Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Does Marriage Make You Happy?

Blogger Eric Barker asks whether marriage makes people happy. Link here. He reports on recent research that shows that a good marriage will make you happier while a bad marriage will make you miserable.

Guardian journalist Louise Carpenter entitles her long and comprehensive article on marriage: "The Myth of Wedded Bliss." Link here.

Both authors, and many more, are questioning whether or not people should get married. Barker, for one, seems to believe that we are suffering under a massive propaganda barrage that is trying to persuade us to get married.

Since the propaganda tends to create unrealistic expectations-- we are all going to find wedded bliss-- it serves merely to undermine the institution further.

Then again, whatever made anyone think that marriage was invented to make people happy? Does anyone really believe that this venerable human institution was established to fulfill anyone's personal need for happiness?

And when we start demanding that marriage make people happy, aren't we creating expectations that no social institution can ever fulfill? Does this incessant questioning of marriage contribute to the loosening of the marital ties and create more social disorganization in its wake?

Given that there is no such thing as a human community where there is no marriage, what sense does it make to question the viability of the institution?

Isn't it a little like asking whether or not we should all use language? What if someone proposed that language, as a social institution, must always betray the purity of our personal feelings, and therefore, that we would better express ourselves if we could somehow not use it?

The reasoning behind that statement is not so easily impeached. Language does compromise the expression of private emotion. And yet, whatever gave anyone the idea that the value of human speech lies in whether or not it allows us to express our private emotions? Call it the world of grunts and moans.

But language does not exist to express your personal feelings. Why would anyone denounce it, or any other social institution, for failing to live up to functions they were not designed to fulfill. You would not denounce your soup spoon because it doesn't do a good job of cutting your steak.

Marriage will surely outlive all of us. Our task is to offer some thoughts about how to make the best of marriage, to make marriage successful and happy. And we should be fully cognizant of the fact that marriage has been brutally attacked, even undermined, by many serious thinkers for quite some time now.

First, we need to review, simply, what marriage is and isn't. Marriage is a mating institution; it attempts to provide the optimal conditions for child rearing; it involves rules and roles, duties and obligations. At its best, it provides security and stability; a predictably harmonious existence in society.

So, while we would all agree that it is best that a married couple be in love, marriage was not invented, and it has not lasted this long, because it was supposed to give social expression to personal feelings of love.

No one has ever suggested that marriage is the best way to sustain the most maddening forms of romantic love.

If you want to keep romantic love alive and on fire, then you should opt for drama over stability; surprise over routine; irresponsibility over responsibility; disrespect over respect; and clashes over harmony.

Marriage is not an art form; you do not just make it up as you go along; you do not make it your own unique individual creation.

Many people define happiness as a dream come true, as living your dreams, or as making your true love into a way of life. If that is how you see happiness, and if that is what you expect from marriage, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Try looking at it from a different angle. What if we follow Aristotle and say that happiness involves excelling at a task. The better you get at building houses the happier you are as a builder. The better you get at writing reports the happier you will become.

This form of happiness does not seem to have a deep spiritual side, but, remember we are talking about a social institution like marriage, not about your access to the sacred.

If we were dealing with issues of mental health, we would note here that you cannot really excel at mental health. But, if the issue is building character, we certainly believe that you can work to improve your character, and even to excel at it.

I would posit that people of excellent character are more likely to have successful and happy marriages than are those who do not. People of excellent character will be more inclined to cooperate with others, to do what it takes to get along, and to negotiate difficulties. People of excellent character will not believe that true love relieves the obligation to extend courtesy and respect to their spouses.

And they will not believe that passionate love will forgive all sins, all discourtesies, all disrespect, and all inconsiderate behavior.

Good or excellent character all contributes to a marriage's durability because people of character are more likely to take their vows seriously. They are more likely to keep their word, and thus, to take the decision to marry more seriously.

If you have no real sense of being good to your word, you can give it to whomever as you feel like it. If you believe that your word is your bond you will be more cautious, more deliberate, more serious about giving it.

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