Marital Happiness is Tough to Define, Says Harvard Psychologist

A Harvard instructor of clinical psychology says measuring marital happiness is “a bit like trying to count water.” It’s easy to overgeneralize marital happiness – defining a subjective experience by objective measures such as the volume of arguments and the frequency of sex, says Mark O’Connell, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Hospital and author of the 2008 book “The Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together.”

A fulfilling marriage, one that O’Connell describes as “a deep engagement that supports a sense of knowing and being known, of finding in one another those aspects of oneself that are most in need of being found,” involves more than just getting along.

“Marriages, over time, pull toward angles of repose, complacencies that suck the liveliness out of things,” O’Connell says. “To some degree, meaning requires conflict, edginess – qualities of interaction that may look, to some, problematic.”

Rather than merely enduring and adapting to one’s marriage, O’Connell advocates for an approach described by English novelist Ian McEwan as “the radical exploration of one other person.”

“Our long-term intimate relationships can help us to become our best selves,” says O’Connell. “The Marriage Benefit” is a well written piece encouraging a couple to work through the difficult times in the short term for greater enjoyment of life in the long run. O’Connell draws on his twenty-five years of individual and marital experience using illustrations of couples dealing with common problems such as long-held bitterness, diminished sexuality, infidelity and others.

O’Connell breaks the book into two sections, shared necessities and shared choices, and he establishes this path as a way to a better marriage and being a better partner. The shared necessities include embracing a longer-lasting definition of love, celebrating differences, finding real sex and finding freedom through commitment; the shared choices include believing in something more important than the self, giving up addictions, forgiving and giving thanks, and playing.

“These resolutions dare us to approach the very edges of intimacy from which we are most compelled to retreat. They give us permission to delve into our worst selves, always in the hope of growing further into our best selves.  And they challenge us to remove the constraints of superficial civility in order to explore those parts of ourselves that we find most foreign and most frightening.  They are, in effect, high-risk, high-reward propositions,” says O’Connell.

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