What’s Better To Have, A Successful Marriage Or A Happy One?

By Marcia Naomi Berger
·  5 min read
What’s Better To Have, A Successful Marriage Or A Happy One

Some time ago, I made wine goblets in a ceramics class. The process is time-consuming, and you never know quite how the final product will turn out.

Knead the stoneware clay, make a ball to “throw” on the potter’s wheel, keep the wheel turning while crafting the bowl, plate, or something else until you like its size and shape. Next, it goes to the kiln to become brittle bisque ware. Let it cool off, apply a glaze, and send it to the kiln for the final firing. Then find your masterpiece on the stack of shelves holding the class’s creations. 

In the last session, the instructor led us through a show-and-tell. He picked up each piece and had its maker talk about it. One thing that complicates ceramics is that you may think you’re making something of one size, but you don’t know how much shrinkage will happen during the firings. When he picked up my goblet, I felt like a failure. Before it was fired, I thought my goblet would hold a typical amount of wine. Now it might contain a shot of something else. It looked kind of sweet, though, and I liked its blue and earth-toned coloring.

I shared my disappointment with the class, saying I’d wanted it to come out much larger. The instructor lifted my small goblet and joked, “Have a little wine.” I laughed to hide my embarrassment. I hadn’t gotten what I wanted.

Then the teacher said, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” 

Successful vs. Happy Marriages

So what does all this have to do with marriage? Nothing enriches life more than a happy marriage. But is that the same thing as a successful marriage?

Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.

Not necessarily. A marriage might look successful to outside observers because it’s long-lasting, a couple acts lovey-dovey in public, or a husband thanks his wife in front of others for making a delicious dinner. Then, we find out that this was not a happy marriage. He was indulging in a series of affairs, and she resorted to excessive drinking. 

I often think back to my ceramic teacher’s words: Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get. This idea applies nicely to many kinds of relationships besides marriage, such as with family members, friends, and coworkers. 

Choosing Happiness over Success 

Many marriage jokes focus on what goes wrong. Like nine times married Zsa Zsa Gabor’s quip: “A man is incomplete until he is married. After that, he’s finished.” 

Yes, it’s funny. Yet dark humor like this reflects the reality that it’s often easier to focus on what’s not going well in a relationship and to blame one’s partner for that than to be happy about the relationship and the partner we have.

We All Have Faults and Virtues

Paraphrasing marriage educator Ellen Kreidman: Every person has ten faults and ten virtues. So what’s the point of exchanging one spouse for another, who will also have ten faults and ten virtues? Why not focus instead on our partner’s positive traits and stay with him or her  (excluding real deal-breakers, of course)?

A happy marriage is one that accepts that no one is perfect.

During an initial couple’s therapy session, I ask the partners what attracted them to each other in the first place. Recalling each other’s positive traits sets a warm, hopeful tone for our work together. 

When it comes to complaints, however, many couples have this in common: The seemingly more responsible partner criticizes the other for being lax about handling some agreed-on tasks without saying why. Occasionally, I’ll remind a wife that at first, she loved her husband’s easygoing nature. And note that the husband found her can-do, self-motivated spirit appealing. Both were attracted to traits in their partner that complement or balance their own.  

Managing Differences Constructively

Of course, when their differences present challenges, couples benefit from learning to manage them constructively. It’s helpful to know that faults and virtues have flipsides. It’s common for a trait that we liked at first to annoy us later. But what if this couple could appreciate each other for how their natures complement each other? 

Humility helps; we can treasure our partner for putting up with our own imperfections.

Appreciation and gratitude for what partners value about each other characterize a happy marriage. When we catch ourselves focusing on the shortcomings we perceive in a partner, it’s useful to look at the big picture, if that’s good overall. Humility helps, too; we can treasure our partner for putting up with our own imperfections. And, yes, a warm glow can come from recalling what attracted you to your mate in the first place. It’s probably still there. 

Happy together every second is a fairy tale myth. Annoyances are bound to surface here and there. But a happy marriage is one that accepts that no one is perfect. It allows spouses to say what they want and don’t want, and then to do their best to meet each other’s needs. They know that they’re compatible in important ways. 

Gratefulness Breeds Happiness

Ample research shows that people who are grateful for what life brings them are much happier than those who wish for something else. 

Appreciation and gratitude for what partners value about each other characterize a happy marriage.

Many spouses begin couple’s therapy by pointing out what’s “wrong” with their partner when the actual issue is their unrealistic expectation that their partner should behave the way they themselves do. They think that their way is right, and their partner’s way is wrong. When they come to accept, respect, and sometimes even appreciate differences, instead of judging them, I know they’ve progressed. 

Closing Thoughts

Success is getting what you want: happiness is wanting what you get. If this is true for my little goblet, of which I’m now quite fond, how much more so does this idea apply to marriage and other relationships?

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