How to Stay Married
What’s your attitude toward marriage as an institution? Is it more traditional in nature, or does it match the culture’s more progressive, cavalier view? Your attitude is the single most important determiner of your success in life. Life will throw you a thousand curve balls. So will marriage. But it isn’t the curve balls that matter—it’s what you do with those curve balls. And what you do stems from how you think.
The America of today teaches two basic tenets about marriage: that it isn’t necessary, and that it doesn’t have to be permanent. That’s a tectonic shift in attitudes in a relatively short period of time. We hear a lot about how bad things were for women “back in the day.” But the truth is, women have robbed Peter to pay Paul. They may be more successful in the professional sphere, but they know next to nothing about love.
“This is ironic,” writes Timothy Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage. “Older views of marriage are considered to be traditional and oppressive, while of the newer review of the ‘Me-Marriage’ seems so liberating. And yet it is the new view that has led to steep decline in marriage and to an oppressive sense of hopelessness with regard to it.”
That’s because the culture teaches that marriage is supposed to make women happy; and that if it doesn’t, a wife should leave her marriage and find happiness with someone else.
Talk about sabotage! Who’s never unhappy? And why should becoming a wife (or a husband, for that matter) guarantee one’s happiness? Yet this directive—“life’s too short; move on if you’re unhappy”—is pervasive, and it’s tailored specifically to women.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that divorce isn’t sometimes necessary. The problem is that we live in a culture that equates divorce with liberation. Ask any honest psychologist, and he or she will tell you divorce is a temporary relief at best. More often than not, divorce creates more problems than it solves.
So let’s change the paradigm. Rather than assume divorce is the answer to marital conflict, change your views about marriage itself.
The purpose of marriage, for instance, is not to make you happy. You and you alone are responsible for that. You can, in effect, make yourself happy rather than put the onus on marriage.
The brain is a remarkably tool; it controls the way we think. It’s true we can’t help what enters our brains—we can’t control our feelings, in other words—but we can change the way we think about those feelings. So use your brain to overrule your heart.
Make yourself happy.
“In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Yet synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for,” writes Harvard scientist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness.
Ironically, it is women’s definition of, and expectations for, happiness that undermine their own happiness! The best shot any one of us has of being happy—in any domain, but especially in marriage—is to have no expectations. Not high, low or medium expectations. None. Rather, go with what you get, or with what you’ve already chosen, and create a happy life from that. “The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped,” writes Gilbert.
That may sound counterintuitive, but it follows the same logic as that put forth by psychologist Barry Schwartz. In The Paradox of Choice, he writes, “When a decision is final, we engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance our feelings about the choice we made relative to the alternatives.”
It also reflects something Martha Washington once said: “The greater part of our misery or circumstances depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.” And finally, what Abraham Lincoln noted: “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
By mentally removing the option to get divorced, you force your brain to create happiness with the man you’ve already chosen, rather than imagining a utopian life with someone else. You ultimately have to accept, or become comfortable with, the fact that you’re going to be dissatisfied to some degree no matter whom you marry—and that when this happens, someone else’s life will always seem more appealing.
But it only seems that way from a distance. In reality, that person’s life (or marriage) has just as many warts as yours. “This is the difference between marriage and dating: you find a way to be happy with what’s happened,” says Gilbert.
Find a way to be happy with what’s happened.
Decide to stay.