A friend of mine was having a gripe about her husband recently. It was the standard litany of sex (efficiency is not always a boon), money (how many battery-operated flying things does one man need?) and housework (what does he mean he didn’t see the dirty dishes?). She wasn’t deeply unhappy but she was dissatisfied and uncomfortable.
“But you still love him, don’t you?”, I said, thinking I knew the answer, because of course she does. They’ve been married for more than a decade and despite the passing irritations of living together, they share a house and a life and a deep friendship that seems to sustain them both.
She paused far longer than I expected. “I don’t know”, she said eventually. “I’m not sure what that really means. We’re ok. But is that love or is just habit? I guess I’m happy, but I could be happier. Maybe he could too.”
I’m not sure if she’s right that she could be happier. Neither does she. But it’s the dilemma of long term relationships. People who don’t want to be single long for the stability and security of commitment. But achieving such things requires an absence of drama, and even passion. As another friend once said to me, “you can’t have everything, where would you put it?”
Falling passionately in love is thrilling. You’re energised and glowing, the sex is glorious and you can’t wipe the smile of your face or keep your hands off each other. But love at that intensity can’t last.
The beloved other, the one you ached to see all day and could barely get through the door before tearing each other’s clothes off eventually becomes the distracted spouse who forgot to buy dog food and doesn’t shut the bathroom door when they’re taking a dump. They’re also, all going well, the one who is your devoted friend and a safe harbour .
As Esther Perel wrote in her best seller The State of Affairs, “We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability—all the anchoring experiences. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk.”
My friend who thinks she is happy but wonders if she could be happier. also knows her husband might feel the same way. Does he ever wonder about old girlfriends or new possibilities? Does he think he could be heard more, loved more, desired more by someone who hasn’t shared a bathroom with him for the last ten years?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies took an in depth look at divorce in Australia a few years back. They found nearly half were due to “communication breakdown” and “drifting apart”. Ambiguous terms that we all recognise as meaning that the relationship changed and neither of them knew how to it bring back.
Humans are designed to be perennially dissatisfied. It’s why we are so relentlessly explorative. We’re born wanting to know what’s on the other side of the next hill or hiding behind the atom we can’t see. We want endlessly. The next holiday. A new job. Another field of study. An unexplored city. A puppy. Different clothes. An end to injustice. A better, faster, easier way. When we use that need at its best we cure cancers, overthrow despots and explore the stars. At its worst, we take far more from each other than we ever need. Wanting more is humanity’s greatest strength and our darkest failing.
In our intimate relationships, it leaves us wondering about being happier. And yet we know that tomorrow’s new lover, full of romance and excitement, is going to become the next decade’s partner who farts in bed and picks his nose in the car. Leaving a partner who doesn’t listen may end with another partner who doesn’t talk.
The greener grass is not always embodied in another person. The freedom of a single life can have a strong pull from the confines of commitment. Perhaps happiness can be found in not being tied to another person’s needs. Intimacy with the self and a wider variety of relationships can be alluring when most of your emotional energy is wound around one person.
It’s a dilemma pondered by many people in long term relationships. Am I settling for less than I could have or failing to appreciate the good I do have?
My friend and her husband both know this. And so they carry on. Sometimes they feel a bit ignored. A little bit hurt by being unseen and unheard but not so desperately unhappy that they will upend their lives by leaving. Every few years they go to couples counselling and do date nights and schedule time for sex and make an effort to communicate more. But slowly those efforts are subsumed by daily demands. They get sick, parents need care, friends are in crisis and date night becomes a time to talk about getting a new dishwasher.
It’s difficult to tell where they will end up. Maybe they’ll find comfort in the comfort they feel with each other and accept that as enough happiness. Maybe one will strike out for greener pastures and leave the other bereft and broken hearted.
Whatever choice they make I can’t help but wonder if they’ll always regret the choice they didn’t make, and if maybe happiness is only found when you leave that regret behind.