Is ‘Happy Marriage’ a Myth?

Comments 28


Deanna asked:

“I’m sleeping alone after 5 years of marriage for the second time to the same man. Yes, the first time around it was about this long before we’d arrive at this point too. We took 7 years off before embarking on Round 2. We are absolutely headed for another divorce. Because I’m not a complete idiot, I don’t plan to take this lovely ride a third time, however, I do wonder if it’s even worth bothering pairing up with anyone in the future. I’m 38 and will be an official empty-nester once I’m single (183 days before the kid graduates and a clean break can be made). Reading your posts and subsequent comments it seems like I’d be up for more of the same even with a different man. I’m not interested in switching teams so my question is if flying solo is just the best way to go? Does anyone ever get this shit right?”

Does anyone ever get this shit right?

I think about that question all the time. In case you were too lazy to read Deanna’s question, “shit,” in this case, refers to marriage.

Does anyone ever have a happy and successful marriage?, is what Deanna asked.

That’s a vexing question. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Of the half that do not, how many are comprised of sad, angry and depressed people who want out of their marriages but feel trapped? How many are having affairs, or wish they were? How many scream and fight every day or get physically abusive? How many sleep in separate bedrooms and never have sex? How many are pocked by unhealthy addiction or criminal behavior? How many are absentee parents with children who hate them, or themselves, and think about committing suicide because they feel abandoned and unloved?

Most of these are obvious and observable. So, here’s the one that frightens me most: How many of the couples who appear to do everything right, and have joyful, cooperative, peaceful, loving, stable marriages are faking it and actually have creepy skeletons and tell-tale hearts hidden beneath the surface?

The Dream World vs. The Real World

One of our many life problems is that we live in two worlds: The real one we experience every day which is filled with frequent frustration, annoyance, pain, horror, stress (but also some good things!); and the magical (and make-believe) dream one where everything functions ideally all the time.

Let’s use abstinence-only sex education as an example.

OF COURSE the world would be better if young, unmarried people never had sex. A lot of very decent, well-meaning people believe God has a rule punishable by eternal damnation that says: DO NOT have sex outside of marriage.

Since these people’s top priority in life is to raise children to make good choices and avoid eternities of fiery torment, they want to teach abstinence-only sex education classes to them. To discuss “safe sex” and pass out free condoms is tantamount to encouraging teenagers to have immoral and irresponsible sex that endangers both their physical and spiritual lives.

There are two things going on here, and both are true:

  1. If unmarried people never had sex, a bunch of awesome things would happen overnight: Unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted disease, adultry, rape, prostitution, the emotional guilt-and-shame rollercoaster, child pornography and molestation all vanish instantly, and a bunch of ancillary things like kidnapping, child sex slavery, prostitution, pornography and murder all undergo dramatic transformations which project to benefit humankind.
  2. Unmarried people, including teenagers who shouldn’t, are going to have sex whether God or we want them to, or not.

Buck all you want, but the conservative goody-two-shoes people (no matter what you believe about a particular deity or religion) are totally right: Unbridled hedonism fucks up a lot of stuff.

HOWEVER, in a real-world application designed to prepare teenagers for adulthood and educate them about sex, is it really practical to throw a bunch of moral platitudes at them, and expect everything to work out fine?

Ideally, I’m with the moralists on this one. My list of bad things that goes away when the world abides by The Jesus Sex Rules™ (not to be confused with The Jesús Sex Rules, which may or may not involve donkeys in Tijuana) seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.

But, practically? It doesn’t seem wise or pragmatic to avoid reality when teaching teens about sex. Adding more horny and confused ignoramuses to the populace only exacerbates our problems.

WTF are We Talking About? Donkey Shows?

No. We’re talking about whether anyone ever gets marriage correct. Are there really people out there who wake up every day feeling good and have a great time (without being conned) in their married lives?

The answer is: I don’t know. There are 7.4 billion people in the world, and I only really know what it’s like to be one of them.

I don’t know anything. Ever.

But I always think things.

And I THINK there are people who have great lives and happy, honest, healthy marriages that last forever involving real, actual love.

Most People Aren’t Up to It Because it’s Hard

Does anyone ever really lose weight when they make New Year’s Resolutions?


Does anyone ever really succeed when they quit a job to start a business?


Does anyone ever really overcome hardship and rise to greatness?


Most people have shitty marriages because IT’S REALLY HARD TO HAVE A GREAT ONE.

We all think it should be easy. “Love should be easy! It’s love! I love my mom and dad and best friend and puppy! If it’s difficult, then it wasn’t meant to be! Since it isn’t easy, we’re probably just not right for each other! I’m pretty sure my soul mate is that hot co-worker in Accounting!”

Marriage has such a high failure rate because most of us are ignorant assholes. We lack a fundamental understanding of what marriage IS NOT, and we demonstrate a complete inability to understand the subjective experience of our opposite-sex partners (I won’t pretend to understand how this might play in same-sex relationships). We make a grave error in assuming that whenever something happens, two different humans observe and interpret it the same. That never happens. Some people like crocheting more than watching football. Some people like tofu salads more than pizza. Some people like polka music more than… well, any music that doesn’t suck.

Any two people are going to view the world differently. That tends to be exacerbated further between the two genders.

The same patterns always emerge between husbands/boyfriends and their wives/girlfriends. He does this. She responds this way. She does this. He responds that way. And all of those choices and responses mixed together end up getting you a shit sandwich with rotting lettuce and divorce mayonnaise on moldy rye, no matter what you intended to order.

People are foolish enough to believe it might work with someone else, so they start sleeping with them, or end their marriage thinking it will all work out with the more-awesome person they’ll get with next time.

But, SURPRISE! The divorce rate for second marriages is actually 17-percent higher! A lovely 67 percent!

That’s right. After gaining all that wisdom and life experience and learning from past mistakes, people get marriage wrong the second time even more than when they were understandably young and stupid.

But some people are wise.

They KNOW, really and truly, how hard marriage is and the level of commitment required to make it last forever. And they WANT to. They’re pretty smart, honest, decent people with the best intentions for their spouse, children, extended family and friends.

And they STILL fuck it up. They neglect their wives emotionally because they’re selfish. They shame and belittle their husbands because he’s different (Read: not as good as) than my father. They let their powerful and hard-to-reign-in human emotions run rampant, constantly pushing one another away because I’m right and they owe me an apology!

Most people get divorced or have unhealthy marriages because it’s really hard to have good marriages. It requires the same level of sacrificial dedication it takes for obese people to shed weight through disciplined exercise and healthy eating. It requires the same level of attention successful entrepreneurs put into product development, market research, branding and customer acquisition. It requires the same amount of inner-strength and fortitude people use to overcome enormous life obstacles to rise to great success and inspire others.

‘Is flying solo the best way to go?’

Here’s the toughest thing to swallow about marriage, and what makes finding a great one so rare: It’s INCREDIBLY difficult to find a human being with the strength and discipline required to love their spouse enough to give more to them every day than they ask for themselves.

And even when you do find one? It’s barely half of what’s needed for a marriage to survive. A marriage will NEVER work with one hero trying to do all the heavy lifting while their partner just selfishly derpy-derps their way through life, never sacrificing in return.

Great marriages are unicorns because the ONLY way for them to exist is for TWO PEOPLE to have the unwavering will and discipline to wake up every day, no matter what, and choose to love the person next to them, regardless of how they might be feeling through life’s perpetual ups and downs.

Good marriages are impossible without it.

“Why does my marriage suck?” people wonder. That’s why. Because you don’t give enough, and your partner doesn’t give enough, and your love and respect and kindness for them is conditional. You only treat them well when its convenient and doesn’t require swallowing any pride. And you can’t stop hurting one another because you don’t even know that what you’re doing hurts them. And you don’t care enough to ask.

But look on the bright side, there’s a 33-percent chance you’ll get it right next time! (That wasn’t directed at you, Deanna.)

In conclusion:

Deanna. I don’t know whether I’ll ever marry again. No clue. I felt so bad after my divorce, that avoiding a situation in which I might feel that again seemed like a wise play.

I think most people feel that way.

In The Dream World, we would live the rest of our single lives feeling free and independent and having an amazing time pursuing whatever passion, idea or interest popped into our little heads, and we’d die someday old and admired and regret-free as our many friends and family celebrated our life well-lived with champaigne and tequila.

But we live in The Real World.

And in the real world, our hearts and souls (and privates) want to reach out and connect to others. We are confusingly and mysteriously and beautifully wired for connection.

The benefits of happy, healthy relationships, and of love and companionship are well documented. People live longer and better when they have reasons to. For most people, that’s loved ones.

Flying solo sounds like a fine idea.

Like crazy European sex parties. And eating cake and ice cream for every meal. And snorting cocaine all the time because it feels so good.

What could possibly go wrong!?

However—and I reiterate that I don’t know, but simply think—figuring out what it takes to make the relationships we naturally crave last a lifetime is a better strategy.

What if we asked:

What do I need to learn in order to be an amazing partner so they always feel loved and want to be with me?

What have I failed to do up to this point that might have helped me choose a partner who wouldn’t want to end our marriage? How can I do better next time?

But, Deanna… if you’ll forgive this one overstep… you and he chose each other not once, but TWICE. (Which is a little bit poetic and beautiful.)

If we already know that marriages to second partners fail more frequently than with our first, and we know our hearts and souls (and privates) crave companionship, and that we are our best selves when we have it, maybe there are better questions:

What can I do today to make ME better?

What could I do today to help save my marriage?

What if doing so changed everything?

28 thoughts on “Is ‘Happy Marriage’ a Myth?”

  1. What a thought provoking read….
    It’s like I always think of my parents having the perfect marriage… And they are happy… But they both had a lot of cr@p to put up with, from families… And that stress colours your perfect marriage too….

    1. Thank you for thinking and saying so.

      I love that you get to look at your parents and see a model for how you think it should be. That’s a pretty great place to start.

      1. Oh I know I am lucky to have that role model… They have been through so much, yet their love for one another shines through, brighter than ever. Over 40 years marriage, and an arranged one at that! ☺ When we have our wobbles, in a 14 years young marriage, I look to them and see our silly arguments are petty and that we are stronger than that too ☺

  2. Deanna kind of summarized how I feel about relationships in general…because if the end game isn’t marriage at almost-39 (and no, it doesn’t have to be for sure) then who’s to say that technicality is enough to make a difference? All relationships on some level are work but how many times can I (or whoever) make the same mistakes?

    (I think we have established I am probably not in the right frame to talk about love anything anytime soone, but still weighing in 🙂 )

    1. I wouldn’t dream of pretending I know what it’s like to be you.

      I just think we don’t grow until we learn to ask ourselves the right questions.

      It’s REALLY hard to have a happy and successful relationship. It’s a major accomplishment. Like earning a PhD in molecular physics, or climbing Mt. Everest, or learning to speak three foreign languages.

      It’s not your fault you didn’t know what you didn’t know. None of us did. We all learned the hard way, and it sucked ass.

      We also can’t do anything about yesterday. Only tomorrow.

      So, what’s the thing to be thinking about and talking about and reading about and practicing in order to succeed at whatever thing (in this case, marriage) we failed at before?

      I think you can make yourself a fountain of knowledge. And I think you can choose honesty even when it’s hard. And I think being really honest and enforcing strong boundaries after learning about what went wrong in the past sets you up to be AWESOME at future partner selection, where you demand honesty and respect and unselfishness in return.

      You talk everything out. Upfront. Before you even get started. And you grow together, rather than take blind, shitty stabs at new relationships while crossing our fingers that nothing bad will happen even though we’re making the exact same kinds of choices we did before.

      I think that’s the only way.

  3. The happy marriage illusion. – There are good times and there are not so good times. It’s who you want to share those good and bad times with.

  4. I don’t think “happy marriage” is a myth, I think that we just have really unrealistic expectations as to what happy marriage looks like.

    Happy marriages don’t just “happen” and even the happiest of marriages have periods of profound unhappiness, but somehow we expect that happy marriage should be effortless and that unhappiness in the marriage is an indicator that we’re “wrong” for each other.

    I have a little secret to share…We’re “wrong” for everyone. Marriage isn’t about finding the “right one”. It’s about learning to BE the right one to one’s spouse. And that’s tricky stuff. Sometimes you have to wade through a lot of unhappiness in order to get to happy. That doesn’t mean the marriage it fundamentally wrong. Some people (like me) just have a long learning curve. ?

  5. Good one! I totally get where Deana is coming from. Reality sux bigtime. Maybe those who understand that do better at this whole marriage lark?

    1. Thank you. 🙂

      I’m CERTAIN people who understand that reality sucks big-time are better-equipped to have successful marriages.

      When you’re a slave to the ebbs and flows of feelings and emotion, everything is me-first and your relationship suffers or dies when everything is about you instead of your partner.

      People who know reality sucks don’t have sugar-coated expectations about what real-life will be. And they can decide every day they’re in this for the long haul. To love and cherish.

      People want it to feel crushy and magic and powerful. But it doesn’t always. Sometimes it’s running to the pharmacy for medicine or bringing a drink to our partner because they’re sick and vomiting. Sometimes it’s grocery shopping or packing school lunches for kids or replacing a burnt-out lightbulb.

      In real life, love doesn’t always make us warmly sigh and swoon. But it’s still rather beautiful.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Always good to hear from you.

  6. Honest to goodness, hubby and I are going on 30 years now and it really is a fairytale. We are the best thing to ever happened to each other. It wasn’t always like that, I actually used to throw dishes at his head. I try to blog about the joys of marriage as much as possible because our culture presents a very negative portrayal. Marriage is allegedly all doom, gloom, and the end of your sex life.

    My job also provides me the opportunity to observe some amazing marriages, full of strife and struggle, but also a great deal of love. I know happy marriage is not only possible, it happens all the time.

    “Marriage has such a high failure rate because most of us are ignorant assholes..”

    Ha! Well, yes. I think one of the biggest problems is pride. Men can be arrogant and insensitive and women can become self absorbed and think it’s all about us, all of the time. Honest to goodness, I think the reason marriage is perceived as “hard,” is because letting go of toxic pride and self-centeredness seems to be so hard these days.

    1. Congratulations on nearly 30 years. It’s an awesome milestone and one we continue to see less of, it seems.

      You don’t seem like the plate-throwing type. But that sounds like a fantastic story I’d like to read.

      From Plate Throwing to Fairytale.

  7. Well, this is one I will have to read again and again, a little piece at a time. Right now all I can focus on is Derpy-derp which made me very happy.

    I like Deanna’s question and I’m happy you replied… Thanks Matt!

    1. I’m not entirely sure I believe you, Alice, but I do want you to know how flattered I am by the mere suggestion you might actually take time out of your life to reread something I wrote.

      Thank you very much for that.

  8. I think a happy marriage just depends on the couple. I mean everyone has an idea of what a happy marriage should be and not everyone’s marriage is gonna fit into that box.

    1. Perhaps.

      But sometimes one partner is happy because he or she is getting everything they want while their partner sacrifices. You can go a while like that. Just not forever.

      The partner satisfied with the state of the relationship has a “happy marriage,” even though he or she is married to someone who doesn’t think they have a happy marriage.

      So, is it happy? Just because it fits someone’s idea?

      There’s always what we think, and then whatever the truth is. The more often those two things are the same, the better our lives will be.

  9. I’ve only been married for three and a half years so maybe I don’t know anything yet and you should take what I say with a pinch of salt but I believe in happy marriages. My marriage is happy. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes my husband and I bug each other or are inconsiderate towards each other, but if I had the choice to marry him again tomorrow, I would do it with no hesitation.

    So, no, I don’t believe that happy marriage is a myth. I think you’re right, Matt, that it’s not impossible, it’s just difficult. Especially in today’s culture of “me, me, me, now, now, now”. But it can be done.

    1. I’m with you. I don’t think it’s a myth, at all.

      But maybe what people think a happy marriage is supposed to look and feel like isn’t what’s actually true.

      Hard to say.

      I only know if you wake up tomorrow and love the other person with your whole self no matter what (and they do the same), it’s going to be as close to happy and beautiful as they get.

      That’s good enough for me.

      I’m so glad you’re in a marriage you value and thoughtfully participate in. I always assume everyone reading is divorced like me.

      I love being wrong about that.

      1. I think you’re on to something about people’s expectations of what a happy marriage looks like. It’s not flowers and hot sex all the time. Mostly it’s doing the things that need to be done, as a team. In my experience anyway.

        It’s also the jokes and secret language that’s between the two of you. I think that’s a really big deal, for us anyway. It’s bonding, when you have that shared mental space and I think that’s one of the things that people stop working on or paying attention to.

        I’m glad you’re wrong about that too or my life would be different one way or the other! Part of why I read your blog, and have for some time now, is that I want to stay happily married. You help me to see ways that I might be able to ensure that happens. So thank you for sharing all that you do.

  10. I ponder this alot. I tend to be happier when I am single, but I know that is because relationships are hard work and I honestly never want to put the effort into it. I wonder sometimes if I stay single is there a point in life where I will regret it and wish I was with someone and had put the effort into it. My parent were happily married for 30 years when my dad died, they had the kind of marriage that seemed like a fairytale and people felt like they were soul mates, but I know in the beginning they had a really hard time and almost divorced more than once. So the happiness developed from the unhappiness and work they put into it. I just can’t see myself ever waiting through the rough patches to get to the happiness.

    1. Sometimes people like you get married and they piss me off. It’s literally like bringing geometry to the algebra party and wondering why everything’s incorrect.

      They’re selfish, they get married for selfish reasons, and they stay selfish and end up creating a lot of misery for a lot of people.

      You, miss?

      You’re being honest and awesome.

      If you ARE selfish, BE single and selfish for as long as you want. Maybe someday you won’t feel like it anymore, but in the meantime, why marry when everything’s going to suck and get messed up along the way?

      You see the big picture. You understand that your parents’ fairytale marriage was something of an illusion and that the great love they demonstrated was earned by churning through the early-years gauntlet of shittiness. (And I am so sorry you lost your father. I haven’t lost a parent yet, and I can’t begin to understand how hard that will be when the day does come.)

      Thank you for “getting it” and making choices that are best for you (and by proxy, any theoretical husbands/children who could be hurt by what you consider to be an inability to stick out a rough and shitty marital patch at this point in your life).

      I think your self-awareness is healthy and awesome, and I can’t thank you enough for chiming in and being part of the conversation.

      Thank you very much.

  11. I feel like I live in a fantasy world where marriage is wonderful and everlasting (off the top of my head, there are 20 marriages in my family, only 1 divorce). Most of the marriages I’m surrounded by have been together since high school or their early 20s. I am part of a family where divorce just isn’t really there (the one who did get divorced is bachelor-for-life kind of guy, and the exwife was a whacko), and the marriages are loving, and our family truly loves one another. But I also know and have seen the real parts of the marriages; arguments in the kitchen late at night, hearing the backhanded-under-the-breath comments, and having talks outside so “no one knows” what’s going on. But we all know. But I think that is what makes it real for me, that in my mid 20s (and single) I realize that marriage is hard, really hard. My parents stick it out and do everything they can for one another (my dad has a chronic disease that is taking its toll on him and us) and so my mom has gone through this huge transition with him over the past 10 years, but I have also never seen two people who love each other more than they do. They wake up knowing it’s going to be hard, they go to bed knowing it will be hard. They tell me it’s hard. They tell each other that it’s hard. But I think not sugar-coating it is what makes the difference for them. I don’t know. I know nothing about marriage, but from what I’ve seen and experienced in my family, it’s going to be a roller coaster, you just have to be willing to laugh and scream through the ups, downs, twists and turns, together.

    I really like your posts, I find them thought-provoking and honest. Thank you!

    1. I really appreciate you sharing your experiences. Anyone with even an average-sized family, I think, can relate to much of what you shared.

      Here’s to your mom and dad.

      Thank you for the nice words about my writing.

  12. Sex is fabulous. Marriage is hard, it is harder without intimacy which is different than sex. Once you cut out sex and intimacy from marriage though (except in cases of illness), you don’t have a marriage any longer.

    I am old enough now to know I want a partner in my life, but not necessarily to marry again. Everything you said, absolutely true. But we are human and we are not intended to be without touch, intimacy and sex.

  13. Matt, I absolutely agree with all of that, I have 2 couples on my list of people who I think have ‘good’ marriages but maybe they’re faking it? And most people I know have about 1.on theirs. They are hard to find and admit they work at it.
    I think one of the hardest things for me being married was it was exhausting! Being with someone else all the time, always being accountable and never seeming to have any time off from it. The best part about being single is when I do the ‘wrong’ thing, nobody knows.
    Maybe we need to change our expectations!

  14. I’m a little young to understand marriages and stuff. I’m not really sure what to expect, but I do hope that I meet someone who I could peacefully spend the rest of my life with. 🙂

  15. Love your insights! We always fight about my
    Kids. I feel like I can never do anything right, I don’t look right, I’m not young, like Selena Gomez, a hot gamer girl, or some sexy cheerleader, but I am me, and he knows that. He has torn my heart, and I love him that much, I knew he was the one to take the jump for. Sure we don’t usually see eye to eye, but that’s what makes us individuals. I love him more than he can ever imagine, and I am always willing to bend over backwards and break my back for him…is it the same with him? It does not feel at all that way, but I feel he tries in his own way, which he thinks is right for him, and I do appreciate it. Sure, I wish he could see things I do…bet he feels the exact same way. Men and women are different. I love that about or human nature. We all have our fairytale dreams, he was mine and still is, I just have to work harder on being his.

  16. Happy marriage is def possible. Mine is 15+ years and we are happy as clams. I think a lot of it has to do with choosing wisely when u choose your spouse. Choosing a wife who is feminine, kind, patient, trusting, sweet, devoted, submissive, and mentally stable. Choosing a husband who has good character, honor, integrity, courage, a good work ethic, and knows how to make a woman feel loved and desired.

    My 2 cents.

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Matt Fray

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