Unhappy people more likely to defer marriage?

At a dinner party a week ago, a woman talked about one of her friends from professional school. He was the nicest guy in the world, friendly, optimistic, happy. Everyone was shocked when he married “a total bitch.” The marriage has now lasted 15+ years with no signs of friction.

I offered my theory: “Happy people can marry anyone and stay married. They are dating someone who isn’t so great, yet their mood is good and they don’t feel any strong motivation to change their circumstances, so they slide from dating to marriage. Fundamentally unhappy people, however, are always trying to change something in an attempt to become happy. They will break up with partner and search for someone new, thinking that a new partner will make them happy. They keep doing this until they are 40 years old and desperate, never realizing that it wasn’t their circumstances making them unhappy, but their genetics.”

[A more refined version of this theory could be “The ratio between one’s innate happiness and one’s expected happiness predicts the likelihood that one will marry young.”  For example, if you are happier than average, but expect every day to be as fun as the best day of your life, you will keep searching.]

12 thoughts on “Unhappy people more likely to defer marriage?

  1. Dear Phil,
    Fabulous subject!
    I am 44 years old now, have never married (and I am not gay) and I believe your theory is at least partially true.
    Happy folks can get along with and “put up with” almost anyone and as such they are maybe a little more tolerant of other’s actions and feelings that do not jive with their own.
    I admit that after many relationships and several opportunites to marry I think I passed mainly because I am not a particularly happy person, although at every break-up I always at least partially blamed my lack of being able to marry on the other person’s imperfections.
    I have been very blessed with most of the things that are commonly known to make one happy in life: much better than average business career, the ability to acquire almost anything that I want, relatively nice looks and good health. But I admit that I am not “happy” most of the time.
    Some would say my unhappiness may be what’s also known as depression, but I don’t know for certain as I don’t fit most of the common profiles for that illness and I can find ways to brighten up very fast. But overall I have never been really “satisfied/happy” with anything for very long, hence my still being single at 44.
    My mother always said that I was not a “happy” child but unfortunately I don’t know much about my actual genetics since I was given up for adoption at birth.

    However, at the ripe old age of 44, I’m not finding myself “desperate” to marry and I still say I’ll get that perfect marriage someday. (Although when I actually relate this to my friends I am greeted with howling laughter)

    Also, do you think your theory applies to you?

    Mark D.

  2. I realize it is anecdotal, but don’t you consider yourself happy? You *appear* happy in most of your writings.

    And yet you are not married.

    Maybe you are happy, but never satisfied. I think your theory needs refinement.

    Tom Hanks was always known to be the happiest and nicest guy in Hollywood. He married Rita Wilson who is… well.. see you next tuesday.


  3. i wonder why you said genetics instead of attitude – the former implying that someone’s outlook on things cannot be changed!

  4. I think you just found an explanation of an age old problem that nobody else seem to be able to figure out. You must now be able to post a solution in the next blog entry 😉

    Another explanation though, is that there is a gene that makes some people more monogamous than others. You should be able to predict the lengths and number of relationships based upon a combined “monogamity index” of any given pair of humans. There are quite a few marriages in which spouses are not happy but don’t get divorced – instead they prefer to fix their relationships. Those must be highly monogamous.

  5. I have had a friend for many years (since childhood; I am 28) who is presently not married. I am. I am convinced that he will never marry. It just doesn’t “feel right” with him. I think he’s generally pessimistic.

    Interestingly enough, he’s got two sisters, one younger and one older. I feel the exact same way about them. They’re always rather negative, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many more years go by without them marrying. I don’t know about any relationships they’ve had, but I know they’re generally pissed off at the world. I try not to spend too much time with them …

    I would strongly agree with your theory.

  6. Neal: Why genetics instead of attitude? Genetics is responsible for attitude! Psychologists have found that about 50% of personality is genetic. The rest is due to environmental influence.

    Mark, Colin: I am happy some of the time. I wasn’t happy yesterday getting a full set of dental x-rays and a filling repaired. Nor was I happy in the evening when my friend tricked me into seeing the movie Waitress (turned out to be a chick flick with not a single helicopter scene). I think that my expectations of life are unreasonable. I expect to be having fun 24/7. That isn’t possible in a life filled with (a) colds and flus, (b) system administration, (c) machines that break, (d) helicopter students who grip the throttle and override the governor, etc.

  7. There are different types of marriages, so we need to consider cultural expectations. For example, many couples from India still have successful arranged marriages. (I do not extended “successful” to include forced relationships.) Americans today often have trouble nailing down their own expectations of what life has to offer and their own priorities so they have a hard time synchronizing with a spouse. Here we can use the old “script” paradigm. If you’re a rural dairy farmer and both you and your spouse are working from the same Garrison Keillor script for life (long, hard work-days, five kids, church on Sunday, deer hunting in the fall, Greenbay Packers, etc.), then the range of things which spur discontent is dramatically reduced.

    But “love marriages” also require sustaining romance. Typically, the first thing someone falls in love with is a partner’s “sense of life.” One would hope it is strongly positive (vs. malevolent or cynical) — but that’s not always the case. And over time, it has to be backed up with something tangible and consistent. Someone who expresses ambitious goals needs to actually be taking rational actions toward those goals.

    What will hold a relationship together are shared values/priorities and mutual admiration.

    I highly value things like acting justly or thinking independently. Other people value things like saving the earth by recycling soup cans. Either way, it helps to be on the same page. But part of shared values is also built on a mutual understanding of how much is really at stake in a relationship and what is possible to gain from “getting it right.” As an analogy, consider going out to acquire a large-scale information system. You can look at it as merely “buying some code” from a vendor or, alternatively, as establishing a long-term strategic partnership where both have an interest in making the endeavor succeed. If the expectation is for getting screwed over, then it becomes self-fulfilling. But consider the alternative – decades of shared work, good company, and passionate romance. Consider the trust that someone will stick by you in adversity (immoral actions excluded). Imagine either you or your spouse is 75 and becomes bedridden from a stroke. Or 30 with a spinal injury. Integrity is huge. To a great extent, the symmetry of the commitment earns its own admiration. And the mutual admiration aspect of marriage is worth a lot of attention.

    (It’s grammatically awkward to be neutral with pronouns so please take my next comments as applying equally to men and women.)

    If I could give a person floundering in romance just one piece of advice, it would be to treat her partner as her *reward for a life well lived* – and to offer herself as her partners’ reward for his productive life. Your spouse gets only one person in life to perform this role, so there is no shirking the responsibility. You owe it to him to try to be the best you can be – a person worthy of his admiration. And when he is down in the dumps, the role demands you reminder him he is still worthy. Worthy of what? Worthy of being proud of what he does each day with his life. Worthy of your passionate romantic attention. Worthy of being happy.

    There is a genetic factor in personality. But fundamentally the nature vs. nurture debate is a false choice. The classic list of logical fallacies should be extended to include one more: the omission of volition. Psychology is certainly deeply seated and gets more so with age. But a person can change his outlook on life if he can explicitly identify what’s undermining his happiness and either dramatically restructuring his life (i.e., give up being an accountant and become a surfing instructor) or habituate a “standing order” to overcome/replace certain negative thoughts (…I’m going to screw up and then people will see I’m incompetent…)

    Genetics and environment only command the stage when one defaults on the responsibility to focus and take charge. Like anything in life, it helps enormously to know what principles are in play and what factors are inside or outside your control. Given the potential benefits to one’s life, this is a topic worth putting some effort into figuring out and getting good at.

  8. Phil,

    I believe a lot of what goes into folks not marrying or at least waiting until much later in life to do so is simply that we (since I guess I am in this group) don’t mind being alone at times.
    My business allows me to meet and observe a lot of divorces and without fail, the person who seems to be the type who doesn’t ever want to be by himself/herself will also be the first one to remarry, usually before the ink is even dry on his or her divorce papers.
    Although I do admit to staying in relationships far too long for no reason other than not really being in the mood to “have at it” again in the singles scene.
    Interesting topic!

  9. Well, it seems pretty commonsensical, if that is a word. Unhappy people don’t attract people themselves and don’t build as positive of lives. They aren’t as confident. They are less outgoing. They are more pessimistic about the prospect of marriage. Their relationships are less likely to last to the point of marriage. They are less likely to be healthy and physically attractive. Their pessimism itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are less likely to have a firm foundation in life. Add these up and you have an unmarried person.

  10. Kevin,
    I think you are equating “unhappy” with “pessimistic” and those two words don’t always mesh.
    I am not a particularly happy person but I am in no way a pessimist.
    Some of us just seem to always expect more from life and we become deflated easily when that doesn’t occur.
    As I mentioned erlier, I believe depression could be a large (and undiagnosed) part of some people’s “unhappiness”.

  11. Depression, pessimism, unhappiness – I can be and have been all these things. The only thing I can truly attest to being, on an ongoing basis, is unhappy. I am unhappy because my life is not the way it should be and I blame myself. The fact that my life is not as should be ripples through the lives of others, two in particular. I have been depressed through a time because I could not imagine ever experiencing happiness again, pessimistic when I resolved that happiness was not achievable but life goes on. The worst condition is a combination of these at any one time, which is the condition that may prompt someone to google “fundamenal happiness”….Unhappiness is not depression, nor is pessimism a cause or symptom and none of these things have anything to do with dissatisfaction, unhappiness is about those around you, if they’re happy, you’ll be happy. How you live your life will effect their happiness and in turn yours. Most of you sound like successful individuals wondering why you’re not married, the answer is that you think you’ve perfected the art of achieiving happiness but you have only considered yourselves in the process.

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