It’s a bizarre notion that we generally expect people to be happy in their marriages or sexual relationships. Yet we don’t automatically expect single people to be happy – or happy most of the time.
The logic of this thinking would suggest that the greatest barrier to happiness is being on your own. Yet experience tells us that being single or without a sexual partner does not necessarily equate with loneliness. And that for many people being married, or its equivalent, can produce the worst kinds of numbing isolation.
Perhaps it is plain old romantic idealism that puts the words “marriage” and “happiness” into the same sentence when increasing numbers of marriages end in acrimony and divorce. Certainly we quite unselfconsciously expect all kinds of problems – not just loneliness – to be solved when someone “falls in love” or sets up home with someone else. We expect those people to look and feel better, behave more confidently, face the world with greater equanimity – and all this even when they may be meeting and marrying out of restlessness, insecurity, competitiveness or to escape their own painful lack of self-confidence or purpose.
Quite recently, a client told me how dismayed she felt when she took the story of her aching loneliness to a prominent psychiatrist who asked her, with bizarre ingenuousness, she thought, how she could possibly feel so awful when she was in a well-established marriage. He seemed genuinely bemused by her (not uncommon) dilemma. She, in turn, found his attitude strikingly unhelpful.
It is, after all, quite possible to head into marriage for the best reasons yet still find yourself feeling alone and lonely. But often our reasons for meeting, mating and marrying are far from ideal.
We can and do launch ourselves into relationships – and make major commitments – not for love alone (although we may indeed love that other person), but also because we are needy, dependent, depressed or anxious.
In those times of inward psychological stress, what we need most is to learn how to soothe and strengthen ourselves. But we rarely see that. Our models for emotional maturity are few and far between. Wanting love, purpose, happiness, we quite automatically look to others to make up for what we lack.
A committed partnership can, of course, bring with it wonderful experiences of closeness and satisfaction (at least much of the time). But it’s an uncomfortable truth that often the people who will get most from it will also need it least.
These are the people who are already relatively “happy” when they get involved. Their lives already feel good to them. Their sense of self is already relatively intact. They are not desperate for a mate. They are not escaping loneliness, purposelessness or another relationship. They can welcome intimacy. But they can also relish time alone and have independent friends and interests.
If life does not ask too much of them, these are the people who are most likely to continue to be happy once they are married or committed – and “ever after”. This is in great part because their perception of themselves as happy doesn’t depend primarily on being in a couple. They are not looking to marriage to save them. Marriage is a bonus for them rather than a life-jacket.
Becoming the person who doesn’t need to be coupled when you are single and feeling emotionally unsupported or vulnerable, can be remarkably daunting. But it is possible. And it’s a great deal safer than looking to a sexual relationship to save you when you cannot save yourself.
This is a situation where intelligent support from a psychotherapist can be transformative.
Seeing your needs more broadly, taking better care of your negative moods, insecurity or depression, establishing a sense of inner strength and purpose, you cannot fail to become someone whose company you can enjoy. And your chances of living happily – married or not – will grow and multiply.
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