- Decide to strive primarily for your own happiness.
- Decide to put other people’s happiness a close second to your own.
- Decide that you largely control your own emotional destiny.
Essentially, we are responsible for our own happiness. Yet, society seems to suggest that we can find happiness best through marriage. In her book Singled Out, Bella DePaulo debunks that myth thoroughly but, of course, it remains pervasive.
Granted, the responsibility for our own happiness is intertwined in a relationship with that of our partner. But is this inherent to the relationship or does it come from our expectation that the other person will make us happy (or at least happier)? I think it might be the later but I am not sure. Stephanie Coontz, in her book Marriage, A History, points out that marriage (or more generally relationships) were essentially economic and political contracts until very recently (about 200 years ago). People could not survive on their own, so after the clans of the nomadic life disappeared with agricultural development, people coupled up to share resources. There was nothing romantic about it; everything was pragmatic. In the upper classes, marriage became a thing of intrigue and tactics to further the interests of the family. Interestingly, the idea of a different kind of marriage seems to have sprung from attempts to take power away from the aristocracy. In the late 1700s, marriage started to transform into something romantic that people engaged in because they were in love. The idea of the breadwinning husband and the housekeeping wife emerged but wasn’t economically feasible until the 1950s. With this historical background, it is clear that our modern idea of relationships are not very historical grounded. I’d like to suggest a radical notion: they are also inherently unstable (in fact, Coontz cites someone who suggests that relationships would tend to last about 4 years, which is about half the median years a marriage lasts). The instability comes from precisely our idea that we should get happier from being in an intimate relationship or a marriage than we would get from, say, a very deep and meaningful friendship. Again, historically, this expectation is completely contrary to what’s happened: people tended to mingle within groups of their own gender. A lot of that was driven by rather sexist assumptions, so I wouldn’t want to return to that but I am beginning to wonder if our notions of intimate relationships are part of our “trances of values,” as Jennifer Hecht describes some of our values in The Happiness Myth.
Somehow, we have elevated an intimate relationship above all other relationships by expecting that our happiness uniquely depends on our partner. Obviously, the couple’s happiness will be intertwined but I would argue that is true of any interaction we have. A grouchy check-out clerk can get us grouchy. A stranger’s smile on the street can make us smile. We get in trouble when we expect that our partner will make us happier than we already are. That somehow when we get into a relationship, magic will happen and life will be all rosy. This goes back to the unrealistic societal notion that a partner will fulfill all of our needs, which then puts an incredible emphasis on the coupled unit – often to the detriment of other things and the relationship.
We certainly hope that somehow by getting involved with someone, we can increase our happiness more than we could if we weren’t coupled. We seem to forget that this effect is present in other relationships as well. For example, when I spend lunch with friends, I often leave more refreshed and happier than if I had spent the lunch by myself. Maybe it is time to demystify intimate relationships. There is so much pressure on us about those relationships that we forget that in a lot of ways they are much more similar to friendships. Yes, of course, there are some things I wouldn’t do with friends but I think, overall, intimate relationships are on the same continuum. Maybe if we stopped expecting so much more from an intimate relationship, those relationships would become more stable.
(As an aside: I am really struggling with language writing about this topic, which most writers on this topic have. Most words are so loaded; intimate and relationship in particular. I can have a rather intimate conversation with a good friend, with whom I might have a close relationship. But neither of that is anything like what “generally” is thought of with these terms – possibly a good example of how limited our view of intimacy & relationships are…)