How Happiness Can Hurt Your Marriage

I (Dr. Cloud) was talking to a young man one day about his girlfriend. He was thinking about getting married, and he had questions about their relationship. Several times during the conversation, he said that something she did or something about the relationship did not “make him happy.” It was clear that this was a theme for him. She was not “making him happy.”

When I asked, he said that she wanted him to deal with some things in the relationship. He needed to do some work that took effort. It was not a “happy” time. When he had to work on the relationship, he no longer liked it.

At first, I was trying to understand what the difficulties were, but the more I listened, the more I saw that he was the difficulty. His attitude was, “If I’m not happy, something bad must be happening.” And his immediate conclusion was always that the “bad” was in someone else, not him. From his perspective, he was not part of any problem, much less part of the solution. Finally, I had heard about as much as I could take of his self-centered ramblings.

“I think I know what you should do,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“I think you should get a goldfish,” I replied.

Looking at me as if I were a little crazy, he asked, “What are you talking about? Why do you say that?”

“It sounds to me like that is about the highest level of relationship you are ready for. Forget the marriage thing.”

“What do you mean by ‘the highest level of relationship’?”

“Well, even a dog makes demands on you. A dog has to be let out to go to the bathroom. You have to clean up after it. Other times, it requires time from you when you don’t want to give it. A dog might interfere with your happiness. Better get a goldfish. A goldfish doesn’t ask for much. But a woman is completely out of the question.”

Now we had something to talk about. This person’s greatest value was his own happiness and his own immediate comfort. And I can’t think of a worse value in life, especially a life that includes marriage. Why? Is this a killjoy attitude? Hardly. I am not advocating misery. I hate pain. But I do know this: People who always want to be happy and pursue it above all else are some of the most miserable people in the world.

The reason is that happiness is a result. It is sometimes the result of having good things happen. But usually it is the result of our being in a good place inside ourselves and our having done the character work we need to do so that we are content and joyful in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. Happiness is a fruit of a lot of hard work in relationships, career, spiritual growth, or a host of other arenas of life. But nowhere is this as true as in marriage.

Marriage is a lot of work, period. I don’t know anyone who has been married very long who does not attest to that. When couples do the right kind of work—character work—they find that they can gain more happiness in their marriage than they thought possible. But it always comes as a result of going through some difficult moments. Conflicts, fears, and old traumas. Big and small rejections, arguments, and hurt feelings. The disillusionment of someone being different than was imagined. The difficult task of accepting imperfections and immaturity that are larger than one thinks they should be.

All of these things are normal, and all of these things are workable. And if people work through them, they reach happiness again, usually a happiness of a deeper and better sort. But if they hit these inevitable walls and have the attitude that this problem is “interfering with my happiness,” they are in real trouble. They will be angry with the “inconvenience” of their happiness being interrupted and will refuse to solve the issues or will just leave the relationship. If happiness is our guide and it goes away momentarily, we will assume that something is wrong.

The truth is (and this is why happiness is such a horrible goal) that when we are not happy, something good may be happening. You may have been brought to that moment of crisis because of a need for growth, and that crisis may be the solution to much of what is wrong with your life. If you could grasp whatever it is that this situation is asking you to learn, it could change your entire life.

This is why the Bible tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all with out finding fault, and it will be given to him” (see James 1:2–5).


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  1. Gena says

    Is addiction in marriage considered “workable” and “normal” – an “imperfection” to be worked through, a “disillusionment of someone being different than imagined?” Particularly if the person with the addiction is not seeking recovery?

    • Ken says

      I would say no, it should not be considered normal. I once heard a popular psychologist say there are 3 dealbreakers in marriage: abuse, addiction and adultery. Of those 3, to me the 1 for which the most help is available out there is addiction. There are all kinds of 12 steps meetings. But the addict must be willing to work the programme if he wants to salvage his marriage and his life. Otherwise the addiction, including codependence, will end to kill both his marriage and himself.

    • Jenn says

      If this person is a Christian spouse, keep praying! Tell God how you feel! He can, HE will fix it.make sure you pray for patience, that God take care of YOU while you wait. I’m sorry you have to go though this, but God will glorify himself through you. Please pray and wait and ask God to take care of you as he does the birds everyday!❤

    • Leona says

      Addiction is complex……not so easy to determine what is best. It requires professional help for sure. There is nothing “normal” about addiction.

  2. Linda says

    This says it all, and so well. This is precisely what is wrong with my marriage. You have just described my husband who is divorcing me so he can be ‘happy’. What a shame, what a sad shame to be so self centered and shallow when there is so much potential.

  3. says

    I’ve been married to my husband for 10 years now. This is my second marriage. I married my husband when he went to prison and he is currently in prison. The mother of his three children thinks that they are still in a family unity. I have a problem with that. This woman makes plans for my husband like she is still part of him. My husband doesn’t think there’s isn’t any wrong with that. He thinks I’m acting like a jealous woman and I need to cut that out. Am I wrong to feel this way? I wrote to him and told him that our marriage union was God, him and I, not her, him and I or just her and him. He is not happy with what I am saying to him

    • Alisa says

      Yikes! Get out! He doesn’t know himself how to set boundaries! I do believe once you married him, you also took on his 3 children, but if he’s not willing to establish firmer boundaries…with the ex wife …get out.

  4. Christine says

    Thank you for reposting this article. I loved the goldfish story!!
    This article brought some clarity to what my ex-narc would tell me how I didn’t make him happy!!
    Of course his cheating GF always made him “happy”.

  5. K says

    What does it say about me, if the majority of my exes were in need of goldfish? (Being coy- pun intended! But sincere!!)

  6. Mel says

    How timely and on point! I had just told my husband that his repetitive going back on his word, and his arrogance when called on it, both spoke to *character,* at core. He sarcastically agreed and tacked on PRIDE about it, too.

    Over time, I’ve seen that his fairy tale view and unrealistic expectations (from a self-proclaimed “realist”) that marriage is supposed to always be a cakewalk, or something is very wrong (with only the *other*), reflects his obviously flawed foundational thinking, leading to not wanting to work things through, and to just “get away with” terrible behavior…that I hadn’t set strong enough boundaries upon early enough. So if everything isn’t hunky-dory you’ll be punished for trying, however gently, to bring things into the light, like a normal person does. Naturally, this has only made all his, and our, many unresolved issues gargantuan by now. And forget delving into the past! He defiantly opposes any self-reflective work, doesn’t see the “value” in it, and professes he’s incapable of it in any case.

    I suspect he’d even let a goldfish die, since any other being’s fundamental needs constrain his self-entitlement.

  7. Becky says

    I’ve been divorced a long time now, but this was a core issue. And yes, he chose to leave the marriage and find his happiness elsewhere. Tough times, but looking back it was best.

  8. Jean says

    Wow. I married a guy who should have had a goldfish, and 23 years later am going through an ugly divorce because I didn’t make him happy. He is a narcissist, has a pornography addiction, has cheated more than once, and now has a child with his most recent partner. Somehow he feels it is all my fault, though for years he has refused counseling or working with a pastor to deal with any of our issues. Tellingly, he once said, “I’m not going to pay some counselor to tell me it’s all my fault.” I know he thinks he will be happy with this new woman (assuming she also divorces her husband) but I think this is a case of “Wherever you go, there you are.” He can leave the marriage, but he is taking all his issues with him.

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