The Marriage Advice We Should Stop Giving

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I like words. I think about them with obnoxious frequency. Wondering where this phrase or that phrase came from is a hobby that goes well with my habit of talking to myself.

Reflection lately has been on a phase we have all heard. It’s catchy because it rhymes. It is equally at ease in bars and in church foyers. Some studies say it is false, while others say it is fact.

“Happy wife, happy life.”

It seems simple because it is: x = y. If your wife is happy, so will you be. Logically, it makes sense. If the people around you are happy, you will likely be happy, too.

So, why does it bother me so much?

I have been married for two years. I know some of you just laughed, imagining that I, a “newbie” could have anything to say about marriage that could be in any way meaningful to you. That’s fair, but would you go with me anyway? Wonderful!

I think this phrase bothers me for several reasons, but allow me to expound on just one.

Maybe, just maybe, happiness is not a good goal. I don’t want a husband that pacifies me with comforts in order to keep me from feeling life’s undoing sorrow; as if anyone could protect another person from the sadness intrinsic to living. Even if he could keep me happy always, I would never become a whole person. As the Velveteen Rabbit became Real, so do we. Marriage is a vehicle of that transformation.

And what about when there is nothing in this world that could make me happy? What if the grief of loss or the pain of disease is too much? Has my husband failed because I am feeling something other than happiness?

I know this all sounds a tad dramatic, but think about the implications of saying this phrase to a young couple. We heard this all the time as the answer to the question, “What is one piece of advice you think we should know?” We still hear it. My friends still hear it. And there seems to be a pattern in how this piece of advice (given almost always by men, by the way) is processed.

She now has the expectation that her husband will be the caretaker and provider of her happiness. Unrealistic, marriage-ending expectations?

Absolutely.

Many thoughts may run through the husband’s mind. Does unhappy wife = unhappy life as logic would indicate? What about my happiness? What if I can’t make her happy?

That last question haunts. Let me be very honest with you: there will be times when all the flowers, chocolates, shoes, and quality time in the world will not be enough. There will be moments when your best efforts will not and cannot, in isolation, make your wife happy. Human beings are far more complex than that.

It probably feels like failure.

No wonder men are often accused of not showing enough emotion: they are careful not to upset the fragile eco-system that is their wife’s happiness for fear of failure. I understand why, I avoid that not-enough feeling like it’s my job.

So, the answer to that question is no, you will not be able to make your wife truly happy on your own. I’ll tell you why that is okay: you are not designed to make your wife happy always; you are designed to help her become holy.

If marriage is truly metaphor for the extravagant love of God for His Church, than we need to ask ourselves if this “happy wife, happy life” applies to the form of this relationship.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, no, it doesn’t work. I am certain that God does not interact with us thinking, “If I can just make them happy, my eternal existence will be much more enjoyable.” He knows how shallow our happiness is, and He doesn’t seem terribly concerned with it.

This “happy wife, happy life” stuff has to stop. It is not compatible with the goals of the sacred union of marriage, and it is not making us holy. The words we say and the phrases we use matter more than we know. They shape our thoughts and beliefs and they make it easy to leave answers unquestioned. If we can see where this phrase is failing and use the ability to reason to change our language, change will happen. That is the beauty and power of words.

We need an alternative and your help is desperately needed. It doesn’t even have to rhyme (although, major bonus points if it does)!