Friday, November 18, 2005

Happiness is Not the Main Point of Marriage

The National Fatherhood Initiative has just released “With This Ring,” a report on their new National Survey on Marriage in America. They generally found very strong support for marriage among all groups in society. The report also notes that very high proportions report that their marriages are very happy or very satisfying. Sixty-nine percent said their marriages were “very happy,” and 88 percent said they were either “completely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their marriages.

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.


Michael Kruse said...

I have a friend who is a marriage therapist. He told me that years ago that when someone comes to him who is contemplating divorce because they are unhappy in their marriage he often asks, "Who told you that you were always going to be happy in marriage?" He also said that the problem with marriage is not that we under value it. We over value it. We think it well make us complete and give meaning to or lives. To use Christian language, he saw marriage as one of God's best tools for sanctification. Intimacy will eventually bring the best and worst out of all of us. When the worst comes face it, bring it before God and deal with it. Little while longer new layers of ugliness will emerge. Marriage is a life long process of the two becoming one and the "ones" becoming more fully he God joyfully created them to be. I have come to appreciate my friends wisdom more and more over the years.

Unknown said...

Maybe that is why premarital counselling sessions spend so much time dealing with expectations -- real or imagined.

Gruntled said...

Marriage isn't to make you happy. And, as a family court judge told me recently, divorce wont make you happy either, it will just make you divorced.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that religion ought to speak to this issue and to that of faithfulness/choice that you mentioned in an earlier blog. Faith - at least the Christian faith that I know - assumes that the purpose of life is neither ease nor happiness, but faithfulness. And it is that very basic belief and commitment that informs my marriage when it isn't making me happy! However, the church (particularly the mainline Presbyterian denomination version of it that I know best) is remarkably silent on marriage. I have not heard a sermon on marriage in more than 25 years, which means that my children who grew up nurtured in the same congregation have never heard the church speak about this at all. Parents in real, human marriages with all its foibles could use some support from an institution that has a great deal to offer in understanding marriage differently than our culture generally sees it.

Gruntled said...

Amen. I think the church is afraid to talk about marriage out of misplaced compassion for the unmarried. As usual, the children suffer.