It is not uncommon to hear people wonder if they married the wrong person. It’s a painful reality to consider, and something I thought about in my current marriage in the early years before the birth of our kids. At some point in that era, my wife and I fell into a disconsolate rhythm of sniping and arguing, an activity that often followed us to the dinner tables of our friends. For those worried about their own relationships, we provided a cozy serving of schadenfreude (the German word for a delight in the suffering of others) for them to partake. The long-term strengths I now admire, need and value in my wife, 20 years later, were scarcely discernible to me during those early years. Not that they weren’t there – they were just eclipsed by my desire to exchange her more introverted but steady nature for someone more edgy and extroverted – someone I imagined myself to be (minus my irritability and judginess). It turns out that she was precise about what she wanted, and I was willing to put up with lots of things I didn’t like, often to my own detriment.
The heart wants what the heart wants, but the clarity of that desire is often rather muddled. One’s heart can want some pretty messed-up things. Part of our confusion today about whether we married the “right” one is tied to a belief that happiness and personal growth should organize all of our decisions about relationships, which is a relatively recent disposition in Western societies. Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens observed that, as our lives became ‘disembedded’ from the older frames of religion, tradition, and marriage as an economic system, our intimate bonds became far more central to our sense of wellbeing. In a study of magazine articles offering marital advice between 1900 and 1979, Francesca Cancian and Steven Gordon traced a similar trend: they found that, over time, marital advice transitioned from emphasizing how best to occupy a spousal role to recommendations about how to achieve happiness and express one’s emotions as an individual.
During this transition from role to self, the question of whether we’re with the right person became far more critical as a determinant of identity, values, and self-esteem. We were invited to ask: what is a tolerable (versus an intolerable) amount of conflict in our relationships? Personally, between my first marriage and my current one, I asked my potential spouse to fit into a set of non-negotiables that I had laid out like a checklist. How much happier could I be with someone else? Should I be? Would I be, if I left? What does it say about me as a person if I stay? As the sociologist Andrew Cherlin writes in The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (2009), “According to the culture of individualism, a relationship that no longer fits your needs is inauthentic and hollow. It limits the personal rewards that you, and perhaps your partner, can achieve. In this event, a breakup is unfortunate, but you will, and must, move on.”
From this perspective, failing to move on is an expression of existential cowardice, of failing to meet life’s challenges, and of tempting your future self with regret. Yet, the emotion of regret is far more common than most of us realize. The researcher Susan Shimanoff of San Francisco State University discovered that regret was the most common negative emotion and the second most common emotion of any kind – after love. However instructive past regrets may be toward making better decisions in the future, imagining that we could be happier with someone else can burden an otherwise reasonable life or romantic relationship. As the psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, writes in Monogamy (1996): ‘There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.’ It’s a theme he develops in his book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (2012): ‘Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.’
I find that many of my closest relationships ask too much of their romantic partners: they expect a level of happiness, recognition, and fulfillment that frequently conflicts with what another person can reasonably provide, especially in these anxiety-filled times. I must consistently check my own expectations. Looking for someone ‘better’ may be particularly tempting today: with advertising finding its way into every nook and cranny of our consciousness, we are invited to hate what we love, need what we can’t have, and envy that which is not worth pursuing. Mass Society (as opposed to our community) and its sophisticated ability to harvest and market desire leads us to value what we have in the light of what we could have. This invites a continual examination of ourselves and our partners to see if we are failing to live the kind of life we imagine.
We are tempted to measure ourselves against media portrayals, and the public face of relationships who kept their problems behind closed doors. We are sometimes tempted to think we can solve problems by simply changing partners, in the past the problem was that people didn’t think they had a right to ask to work on change with their partners. Because the sitcoms and magazine articles of the early to late 1900s portrayed successful families as ones that followed a formula, it looked easy to replicate: as long as you played by the gender, age, and social-class rules of the time (which were really clear), everyone would end up happy at the end of each show, no matter what minor problems or amusing misunderstandings they encountered partway through.
While staying together for the sake of the children was then considered an honorable, even noble decision, our conviction today that happiness is the compass from which to direct our lives can lead us to believe – rightly or wrongly – that what makes us happy is also what’s best for our children. I often hear those contemplating divorce say: ‘If I’m not happy, then my children won’t be’ or ‘I want to model what healthy romantic love looks like to my child, so I should leave.’
Yet, the idea of pursuing happiness, however compelling, can have its own costs for parents, even if they find a more suitable romantic partner. Parents who were estranged from their kids were more likely to reconcile if they had stayed married.
One doesn’t need to be a clinical scientist to know that divorce can increase the risk of a more conflicted or distant parent-adult child relationship in multiple ways. For example, if one parent blames the other for breaking up the presumed-to-be-happy home, or otherwise maligns the other parent, the estrangement of their child is more likely. It can also occur when a child allies with one parent over the other after divorce, despite both parents’ good efforts to be collaborative. Divorce can bring in new boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, stepbrothers, and stepsisters to compete with the child over emotional and material resources, causing the child of any age to withdraw or retreat from contact with one of the parents. Finally, divorce can cause the child to see the parents more as individuals with their own strengths and liabilities, and less as a family unit of which they are a part.
On the other hand, some parents stay together for the sake of the kids until they’re grown, reasoning that they have spared their children and themselves the major challenges that come with separation or divorce. While it can work out as planned, I sometimes hear parents express surprise and sorrow that staying together until their kids became adults didn’t insulate them from the many ways their divorce or separation lessened their standing as parents. Often those who suffer from diminished honor are mothers and fathers who invested mightily in their children’s happiness, were close prior to the divorce, and reasonably assumed their dedication would protect their relationship with the children against the disruption and storm that often follow a separation. It is as if the parents of diminished honor have hedged their bets: “I want to break the structure for my own personal well-being without jeopardizing my standing with my children. My trophy child, helicopter style should act as an insurance policy against the wild dreams of my own personal happiness.” It turns out, there are generational differences that the parents have been ignoring all along, and estrangement between parents and children has a multi-generational component that the “happiness with another spouse” persons may not have considered.
Our children’s pursuit of happiness is sometimes at odds with our own; they have their own needs and dictates to pursue happiness. This is especially true today when the moral framework of the adult children has shifted from ‘Honour thy mother and thy father’ to ‘I have to protect my happiness and mental health.’ In this new paradigm, a continued relationship with a parent, post-separation, is more likely to be based on how well that parent is able to fulfill the child’s aspirations for a life in line with their own ideals of happiness and growth – ambitions that are sometimes, though not always, in line with those of the parent.
Of course, there are plenty who wish their parents had divorced, or divorced sooner – not only for the parents’ sake – but because they were exposed to the parents’ ongoing conflicts and despair. And some parents may find themselves closer to their children after the separation or divorce rather than more distant. In addition, there are many paths to a distant or estranged relationship with one’s children other than divorce.
However, while we might reliably report what makes us unhappy in the present, these gambles make us less reliable navigators of achieving happiness in the future. Three forms of misperception exist, exaggerated perceptions of control; excessively positive self-evaluations; and unrealistic optimism about what lies ahead. To be fair, this disposition allows us to compartmentalize our anxieties and uncertainties – which mitigates their power. In addition, it permits us the freedom to pursue risky, but potentially rewarding ends – results we might not have achieved if we were more cautious or ‘realistic’.
We can underestimate the role of others in our well-being by believing we have more control than we actually do. Our illusions of control may cause us to be confident in decisions that don’t necessarily serve us. That’s because our future happiness involves the cooperation and participation of those who have their own ideas and designs on conducting their lives – an aspiration sometimes profoundly incompatible with ours. This is not only true about our children, but about our former, present, or future romantic partners. Sometimes, we’re the collateral damage of our current partner’s imaginings of a better life with a better companion – their wish that we could be someone we’re not: someone who fits their pre-existing wish list, or someone we once were when they met us, or perhaps pretended to be. And sometimes, our partners want something completely different from their lives than they did at another place in time: something less defined, structured, and predictable. As Deborah Levy writes in her memoir, The Cost of Living (2018): ‘Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.’
I don’t really want more chaos. But I understand how chaos creates the potential for change and new possibilities; one that isn’t tethered to a way of life so known or scripted that it blocks all other options. Yet that kind of freedom has its own problems: it idealizes the absence of limitations and minimizes the positive feelings and outcomes that can result from constraint or obligation. My first wife and I later married people far more suited to our temperaments. Yet, had we had children together, they would have had an easier life if we had worked out our differences and never divorced. I also have friends and clients who have had distant or unsatisfying partnerships for years yet – since becoming grandparents – have discovered a form of meaning and togetherness unavailable to them as romantic partners. While they may always be mismatched romantically, they find shared grandparenting deeply satisfying and rewarding. Would they have been happier with other people? Would their children have been happier if they had divorced? Their grandchildren?
Tragically, the luxury of entering or exiting a long-term romantic relationship is increasingly restricted to those with the financial means to do so. Studies in economics and sociology detail how financial insecurity and distress affect both marital quality and family life. In her book The Tumbleweed Society (2015), the sociologist Allison Pugh notes how job insecurity challenges and undermines intimate relationships. She found that first marriages of ‘moderately educated’ women (those with some college education) are twice as likely to break up in the first five years as those of women with college degrees. College degrees are less of a guarantee of a stable life than they once were, but they still provide a bulwark against the powerlessness, anxiety, and stress that come from chronic financial insecurity and unpredictability.
While those who struggle financially have an even steeper climb to achieve emotional well-being, we are all constantly encouraged to find new paths to self-improvement. There is always a new diet to follow or old vice to quit, a treatment to try or a flaw to fix. We are asked to expand our self-knowledge, show greater authenticity, and flourish. As part of this ongoing project of the self, we are invited to enquire if we’re assertive enough, communicative enough, and sensitive enough. If we’re getting enough from our partners, let alone from ourselves.
I saw a couple of counselors when I was going through my first divorce. Whether Christian or not, therapeutic advice is predicated on a probabilistic model: if you leave, probably you’ll be happier, probably your kids will be fine, and probably your relationship with them won’t suffer. But probabilistic models are based on principles of uncertainty. From a probabilistic perspective, there is still a chance that, if you leave, you’ll be less happy and so will your children. You may weaken your relationship with them. We all have to make our best guesses about momentous life decisions and hope that it all works out in the end.
How do you discern if the problems in a marriage are more significant than the compatibility, or lack thereof, of you and your partner? Here are some clues: the problems with your partner mirror those that you have with friends, coworkers, a former spouse, or other family members. Maybe you’ve had feedback from others that your behavior is more problematic than you believe it to be. Or perhaps you’re in the midst of depression and have gotten feedback from a therapist or others whom you trust that your mood is distorting your view of your relationship. Alternatively, maybe you made attempts to communicate more effectively with your partner, and those attempts were well-received and they’ve been able to change their behavior in the direction you desired.
We all have blind spots that conceal how we cause our partners to behave in ways opposite to those we desire. Attachment to another, however comforting, invites its own ghosts from the past to haunt the household. Our unmet needs from childhood can come roaring into the present, setting up shop, demanding to be fulfilled and fulfilled now. The safe harbor of commitment can cause us to become lazy, to stop doing the daily acts of affection, attention, and gratitude that give relationships their grace and balance. Our prior traumas may blind us to the ways that we make ourselves unlovable as if to prove our rejecting caregivers right.
These guidelines don’t guarantee that it’s more about you than you think, but it’s a clue that it might be. While not all relationships can be bettered, our subjective state of hopelessness is not always a good indication that the relationship is hopeless. Sometimes small fixes can pay big dividends.
On the other hand, some people don’t ask enough of their partners. They enter the relationship too scared of rejection, too confused about what they’re entitled to, and too willing to accommodate. My hunch is that most long-term relationships end not because of a sudden betrayal, but because of death by a thousand cuts. In terms of individual human needs, it’s the small day-to-day unexpressed or unaddressed feelings of being hurt or misunderstood that, over time, erode the feelings of commitment and optimism about a future with that person. Healthy, long-term relationships avoid nasty habits of criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Desire and commitment will wither when any or all of them are persistent features. Some relationships have to be brought to the brink of a breakup to get the attention of the person who’s not seeing the unhappiness of the other. It’s a good idea to say that you’re thinking about leaving while you still care enough about the response. Like my brother who divorced after 17 years and four children, many men were completely surprised when their wives served them with divorce papers.
It was a complete tragedy for my brother and his ex-wife, but not only for them. While I didn’t have children in my first marriage (my ex-wife was very wise!) I know the devastation of divorce on our surrounding communities. Breakups, while sometimes necessary, not only separate partners from each other but can also disrupt extended families and friendships as alliances are formed out of loyalty to one member, rather than another, of the relationship.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-94), William Blake observed: ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.’ While that is true, it can be hard to know what is more than enough when you’re constantly being told that there is no such thing. This was one of Émile Durkheim’s central insights in the late 19th century: that in removing the rituals, traditions, roles, and expectations that had guided desire for centuries, we also removed the ability to know that we had arrived and could stop trying. ‘As soon as there is nothing to stop us, we cannot stop ourselves,’ he wrote. ‘Beyond the pleasures that we have experienced, we imagine and yearn for others, and if one should happen to have more or less exhausted the possible, one dreams of the impossible – one thirsts for what is not.’
The pursuit of happiness is different than authentic fulfillment. Certain social roles may need to be kept and transformed in a process of reformation rather than being rejected outrightly. Social roles may be often constraining and outdated, but they at least provided a framework for deciding whether we should stop and smell the roses – or exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of the sweeter ones that might be just over the hill. These social roles of partnered relationships can help us determine two important and pressing questions we all face: whether the pursuit of happiness is worth the climb, and whether our happiness is even “out there”. After all, the endless pursuit of happiness can be soul-destroying; rather than leading us to a deeper, more meaningful life, we just end up getting one more thing we don’t really need.