Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happily Ever After

'They were the best of...'

Although just five very common words, you are likely able to identify the quote above. This was the argument used by the inventor of the windshield when suing Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement (See the movie 'Flash of Genius'). Robert Kearns invented a blade which blinks every few seconds rather than continuously. The parts used were simple, and the combination required once pointed out was simple too. After a long, life destructive battle, he eventually won a pyrrhic victory.

I think about this when wanting to write about relationships. I spoke yesterday about how advice is really speaking to your younger self. This is probably most obvious in relationships. In each one, you learn something else. The problem is these lessons are very personal and each combination of five words while not unique is unique. We don't talk openly about relationships because there is two way trust with the person you were with. It becomes very easy to read between the lines and it is uncertain what is fair to share because any 'advice' is clearly your story applied to someone elses life. So I tread carefully in this post.

A friend, Richard, asked on Facebook the other day, 'How would you try to change a community (read suburb) when it comes to the success of marriages in that community?'

As someone who has never been married, I have far more questions than answers to this. I am hoping readers of this blog might add some thoughts. In a blog about happiness and learning, not writing about this would be odd since it is such an important part of happiness. Ken Robinson said that 7 of his 8 great grandparents lived within a two mile radius of each other. This was either an extraordinary coincidence and alignment of the stars, or their standards were basically, 'You'll do'. The world has got more complicated. Dan Gilbert makes the point that we used to do what our parents did, live where we were born, and marry someone from the neighbourhood. The world has both shrunk and expanded in that we can go anywhere but in so doing we are also further from other sources of happiness. The kind you get from simplicity.

You can't have everything, and I think we get a good deal. I would rather live today than at any time in the past. Even though we are reestablishing what the expectations are in a relationship, and that makes it harder to coordinate each others life goals, I wouldn't want to go back to a world where it was only the man's career that was relevant and our lives were almost pre-planned. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that marriages were for love. Westerners look at the eastern practice of arranged marriages with perplexed faces, but it is not long ago that marriage was a largely political construct. One interesting source of reading on this topic for me has been Elizabeth Gilbert.

I had mixed reactions to 'Eat Pray Love'. I found it very inspirational and at the same time it left me feeling like there was a problem in its message. I still haven't resolved this and it is likely close to the core of Richard's question. Liz Gilbert willingly and happily enters a marriage that reflected everything she had been looking for. The husband did nothing wrong but she was deeply unhappy. In leaving, the story ends well for both her and the husband who remarries. As suggested by the name of the book, after a year of eating, praying and loving she finds happiness. Part of that happiness is with another man. Conflicted about what marriage is all about, she wrote the follow up book which is a researched history of marriage and studies on marriage.

The reason I am conflicted about 'Eat, Pray, Love' is that I like the idea of a promise that you stick to. The pain she put her first husband through was intense. Should she have worked it out? They could have lived a happy alternate life. Although the story works out, Gilbert strikes me as a happy person. Her story would have worked out if she had taken another path too. The message is essentially that you have to love yourself first before you can love others. Even if that involves hurting someone. They will heal and you will heal. Just do the hurting as kindly as possible. What that means is that we value individual happiness and freedom over the idea of having long term commitments around which to build more stable institutions like marriage. I think that is the way I lean too, but there is a cost.

HT: Terry Alex @takecareofUUU

We don't know what life will throw at us and how relationships will evolve. The question is how much effort gets put into fixing them. If the commitment is fixed, there is always the chance that one or both of the partners stops trying. There is no fear of the person leaving and so they stop looking after themselves and stop looking after the their partner. It scares me looking at lots of relationships where the partners aren't even nice to each other. Paul Ekman claims to be able to quickly tell if a relationship will last by looking for indications of contempt. Once you lose the benefit of the doubt, and start assuming the others actions are malicious rather than being on their side, things fall apart.

The other issue I think about is whether we expect too much from partners. We look for a friend, lover, confidant, cheerleader, parent to our children, etc. etc. Most of our friends don't meet all of our needs, but they are very good at meeting some of them. Making space to invest in several friendships perhaps reduces the stress on what is expected from marriage.

Sorry Rich, I hope that is helpful but I don't know. I suspect more coaching would help. The friends I know with good marriages work at it. They also have difficult times but they make good teams. They make sure they stay fit and healthy. They work on their own happiness and they look for ways to invest in the happiness of their partner. They give their partner the benefit of the doubt and treat them kindly. They also have support from friends. Perhaps one way to look at the success of marriages may be to look at the quality rather than the length. Higher quality may lead to longer marriages, but it may also mean that some 'successful marriages' are ones that end.

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