When people whether or not I’m happy I always find it difficult to answer the question. Compared to what?
In 2011 career advice blogger Penelope Trunk wrote, “The culmination of my four-year obsession with happiness research is that I think people need to choose between an interesting life or happy life.” The post is a questionnaire which tells you whether you’re the kind of person who makes choices that lead to greater happiness or the kind of person whose choices maximize their interesting experiences.
I read that post, and it clicked for me why I wanted to leave Alabama. It helped me see that, yes, moving to a new city where I knew almost no one and had to re-learn how to do everything wasn’t going to make me happy. That wasn’t the point. It was going to be interesting. I saw that I will never be happy. I tried really hard in Alabama to be happy. It’s not who I am. It’s not what I value. Now I don’t know whether I don’t value it because I see it as impossible or I see it as impossible because I don’t value it.
I do know that since 2011 and now more happiness research has come out that making choices that maximize happiness can actually decrease well-being. That’s because well-being requires meaning, and happiness requires comfort. And meaning and comfort do not coexist very well.
Happiness is a hard word to wrap one’s mind around because it encompasses and hints at so many things. But something like comfort is a little more narrow. I was uncomfortable in Alabama. I was uncomfortable and bored. So, I made the choice. If I’m going to be uncomfortable anyway, I might as well be uncomfortable while I’m engaged in something I find interesting.
The thing that I was looking for that I didn’t realize I was looking for when I left Alabama was meaning. I wanted to matter to something and someone outside of myself. Religion had always provided that to me but as I began rejecting religious dogmas I had to also abandon the safety net of meaning and significance religion had provided me.
Megan McArdle just published It’s Divorce Season , which encourages couples to wait out the high-divorce month of January before calling it quits. Her reasoning is simple. Since the research shows you’ll be about equally as happy whether you stay together or divorce, why put yourself through all that discomfort?
Well, as someone who’s gotten divorced, I’ll tell you. Because divorce can help you build a more meaningful and interesting life.
It’s interesting to use happiness as a reason to stay married or get divorced. Why not personal growth? Why not measure how embedded you are in your community? Meaning, interestingness, self-actualization, etc. There are so many other, arguable more important, considerations.
If you can’t tell, I don’t regret my divorce. Do I wish had built a more meaningful and interesting life with my ex-husband? I guess. But the reason I got divorced is that I did not believe I could build one that was meaningful and interesting enough while still married to him. I’ll never know whether I was right or wrong. It doesn’t really matter.
What you might not have guessed is that I want to get remarried. Not to the same man. He’s a good man but we are not well-suited to each other.
I want to get married. But I do not believe it will make me happier. As McArdle pointed out, the research is clear that life events like marriage, divorce, even losing a limb or winning the lottery, don’t, on average, have a lasting impact on your baseline level of happiness.
I want to get married because I believe marrying the man I have in mind will help me build a more meaningful and interesting life. I believe it will help me in practical ways. Married people are wealthier and healthier on average than their single peers. Worrying about money and being sick are boring. Especially when you’ve been doing it for 31 years. I want that time and mental energy back so I can put to better uses. I’m marrying him because I know I can be wealthier and healthier with him than without him.
If I get married sometime between February 2, 2018 and February 1, 2019 it’ll be ten years exactly between my first and second marriages. The reason I can’t regret my divorce is that the decade between has been so good for me. I’ve used it very, very well. I haven’t been happy. I certainly have not been comfortable. But it’s been a decade I’ve found incredibly interesting and somewhat meaningful.
In the six years since my divorce I’ve resisted marrying again, despite several tempting offers. I always thought my refusal had to do with my incompatibility with the men offering. And it did, to an extent, for sure. But now I see how much the idea of marrying repulsed/scared/bored me. It scared and bored me for the same reason. Because I knew I hadn’t yet learned enough to do it much better this time.
Any marriage will be, in very important ways, less interesting than what I’ve done instead, which is meet and love and fuck and get to know and horrify and delight a lot of men. Each of them has taught me so much, about the world, and about myself. How could I trade infinite possibilities for the banality of believing I know who I’m going to grow old with?
Well the reason is this. I knew comfort conflicted with interestingness and meaning. Recently, very recently, I’ve come to recognize that interestingness and meaning conflict as well.
I am in still in love with all my exes. But I have one ex that I am least “over.” And he’s not the one I married. He’s the one I still think about all the time, the one I’ve had the most trouble accepting that I won’t get to marry anytime soon. Because I want to get married, and because I want to do a better job this time, I asked him recently what made me hard to live with. He told me. He told me I was selfish, and that I took criticism very poorly. That I often seemed to believe that I did not need to change.
He is right. I am selfish, and I do take criticism poorly.
He would have married me, despite my faults, because he knew I could and would change. But I rejected the offer because I didn’t want him to marry who he hoped I would become.
I found his feedback on me so very interesting. It was humbling and hurtful and offensive, of course. But mostly it’s so incredibly kind and flattering to have been known by someone I admire, respect, and love so much. And who is willing to humble, hurt, and offend me at no benefit to himself out of love for me, because it might help me grow into a better person. I hurt him very deeply, first with the myriad selfish and clueless things I did, then by refusing to believe that his criticism of my behavior was perceptive and well-intended. It hurt him that I so often didn’t think that changing my behavior according to his suggestions would make me a better person.
Here’s the thing. Marry someone who you trust to criticize you fairly. Marry someone you believe is trying to make you a better person, and who you believe is wise enough to counsel you on how to act. Because while I learned a lot about the world from these myriad men, this ex gave me something far more interesting, something only someone who loves me could. He gave me the opportunity to meet and get to know myself. I mostly squandered that opportunity while I was with him because I too often thought he was trying to hurt my feelings instead of make me a better person. I too often thought he didn’t know enough about how to be a good person to teach me how to do it. But mostly I too often confused criticism of my behavior with a rejection of me. I didn’t understand the difference between, “You did a bad thing,” and “You are a bad person.” Between, “I want you to stop doing that,” and “This makes me not want to be with you anymore.”
Marry someone who trusts you to criticize them fairly. Early in our relationship I asked one of my exes what he did wrong in his past relationships. He thought for a second and said — I shit you not — “Nothing really.” I guaran-damn-tee you he’s walking away from this relationship with roughly the same attitude. Even when I was leaving him, he could only focus on what was wrong with me that I would want to leave. He never stopped to think for a second, “This is a sane, rational person who I want to be with. What do I need to change about myself to make her want to continue to be with me? What do I need to change about myself so I don’t make the same mistakes again in my next relationship?” He did the same thing to me that I did to my ex. He did not trust me to tell him how to behave differently because he thought he was already better at relationships than I am because he was so much more familiar with more my flaws and failings than his own.
My next marriage will be more interesting because I will not waste time with a man who I don’t trust to see me accurately and show me who I am for the purpose of making me better. Nor will I waste time with a man who doesn’t trust that I see him accurately and can show him who he is for the purpose of making him better.
Early on in our relationship I told the man I want to marry some things that he could do better. And folks, I’ll be damned if he didn’t change those things about himself. Not for me, we weren’t that close yet anyway. For himself. Because he genuinely wanted to be a better person and he trusted my advice on how to become one.
The ex also sent me a TED talk on how to look at love. The basic premise was that the purpose of love isn’t to make you happy. Love can and should be meaningful. Love isn’t about what love can do for you at all. It’s about what you can do for someone else.
Last night I was talking to my mom and she said that she feels sad when people talk about marriage as hard work. She said that with the right person, it’s not. I didn’t get married to anyone I dated over the past six years because just getting along with them was such hard work. It was hard work because we were constantly hurting each other’s feelings accidentally and then instead of smoothly accepting responsibility and working toward change, we were both blaming each other, getting defensive, etc.
I liken it to writing. If you find it difficult to put words on a page, if that’s the hard part of writing for you, you’re not a writer. You’re in the wrong profession. Go do something else. Writing is the easy part. Research, interviews, editing, promotion, those are the hard parts. Those are what turn good writing to a great piece of work.
Similarly, if getting along, living together, day-to-day shit is difficult, you’re in the wrong relationship (or, like me, you’re immature and not really ready for any relationship). Career progression, volunteering, being there for your friends when they need you, participating in the community, these are what take a self-centered, shallow relationship that’s aimed at feeling good and turn it into a meaningful partnership aimed at something higher.
Finding out what makes my partner feel loved and figuring out how to do it is the only hard work I want to put into my marriage. Getting along is not something I want to spend any more time struggling with. I wish I’d known that the point of my relationship with my ex wasn’t to make me happy or to make my life more comfortable or even to make it more interesting. I wish I’d known that the point of my relationship with my ex was to create meaning for myself in finding ways to make his life more pleasant, meaningful, and interesting.
The meaning is in loving him, and in doing so freeing up his time and energy so he can love others in our community. I knew I wanted the benefits of marriage like division of labor, specialization, and economies of scale. What I didn’t know was that the point of these efficiency gains is to help him waste less time chasing money, sex, and entertainment so he has more time for meaningful pursuits.
The meaning is in learning who I am through him, and becoming a better person by listening to his advice.
I will never again love someone who thinks they are better than me at things they are not better than me at. Because that person won’t listen to me about how to get better, even though they should. They rob me of the opportunity to find meaning by making them better. And I will never again think I am better than my husband at things I am not better than him at. by doing so I have robbed myself of the opportunity to find meaning through self-improvement.
I believe that I can become a better person by listening to the man I want to marry about how to behave because I believe that he can see me accurately if I am honest about who I am. I know that I can make him a better person because I’ve seen him see himself accurately, trust my advice, and make big, important changes. And I believe that I can make his life more pleasant, meaningful, and interesting. These things are interesting and meaningful to me.
It will be difficult for me to learn how to be honest with him. I do not feel known or understood yet. Nor do I feel like I know and understand him. I’m still keeping certain things to myself and trying to hide or downplay things about myself that I’m ashamed of because I like him so much and am so impressed with him. It will be difficult for me to learn how to be vulnerable in front of him. It will be difficult for me to admit when I feel jealous or petty or hurt over nothing because I’m ashamed of those feelings. I’ll have to learn to trust that he sees me accurately despite my attempts to obscure and hide. I’ll have to learn to trust that his criticism is well-intended and valid. And I’ll have to trust that he’s being honest about when and how I make his life more pleasant, meaningful, and interesting. And when I’m not.
This time, ten years later, I finally am beginning to understand what I want to get out of marriage, which is the same thing as what I have to give. I don’t want to work on getting along or being happy. Those aren’t goals worth pursuing. I want to work on deriving meaning from meeting his needs. I want a marriage that enables us both to create more value than we would on our own. I want to orient my marriage around allowing us both to work harder for others than we did before we married. Because we are better people than we were when we met.