In bed one night, my husband told me, “I talked to Dave today. He and Chloe are getting divorced.”
The last time we saw Dave and Chloe, they were the picture of a happy couple. We’d shared a pizza and beer, talked about the vacation they’d just taken and how they wanted to have kids but weren’t sure when. Maybe my husband and I were also the picture of a happy couple, holding our three-month-old baby, joking about how tired we were. Two couples in our thirties, with our easy smiles and glasses of wine, arms slung causally around each other, happily married.
Except none of us were happily married. Dave and Chloe were on the brink of divorce. My husband and I were exhausted, reeling from becoming parents. We once got in a screaming match over who should have to poop with the baby so that the other person could poop in peace. I was grappling with a crushing workload and a growing rage as I watched my husband walk out the door each morning to his baby-free office while I spent my day navigating childcare, breastfeeding, client calls, and deadlines. Our entire life seemed like it had boiled down to texting about the to-do list, fighting over childcare, and watching Netflix. On the drive home from that dinner, I remember looking out the window of our car, thinking, Were we ever as happy as Dave and Chloe? Will we ever be again? I knew the answer was no.
If happy marriages were common, divorce wouldn’t be. Yet if you ask a group of friends how their marriage is or spend an hour scrolling through Instagram, you will run into the same term over and over: happily married. With all the echoes of “living happily ever after,” being happily married has become the gold standard for romantic relationships. It implies both a joyous daily experience and that the marriage itself is happy, healthy, and built to stand the test of time.
In his book, On Love and Other Difficulties‘, the poet Rainier Maria Rilke writes, “It does not occur to anyone to expect a single person to be ‘happy,’ — but if he marries, people are much surprised if he isn’t!” It’s an astute observation: We don’t expect an individual to be happy, in terms of their daily experience or as a fixed state of being, on their own. In fact, science has proven that happiness is more strongly linked to genetics than anything else. Similarly, we don’t expect people to be “happily employed” or “happily parenting.” In fact, people are generally compassionate when it comes to the challenges of work and raising children. You are also allowed to be unhappy in your job without that reflecting negatively on you or your abilities. Frustration, exhaustion, and even occasional regret are considered acceptable experiences for parents. In this way, marriage is the only arrangement in which, for others to see it as worthy, we must claim that we are consistently happy.
It’s a concept grounded in falsehood, one that creates a binary between “happy” and “unhappy” marriages, when the reality is that in most long-term relationships, there are happy and unhappy years (or decades). Even Michelle Obama recently admitted on her podcast that she and Barack questioned the point of marriage and have had periods of struggle that lasted years. If the Obamas can admit they aren’t always happily married, why can’t the rest of us?
The other problem with all this pretending is that we don’t think anyone else is pretending—everyone else’s happy marriage must be real! We become convinced that we are the outlier, something is uniquely broken in our marriage, and we must either get divorced or pretend even harder so nobody sees through the facade.
Dr. Eli Finkel, the author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, summarized it this way: “expectations that you can’t meet are harmful.” In his work, Finkel has explored how in recent decades, the expectation individuals put on their marriages has increased dramatically. We want love and support, but also expect that “our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.” Finkel theorizes that these heightened expectations are actually making our marriages better, but only if the expectations are within the realm of possibility. “It’s really about calibrating your expectations towards realistic.”
There’s also the simple math of marriage. The more years you’re married, the more likely you are to experience both periods of blissful joy and intense discord. My mother recently told me that it took 10 years of my parent’s 35-year marriage for them to hit their stride. “We both had so much growing up to do,” she said. For those of us in the first year, or decade, of our partnerships, where is that nuance?
Early in our relationship, my husband and I were out with another couple. Over the course of the dinner, they spoke openly about the hard times they had been through: infidelity, financial issues, parenting struggles. “Marriage is so hard,” the wife said. The husband agreed. “We still fight a lot.” Then he reached across the table and covered her hand with his hand. They smiled at each other with such honest affection. Later, the wife confided that she was worried they’d scared us off marriage.
I’ve often thought of that dinner over the past nearly-a-decade as my husband and I have navigated our own hard times. We’ve spent $20k on couple’s counseling, nights on the couch, had screaming matches, spent years trying to shine light on our individual darknesses. There have also been all the good times: kitchen dance parties, long bike rides to the river, a shared library of inside jokes, this bagel-making competition we have every Thanksgiving. Our marriage has contained all the joy and suffering our lives have contained. That couple didn’t scare us off marriage, it relieved us. They didn’t claim that their problems were resolved or even that they would stay together, they just told us they loved each other and were still trying to make it work. If that was the bar for a good marriage, we could probably do it, too.
How do we end the myth of being happily married? Let’s start by talking openly and honestly. In areas that have historically been stigmatized, like postpartum depression, increased awareness and women brave enough to speak up has meant we now have more resources available and more of a societal understanding that many adoring mothers, who love not only their children but also enjoy raising them, still suffer from postpartum depression. We need to bring this more nuanced understanding to marriage—a collective understanding that you can be in a healthy or meaningful marriage with many moments of happiness, but that you will still likely experience hard times.
We are communal beings who rely on support systems and strong communities to get through the difficult parts of life: career setbacks, parenting struggles, loss, and illness. Yet one of the hardest things — marriage problems — we go through alone. As long as we pretend that “happily married” is normal, we will stay isolated in our perfectly-okay marriages. We will not be able to get the very things we need most: solidarity, acceptance, support, community.
During that dinner with Dave and Chloe, what if we had had the courage to be honest and tell them our marriage wasn’t doing great either? Maybe if we’d stopped faking, they could have stopped faking, too. Maybe they would have felt relieved, or been able to see that a marriage can be unhappy for a long time, can contain pain and conflict and loneliness, and still be worthwhile. Maybe my husband and I would also have felt more free. Without the shame and the doubt, without all the effort it takes to fake marital bliss, our unhappy marriage might actually have felt a tiny bit happier.
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