Health

Is it your job to make your partner happy?

Writing in this week's Globe and Mail, Sarah Hampson had an interesting story about happiness in relationships: "Happiness in couples is contagious. So is misery."

couple

Masterfile

Writing in this week’s Globe and Mail, Sarah Hampson had an interesting story about happiness in relationships: “Happiness in couples is contagious. So is misery.” Hampson wades into the issue of whether one partner in a long-term committed relationship is responsible for the happiness of the other.

She makes the case that it’s a good thing to care: “And yet, what’s an intimate relationship if you don’t look across the room at your best friend and lover and wonder how he feels? And if he’s blue for whatever reason, wouldn’t it be a good thing to suggest you go for a quiet walk together among the trees? For anyone who has been through a break-up or has simply weathered a rocky union, you know that when you stop caring about the happiness of the other, good things do not ensue. You’re back to thinking as a singleton, not as a couple.”

Being able to be happy together, says Hampson, is part of how we measure a successful relationship. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, argues that humans are naturally socially dependent and have an equally natural need to please the people around us.

Mercifully, Hampson does eventually get around to the point that we aren’t responsible for fixing our mates, and that our personal happiness is our personal responsibility. I have, in the past, dated men who were prone to misery. It was always some excuse to be in a funk — either they had too much work or not enough, their family and friends were always being scapegoated for some perceived but negligible slight, or some small detail (like being seated too close to the kitchen in a restaurant) could easily ruin an otherwise ideal experience.

I can remember standing in Paris with one unhappy ex-boyfriend, desperately trying to come up with the perfect itinerary, perfect buttery croissant, perfect stroll, perfect cafe stop for a lingering espresso to turn his mood around. And then I realized — in a moment of recognition that actually, briefly, stopped me dead in my tracks — that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make him happy. And, in fact, there was probably only one thing I could do to make myself happy again, and it wouldn’t involve any future trips to Paris with this particular beau.

All people hit rough patches in life, and if you care about someone you stick with them to offer your love and support. But supporting someone through a rough patch is different than taking responsibility for someone else’s happiness, which, as I’ve learned, can lead to heartbreak — even in Paris.