Most people enter marriage full of ideals of mutual love and respect “until death do us part” and happy, smart and cooperative children. Life, however, is not quite so tidy and organized, so it often faces us with challenges, as if saying, “Really? Well, let’s see how you cope with this?”
Almost everybody who is in a long-term relationship or marriage, sooner or later feels tempted to end that relationship and perhaps start a new one. This is a situation that often causes political arguments. On one hand, people who feel a stable, long-term relationship as an important life value, might perceive their own (and others’) youthful decision in an overly absolute way, and judge themselves or others if they don’t stick to a badly informed decision to the end of their lives.
Religious people in particular can find themselves in a deep conflict between their values that require preservation of marriage, and the conclusion that they are married to an incompatible person, that they are not happy and they are not likely to ever be happy. Personally, I think it’s almost insane to expect young, inexperienced people, strongly influenced by hormones, popular culture and romantic dreams (not to mention transference), to make a choice they could stick to until the end of their lives. In every other area of life, reasonable adults expect young people to make mistakes and learn from them; mistakes are the fastest and the most efficient way to learn. And yet, young people are often expected to choose the most important person in their lives correctly from the first attempt, or to hold on to an uninformed, less-than-thoughtful decision forever.
On the other hand, it’s fairly common that people end potentially great relationships and marriages because they are not ready to invest effort in them, or they expect the other person to make them happy without giving much in return. Besides, children are often involved, as well as the question of financial security (which is less important from an ethical perspective, but might be greatly relevant from the practical point of view).
As for compatibility, in theory most people can be compatible, if they both show tolerance, respect, responsibility and healthy communication. In reality, though, no matter how strongly they declare their love, people rarely give up their behavioral patterns, immature reactions, even simple habits. Love is obviously not enough for developing partnership skills. Add to this unrealistic expectations, childish emotions and biology (which is an immensely complex influence all by itself), and we get the kind of chaos that few people manage to skillfully navigate.
Well-informed readers might say: why even defend the concept of marriage? Marriage was historically founded as an economic contract that controls people so that a family can increase material wealth and control who inherits it. Still, a stable family makes raising children easier, and many people do want to create a long-term relationship in which understanding, trust and respect would grow with time, rather than superficial short-term ones. When I talk about marriage, I have in mind such a quality long-term relationship, regardless if it’s “legalized” or not.
The purpose of this article is not to create some final conclusion, as I don’t believe in simplifying life and forcing everyone into a same box. Yet I think it’s important to approach this question from different points of view, so that some people might be helped in their decision making – or, even better, in preventing disappointments.
“Love is a decision, not an emotion”
Love is a particularly abstract word. It can include a variety of feelings, some superficial and based on hormones and projections, some based on one’s relationship with parents, and some deeper and more realistic. The concept if love is often twisted and manipulated in many ways. Most types of love include some kind of need or yearning, a pleasant expectation of receiving something that was missing in our lives. Such love usually dissipates with time.
All the confusion and disappointment involved makes some people adopt a philosophical approach to love, which is based on the idea that love is a conscious choice, reflected in day-to-day effort and behavior. This philosophy sometimes includes the idea that we should stay with one person, no matter what temptations and circumstances might occur, dedicate our lives to that relationship even when we are unhappy and frustrated. The idea is that unhappiness and frustration are likely to happen in any relationship; if we stay with one person we at least have the chance to constantly deepen and improve that relationship, find new levels of learning and trusting; actively create happiness rather than search for it in the world around us.
This is all beautiful and true – in some circumstances and for some people. Usually in ideal circumstances, when both people are at least moderately compatible, considerate and well-meaning. If a relationship is basically good, people can suppress and reject superficial desires and urges in favor of more important values their primary relationship fulfills. But what if such a choice demands suppression of deep, essential needs and values? What if all that effort and investment results in disappointment over and over again? With time, this will result in either depression, or bitterness, occasional explosions, or physical disease. Sometimes accumulated frustration can be expressed in indirect ways, for example towards children.
Love could be described as a feeling of fulfillment, happiness, integrity, or perhaps as a desire for the other person to be happy. The latter is actually one of the better definitions, but countless testimonies I’ve heard show that you cannot really make another person happy and healthy, if they don’t take that responsibility in their own hands, and especially if you do it at the expense of your own integrity and values. That would mean taking a parental role towards your partner, which damages not just the giver, but the receiver too. You cannot learn people’s lessons instead of them.
If it was so easy to love someone just because we choose so, then, in theory, we should be able to be happy with most randomly chosen passers-by. Even if we ignore biology, hormones and early childhood impressions (we fight those influences most of the time anyway) there is still the question of compatibility: compatibility of intellect, emotions, desires, needs and values (see: Values vs. Personal Traits). Even small incompatibilities and disappointments can accumulate and simmer inside given many years; how could we not expect it with significant incompatibility?
Even biological incompatibility can be detrimental to a relationship: some people might be anxious and sensitive to stress while others seek excitement and risk; some people might be very physical while others live in their minds, some people can be emotionally sensitive and very empathetic, while others can lack either or both. Deep understanding and companionship is very difficult to achieve in such circumstances. And we didn’t even start on all the emotional and behavioral patterns people learn in childhood.
True, emotions are volatile and short-lived, influenced by biology and childhood memories (which are much more powerful than most people realize). Can we choose our emotions? Considering that emotions are created in the subconscious mind, I’d say that you don’t choose what you feel; what you can choose is how you will respond to your emotions and what you will do with them. My suggestion is to seek balance, not extremes; explore what each of your inner voices is saying and why, and which of those is worth following; what do you want in the long term, not just temporarily.
Reality is rarely so poetic and inspired as idealism, but in the end few people manage to escape it. It’s rare that people give up on such a long-term effort such as marriage for no good reason. In the background of divorce there are usually years of suffering and sacrifice that an external observer wouldn’t notice.
The nice philosophy I described in the beginning of this section presumes maturity, responsibility and effort from both sides. Reality is often different, and many people are immature and unwilling to cooperate and change. Our choices and our efforts do not automatically deepen a relationship, but the sense of fulfillment when the partner appreciates them and responds in similar ways does. If a relationship does not deepen and grow, can we still call it love? If one feels ignored, dismissed, used or abused even after years of loving and responsible effort, is it fair to deny them happiness for the sake of theories?
Besides, why would stability be more important than compatibility? Why would a relationship have to be “poisoned” with the idea that perhaps it won’t last? Why should we have to bond someone to us till the end of our lives? There are relationships that can grow till the end of the couple’s lives, and there are those who cannot last that long, but can be deep and fulfilling for some time. Why not end them with love and respect while we still can? The quality of a relationship is not necessarily measured by how long it lasts. People are different, and life is complex.
We shouldn’t ignore our biological and psychological makeup, either. More than anything, as I wrote in the article “How To Keep Passion Alive“, our brains are wired to stop giving importance to anything that we perceive as stable and expected, to make place for learning new things and accessing our environment for potential danger. And what is marriage than a promise that a relationship will be stable and expected, under control? Even the best among us cannot avoid the fact that our brains simply file the expected into “low priority”, even if it’s a human being important to us. That’s simply our biology that helped us survive, no matter how much it goes against our relationship ideals.
Therefore, wouldn’t it be more stimulating for our long term relationships if we had a culture that taught us nobody really belongs to another and nobody owes emotions to another? That respecting someone’s freedom (and our own) is more important than trying to bind them? That growth through challenge is more important than security?
The fact is – again because of our biological heritage that urges us to conserve energy – stability and happiness rarely motivate people to grow. Most commonly, it’s crises and problems that motivate people to grow – and which way they will grow, depends of their willingness to learn. You can read more about this in the article “Turn Emotional Pain Into Passion And Inspiration“. Why not then prevent crises by willingly allowing more challenge and unattachment in our relationships? Paradoxically, this could make them stronger.
To go back to integrity and important life values: if our essential values and needs are not fulfilled within a relationship, what can claim more importance? For some people, religious values can have priority over personal values. This is OK if you so choose, but it doesn’t mean that different values are less respectable. Some people choose their values not on the basis of religion, but years of experience, thought, exploration and observing consequences.
Is it OK to seek personal happiness?
Here’s an interesting quote:
“Marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.” (Seth Adam Smith)
This sounds beautiful, almost holy. And yet, this is a beautiful idea pushed into an extreme, and extremes are NEVER healthy, no matter how beautiful they sound. Many simplified ideas fall apart when facing reality, as, historically speaking, both communism and Christianity, to name only those two, so nicely showed.
Did you ever try denying your feelings, needs and happiness not only for days or weeks, but years and years? You might have felt how stressful, energy-sapping, life-denying that feels. Whoever believes that people “should” be happy sacrificing for others and ignoring unfulfillment and lack of balance obviously never even came close to experiencing it (or is extremely skillful in lying to themselves).
This quote still suggests that in some way you’d be able to experience meaning, fulfillment and some sort of pleasure, even if only in fulfilling your own ideals. But what if the other person is not really a good partner for you? What if, in spite of your efforts and sacrifice, things are getting worse and worse? What if, with time, you and your partner have simply developed in different directions? We’ve seen plenty times in history how oversimplified, unrealistic attempts to achieve perfection turn into rigid hypocrisy and suffering.
There are plenty of people who perceive others’ efforts and idealism as a weakness to be exploited, as in business, so in relationships. There are even more people who are simply not a good match to you, whether emotionally, intellectually, or at the level of life values. How long can you tolerate it? What’s the point of life without joy? How long can you suppress your emotions, without them bursting out in other ways: through manipulation, passive aggression, depression or disease?
Also, what kind of example do you want to give to your children? Would you want them to live in a similar way? Preserving marriage at all costs was a way to ensure survival in the history by making a society more stable, but now our survival is not threatened anymore (or at least not in traditional ways). When survival traditions become oversimplified dogma, they cause hypocrisy, subtle and not-so-subtle violence and unhappy children. (A bit further down I focus a bit more on the consequences for children. )
It seems weird that I have to defend human desire for happiness; can we even be human and neglect such a basic part of our nature? Still, throughout the history, happiness was frowned upon in favor of community survival, and still many people prefer extreme, oversimplified beliefs and ideals, rather than complexity and balance.
Love or duty?
So, in a case where happiness in a relationship is not achievable, is the purpose of marriage happiness (love), or duty? I guess everybody chooses for themselves; what I don’t like is judging other people according to rigid beliefs, if we didn’t experience how it feels to be them. Life is already hard enough; to be a good parent, employer/employee and similar we already need to sacrifice a lot; do we have to judge people who don’t want to give up every chance for happiness?
Perhaps the key mistake of our society in this context is raising children and young people on the ideals of love and happiness in marriage, only to push them later to stay married because of the ideal of duty. If people stay married even if unhappy, because of ideals of sacrifice and persistence, can we truly call it love? Duty would be a much more appropriate word.
If, then, the purpose of marriage is duty (which is true for some communities and individuals), then children should be taught from the beginning that marriage is a social contract established for the purpose of duty, not love. Then young people could be aware of what choice are they making and decide if that’s what they want, and if yes, when. But if this was common, much less people would decide to get married, which would endanger tradition and tribal instincts which still guide many if not most people. That’s why mass-manipulation is socially accepted, even cherished.
Healthy and responsible parents can raise happy and secure children even if they don’t live together. We could discuss what has worse consequences for children: divorce or living with parents who are unhappy, perhaps fighting, ignoring or humiliating each other all the time? In both cases, children face pain, that’s inevitable (and perhaps even better for them than being overly protected from challenges (see: Children Need Challenges). Quite a few clients have told me they used to wish their parents would divorce rather than stay together “for the sake of children” and fight or ignore each other. If parents can be supportive and guide children through the short-term pain, they will do them a much bigger favor than through pretense and sacrificing their own happiness (which can also cause children to live with the burden of guilt).
Many relationships become unhealthy because people expect to receive happiness and fulfillment from the other person, rather than taking responsibility for creating it themselves. That leads to mutual dependence – symbiosis – and often to manipulation, too.
A sense of duty in a marriage often stems from the impression that the other person is emotionally or financially dependent of us. While this is correct when it comes to children, it’s not healthy for adult people. Still, often children and young people are still subtly indoctrinated that, for example, women should be financially dependent of men. This is additionally enforced by society valuing female work and female intelligence less compared to male, and by lack of social support to parents of small children, especially single mothers.
Additionally, many people are taught, directly or indirectly, to feel emotionally dependent of the stability of marriage. This can lead to situations in which marriage is preserved out of duty, not happiness. The next step, which some people and communities do, is to put duty in the first place, while personal feelings are ignored (which is an example of idealism leading to imbalance). These people might truly want to live the ideal of supporting others, sacrificing themselves for their families and valuing stable families over temporary emotions. Sometimes this is the more mature and reasonable choice. But is it always?
I’d say an ideal relationship is the one in which both people take responsibility for their own happiness and respect their partner as an independent individual who doesn’t owe them anything (because they both invest into the relationship equally), rather than perceiving the partner as some kind of personal property. Such a person would not feel good about trying to keep somebody around who would be happier somewhere else. “But you promised!…” is an attitude of a victim, not a strong adult. As for children, healthy and responsible adults are willing to take responsibility for their balanced upbringing, regardless whether they live together or not.
Generally, it’s important for every relationship that individuals preserve their emotional and material independence, that they communicate clearly, have firm boundaries and have their own interests outside the relationship. Few things kill passion more than the feeling of obligation, i.e., the feeling that the partner depends of you. Few things can increase passion more than an independent partner who changes and grows, and who stays with you because they so choose, rather than because they feel bonded. Can you be such a partner? Do you have enthusiasm and liveliness you create yourself, rather than seeking it in somebody else?
Inherent differences in need for stability and need for change
Some people enjoy strong stimulation, get bored easily and have a need for adrenaline. This can show in their close relationships, too. Sometimes this can be learned in childhood, but it’s quite easily possible that such traits are the consequence of human biological diversity. From evolutionary perspective, humanity needs some part of its population to like risk, excitement and change, which is often a contribution to society. For a different kind of contribution, humanity also needs people who enjoy peace, stability, and even routine.
If you are a person who enjoys risk and change, but you believe in the ideal of long-term relationship, you can feel a particularly strong ethical and emotional conflict, especially if you are in a relationship with a person who is emotionally healthy and a quality partner. Your values say one thing, but your whole body pulls in another direction. Can you resist this for years, or even your whole life?
Ideally, you’d recognize your nature on time, while you are not yet committed to a stable relationship. Then you can be more honest to yourself and other people, too. Perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that traditional forms of relationships are not for you. This is all right, if you can clearly, honestly and timely explain this to potential partners.
The worth of a relationship is not necessarily in its length. Some people can learn and create most through the depth of long-term relationships, and others through exploring and new experiences. We don’t all have to be similar. It’s important to come to terms with what you want and to be honest to others from the very beginning.
(Also, do not lead them on if they are not into the same kind of relationship as you are. A client told me a few weeks back, “Some men think that if they say, “I don’t want commitment”, it gives them license to act however they want”. If you don’t want commitment with someone who does, it’s only ethical to back off. End of story.)
Consider also if you can bring change into your life in other ways instead of changing partners. Perhaps through entrepreneurship, traveling, active hobbies and other forms of new activities? If you find a partner who is also open to change and exploration, the relationship doesn’t have to become routine. It’s particularly important that a partner is emotionally independent – a needy partner who wants you to make them feel safe is not likely to remain stimulating and challenging. When you look for a partner, keep this in mind, as well as the need for honesty.
Perhaps in this case you and your partner can agree to not live together, perhaps see each other on weekends or simply live separately and spend time together whenever you both wish. If you don’t plan children, this would prevent the routine you find so intolerable. Again, this decision needs to be done with respect and consideration for both sides.
I don’t believe in forcing people and relationships into rigid boxes. I believe in diversity, as long as it’s honest, well-meaning and considerate. When you have to make a difficult decision, it’s primarily important to be honest to both yourself and others, and to learn to distinguish healthy emotional urges from unhealthy and immature ones. Recognize also that few decisions are entirely without some unwanted consequences, so you need to be ready to deal with them.
Just because we might be in committed relationships, our hormones and childish emotional patterns won’t go to sleep. Worse, once a relationship feels safe and reliable, our hormones can make us seek new forms of excitement, while childish parts of our subconscious minds can easily wake up if a new person comes around who reminds us of our unfulfilled needs from childhood. Then intense emotions can easily bring us to idealize the new person and believe them a better match than the current partner, even if the partner is emotionally more mature and invests more effort into the relationship.
Consider carefully to what extent your emotions seem to be the result of hormones and childish hopes, and how well do you realistically know your new crush. Do you take your current partner for granted and did you neglect your own efforts? It’s likely that you will repeat that in your next relationship, and next, which might end up in a string of disappointments. On the other hand, it is possible that you have matured, and the new person might realistically be a better match to your essential values and healthy criteria. But be honest to yourself and listen to any warning signal you might feel.
If your committed partnership is in crisis, first consider if you put enough effort in it, or do you expect to be comfortable without work? Do you give love to your partner in the ways they want to receive it, or do you insist on doing it only in the ways you like? Is your communication honest and does it reach deeper than surface, or do you avoid opening up so that you’d appear stronger and in the right?
If frustration and disappointments in a relationship are superficial and short-term, while mutual respect and efforts are there, then it’s definitely a good idea to stay in the relationship and focus on improving it further. But if your whole body keeps telling you that you betray your values by staying in a relationship, then pay attention. There is time to invest into a relationship, and there is time to acknowledge your boundaries.