I’ve heard this too many times regarding my marriage: Yes, I’m responsible for looking out for my own happiness, but my wife is supposed to be part of it. Anyway, I was wondering if discussing the boundaries of our responsibilities for our own happiness would make a good topic for one of your columns.
— T., Detroit
This culture is rife with "wisdomoids." A wisdomoid is a wise ol’ saying or profound truth that is neither wise nor true. Or, if it is true, it’s a vacuous truth not able to speak to deeper human predicaments. A wisdomoid is just air-dressed as parable. And you, T., have put your finger on one of my favorite wisdomoids: "You are responsible for your own happiness." Or, sometimes morphing into: "Only you can decide to be happy."
Ah, yes. Life reduced to T-shirts and ’60s posters.
I think about the husbands and wives who come to my office because they have just discovered their beloved in an extramarital affair. They rage. They weep. And it never occurs to me to put on a wise, paternal face and say, "Now remember, only you are responsible for your happiness."
The reason I hate this wisdomoid is because it implies an unnecessary dichotomy: Either I alone am responsible for my happiness, or only you can make me happy. This dichotomy leaves only two choices for marriage …
Romeo & Juliet Fusion: Attached at the hip, breathing as one, love as breathless agony, borrowed functioning, identity merging, anxiety … oh, and I promise to kill myself if you leave me or anything happens to you.
Relationship as Autonomy: What was that ’60s poster? Something like, "I am me, and you are you. Each an individual. Each walking a separate path. And, if by chance we should meet, then, that’s beautiful."
Not certain of my memory here, but it seems like this poster won the prestigious Nauseating Narcissism Award in 1968.
I try to imagine what would happen were my girlfriend to come to me and say, "Do you want to see a movie on Friday?" and I would answer soberly, thoughtfully, "I am me, and you are you, and if by chance we should end up sitting together in the same theater come Friday, well, that would be beautiful."
See, I’m guessing she won’t experience those words as about my deep wisdom and enlightenment. I’m saying that great love affairs require a consistent intentionality and a willingness to be responsible and careful for the gaping vulnerability great intimacy implies. And, in that sense, I do bear a grave responsibility for her happiness, if for no other reason than she has given me the terrible power to render her so desperately unhappy! Fidelity in marriage includes waking up every day with some part of your brain asking and answering the question, "How today will I make my beloved feel loved? How today will I contribute to his/her happiness?"
Our mates have the right to expect that from us.
Meanwhile, here’s a hypothesis I think is deeper: I alone am responsible for nurturing self-respect. Deeper because, in the end, I can’t prevent people from messing with my happiness. Certainly not if I’m willing to risk actually loving those people. But no one — not even my beloved — can mess with my self-respect. Only I can betray my commitment to self-respect.
When you bring abiding self-respect to the work of marriage, the equations change. Marital dialogues and negotiations no longer begin with something you need from the beloved; rather, encounters happen because of something you have first claimed for yourself — in self-respect. I deserve to be loved. I deserve to be cherished. I deserve to be No. 1 in your life. I expect to regularly see evidence of your stake in my happiness.
Or, said conversely, only you can decide how much thoughtlessness, blithe selfishness, casual dismissal, cavalier disregard, silence, sneering contempt or outright hostility you will tolerate before you speak up, or, if necessary, leave — in service to self-respect.
See, I would never say I "deserve to be happy." In fact, I rarely spend much energy hatching plans to "get happy." I’ve come to trust that happiness emerges regularly from the work of self-respect.
Originally published in View News, Feb. 15, 2011.