Civilization has long considered marriage as the essential relationship, the building block of society. In many ways, the overall health of marriages in a society is at the same time a reflection of and a contributor to the overall health of that society. Further, on the personal level, marriage is the relationship most associated with the happiness of individuals within the society. (Brothers and sisters are not described as “happy siblings”.)
What then is a happy marriage?
There are as many answers to that question as there are married couples. Certainly, longevity is often considered one measure of a successful marriage. There is something to be said for showing up and sticking it out. On the other hand, being successfully married for decades doesn’t necessarily mean being happily married for decades. Some married people don’t seem to be able to stand each other, yet they stick it out anyway “for the kids” or for financial reasons or simply because, after a certain age, the idea of change becomes even less attractive than the prospect of a lifetime spent in matrimonial purgatory.
Some would say that procreation is the best measure of a happy marriage. Certainly from the societal perspective, making babies is the reason marriage was invented in the first place. Children aren’t born civilized; they have to be taught. What better institution is there in which to raise children than one which values stability and which, at its best, models civilized behaviour? Alas, for all the bliss they can bring to a couple, children cannot themselves make a happy marriage.
The fact is the best measure of a happy marriage – or, for that matter, of a non-traditional relationship modelled on marriage – is simply the degree of happiness experienced by the two partners who make up the marriage. This is true because, when all the superfluous trappings are stripped away, a marriage is a private matter, defined not by society but by the couple themselves.
This private nature of marriage is what makes it possible for all sorts of people from wildly divergent cultures and backgrounds to find their own individualized paths to happiness within their own self-defined, self-contained marriages. Conversely, a couple who allow their marriages to be defined by the expectations of in-laws, friends, colleagues, society as a whole or anyone who is not part of the shared private compact, risk ceding control of their marriage to others who may have no stake in the couple’s happiness.
From the beginning, the nature of all human relationships has been natural. To be human is to be something higher than the animals and lower than the angels. Thus, what defines a happy marriage is not any outside, imposed definition, but from the privately-shared agreement between two people working together to create one life from two.