In fact, the proportion saying that their own marriages are very happy is so high that some researchers think this really means that the respondents are just telling the survey givers what they want to hear or what is socially expected.
Another possibility that “With This Ring” considers is this:
A generally high level of marital quality is to be expected in a society, such as the United States, in which persons in unsatisfactory marriages are able, and often willing, to resort to divorce to deal with the situation. If poor marriages tend to end quickly, the average quality of intact marriages will be high, as is apparently the case in this country.
The authors of the report note that if poor marriages end easily, that is not really testimony to the strength of marriage as an institution. I think this is a fair point. A brutal divorce triage would weed out the weak marriages. This is probably a bigger cause of strong reports of marital happiness than is people lying to survey researchers.
I was struck, though, by what seems to me to be the bad effects of putting so much emphasis on marital happiness in the first place. Marriage has always been a complex institution. Even today, when most of the productive and governmental functions that families once had have been spun off to other institutions, most marriages serve multiple roles for the couple, their children, and society as a whole. Producing and rearing children, providing financially for both husband and wife through the ups and downs of each one’s work life, providing a discipline and structure for the lives of all the members of the family, and helping keep both husband and wife healthier in mind and body, are only some of the functions of marriage. And all of these roles are true benefits to the couple and to society even if, at any given time, husband or wife or both are not “very happy.”
Treating happiness as a primary function of marriage puts too much emphasis on happiness. The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy. Your purpose in marrying is not even to make your spouse happy. Most marriages are happy, and most married people are happier than they would be if they could not marry. Still, happiness should never be the prime measure of marital success. If we do take happiness, especially my individual happiness, to be the make-or-break measure of whether my marriage is working, then we will weaken marriage, indeed.
Happiness, like “self-esteem” and “community,” cannot really be achieved directly. Rather, they are by-product of doing other, more mundane but more substantial, actions.