A recent New York Times article talked about the psychological reasons we choose our marital partners, and those reasons were far less designed to result in our happiness than we might expect. Because we lack self-awareness about our wishes and rationales, we are unaware of both what we need and what we seek in marriage.
But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity . . . . How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right–too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable–given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.
Sometimes to explain why someone is partnered with a person his or her friends find questionable, people use the phrase: “The heart wants what the heart wants.” And we can’t really explain why we want what we want. We just know that it “feels right.” Often that “rightness” is just familiarity, even when the familiar thing is a pattern we should break.
Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.
No partner is perfect, but sometimes we choose a familiarly bad partner over the strangeness of a partner who would actually be a better choice for us, who would bring out better qualities in us, or who would not have the same character flaws we find comfortable.
The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she does not exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently–the person who is good at disagreement . . . it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person.
When a partner changes during the course of the marriage, or even just reveals parts of him or herself that the other spouse imagined to be different, this may be seen as a betrayal; divorce is too often the immediate solution that seems like a cure for disillusionment. This reveals both the inability of the angry spouse to understand human nature, and even more, the brittleness of that person’s ability to tolerate differences. We imagine our spouses to share our beliefs, assumptions and tastes until they are revealed to differ from us. Just because we failed to imagine them as they really are, doesn’t necessarily mean they changed.
Theory of mind is a unique psychological trait to humans. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. It is just a theory because we only intuit our own minds and we don’t and can’t directly observe others’ minds. Part of the human condition is imagining that we know what others are thinking or believing that they share our views. We also engage in predictive mental exercises in which we make assumptions based on past observed behavior about how the person will behave in the future. When our own ideas about what our partner is thinking are disproven, we may feel betrayed and disillusioned, but that’s because our ability to read minds is an illusion at best. Others are unfathomable to us. We are forever alone.
Brittleness occurs when we lack the flexibility to tolerate differences from what we believed our partner thought, usually some version of what we ourselves think. Inability to tolerate differences is the real culprit behind marital unhappiness and divorce.
Although the article suggests we should stick with our choice and work things out, for those who are unattached, a few pitfalls are best to avoid:
- Repeating familiar mistakes. While it’s easier to deal with familiar issues, it’s also easy not to deal with things that are familiar. We are too comfortable with certain types of bad behavior. Choosing a partner who is abusive or codependent or supports one’s bad habits may feel familiar but not be the best choice for a long-term happy life.
- Fearing loneliness. Those who really want to pick the best partner must be comfortable with the prospect of being single. Only someone who is choosy will wait for the best partner. Maybe not Jerry Seinfeld choosy, but not eager to marry the first person that comes along.
- Imagining that marriage will make romantic feelings permanent. In reality, marriage turns romance into administration. And nothing kills romance like kids or illness or the banality of daily living.
Whatever we lack in foresight, we need to compensate for later in perseverance, patience, and tolerance for personal differences.