Americans pack a lot into the idea of marriage. In our spouse we hope to find our best friend, our perfect lover, our ideal co-parent, our romantic hero, our partner in financial stability, and our fountain of happiness. But if you step back a moment and look at how people conceived of marriage in other times and places, you'll find that it wasn't until recently that happiness was considered part of the equation. People got married because it was expected of them; because you weren't supposed to have sex or kids without getting married; and because women needed to for economic reasons. And people stayed married for all those reasons, plus a few more. Because they were loyal. Because they felt they could not get divorced. And perhaps more importantly, because they said they would. Marriage was a solemn and binding contract. A commitment to happiness was not part of the vows.
"I think that for my mom and dad, having a happy marriage wasn't even an objective," one man we interviewed, Jim, told us about his own parents. "My dad fought in WWII. Feelings? I don't know if he even had them! He didn't expect happiness; he never saw it as the goal."
We're not out to suggest that happiness should not be your goal—just the opposite, in fact. But after talking with lots of married men and women, we did come to the realization that we need to think about "happiness" much more carefully and proactively. We entered adult life with lots of big ideas about what would make us happy—a husband, kids, a job, a house. And while these are centrally important to our lives, they are not what we should be relying on to make ourselves happy. Complicating matters, when those things don't make us happy, we tend to blame our marriage, when in reality we can only be as happy in our marriages as we are in ourselves. The job of producing personal happiness is really up to us.