There seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.
I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed). And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.
I hear things like:
- I just want to be happy
- Everyone deserves to be happy
- Lifes too short to not be happy
- I’m happy now (in the new relationship)
This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept. And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.
Of course people “want to be happy”. Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite? Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).
Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).
I totally get all that.
Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?
Do you know? Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff. I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling. Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.
Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”. You can be happy at home, but not in your job. Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.
Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.
So what does this really mean to relationships?
When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.
Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.
Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment. That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard. A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen. So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.
Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.
With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.
And THIS will result in…
(ready for it?)
I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing? Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?”
Nope, and the distinction here is really important.
First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship. It means you’re normal. Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together. You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.
Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.
And understanding that? THAT really matters.
Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy. You need to understand the actual problem. And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!
The Search for Happiness
My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy. They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.
They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.
They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah). So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.
(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in. But that’s a topic for another day.)
In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.
One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person. I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.
Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person. I just need to find someone more compatible.
Sorry, that’s a load of crap. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).
But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill. And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship. No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.
And THAT should be good news.
The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill. And both parties need to be willing to do this.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying. And if they are? Then ANY issue can be improved upon.
Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed. But all problems can get better.
Believing Change Can Happen
Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up. They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”. And as a result they don’t really try.
This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.
It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying. But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions. As I said, ANY issue can be improved. But you have to be willing to put in the work.
Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution. Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works. And you are NEVER helpless to make change.
It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost. But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.
Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there. These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).
The way out of this mess is through communication. REAL communication.
When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking. Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.
If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.
Happiness is Mostly About You
One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act. It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU. While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.
Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.
For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us. It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.
Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you. It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues. It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.
But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime. They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.
In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.
Built to Last?
Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.
Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.
And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.
Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright. Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again. In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.
So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out. An excuse.
I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.
I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.
At least those reasons are honest.
They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there. That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.
But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling? That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.