Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that human beings have an unalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, we all have a natural right to pursue those things that make us happy. The concept is an interesting thing to consider against the backdrop of unhappy marriages.
Imagine being a couple’s therapist at Relationships & More in Rye, NY. Counselors at the Westchester County counseling center routinely talk to couples who complain of being unhappy. How would you respond to that? What role would you say happiness plays in successful marriages?
Definitions May Vary
One of the difficulties of dealing with a lack of happiness in marriage rests in a difference in terms. Simply put, people define happiness in different ways. Couples claiming to be unhappy may be experiencing nothing more than a lack of agreement over what constitutes happiness.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines happiness in two ways:
- A state of well-being and contentment; and
- A pleasurable or satisfying experience.
The first definition is actually a state of mind. It is a state of contentment, which is a free-will choice. Anyone can choose to be content at any moment in time. So in the sense that happiness equals contentment, it is also a free-will choice.
The other definition refers to events or experiences that create a certain emotional response. This may be where most people claiming to be stuck in an unhappy marriage are coming from. They do not experience those positive emotions. In fact, they experience negative emotions more often than not. Still, that does not fully explain the role of happiness in successful marriages.
Happiness Is Fleeting
One thing people who stay happily married for 40 and 50 years come to terms with is the reality that happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. There are days when they feel very content. There are days when their marriage relationships produce very positive feelings. Then there are other days when they cannot stand their spouses.
What you do on those ‘bad’ days? You have a couple of choices. First, you can accept that negative emotions are normal and can be overcome. You can hang on, work your way through the bad day, and choose to adopt a happier, more content attitude the next day.
Your other choice is to wallow in your negative thoughts and emotions. You can dwell on all the things you do not like about your partner, causing yourself greater bitterness and resentment. Either way, do you see the common thread here? You have total control over whether or not you are happy.
Happiness Is Not the Goal
If you go back to the Declaration of Independence, you will notice that Jefferson never said that happiness was the goal. He merely said that pursuing it was an unalienable right. Think about that in terms of a marriage relationship.
If you go into marriage expecting that it will make you happy, you have unrealistic expectations. Happiness comes and goes – almost on a daily basis. There are days when you will not be happy with your marriage. There are other days when you will be. But being happy is not the goal.
The goal of marriage is to spend the rest of your life with a companion in whom you can invest yourself. Some days that investment will pay off with big dividends. Other days you will lose. In between will be those days when you break even. But stick with it and the rewards will far exceed mere happiness – which you will still experience, by the way.