Why Your Spouse Can't Make You Happy

I’ve been working with couples a lot lately, which naturally leads me to thinking non-stop about what makes relationships work. Two of my friends, with actual successful marriages, have said virtually the same thing to me lately: that once they stopped asking their spouse to provide them everything they want, they became happy. One was talking about material goods and one was talking about emotional support, but it came down to the exact same idea, namely that taking care of their own needs allowed them to like their partner more.

The concept behind this has been written about in many books, and goes by names like individuation, differentiation, and independence. It means that we expect too much from our partners, and are more satisfied when we realize that we’re separate from them. Angry that your boyfriend doesn’t take you out to nice dinners? Invite a friend and take yourself out. Frustrated that your girlfriend doesn’t compliment you more? Work on your self-esteem, so your good feelings about yourself come from within.

Of course we want our spouses to give us all the love, attention, caretaking and support we deserve. And yet here I am telling you that you need to get that stuff on your own. I’m not saying that you should expect nothing from your loved one, or that you should accept being treated poorly. It’s just that you can’t even know what you need from someone else until you’re really, really good at providing for yourself. Having a full life, with lots of friends, activities and achievements that fulfill you, is a much better path to satisfaction than asking someone else for it. Once you feel secure that you can give yourself love, support and protection, then you can ask for something realistic from someone else, and appreciate it when you get it.

We spend a lot of time in relationships focused on what we don’t have, and on what’s not working. The truth is, it’s hard to know if your relationship is the best one for you. It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s the kind of thing you just kind of know (hopefully). But how can you assess what you do have if you’re only focused on what you don’t have? One good question to ask yourself is, have I ever been with someone who gave me everything I needed? If the answer is no, you might have to look at the only constant in those relationships—you—and realize that you’ve never been able to provide those things for yourself.

So the hard truth is that no one can give us everything we want. But the other truth, the really, really nice one, is that once we realize we’re asking too much of others, the solution is clear, and accessible. You’re not alone. You need only to turn to yourself for more.

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