The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

We are shoveling mulch like our lives depend upon it.

My three kids are loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and I’m hauling and dumping and spreading and sweating. Eventually, my nine-year-old son Quinn asks a completely reasonable question. “Why are we going so fast?” I tell him I want the flower beds to look beautiful when his mom gets home. To which he responds with another totally reasonable question: “Because you are trying make her happy?”

The word “exactly” is on the tip of my tongue. But then I bite my tongue.

codependence

Photo Credit: Kurhan (Bigstock)

I have an opportunity here to save my son a lot of heartache, disappointment, resentment, and conflict. You see, many of us spend our whole lives trying to make our loved ones happy. Years of believing our worthiness can be tallied by the number of smiles we put on the faces of other people. Years of bitter disappointment, as our success rate remains frustratingly low. And when we don’t get the results we’re looking for, we get ashamed of our failures.

Or we get resentful, thinking of our loved ones as hopelessly ungrateful people.

The truth, though, is that they are just people. Ordinary people, with their own inner world. Their own moods and wounds and worries and hang-ups. Ordinary people who are responsible for their own ordinary emotions, just as we are responsible for our own.

When it comes to ordinary people—all of us, in other words—there are at least three good reasons we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy:

First, you can’t do it. I can barely make my kids brush their own teeth; what are the chances I will somehow figure out the trick to rearranging their inner world, with all of its heart and soul and neurotransmitters and synapses? If they don’t brush their teeth, they get consequences, and that helps a little. Have you ever tried to give someone a consequence for being unhappy? It backfires.

Second, sometimes, what makes someone happy isn’t even good for them. For instance, if I gave my kids everything that makes them happy, they’d sit in front of televisions and iPads all day long, eating popcorn and chocolate, drinking juice and soda. We’d probably have to catheterize them. If you’re primary goal in life is to make someone happy, you will often harm them in your effort to happy them.

Third, sometimes, what makes someone else happy isn’t good for you. For example, if someone is only happy when they’re “right,” and you stay silent so they can feel happy, while all of the good and lovely and important things you have to say remain trapped inside of you, then trying to make this someone happy is the last thing you should be doing. There are a multitude of ways to slowly wither and die inside; doing so while telling yourself that you’re doing it on behalf of someone you love is a particularly insidious one.

So, Quinn is waiting for an answer, but instead I respond with a question.

“Bud, when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re determined to be grumpy for a while, is there anything I can do to make you happy?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and then admits with a rueful smile, “No.” Then, I tell him this:

You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

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Why Valentine’s Day Is Demonic

Valentine's Day

Photo Credit: knopper (Bigstock)

Every year, on Christmas Eve, we gather with family and friends.

For a lip sync contest.

After dinner, the contest begins, with the kids typically performing their favorite hit song from the year. We adults, on the other hand, often perform a favorite song from our younger years—this year, that may or may not have included a song entirely about farting.

And this year, my younger son Quinn got up and put every ounce of his heart into a performance of “The Run and Go,” by twenty one pilots. The song’s refrain goes like this: “…don’t want to give you all my pieces, don’t want to hand you all my trouble, don’t want to give you all my demons…”

As the vocalist shouted the final refrain in anguish and Quinn silently shouted along, I looked at my wife.

I thought about how, at first, we both resisted giving each other our pieces, handing each other our troubles, and giving each other all our demons. I thought about how much we clung to the fantasy that love and marriage could somehow look like every pristine advertisement for Valentine’s Day. In those early years, by resisting our demons, pretending they didn’t exist, and refusing to reveal them to each other, we created so much unnecessary heartache.

To maintain the illusion we’re not broken, we have to break other people even worse.

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A Guide to Getting the Love You Never Knew You Wanted

We all want to be loved unconditionally, yet most of the love we give is conditional. Which means we’re all trying to get the love we think we want by giving the kind of love nobody really wants. But what if there is a third kind of love—one we deeply desire but don’t even know we want?

love

Photo Credit: Bigstock (Eva_eva79)

It’s a Sunday night at the end of a busy weekend and shoehorning the kids back into a school week has been even more cumbersome than usual. We’re finally moving toward bedtime books, when I walk into the basement and see kid-sized, mud-colored footprints all over the carpet.

So, I decide to love my kids conditionally.

While pretending to love them unconditionally.

Without a raised voice or a complaint, I get down on my knees to clean the carpet—the selfless servant loving his family. Except with every spray of the stain remover, I heave a big-heavy sigh. Big enough and loud enough to be heard from my boys’ bedroom. Then, while the spray soaks in, I continue tucking them into bed. But I make sure my shoulders are slumped. I groan with fatigue. I sprinkle in a lot more sighing.

This is my favorite form of unconditional love:

While loving someone, let them know in subtle—and mostly deniable—ways how much that love is costing you. Indirectly communicate that they are a burden to you. Show them how hard they make your life. Of course, you aren’t actually expecting anything in return—you simply want them to feel as distraught as you do about the hard work of caring for them. If they don’t appear to be getting it, you might be disguising it too well. Sigh harder.

If sighing harder still doesn’t work, you might want to experiment with several other thinly-disguised forms of conditional love:

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Why You Shouldn’t Waste Time Working on Your Marriage

It has been said so often it is now cliché: you have to work on your marriage. I wish I’d known fifteen years ago, when I got married, how false that truism actually is…

marriage advice

Our first honeymoon was a bust.

We arrived at the resort less than twenty-four hours after a minister declared, with a few words, that we now had this thing called a Marriage. A brand new Marriage. It felt perfect. Pristine. Like the first day of a new semester, when the teacher tells you everyone starts with an A+.

If our honeymoon was the first homework assignment, we seemed to flunked it badly.

We were graduate students at the time, so the all-inclusive resort we could afford was broken, crumbling, and unclean. We tried to compensate for its lack of style (and sanitation) by consuming its bottomless food and drink. Most days, I ended up either bloated or comatose. Sometimes both. A hurricane somewhere far away made our skies gray and drizzly.

Sometimes our moods were gray and drizzly, too.

Our brand new Marriage seemed to be falling apart as badly as the resort in which it was being celebrated. So, I did what you’re supposed to do. I started working on our Marriage, toiling to make it perfect again. I would do so for many years. Now though, after fifteen years of marriage—and almost fifteen years as a marital therapist—I realize:

A wedding ceremony doesn’t magically create a Marriage.

It doesn’t bring anything new into existence. When you walk back down that aisle, dodging rice, you may be married, but you don’t have a Marriage—you have only two people with all of their hopes and fears and expectations and desires and needs and wants and assumptions and cluelessness.

At least after the birth of your first child, when they send you out of the hospital, bewildered, you have something to bathe. When you get married, you have nothing to show for it. And you can’t work hard on nothing.

Rather, if you want a Marriage, you have to create something out of nothing.

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The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To

sexism

Photo Credit: Bigstock (Anetlanda)

Sexism often hides in plain sight.

Sometimes it even hides in our most romantic music.

At the beginning of the summer, I heard a great new summertime anthem, so I decided to stream the entire album. I was pleasantly surprised by its mixture of carefree rock and thoughtful love songs. Then, in a duet, I heard these lyrics:

Her: What if I fall?

Him: I won’t let you fall.

Her: What if I cry?

Him: I’ll never let you cry.

Her: And if I get scared?

Him: I’ll hold you tighter. When they try to get to you, baby, I’ll be the fighter.

During the first chorus, I thought, Well, that’s sweet. Good for that imaginary couple. But sometime during the second verse, I found myself getting angry. By the third chorus, I wanted to hear a very different response from him. Something like, “Don’t worry, I fall too, so let’s fall together.” Or, “Go ahead and cry; I’ll cry with you.” Or, “I’m scared too, so let’s hold each other and fight for something that looks less like Tarzan and Jane and little more like true intimacy.”

Then the next song came on, and it went like this:

Break on me, shatter like glass, come apart in my hands, take as long as it takes. Girl, break on me. Put your head on my chest. Let me help you forget. When your heart needs to break, just break on me.

By that point, I was beside myself, but I tried to be patient. I waited for a lyric like, “And then someday, baby, I’ll break on you, too.” But of course, it wasn’t coming.

Why was I so fired up, you ask?

Because sexism dressed up as romance drives me a little crazy. It drives me crazy, in part, because I have a daughter, and I want her to know she doesn’t need to rely upon a man to protect her, because she has a strength all her own. I want her to know she no longer lives in a world where she has to go limp to find love. I want her to know she doesn’t have to be dependent to be adored. 

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The Truth (and the Surprisingly Good News) About Who We Really Marry

The truth is, no two adults have ever gotten married. When you get married, you don’t marry a grownup, you marry a time capsule in grownup clothes. This is what I mean by that…

marriage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock (Shelbourne Photography)

I’ve developed a new intervention as a marital therapist.

At some point in the therapy, I walk over to my book shelf, I pick up a framed picture of my son and a framed picture of my daughter, and I set them down next to the couple. And I say, “This is who is married here—on the outside you are grown, but on the inside you are, like the rest of us, still little ones looking to be loved. You are free to quit pretending you are adults with reasonable requests, rational arguments, and selfless love.”

We marry time capsules—aging skin and bones harboring a much younger self.

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A Post About Marriage and What We’ve All Longed for Since the Crib

I’m in the garage working, when my daughter runs in breathless.

“Come, Daddy, fast!” she exclaims. I ask her what’s wrong, and she looks at me quizzically. “Just come, Daddy!”

Okay.

We walk around the garage to the backyard, where she climbs onto the trampoline and starts bouncing. I wait. She bounces. And bounces. Finally, I ask her what she wants me to see. To which she replies,

“Me, Daddy. I just want you to see me.”

I know, Sweetie, it’s what we all want.

In fact, it’s probably the reason so many of us get married…

marriage

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of marriage books.

Most authors mean well, but, oftentimes, the subtle or not-so-subtle message is that if you find a good marriage, then you will finally find the good life. If you get your marriage right, then you will finally feel right. If you are satisfied with your marriage, you will finally be satisfied with your self.

And no marriage can deliver on such promises.

However, I just read an early version of a marriage book that may have restored my hope for the genre. It’s entitled, Very Married, by Katherine Willis Pershey. The only problem was, after finishing it, I couldn’t quite get my head around what had touched me so deeply.

Then my daughter bounced.

And another little girl squealed…

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Why Trying to Stay Married Forever Could Kill Your Marriage

marriage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock (Kuznetcov_Konstantin)

Before I got married, I was totally insecure.

And I thought getting married would finally absolve me of my torturously low self-esteem. I figured my anxiety would go away, because I’d no longer have to wonder if I was going to be loved forever. And I figured my loneliness would disappear, because we’d tangle our lives together.

I, um, miscalculated.

My fear and loneliness weren’t sacrificed to the marriage gods on our wedding altar. They survived our union. So, I did the only reasonable thing: I tried to guarantee our marriage would live forever, with anxious attention, constant conversation, and a taxing togetherness.

It wasn’t until later I realized: a marriage is like an orchid.

Orchids are a tropical, flowering plant, known for the vibrant color of their petals, their lush fragrances, and the vanilla bean they produce, which flavors our world. And, with the proper care, they are incredibly resilient—in the words of some botanists, “nearly immortal.” But they are most frequently killed by drowning. Anxious caretakers, aware the plant is of tropical origin, assume it must be watered all the time. In their attempt to ensure it will live, they accidentally kill it.

I almost killed my marriage by watering it too much.

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Expanded Wedding Vows for a More Complicated Generation

In the name of God, I, ____, take you, ____, to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part…

wedding vows

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Though I pledge myself to you today, my sense of worthiness will never depend upon the way you love me. I have a divine Light within me that exists independent of how anyone treats me, including you. You cannot make it brighter, nor can you extinguish it, no matter what you do. And you have the very same Light within you. From this day forward, I will honor your Light, and you will honor mine. This will become the rhythm of our marriage, and it will be called grace.

Though I promise to have and to hold you, I will not expect you to remove all of my loneliness. Because no human being can do that for me. Instead, I vow to make my loneliness available to you, to share it with you, not as a way of erasing it, but as a way to intermingle it with yours. In this way, our wounds will not vanish, but they will give birth to something new. It will be called belonging.

Though I promise to love and to cherish you until death do us part, I also swear that our marriage will not become the sole purpose of my life. Our home will not be the end all and be all of my search for meaning. Rather, it will be a safe place for each of us to dream our dreams, an open space in which to discover our passions, and an empowering place from which we can both launch ourselves into the world, to love and cherish it, as well. In this way, our marriage will become something bigger than itself, and that thing will be called compassion.

Today, I pledge this to you: I am not entering this marriage to lose myself, but I am also not entering into this marriage to hold on to myself. I’m entering into this marriage to live one of the great paradoxes of existence: that we are now merged as one, but also not. We are together and apart. Close and distant. United and alone. Fused and free.

Today, we pledge to let our marriage, slowly, over the course of years and decades and a lifetime, reveal to us one of the great mysteries of existence: every person is entirely separate from every other person, and entirely connected to everyone else, as well. And in this way, our marriage will become a part of something ancient and sacred. It is called unity.

This is our solemn and holy vow.

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For Valentine’s Day, Let’s All Admit We Love a Stranger

“I feel like I don’t know you anymore.” Usually, we think this means the end of a relationship. But what if it means a relationship can finally get started?

marriage

Photo Credit: nikozz via Compfight cc

We’ve been married fourteen years.

So I’m absolutely certain I know why she’s not returning my texts.

When I left her in the morning, she was quiet and sullen about something, so she must be retaliating for some unknown transgression—she’s withdrawing into herself to punish me.

Or, she’s giving my children the best of her and I’m getting the rest of her. The kids are home for winter break and she’s probably showing them the time of their lives; in the meantime, I have a couple of simple questions and she can’t take a moment to tap out a reply.

Or, she’s disorganized. She can’t find her phone or she can’t find her charger, or she can find her charger but hasn’t bothered to plug it in. She runs a mental health clinic impeccably, but she’s never been very interested in keeping her phone running.

In the end, I decide, it’s probably all three.

After all, we’ve been married fourteen years.

I know her.

It’s a hazard of any meaningful relationship.

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