Marriage… for fulfilment not happiness
Have you ever pondered the question: what is the purpose of marriage? Most of us haven’t and yet it’s a critically important question, because we all have an unconscious assumption about the answer. And that assumption will drive our expectations of, behaviours in and satisfaction with the marriage we’ve got.
Most people assume that the purpose of marriage is to make them happy. That’s partly because all decisions we make are driven by the biological predisposition to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. When you made the decision to marry, more than likely, you were in the ‘love bubble’ – or more accurately, ‘limerance stage’ when your biochemistry was producing a euphoric high. In other words, you were both probably pretty happy.
The problem with this assumption is that happiness is an emotion and like all emotions, it comes and goes. We don’t really have a great deal of control over our emotions. Basing your marriage on the assumption of it making you happy in practice translates as an expectation that your husband/wife will make you happy. That’s an impossible task and an unfair burden to place on any one person. It’s also guaranteed to end in tears.
Too many couples end their marriage because they have concluded that the marriage is failing because one or both of the partners are unhappy. But here’s the thing: marriage is not meant to make you happy, it’s meant to make you fulfilled. There’s a difference. Happiness is a transitory emotion we experience in response to a basic need being met. For example, when we eat to meet our need for food (and sate our hunger). Fulfilment, on the other hand, is about spiritual maturity.
We are fulfilled when we live in a way that fully expresses our human potential.
It’s a more enduring experience and relates to our well-being at higher order needs (for example, the need for love, transcendence, purpose).
When we love, truly love, with a generous and other-centred love, forgetful of ourselves, we discover the deepest meaning of our human existence – to love and be loved. This experience is a spiritual encounter and can only be accessed through the cultivation of the spiritual strengths or virtues. Thus marriage and family life is a ‘strengths-growing’ environment.
This is not to say that marriage is meant to make us miserable either! It’s about reframing our expectations so that we recognise marital discord as a symptom of a deeper issue and like any symptom, it’s a call to address the deeper issue. Compare it to our bodies. If we get a pain in our finger, we don’t just take a pain killer and continue without a second thought. Firstly we investigate to determine the cause of the pain. We might discover at this point that we have an infected splinter and rather than taking painkillers for an indefinite period (treating the symptom), it would be more sensible to remove the splinter, the cause of the pain. And of course, if the pain continued, we wouldn’t conclude that we need to amputate the finger! We’d seek further expert assistance.
Often, when we are unhappy in our marriage, rather than face into the cause of the unhappiness, we either medicate the symptom (eg through alcohol, workaholism or other obsessive or avoidant behaviours), or we decide to take the drastic action of removing our husband/wife from our life. Neither are effective in the long term in alleviating our unhappiness.