Is Happiness in Marriage the Point or Merely a Benefit?

Gay couple gardeningIn light of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation, there has been a surge in the national dialogue about marriage in general. Although a range of opinions exist in response to the SCOTUS ruling, individuals on both sides of the debate are talking about the meaning and purpose of marriage with fervor and passion.

But why does marriage matter?

Marrying for love and happiness is a fairly recent phenomenon. Previous to democratization, which popularized the notion of individual rights and freedoms around the turn of the 14th century, individuals generally either participated in arranged marriages or married according to cultural norms for their social class, socio-economic status, gender, and/or birth order. Despite the fact individuals have not always prioritized attraction or emotions in marital decisions, modern Americans cherish the romance of marrying for love and happiness, as evidenced by just about every relationship narrative in the media today.

Marriage therapists often assist couples struggling with conflict, pain, or feelings of isolation in their marriage. If the purpose of marriage is to secure long-term personal and relational happiness, have these couples somehow failed?

In traditional marital vows from The Book of Common Prayer, couples commit “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” The weight of those words can feel far from romantic: they do not guarantee an image of blissful happiness that is typically associated with modern weddings. Could it be that marriage is not necessarily meant to make us happy?

Duke University ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas suggests that pursuit of marriage for the fulfillment of personal happiness “fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.” Hauwas writes, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

Marriage is not merely a means to finding personal happiness; rather, it is an opportunity to demonstrate love to another person (and the family and community associated with that person) even in the midst of unhappiness. Let’s return once again to the traditional marriage vows: Are couples truly willing to embrace their words that marriage means to have and to hold … for worse … for poorer … and in sickness … until death do us part?

Are couples truly willing to embrace their words that marriage means to have and to hold … for worse … for poorer … and in sickness … until death do us part?

Today’s norm in American culture, which may be exacerbated through online dating, is to seek attractive partners with shared interests. It is reasonable to believe that engaging in a romantic relationship with someone who has these qualities will likely result in feelings of happiness, at least for a period of time. However, when inevitable stress or feelings of hurt impact the relationship, will the perceived value of the marriage decrease? Those who ascribe to the belief that the purpose of marriage is to seek happiness place themselves at risk of resentment, anger, or disappointment when their perceived personal needs for happiness in the relationship are not being fulfilled.

If, instead, the intent of marriage is to learn how to love one another and one’s community through sharing life together, happiness may be a welcomed benefit—but not the established primary goal.

Are one’s feelings in marriage irrelevant? Not at all. Spouses must tend to their own emotions and share them with their partners in order to increase intimacy and address relational problems. If one is suffering in marriage (e.g., if one is experiencing abuse, neglect, or addiction), feelings of distress may also be an important indicator that further action is needed.

Happiness is also important in marriage because it is a powerful motivator; couples who feel happy in their relationship will likely have more energy to work through relational challenges, learn relational skills, and seek opportunities to extend care in their marriages, families, and communities.

Individuals who marry tend to be happier than those who do not (Yap, Anusic, and Lucas, 2012). And yet, perhaps the point of marriage isn’t just to be “happily in love,” but rather to learn how to love through the act of continuously committing and extending care to one’s spouse even when circumstances are challenging.


  1. Hauerwas, S. (1978, April 19). Sex and politics: Bertrand Russell and “human sexuality.” Christian Century, 417-2.
  2. Love — you’re doing it wrong [Motion picture]. (2012). France: TED.
  3. Yap, S. C. Y., Anusic, I., & Lucas, R. E. (2012). Does personality moderate reaction and adaptation to major life events? Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey. Journal of Research in Personality.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan Lundgren, LMFT, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rhea

    July 20th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    It could be a little bit of both. I would want to have that chance to settle down with someone who makes me happy and at the same time I think that we have to remember that a lot of life’s happiness is up to us and what we choose to make out of life. Not everything is going to be handed to us on a silver platter and happiness is definitely one of those things. If you want to be content and settled and happy in life then there will come a time when you will have to make that choice and do all of the things that you have to do to make that happen.

  • Connor

    July 20th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    You shouldn’t have to sacrifice happiness for anything. I think that being married should mean that you are happy with the person you have chosen to be with.

  • Hope

    July 21st, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    the problem is that too many people go into marriage thinking that this is going to be a fairy tale when the reality is that there is a lot of work involved to have that happy ending.
    There will be good days and there will be bad days, there will be smiles and there will be tears, but there should always be something good that comes out of it at the end of the day and if there isn’t… then maybe this is not the best person for you.

  • Deb

    July 21st, 2015 at 2:29 PM

    I think it’s about making the right choice . Finding the person that best fits with your values and your everyday life . You don’t have to be carbon copies of each other but you better have at least comparable ways of facing each day and the problems that come with life . Sense of humor . Parenting styles , how you handle money , work ethic, extended family interactions,. So many things go into choosing the person you have the best chance of making a good life with . When you have at least some of these things in common then you have a better chance of happiness. I think there ought to be pre marital counseling ( not affiliated with a religion , unless you choose it ) available to all thinking about marriage. When I got married , twice, no one said a word about making sure I was choosing well. I sure learned it wasnt about simple “attraction” .

  • cassie

    July 21st, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    I really do not see the point of hitching my cart to his horse if we are not meant to be happy.

  • William

    July 22nd, 2015 at 7:57 AM

    Everyone has their own specific reasons for getting married- love, security, etc. I know what kind of relationship that I would want to have one day but I know that there are others who have totally different ideas of what a healthy marriage looks like. For me I want love and stability, and I want the person that I marry to want the same. And I think that being happy is going to be a byproduct of the other two things.

  • rob

    July 23rd, 2015 at 4:13 PM

    While I think that there was more of this in the past I do think that marriage for reasons other than for love are not as common today as they once were.

  • Lani

    July 24th, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    Marriages are what you make of them
    if you are negative about that relationship, then guess what that relationship is then going to be
    think positive, then there is a much better chance that your marriage will reflect that

  • dell

    July 25th, 2015 at 7:31 AM

    Everyone goes into marriage with a different idea of what they want it to be. Some go for love only, and while it is true that love can conquer a lot, I don’t think that it always conquers all. There are always going to be unique reasons why you choose this person or that one to marry and really it has to be whatever is going to make you happy. It might not be another person’s version of happiness but if it works for you, then good for you, you are the one who has to live with that decision.

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