I'd Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper
This wishful emotional forecasting seems to reflect our assumption that happiness and marriage go hand in hand. If you're married, you're happy. If you're not married, you're not happy. But when we asked married women and men how happy they actually were, we didn't hear that people were overjoyed. Women said they were "medium" happy. And when we asked how they intended to become happier, they'd scratch their heads and say, "Hmmmm...hadn't really thought about that."
The most surprising thing to us was how few women were doing anything to make themselves happier. Part of the problem is that most of us aren't completely unhappy. We're not in a crisis. We're OK. Not good, not bad, just sort of so-so, and complacently accepting that that's where we're going to stay. But that needn't be the case. Your happiness, your emotional well-being, is largely up to you. If this book only does one thing, we hope it helps you to empower yourself to be happy—both for yourself as an independent person, and for yourself in marriage.
"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.
Another big happiness myth women keep bumping up against is the idea that because we have more choices and opportunities in a post-feminist world, we will be happier than our mothers were. Yet while women today can get advanced educations and have high-powered careers, the truth, as almost everybody knows, is that we are not whistling on a cloud. We are stressed out. We are tired. Sure, we're not feeling as penned in as our mothers were. But we are struggling—truly struggling—to find a way to be happy while trying to do it all.
Related to this is another misconception women seem to harbor today: that perfection and happiness are directly connected. We assume that if we can achieve absolute perfection in our lives, we will be absolutely happy. So therefore it must follow that if we can get our lives to be almost perfect, we will be almost happy, and if our lives are far from perfect, then we will be far from happy.
This seems kind of logical, until you realize what a setup it is. Trying to create a perfect life is a ludicrous goal. Instead of leading us closer to happiness, it leads us farther from it. We feel like failures as we continually fall short of our imagined goal—being that perfectly dressed woman with a perfect job raising perfect children with a perfect husband in a perfect, and perfectly clean, house.
Another thing we didn't quite realize would happen until we became parents was that we'd start to associate happiness with some future time, some imagined life phase when parenting would be easier. That we'd be happier when the kids were out of diapers, or when the kids were in school, or when they were old enough to be more self-sufficient, or when they packed up for college and left the house.
Literally hundreds of parenting issues tweak the happiness level in our homes. Hair washing. Doctor's appointments. Homework. Driving. Another major bummer (we might as well call it what it is) is the doling out of discipline and privileges. Do you agree with your spouse about when Johnny should get a timeout? Do you agree on whether or not he should have a TV in his room? If he's behaved well enough to get dessert? If his grades are high enough to sleep over at a friend's house? And it pretty much goes without saying: If you're fighting about the kids, marital happiness often goes out the window. It's hard not to blame a spouse—especially one you've been disagreeing with on parenting issues—when things go awry. If you weren't such a softie . . . If you ever gave her a sense of freedom ... If you'd just stick with her bedtime routine ... If you didn't give in to his tantrums ... One mom we know calls these the "nevah evahs." These accusations are always tempting, but they're a recipe for disaster. Blame has made few people happy. Whatever the trouble, the key is to work through it together.
After talking with many married men and women, we came up with a few theories to explain this. One is that women are still doing more than their fair share of domestic chores, even if they're also earning a substantial portion of the family income. As one mom, Sandy, said, "I come home from work, I'm tired, and it's still up to me to get dinner ready, oversee homework, and get the kitchen cleaned up. It's really hard to paint a smile on my face and lovingly say, 'Hi honey! How was your day?' when I'm in the midst of it all."
Another reason why men are happier than women is that women tend to have higher expectations for their happiness, and are therefore more likely to fail to reach those standards. (How insidious is that—being even more miserable because you've failed to reach your happiness goals?) Women are also more prone to link their happiness to things outside of themselves. I'll be happy if my husband comes home and thanks me for making dinner. I'll be happy if my kids behave themselves well. I'll be happy if I can watch an entire episode of Grey's Anatomy without having to get up. Then, if those things don't happen, we're not happy, when it might have been possible to be happy if we hadn't pinned our joy to external things.
Some of these fears are as easy to allay as checking for monsters under the bed. (Take a good look. See anything there? Nope—let's move on.) Others, however, lie deep in our psyche, and we need to really examine them if we want to get past the problem.
One of the biggest fears we heard from married men and women was the fear of hitting some kind of marriage crisis, reaching that "dealbreaker" moment when married life as we've known it dissolves. But we were surprised to learn that an affair wasn't the number-one dealbreaker on most men's and women's minds. The number-one dealbreaker was losing the house or some other financial disaster. What's more, couples who had already lived through affairs were not so afraid that another would lead to the end of their marriages. They'd been through the worst and come out the other side. Some even reported feeling stronger for it.
In fact, one thing we heard again and again was that crises actually made marriages stronger. "I do think we got stronger because of hitting rock bottom—I made the conscious choice to make this a good marriage," one mom told us. Especially after years of sleep deprivation and diapers, it can take a good crisis to truly appreciate and understand each other as a couple again. Of course, it would be great if life were simpler and more straightforward and didn't require this, but it seems to be the nature of existence. It took a crisis to make us decide to re-embrace our love was a refrain we heard over and over.
The first is to realize that happiness isn't something somebody else provides for you, it's something you make for yourself. Happiness starts inside. An unhappy person with a great husband, great kids, a great house, and a great job is still an unhappy person.
The second ingredient is to realize that you and your husband may have different priorities, and that's OK. Willard Harley Jr., author of His Needs, Her Needs, asked husbands and wives to rank the importance of ten emotional needs: Admiration, Affection, Conversation, Domestic Support, Family Commitment, Financial Support, Honesty, Openness, Physical Attractiveness, Recreational Companionship, and Sexual Fulfillment. Guess what he found? "Nearly every time I asked couples to list their needs according to their priority, men listed them one way and women the opposite way. Of the ten basic emotional needs, the five listed as most important by men were usually the five least important for women, and vice versa." It's not intentional; it's just that we're coming from different places. We're trying to do things for our spouse that we know would make us happy. But our spouses might not appreciate the same things at all.
Finally, the fourth ingredient of a good marriage is forgiveness. Not forgiving each other, for matters either large or small, creates ongoing tension. It's easy to say and hard to do, but forgive your spouse for whatever he's done, if you possibly can. Forgiveness will enable you to let go of negative feelings and live in the present. We all know what it feels like to live with resentment and anger, and those feelings can—and probably will—only worsen if forgiveness is not a regular practice in your marriage.
Mental tricks like this can help you change the mood of your marriage, and fill your home with humor and positive energy instead of disappointment and frustration. The key is to take control of how you see things. Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, explains that you can't change an event—you can't change if your husband gets in a fender bender, or if your six-year-old develops a Bratz obsession—but you can change your response to that event, and that shifts the outcome.
A corollary of the event + response = outcome equation is this: a happy spirit is contagious, and so is a grumpy spirit. We've all been there: You've had a hard day, he's had a hard day, and he comes in barking and yelling. You can't change that event—the barking and yelling—but you can change how you respond. You can yell "Fuck off!" and ruin your whole night in a huge screaming fight. Or you can say, "Wow, something must've happened today . . . what's wrong?" Guess which response is going to lead to the happier evening?
It's pretty simple, really: You can follow someone else's mood, or you can create a better one. Creating that better mood is work, but we all need to let go of the idea of happiness as a birthright and start seeing it as something we put energy into creating for ourselves and our families every day.
Of course, we all face legitimate roadblocks to our happiness. We all have behaviors or even genes that have been passed down that we don't want in our lives and in our marriages. But if we can identify them, we can begin to work with them or around them, instead of letting them control our lives.
We don't mean to suggest that you should start running around like a cult-inductee with a fake smile plastered on your face. None of us is happy constantly, and emotions change much more quickly than some of us might think. As Dan Baker, author of What Happy People Know, says, "We know, for example, that women appear to vacillate from happiness to sadness far more quickly than men. When it comes to raising children, women say that it's both more difficult and more rewarding than they could have ever imagined. In fact, women experience more of all emotions except anger, and while they experience 2–4 times more depression than men, they also report more positive emotions more frequently and more intensely."
As a mom named Shana said to us, "I could go to bed and be asleep when he gets home, or try to stay up and chat with him. To me, that's choosing happiness. It's not a mind-set. It's choosing to talk, choosing to be with him. It's unglamorous, but I know I need to stay up to say hello to him."
This is a really tough one, as delayed gratification is one of the hallmarks of maturity: If we all only did what would make us happy right this second, we'd all still be emotional teenagers with no jobs, no homes, and no degrees. But after talking to hundreds of men and women, it's safe to say that our generation has gone to the other extreme. We're all so worried about what it'll take to make us happy in the future—the beefy 401(k), the college savings account—that many of us are neglecting what we need to be happy right now. We think, 'OK, I'm pretty stressed-out at the moment, and I haven't relaxed since I went to the beach when I was pregnant with my first kid. But I'll be happy once my youngest child is in school, or I'll be happy once my husband gets his promotion, or I get mine." And then, of course, when that time comes, we may have forgotten how to be happy altogether.
One way to prevent this from happening to you is to think of happiness as a muscle. Like your quadriceps or your brain, your capacity for happiness needs to be used or it will start to deteriorate. Granted, it's important to think about tomorrow. It's important to imagine where you want to be in five or ten years. But so many of us are so worried about what we need to do to be happy in the future that we are failing to be happy at all. Which is a shame. To be happy in marriage, you need to be together when you are together. You need to focus on each other, right now, today. You need to create special moments with your spouse, rather than expecting them to just happen or going through the motions of "date night." We all have so much in our lives; we just need to enjoy the present.
And if working on happiness for yourself and your spouse is not enough, do it for your kids. If the adults in your house are freaking out, your children will pick up on that stress and things will snowball, leading to bad behavior and more strife. If you want to have harmony at home with your kids, you need to have harmony at home with your spouse (and harmony within yourself). "If you're happy in your marriage, then your kids tend to be happy," is how one mom, Maureen, put it. "The kids will start acting crazy if you're not nurturing your relationship."