Friday, February 14, 2014

Marriage *is* for you….just maybe not the way you think...

“Love consists of not looking each other in the eye, but of looking outwardly in the same direction.”
                                                                                       Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Like many people, I first read Seth Adam Smith’s “Marriage isn’t for you” when it went viral last fall.  Every so often, it pops up again as another friend discovers it and passes it on, admiringly.  Every time the piece surfaces I look a little longer at the comments. Some of the feedback is surprisingly negative (though I guess that shouldn’t surprise; there are haters for everything on the Internet it seems—I’m sure there’s someone  out there yelling “Puppies—Boo!!!” on some site somewhere). But the piece is so positive, so generous, so….sweet that I haven’t wanted to criticize without thinking things through. It’s taken me a while to put my finger on the problem as I see it.

Smith’s piece is great because it starts from a selfish point of view: Smith worries about his own marital satisfaction and hopes his wife will make him happy—but thanks to his dad’s advice and his wife’s actions, he realizes that’s not what marriage is about. He concludes that it’s about the person you marry and her (or his) happiness, that it’s about family, “It’s about others….”  I admire his honestly and humility in telling his story. I love the way he stresses the kind and gentle way his wife treated him and the realization and transformation it prompted in him—and I think he’s totally right that a loving response often transforms a hardening heart.

But here’s the problem: you can’t make someone else happy. No, really, you can’t. When you are first in love you think you can because of the intensely blissful feelings of new love. But even those feelings aren’t full happiness. And your happiness is bigger than any person—no matter how spectacularly wonderful and well-matched—could possibly fill.

Smith has been married only a year and a half, and I’ve been married for twelve and a half. He has no kids (yet, anyway);  I have five.  But I’m not saying this because I’m old and cynical and tired. I’m saying it because I want love and openness and goodness like his to last and deepen.  I worry that thinking you can make someone else happy will become just as big a trap as the focus on your own happiness. Worrying only about your own satisfaction isn’t good, but it’s dangerous to think you’re going to make someone else happy. Growing up, my mom would occasionally tell me, “It’s not your job to make your parents happy.” My grandmother had been the clear favorite in her family, and had labored under the burden of that for many years, believing that—as the favorite—it was also her job to do what her parents wanted and “make them happy.” I know that’s a parent-child relationship, but similar things can happen to married people.  You start doing all the things you think should make your spouse happy. You put their needs before yours. And then if they aren’t satisfied, you get angry. “Why the heck isn’t s/he happy? With all I do for him/her?” Or, alternately you get depressed, “What’s wrong with me?  

We can, on the other hand, help each other find happiness. We can accompany each other on this long road; we can love each other madly, passionately, truly. We can walk together, sustaining each other,  encouraging each other, making the journey much more fun--but we can’t be the road.  That way lies madness, not happiness. 

In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Here is the paradox of the love between man and woman: two infinites meet two limits: two infinite needs to be loved find two fragile and limited capacities to love. Only within the horizon of a greater Love will they not devour themselves in pretension, nor give up, but walk together towards that fullness of which the other is a sign.”

Happy, Happy Valentine’s Day!

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