I’ll Be Happy When I’m Married to the Right Person
Are you bored with your marriage or you are getting used to your spouse
If you’ve been in a marriage or committed relationship for some length of time, you may be experiencing something that you are reluctant to share even with your closest family and friends—boredom. Although this may seem like a paltry or self-indulgent problem, it can begin with petty misgivings and complaints and ultimately snowball into dissatisfactions and breakup daydreams that plague you and poison your relationship. Your first instinct may be to end the marriage, but you don’t know whether you should or how to go about it. Instead, you may be hurting, consumed with guilt, ruminating about your feelings, making excuses, and oscillating between paralysis and panic.
Before you take a single step, it’s critical to consider the happiness myth that is likely driving those first instincts. This is the assumption that “I’ll be happy when . . . I’m married to the right person.” You may have devoted a great deal of time, energy, and consideration to finding a fitting or ideal partner, and you applied yourself to caring for your marriage. Yet despite your efforts and good fortune, you are now beginning to realize that your marriage is not giving you the satisfaction that you thought it would or that it once had. This is a determining moment, as it calls for you to understand whether your expectations are realistic and whether you are asking too much of your marriage. even the happiest marriages cannot maintain their initial satisfaction level, and only with a great deal of energy and commitment can you approach that initial level.
This article is about the choices and insights available if you find yourself in a marriage or long-term relationship that has ceased to satisfy you. You can continue to be tormented by your thoughts and hope that they will fade with time, or you can strive to understand their source and act to resolve or attenuate them. The approaches I describe teach you and your partner how to reinvest in your relationship. After all, the promise of new, fulfilling, positive directions is at stake.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my primary scientific interests is in the area of hedonic adaptation—namely, the fact that human beings have the remarkable capacity to grow habituated or inured to most life changes. A hot topic today in the fields of psychology and economics, hedonic adaptation explains why both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat abate with time. What is particularly fascinating about this phenomenon, however, is that it is most pronounced concerning positive experiences. Indeed, it turns out that we are prone to take for granted pretty much everything positive that happens to us. When we move into a beautiful new loft with a grand view, when we partake of plastic surgery, when we purchase a fancy new automobile or nth-generation smartphone, when we earn the corner office and a raise at work, when we become immersed in a new hobby, and even when we wed, we obtain an immediate boost of happiness from the improved situation; but the thrill only lasts for a short time. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, we find our expectations ramping upward and we begin taking our new improved circumstances for granted. We are left with “felicific stagnation.”
The most famous study exploring this issue, however, found that although the average person picks up a sizable boost in happiness when he or she gets married, this boost only lasts about two years, after which the former newlywed reverts back to his or her happiness level before the engagement. When you were newly in love, you probably could be happy while being stuck in traffic or getting your teeth cleaned. But this phase didn’t last very long. So, if you find yourself less euphoric and less amorous than at the beginning of your relationship, you are experiencing what most other humans have experienced before you, and any friends of yours who claim otherwise (with rare exceptions) are probably lying to you or themselves.
Marital bliss, like new job bliss or new car bliss, is highly prone to hedonic adaptation, but infatuation, passion, and electric attraction carry the added liability of having an even shorter half-life. When we first fall in love, if we are lucky, we experience what researchers call passionate love, but over the years, this type of love usually turns into compassionate love. Passionate love is a state of intense longing, desire, and attraction, whereas companionate love is composed more of deep affection, connection, and liking. If you are wondering what kind of love you are experiencing now—or had in the past—judge the extent to which you agree with statements like the ones below. For passionate love:
I find it hard to work because I’m always thinking about my partner.
I am so involved with my partner that I could not even be slightly interested in someone else.
I am afraid that my partner might reject me.
For companionate love:
My partner is one of the most likable people I know.
My partner is the sort of person that I would like to be.
I have great confidence in my partner’s good judgment.
There are evolutionary, physiological, and practical reasons why passionate love cannot endure for very long. I hazard that if we continued to obsess about our partners and have sex multiple times a day—every day—we would not be very productive at work or attentive to our children, our friends, or our health. To quote a line from the 2004 film Before Sunset, about two former lovers who chance to meet again after a decade, if passion did not fade, “We would end up doing nothing at all with our lives.” Indeed, being madly in love shares some key characteristics with addiction and narcissism, and if unabated, would eventually take its toll. In any event, the heightened passion and chemical attraction evident at the beginning of a love affair have been found to fade to neutral in a couple of years, after the love affair turns into a solid, committed relationship or marriage. Furthermore, this shift in feelings is often accompanied by a decline in overall satisfaction, as the fun and leisure typical of the honeymoon phase turn to domestic drudgery, and as partners stop being on their best behavior and relax their efforts to be constantly responsive and considerate toward each other.
Fortunately, as evolutionary psychologists might tell it, both passionate and companionate love is essential for human beings to survive and reproduce. While passionate love is necessary to galvanize us to pair up and direct all our energies into building a new relationship, companionate love appears to be critical for nourishing a committed, stable partnership long enough to reproduce our genes (i.e., have children) and ensure they survive and flow. It should be said that both types of love bring their unique brand of happiness—one more exciting, perhaps, and the other more meaningful.