Marriage And The Happily Ever After
I recently was reading some fairy tales to my 5-year-old daughter, and she asked me, “Why do all fairy tales end with a marriage followed by ‘and they lived happily ever after’?” I was stunned by the question and struck by how subtly we communicate ideas about the correlation between love, marriage and happiness, almost conditioning children to believe that marriage leads to happiness.
It’s not just in children’s books; all forms of storytelling – books, literature, TV shows and movies – largely depict marriage as a positive, or happy, conclusion. In my practice, I hear people speak of marriage in a similar manner, as a major life goal, the achievement of which will bring satisfaction, closure, and happiness. But more than a conclusion or goal, marriage is a turning point, where we acknowledge that we have grown enough emotionally to be responsible for more than just our own well-being.
In The How of Happiness, author Sonia Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist, writes about how people internalize myths about happiness—one of them being, “I will be happy when I get married to the right person.” A lot of us can identify with that notion at some point in our lives, can’t we? These ideas exist across cultures and, sometimes, and even dominate our expectations: The myth that marriage means happiness shapes our personal life scripts. In fact, the absence of this ‘necessary milestone’ may even affect our self-esteem and lead to doubt.
In one of my sessions, a young woman in her twenties, with whom I had been working on self-esteem issues, asked me out of the blue, “Do you think if I get married I will find happiness?” The client’s concern came from societal pressures and several external voices, which were not allowing her to find an answer that should have been a personal choice.
Happy individuals make happy marriages. It’s that simple! In my practice, I have seen that individuals who can be happy at a personal level also enter marriage or relationships with realistic expectations. In his book, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths, Alan Carr describes this selection hypothesis: “More happy people get married, while unhappy people do not, because happy people are more attractive as marital partners than unhappy people.” It is the pursuit of happiness which drives all of us; choosing a partner who is happy to begin with, and also shares a similar understanding of happiness, is only logical.
With such a partner, we have greater ability to create shared ideas about happiness, which doesn’t necessarily cause but actually compounds joy. In The Journal of Research in Personality, Stevie Yap published his finding that on average, married people are happier than they would have been had they not wed. Yet: “… matrimony does not make people happier than they were when they were single. At the same time, the study also says that, marriage does protect people against normal declines in happiness during adulthood.” In other words, his study illustrates that marriage is not really a route to happiness, but it can alleviate the turmoil that comes with ageing.
However, there is a reverse side. In my professional experience, I have found that marital stress or unhappiness can increase vulnerability for depression. People can be lonely even in love or in a marriage. And if one feels unhappy in a marriage or a relationship, doesn’t it erode the very fabric of our identity and wellbeing?
Using marriage as a possible cure for unhappiness is faulty to begin with. Sure, a happy spousal relationship can elevate our self-confidence and even help us feel more secure in our other roles. And yes, loneliness does tend to seep in with age, more so with single or unmarried individuals. But getting married in pursuit of the ‘happily ever after’ is the wrong way to go about it. Other variables, such as personal compatibility and having a shared understanding of togetherness, foster happiness in a relationship, not marriage itself. It may not be a fairy tale, but it can be our own happy story.