behind ‘the Collateral Heartbreak’ and Intense Devotion of the Reagans’ Decades-Long Romance,” by Virginia Chamlee (People, 2021).
- “U.S. Marriage Rate Plunges to Lowest Level on Record,” by Janet Adamy (The Wall Street Journal, 2020).
- “The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage in America Is Becoming an All-or-Nothing Institution,” by Eli J. Finkel, Elaine O. Cheung, Lydia F. Emery, Kathleen L. Carswell, and Grace M. Larson (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2015).
- “Are We Getting Lonelier?” by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “The Facts Are In: Two Parents Are Better Than One,” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Why Did You Marry That Person? (Replay),” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage,” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).