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Why Stay in a Marriage If it Doesn’t Make You Happy?
On the Purpose of Marriage
This is not a question many people can answer. It’s not a question that even makes sense to us. It’s like asking someone, would you keep eating rat poison if it’s killing you? Uh…what? The question is too obvious to have an answer. Of course you wouldn’t. It’s part of our basic assumptions, a certain strain of hedonistic individualism. If something doesn’t make you happy, it is by definition not worth doing. Forget life and liberty. In America, the pursuit of happiness reigns supreme.
No-fault divorce is there, available to everyone. If you aren’t happy, get out. Life’s too short, don’t settle, take care of yourself, follow your dreams, you’re worth it. It’s easy. So why not?
Because it doesn’t work. The pursuit of happiness above all else rarely makes you happy. Divorce rates are higher for second marriages. Divorce rates are higher for couples who live together before getting married. We imagine it should be the opposite—practice makes perfect and all that—but it only shows we are chasing after all the wrong things. Marriage has plenty of benefits. The romance is fun and exciting. Everyone loves a good wedding. Mom and Dad will stop pressuring you. You can’t deny the tax advantages. It may even make you happy. But that’s not the point of marriage. Any old relationship might make you happy. Marriage exists so that someone is still there for you when you’re not happy.
Marriage only works when you know, beyond any doubt, that the person won’t leave you when things get bad. That’s why you make a vow. Richer and poorer, sickness and health, till death do us part. Did you think that was just some romantic sentiment? It’s an absolute necessity. Otherwise, how can you ever be yourself? How can you be honest with your partner? You won’t be. You will live in mutual fear that if your spouse knew the real you, the ugliest parts, or that if you tell them what you really think, if you upset them or offend them, even on accident, even to help them, they might leave you. So you will be guarded, perpetually looking over your shoulder, one eye on your backup plan, considering where you could go next if everything crumbles, careful not to say or do anything that might widen those cracks, at least until you inevitably want to.
In so much of life you have to perform, stiffen up, put on a good face and do what you have to do. You can’t let your clients see you on a bad day or tell your boss what you really think of him, however much you want to. Because the relationship is transactional. You do something for them; they do something for you. You both benefit, but it ends as soon it stops being beneficial. You have to keep up your side of the bargain. You have to play nice. You always have to be at your best, or at least good enough. If you aren’t, you have to pretend. Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.
Marriage is the one place you should be able to drop all the pretenses. Let your guard down. Safe, secure, you can be yourself. You can work out who you are in genuine, honest conversation with someone who cares. You can be vulnerable with them because you know that, even if they hurt you at times, they won’t leave you with nothing. They will give you the opportunity and support to get better, and they will wait for you to do it. You can stand before them, body naked and soul laid bare, and they won’t run away. That’s intimacy. That’s love. You have to do the same for them. It’s not romantic. It’s not glamorous. It’s terrifying. It’s hard. But it’s the only way.
Why stay in a marriage if you’re not happy? Because you can find mere happiness anywhere, but you can only find your full self by freely offering everything you are to someone else, and it’s only safe to take such a grave risk when the sacrifice is mutual and the promise is permanent.
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