Jezebel recently posted an article about marital happiness that scared the shit out of me. I would like to be married again. I would like to be happily, permanently married this time. But if I want him to be happy (under the supposition that, in a happy marriage, *both* parties have to be happy) he’d better be five years older than me. If I want to be happy, he’d better be five years younger than me…
Two husbands, then?
As usual, there are a bunch of things wrong with studies like this. First, is the more fundamental question of expectations. Dissatisfaction (because the researchers look at satisfaction, not happiness) happens in the gap between what you expected and what you got. Second is the assumptions about what makes for emotional well-being. The biggest of which have nothing to do with who you married.
Let’s start with this: the purpose of marriage is not to make you happy. Perhaps, to quote Mr. Collins, the purpose of marriage is to add very greatly to one’s happiness, but marriage is not there to make you happy. If that is why you are getting married, reconsider. If you are unhappy unmarried, you are going to be unhappy married. You can’t eliminate one by getting rid of the other.
Many things go into a sense of personal well-being. Work hours, a sense of purpose, balance of work and life, fitness, diet, feelings of accomplishment, gratitude, community, connection, sleep… Our cultural narrative wherein our spouses are the one source for everything that makes us either happy or unhappy is bullshit, and a lot of marriages are ruined on those expectations. Our social need for connection was once met by an entire community, and now we put that all on one person. It is too great of a burden to bear. The expectation that one person will make us happy is unrealistic. And the dissatisfaction that festers in the gap between this unrealistic expectation and the immutable reality that this is impossible… let’s just say that divorce grows there too.
Which isn’t to say that we can’t help create an environment where both parties can thrive. We can look out for one another. But no one can be grateful for you. No one can select your attitude but you. No one can create an activity level that promotes your sense of well-being for you. No one can interrogate your thoughts but you. All of those unhappy people, would they be any happier divorced? Married to someone older/younger/more attractive? What would happen if they all wrote down three things they were grateful for every day? What if they wrote down three things they like/love/appreciate about their spouse every day?
We research and report on this shit breathlessly, as if some grand discovery has been made of marriage or as a cautionary tale not to take that leap (it isn’t marriage one way or the other, but the ride or die* partnership that marriage implies). So if you asked me if I am *happier* post divorce, the answer is yes. Not because of the marriage in particular, or even my former spouse, but because I had so much growing to do. I expected him to make me happy and he couldn’t. He expected me… well, I’m not sure what he expected. He’s probably happier too. If he’s partnered up again, do I think he’s got a better partnership? Only to the degree that he’s a better person himself.
I read this stuff and get scared that the whole partnership thing is doomed. I really need to believe that it is possible to be happily married to a man I’d pick up and carry across the finish line if I had to, because I’d rather be late or not finish at all than go without him. I want to be married to the man who feels the same way about me. (Note: I am not remarried, so we see how that project is going.) I’m a die-hard pragmatic romantic. And if I sit still and think about it, I remind myself that these studies are deeply flawed. So maybe they found out that smokers and non smokers don’t get along so well over time. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean they asked the right questions.
*Ride it out or die trying.