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Should Marriage Be Expected To Make You Happy?

There is, it seems, a surge underway in gay divorce. This is hardly surprising — marriage is difficult, no matter what sex your spouse is — but sad all the same:

It’s not a subject that marriage-equality groups tend to trumpet on their websites, but gay couples are at the start of a divorce boom. One reason is obvious: More couples are eligible. According to a report by UCLA’s Williams Institute, nearly 50,000 of the approximately 640,000 gay couples in the U.S. in 2011 were married…The marriage rate, in states that allowed it, was quickly rising toward that of heterosexual couples: In Massachusetts as of that year, 68 percent of gay couples were married, compared with 91 percent of heterosexual couples. Another reason…is that while first-wave gay marriages have proved more durable than straight ones (according to the Williams Institute, about one percent of gay marriages were dissolving each year, compared with 2 percent for different-sex couples), that’s not expected to last. Most lawyers I spoke to assume that the gap will soon vanish, once the backlog of long-term and presumably more stable gay couples have married, leaving the field to the young and impulsive.

The article delves into the gap between marriage equality and divorce equality, which is creating a chaotic legal limbo for gay couples who wish to dissolve their partnerships. It’s interesting and worth a read. But let’s expand the central question outward. Whether you’re gay or straight, is marriage a viable enterprise in the first place?

For the sake of argument, let’s leave aside the divine mandate. In strictly practical terms, marriage appears to be the best social system in which to raise children, and that might be its best defense. But placing the goal of child-rearing uppermost — ahead of the commitment to the sustaining of romantic love between adults — has become anachronistic in Western culture in the modern era. And so: of all possible social constructs between romantic partners, is marriage the most likely to bring happiness? Should happiness even be the goal?

Marriage seems to be analogous to democracy, in that it’s imperfect, but the least bad option. There is, perhaps, something to be said for Katharine Hepburn’s theory that partners should live a few doors down from each other. What do you think?

  1. LHFry

    There is  nothing sweeter than the love between a man and a woman who have lived together for 40 or 50 years.    Sorry for those who don’t get there.  

  2. Bryan G. Stephens
    Judith Levy, Ed.

    Marriage seems to be analogous to democracy, in that it’s imperfect, but the least bad option. There is, perhaps, something to be said for Katharine Hepburn’s theory that partners should live a few doors down from each other. What do you think? · · 1 hour ago

    I agree. Marriage is WORK. Anyone that thinks differently is not going to make it.

  3. Mama Toad

    Judith, you ask in your post title, “Should Marriage Be Expected to Make You Happy?”

    The question people who are married ought to be asking is, “Have I Done What I Can Today to Make My Spouse Happy?”

    Love means putting the other person’s needs ahead of our own. If spouses are too caught up in themselves and how they feel, they are unable to focus on the other. 

    Marriage should be about serving the other person in love and tenderness EVEN WHEN we don’t feel “happy.”

    Love is action, not emotion.

    I don’t believe that living a few doors down from the other will improve most people’s marriages, because then they can continue to focus on their own hurt feelings and less than perfect happiness. Instead they need to stop peering in the mirror at themselves and focus on the other person.

    Children are not enough to keep a marriage together, because although they are a supreme gift of married life they are not the supreme purpose of marriage. Marriage is intended for the sanctification and joy of the spouses, which will result when they pour themselves out in service to each other.

  4. katievs

    The problem, I think, is a too superficial and immature idea of happiness.  If we identify it with the emotional high of falling in love, marriage won’t last, and happiness will elude us.

    Real happiness involves the overcoming of egoism, which means effort and sacrifice—things we naturally don’t like.  But for those who achieve it, the rewards are great and beautiful.

    Marriage is for most people the best cure for egoism.  It should bring us happiness.  Just not the cheap kind.

  5. TalkGOP

    “Let’s leave aside the divine mandate.”

    For those of us who believe that God made men and women for marriage, you have sullied the argument right there.  We believe that the Bible gives a lot of insight to your question, which I believe is consistent with our actual experience.

    Marriage has multiple purposes including aspects which tend toward but do not guarantee happiness.  Fundamentally, “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Both men and women provide for different needs of the other and also serve as a foundation for raising stable well-rounded children.

    But these purposes require a lot of work by each individual to fulfill their role.  And in difficult circumstances, sickness, poverty, war, etc. there is no guarantee that happiness will result, although I would argue that proper marriage can make it more tolerable.

    The action of being intimately involved and dedicated to another person is a challenge that should develop qualities such as patience, kindness, and courage.  In short, the challenge of marriage should make us better people and in general that should lead to a long term joy and satisfaction that the Christian would argue is true happiness.

  6. Scott R

    No, marriage shouldn’t be expected to make you happy. To “expect” happiness from anything implies a passive, entitled state of mind. That’s a recipe for unhappiness.

    It also misstates the purpose of marriage in a selfish sort of way. It isn’t all about me or all about you; it’s about society. When marriage is the generally accepted ideal in a society, society works best, since marriage has proved to be the most effective way of dealing with the pesky fact that when men and women get together they tend to make babies.

    Without marriage as a norm, chaos would ensue. For proof, take a drive through the dysfunctional society that is East Cleveland. Whether particular individuals in East Cleveland are happy or unhappy with their decisions is beside the point.   

  7. Bryan G. Stephens
    katievs: The problem, I think, is a too superficial and immature idea of happiness.  If we identify it with the emotional high of falling in love, marriage won’t last, and happiness will elude us.

    Real happiness involves the overcoming of egoism, which means effort and sacrifice—things we naturally don’t like.  But for those who achieve it, the rewards are great and beautiful.

    Marriage is for most people the best cure for egoism.  It should bring us happiness.  Just not the cheap kind. · 55 minutes ago

    Spot on, as usual for you in matters of the soul.

    I distinguish between Happiness and Joy. Happiness is a mood, it is transitory, and frankly, overrated. Out current understanding was not what the Founders meant when they put it into the Declaration. You cannot be happy and sad at the same time; they are incompatible moods.

    Joy, however, is a way of being. I can have both joy and sadness at once. I can have grief at a loss, but still joy at having known them. I think living joyfully is the goal, not to be happy.

  8. J Climacus
    Judith Levy, Ed.

    But placing the goal of child-rearing uppermost — ahead of the commitment to the sustaining of romantic love between adults — has become anachronistic in Western culture in the modern era.

    Man is a social animal and his good always has a social component. In a good marriage, child-rearing and romantic love are not competitors, but instead the mutual self-giving that happens in romantic love matures into a self-giving in which the couple together give themselves to the community (through children among other ways).  This is why marriage is a sacrament of community, not merely a transaction of mutual selfishness between two people.  Yes, the social component of marriage is now “anachronistic”, which only means that our understanding of marriage is stunted and immature – just as is the conception of happiness on which it is based. We should not be surprised that an institution planted in such shallow soil collapses.

  9. Lance

    Marriage should make you feel whole, for hopefully you found your better half. Marriage should make you feel proud that the best person you know wants to spend the rest of their life with you. Marriage should make you feel worried about not living up to the promise of your love. Marriage should make you feel exhausted as you embark upon life and family building, and parenting, together. Marriage is hard, unrelenting, and all encompassing. The joy is found in getting through that together, and being better for it, personally and as a couple. You should happily embark on such a journey, for doing so with a smile on your face is the best way to ensure success. And help soften the blows along the ways. Marriage does not generate happiness… Happiness helps generate good marriages.

  10. Barbara Kidder

    With the purpose of emphasizing another aspect of the issue but, in no way, to support the notion that “money brings happiness”, I will point out the following detriments to marital happiness:

    * when one or both partners are impulsive spenders,

    * when one or both partners procure credit cards without the other’s sanction,

    * when one or both partners look to clothes, electronics, cars, trips,etc. for validation,

    * when one or both partners thinks that personal debt is no big deal,

    then you have  a worm in the bud of marriage that no amount of  idealism or good intentions can ignore and, if left within the flower will always undermine marital happiness.

  11. KC Mulville

    Marriage is a way of life.

    You have to go through life in one way or another. You could go though life as a hermit, abandoning all but the most superficial interaction with other people. Or you could go through life as a Henry Higgins-like bachelor. Or as a monk in a desert abbey.

    Or you could go through life, like most people, in a relationship with some other person, in which you build a family.

    The sad part is when people go through life, mostly without deliberation, following whatever path the contemporary culture chooses for them. It’s basically a life of fashion; you choose that way of life because everyone else around seems to be choosing it. You choose that way of life because you think that’s what’s expected; even in today’s society, when what’s expected is to have one, two, or three marriages.

    You say, “But placing the goal of child-rearing uppermost — ahead of the commitment to the sustaining of romantic love between adults — has become anachronistic in Western culture in the modern era.”

    Do you really think that marriage as a way of life is … an anachronism?

  12. Ross C

    Sure Happiness should be the goal, with the understanding that we can’t define what it is at any given time and the grass will always be greener….

    I do think in the furor to steamroll gay marriage laws at the federal level, it would be very wise for us to pause and see how this plays out in states like MA.   I have always believed that this is much less about Marriage than it is about the politics of forced acquiescence.  I doubt that gay marriage makes a lot of sense for the average gay couple, and I believe that time will tell.

  13. Richard Finlay

    “Happiness” may not be omnipresent, but “less-unhappiness” can be sustaining, if you can believe in it.

  14. Barkha Herman

    I have a story related to this.  I had a friend who was lesbian.  When it became legal to marry in Massachusetts, her and her partner of 9 years went there to get married.

    However, soon after the marriage, the partner became unemployed, stayed home smoking pot all day, was not congenial.  My friend asked her to go to couples counselling but she refused.

    The marriage was falling apart, and Massachusetts laws required residence for divorce.  My friend could not live in Massachusetts  since she was the single bread winner at this time, so, divorce was out of the question.  They decided to go their separate ways, but it all ended in tragedy.  My friend’s partner ended up committing a murder suicide.

    Draw from it what conclusions you may.  They got married to make a point IMHO, not because they wanted to be married.  It did not work out very well for them.

  15. Fricosis Guy

    If we’re going there, didn’t we sully the divine mandate? The curse disordered the relationship between the sexes.

    BTW, I’ve never understood men who point to Genesis 3 as the basis for superiority over women. That’s a bug, guys, not a feature! 

    TalkGOP: “Let’s leave aside the divine mandate.”

    For those of us who believe that God made men and women for marriage, you have sullied the argument right there.  

  16. Merina Smith

    Live a few doors down?  Least bad option?  I don’t think so.  I’d say that marriage brings contentment with flashes of happiness.  As someone mentioned, happiness is a transitory state.  I know people say marriage is work, but I guess that depends on your spouse.  I’ve never thought it was “work,” and I’ve been married nearly 37 years.  If it is work, it’s been the kind Mary Poppins talked about–”In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” Of course there are challenges and hard times, but if you’re married to a good person and you’re facing challenges together, your burdens are lighter. 

    In my mind, it’s a joy to spend your life with another person, to have wonderful children, a wealth of shared memories, many inside jokes, and delightful grandchildren.  In short, a life you have built together.  Honestly, that’s as good as it gets in this fallen world. 

  17. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.

    There have been studies showing that married people, on average, tend to be less happy than unmarried people. That has always struck me as counterintuitive, and almost certainly misleading. In particular, I think that the unhappiest single people are probably much more miserable than the unhappiest married people. This might sound like a glass-half-empty way of looking at it, but if I’m going to have unhappiness in my life — and I will, of course — I’d rather have someone with me.

  18. mask

    It depends in part on how you define happiness.

    Our culture increasingly has valued instant satisfaction and the unrealistic notion of finding a soul mate where things magically or naturally result in happily ever after.  Our culture has lost a lot of the common sense that worthwhile things take a lot of work and devotion and marriage is one of those.

  19. Illiniguy

    It has a funny way of showing it. If this is happiness, I’d hate to see despair.

  20. Rachel Lu
    C

    In contemporary moral philosophy, we sometimes discuss the “paradox of happiness”. Basically the paradox is that pursuing personal happiness directly doesn’t make you happy; your life needs to be about something in order to be happy. (This is something of a problem for utilitarians, since they do in effect want us to function as “happiness maximizers”.)

    Marriage is a good application of this general principle. You need your marriage to be about something other than you and your personal fulfillment. Sadly, I have heard newly married people actually articulate this thought directly: “If marriage isn’t making you happy, why stay married?” Their marriages weren’t happy, and they didn’t stay married long. 

    Conjugal marriage is a more promising model from the get-go, because the purpose and blueprint are already laid out for you. When you get past the goo-goo eye stage, you’re not left searching for some other purpose to make your marriage seem worthwhile.

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