Should Marriage Make You Happy or is Happiness an Inside Job?

Richard Nicastro, PhD looks at finding “meaning over merriment” in marriage and challenges us to monitor our expectations that marriage “should” bring happiness.  Is happiness better found inwardly first?

No one gets married to ramp up the suffering in their life. Quite the contrary, many of us marry (or enter into a committed, intimate relationship) in order to experience greater joy and happiness. The marital ideal equates happiness with marriage. “They’re so happy together”; “Look at the happy couple”; “Marriage suits you well” are common descriptions of couples who are believed to have achieved the marriage-happiness ideal that so many of us are grasping for.

But for every voice staking claim to a happier existence through wedlock, there are those other voices, more cynical (realistic, perhaps?) in nature, ready to pounce with, “Sure they’re happy now, but just wait until reality hits and they’re pulled back to earth.” These people tend to see couples who report that marriage has indeed ramped up their happiness quotient as basking in the glow of an untested new relationship…one that is bound to be confronted by the challenges and realities that are part of any long-term, committed union.

If equating marriage with happiness is a cultural fabrication, an illusion that is problematic because it misdirects our expectations toward a reality that eludes so many, then what should one anticipate from marriage?

Creating a Healthy Relationship: Finding Meaning Over Merriment

Of course, there are those who experience great joy in their relationship. Or, probably more accurately stated, moments of joy. But there is a big difference between being happy with your marriage (and at times experiencing positive emotions with your partner) versus trying find happiness from your marriage.

It’s important for couples, for all of us, to have the freedom to reflect upon the following: Is happiness something that we should seek from our marriage (or from anything outside ourselves, for that matter), or would it be wiser and more helpful to place our expectations in the only place where we truly have control—within ourselves?

And we should also reflect upon what happiness is. Happiness is an emotion, and like all emotions, it rises and falls depending upon circumstance. Joy, happiness, excitement, eagerness, anger, grief, sadness, disgust, fear, and the like, are transient experiences. They inform us about ourselves as individuals and about ourselves in relationship to others—they are messages that come and go.

And while there are certainly things we can do to keep certain emotions alive for longer periods of time (influenced by where we choose to focus our attention), it seems unreasonable to think that it is possible to constantly keep one particular emotional experience firing on all cylinders. Especially when the experience we seek is contingent upon another person. But this is exactly what we do when we expect that our marriage or relationship or partner is supposed to make us happy.

The happiness expectation (which may exist at an unconscious level) creates a rigidly myopic version of what it means to be in a relationship and what it means to be a person. After all, we are complex and multi-faceted beings. We have the capacity to feel deeply and to experience a wide range of emotions; emotions that should be experienced and integrated into our self-experiences where they can inform the richness of our lives.

So what should a relationship offer us?

Psychologist John Bowlby described the inherent need for attachment to another throughout our lives; For connection and the vulnerability necessary for connection to be realized, we must feel secure with our spouse/partner. A deep sense of emotional safety, of knowing and feeling that we can rely on our partner, allows us to bring ourselves more fully and deeply into the relationship.

This “felt sense” of security can help us feel whatever it is we need to feel—security gives us permission to let down our defensive armor and relate more authentically. It is often within the context of such security that we live our deepest feelings. The stabilizing effect of our relationship may increase our potential to experience happiness and to be more joyful, but just as important, it may bring about a greater peace of mind and contentment, a sense of feeling more alive and vital, cherished and special; or maybe the loving and reliable presence of another may allow for the unblocking of more painful feelings that have been long sequestered within us.

We should be able to come out of hiding with our partner, to take off the masks so many of us wear without even realizing they exist. Rather than a chasing “happily ever after,” maybe we should be seeking opportunities to be more real and authentic with another – a coming together of two flawed beings who would somehow be better off together than they are separately.

The idealization and chasing of happiness can become a mask that stifles as powerfully as any other mask. This problematic masking isn’t exclusive to happiness; it will crop up any time we turn away from what is going on within ourselves and look toward the other to make everything all right.

In short, the goal of “happily ever after” fails when being with another is designed to preempt us from being with ourselves.

Healthy Relationship Reflective Moment:

If happiness is something you seek in your relationship or marriage, is there something you are trying to move away from within yourself?

If so, what is it exactly that you hope to leave behind?

And is grasping for happiness’ promise really the best way to achieve what you want/need in your marriage and relationship?