Marriage Entitlement: Part 3-Does Your Spouse’s Happiness Matter More Than Yours

In Part 2 of Marriage Entitlement we learned what happens when one spouse feels over-entitled to love. In Part 3 we are going to discuss another marriage entitlement, the entitlement to happiness. But in order to determine just how much happiness we are each entitled to in a marriage we must first answer a very puzzling question.

We need to ask ourselves whether we are entitled to happiness in marriage at all. The reason we must ask this question is that happiness, just like love, is an emotion. And emotions are too complex and unpredictable to be a literal entitlement in a marriage. But at the same time we are all aware that many marriages founder and fail without it.

This leaves us face to face with the same riddle that we encountered in Part 2 when discussing whether we are entitled to love. We must once again figure out how we can be entitled to an emotional state that no one actually has any voluntary control over.

To understand this gray area within marriage entitlement to happiness we will need, just as we did in Part 2, to borrow a concept from our legal scholars. The reason we can transfer the concepts of a legal system to our personal lives is that all the concepts of our legal systems are based on universal human values. And the way we define the rules of conduct in our public lives turns out to be the same way that we use them within our personal lives.

We have all heard the reference to an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. And we may also know the very important role the word “pursuit” plays in this sentence. Just as in other areas of life, we all have the right to pursue happiness within our marriage, but because no one can give another person an emotional state, we can’t literally say we are entitled to happiness.

The pursuit is entirely up to us. We create it for ourselves by first making an appropriate choice of mates and then by nurturing that happiness that we initially found with the full cooperation and support of our spouse.

So what are we really entitled to from our spouse? We are entitled to support from them in our pursuit of happiness. Our spouse must support our pursuit of happiness and also take our pursuit into account when pursuing their own happiness.

Unfortunately, spouses who feel over-entitled in their marriage often forget or completely dismiss these very important aspects of marriage entitlement. They may seem to lack any awareness that they have responsibility to pursue their own happiness. They also may easily forget that their role as a spouse is to support their partner’s pursuit of it as well as their own.

This means that instead of recognizing their happiness is in their own hands, they may expect their partner to create happiness for them. When they don’t produce that happiness the spouse can be cast in the role of a bad partner. They are also likely to hold their own happiness so high in importance that their partner’s happiness gets pushed aside or even completely stymied.

The key to stopping an over-entitled spouse from blaming you for their unwillingness to pursue their happiness or to stop them from blocking your happiness is educating your partner on some very important distinctions.

You must be able to communicate that, one, no one is completely responsible for another person’s happiness and, two, that everyone is entitled to their spouse’s support of their happiness.

As we agreed upon in Part 2 of Marriage Entitlement, using legal terminology to talk about emotional subjects such as relationship happiness is not recommended. Because legal terminology does not tend to include any level of emotionality, we must stay away from it. So instead, language that conveys the same message but without the legal references must be used instead.

But before we can learn the language necessary to overcome marriage entitlement to happiness we must first identify exactly how happiness within a romantic relationship is actually obtained. We’re going to begin answering this question by taking a look at three different aspects of happiness.

One way we obtain happiness in marriage is by the way our spouse treats us, which if it is positive usually leads to a certain amount of happiness. Then there is the aspect of having our needs being taken care of by our spouse. And we could also include a third aspect, which is our ability to get our personal or individual happiness needs fulfilled while still being in the marriage.

We are going to address each of these three entitlements and the ways in which an over-entitled spouse may misunderstand the limits of expectation in each area. We will also take a look at how an over-entitled partner may keep us from being able to pursue our own entitlement to happiness.

Let’s start with our first marriage entitlement to happiness. We’re going to look at what our obligations are in terms of treatment of our partners to support each others happiness. Few of us have a clear understanding of exactly how we are supposed to treat our spouse to support their happiness. Because of this uncertainty we may leave ourselves open to manipulation by a spouse who wants us to give more or for them to give less than a reasonable share of entitlement.

Without the understanding of the limitations on making another human being happy and the language to communicate it, a partner may very easily agree to unhealthy behavior that helps neither spouse. In order to understand the fine points of how spouses should treat each other let’s take a look at how treatment by our spouse can support or take away from our happiness.

Good Treatment versus Bad

When we refer to how we are being treated by our partner we are most often talking about levels of approval that we receive from them. The key to happiness when it comes to the treatment of our spouse rests on how much approval they perceive they are receiving from us.

The need for approval is a universal personality trait whose importance most of us are completely unaware of . Because all human beings share an excessive need for approval, it tends to become an almost invisible trait. But if we examine our daily contacts with all kinds of people, including strangers, we will observe that we give them signs of approval in almost every interaction.

There are two sides to the coin when it comes to approval. One is the emotional side and the other is the intellectual side. We generally need both types of approval to feel that we are being treated well. For the most part emotional approval is demonstrated through shows of affection. Intellectual approval is usually obtained through thoughts and actions being verbally validated.

But showing approval through emotional and intellectual validation is not the only way to make our spouse feel like they are being treated well. We also can look at the flip side of this universal personality trait of needing excessive approval.

Just as human beings have a great affinity for approval, we also have an unusually strong dislike of disapproval. Because our strong dislike for disapproval is as invisible as our love for approval, we often become fooled into believing that when our spouse is showing no approval or is being neutral with us, that they are actually disapproving of us.

So just how do the personality traits which make us crave approval and avoid disapproval fit into our discussion about entitlement to happiness? We must take this irrational slant or bias about approval into account when judging whether we are treating our spouse well.

We need to accept that our spouse will always need excessive approval, both emotional and intellectual, and that we will need to limit unnecessary negative and even neutral treatment in order to support their happiness. Without this important knowledge an over-entitled spouse can take advantage of this unspoken rule by indulging in unnecessary criticism or accusing a spouse of being disapproving when they are actually being neutral.

So we must always remember that excessive approval is a necessary component of sustenance for a marriage. Disapproval in the form of criticism or negative communication is a highly corrosive aspect of marriage that can easily erode even the strongest relationship foundation.

Now that we’ve clarified exactly what it is that supports happiness when it comes to treatment of a spouse we will take a look at how much of that good treatment or approval we are obligated to give to fulfill our spouse’s entitlement to happiness.

But figuring out how much good treatment our spouses are entitled to is challenging. In Part 2 we found that the fairest way to determine how much love was enough was to borrow from legal scholars and apply their understanding of law related to public behavior to the behavior within our relationships.

We are now going to reach into the same bag of legal tools to judge how much good treatment we are entitled to in our marriage. We discovered in Part 2 that the easiest way to measure how much of something we are entitled to in a marriage is to use a neutral third party who doesn’t have the bias of either spouse. This imaginary person is often referred to as a reasonable and prudent person.

By imagining what a hypothetical person using average care and judgment would believe is good treatment in a marriage, we can free ourselves from our bias and get a clear idea of how much good treatment should be enough.

The reason this technique works is that although we may feel like we don’t know how much approval constitutes good treatment, each of us has a very good sense of what the average person needs. We can illustrate this by watching a movie in which a character either treats their spouse well or poorly. No matter what kind of background we may come from, we can be fairly sure that everyone in the audience will be able to distinguish between the two.

It is only our bias in the emotional environment of a marriage that keeps us from looking at our own or our spouse’s behavior with this kind of a clear perspective. Imagining what an unbiased person with clear judgment would think was good treatment can allow us to get back to a more neutral stance.

But it is also important to clarify that this somewhat strict interpretation of entitlements does not mean we should withhold excess approval for our spouse or refrain from asking for more when we need it. We can give approval as freely as we want. The crucial difference is that we are giving out of love, not out of obligation.

In other words, we might get an average score giving the average amount of approval that most people think should be enough to support our spouse’s happiness. But if we want to get brownie points or if we want our spouse to feel extra good, we can shower them with as much approval as we want. It is only when our spouse treats these brownie points as an entitlement that we feel taken advantage of.

Oddly enough, because human beings are extraordinarily sensitive to fairness, no matter how much we trust our spouse, we will always sense when they are taking advantage of us. Because of this universal sensitivity, while we love the feeling we get when we give our partner more than their share of good treatment, we are always uncomfortable when they act like our gifts are an entitlement.

We have now covered our first aspect of marriage entitlement when it comes to happiness. But there is a big difference between knowing what your entitlements are and the ability to communicate these concepts to a spouse.

So let’s now take the time to formulate some language that will help you express these important concepts to a spouse who feels over-entitled to happiness in their marriage when it comes to how you are treating them.

The best way to approach this subject is at the time when your spouse complains that your treatment of them is not making them happy. It’s easiest at this point to arrange for a sit-down discussion either on the spot or later depending on convenience.

You might start by responding to their complaint by telling them that you are very concerned about their happiness in the marriage. You can also say that you feel like you are doing everything you can to support their happiness and you are confused as to why they aren’t recognizing it. By using this type of language you can subtly introduce the concept of supporting their happiness as opposed to being responsible for it.

You’re likely to get a negative reaction from an over-entitled partner who may act shocked that what they think of as your shabby treatment of them could possibly be enough. You can continue the discussion by using the examples we have talked about so far.

You can tell your spouse how you try to support their happiness by listing out the ways you show them your approval. If you are showing your spouse the amount of approval that a person with average care and judgment thinks would make a spouse happy, you will find that there are many small gestures and words of approval that you send your partner’s way each day.

What we will find is that the over-entitled spouse is very good and editing out of their memory most of these gestures of good will in order to justify their feelings of over-entitlement. Reminding them of all that you do is very important when trying to curb this behavior.

After you list out the kind of gestures of approval that you show your spouse you can ask why this amount of good treatment might not make them feel supported in terms of their happiness. They will probably not have an answer. They may get defensive and tell you it’s your problem, or that they don’t know what it is but would know it if they saw it and they aren’t seeing it. Or they might simply say they don’t know.

The best way to set a boundary with your partner once you have checked in to make sure that your behavior is truly supportive of their happiness is to simply state your limitation and don’t engage further in negotiation. If they say that what you have listed isn’t nearly enough, you can say that you believe that what you are doing should be enough to support their happiness and that if it is not working you both need to figure out why.

Because an over-entitled spouse will not want to look at the real reasons why they are unhappy, which usually have to do with insecurity, they will not probably not be interested in going down this road. You can end the discussion by leaving the door open to try to work out why your support of their happiness isn’t coming across.

Let’s now move on to our second aspect of happiness within a marriage which is the happiness derived from getting our needs fulfilled by our spouse. In order to look at our entitlements to happiness in relation to marital needs we must first define what these needs are.

marriage entitlement to happiness

Caretaking In Marriage

Generally speaking, the needs we need our spouse to fulfill to make us happy are affection needs, sexual needs and support needs, both intellectual and emotional.

The most common confusion couples have when it comes to having our marital needs fulfilled is whether a partner is obligated to take care of them for us, and if they are, exactly how much of our needs are they responsible for.

The answer to whether we are entitled to have our needs fulfilled by our spouse depends on whether there are other avenues we can take to fulfill these needs. Let’s take, for example, affection needs. We can all agree that affection is a valid need. We can also agree that it is something that married people engage in in order to solidify marital bonds.

But since we can get our affection needs met in other ways, perhaps through our children, our extended family, or even our pets, a spouse does not need to exclusively fulfill their partner’s affection needs. The way to judge how much affection we are entitled to give is by using the same metrics we used before. Your spouse is entitled to about as much affection as a person of reasonable care and judgment would think was enough.

If you saw a movie where you and your spouse were the main characters, how would the audience judge you when it comes to being affectionate? Although you can give as much affection as you want, to be fair you are only obligated to give as much as a reasonable and caring person would think is enough.

The reason we need to use this criteria is if we instead make the criteria whatever it takes to fulfill your spouse’s needs, the spouse of an insecure person may be stuck in an endless loop of never giving enough. So to keep things fair, we are only obligated to give what most reasonable people would need.

If a spouse is insecure and needs excessive amounts of affection, they can ask for more as a favor. But this extra affection must be viewed as an extra favor, not an expectation. If the partner does not always supply this extra affection, it is very important that they are not castigated as a bad partner.

Now when it comes to needs that cannot be fulfilled by anyone else, such as sexual needs, then you will need pay a good deal more attention to fulfilling your partner’s needs. But there are still important limitations even when a partner is the only one that can fulfill the need.

We will use this need to illustrate another very important concept when it comes to all areas of marriage entitlement. Although your spouse is entitled to have their sexual needs fulfilled by you, the fulfillment is in the big-picture sense, never a minute by minute type of fulfillment.

We all know that a spouse does not have the right to ask us to fulfill any or every sexual need they have. We only need to fulfill their needs in the big picture sense. And we only need to fulfill to the level that a reasonable person would think was adequate.

Although it’s very easy to understand this concept when it comes to as vulnerable an area as sex, this concept applies to every area of entitlement. And it is one of the most valuable concepts to apply when dealing with an over-entitled spouse. Let’s take a look at why.

Big-Picture Entitlement

If we were to be honest, most of us would have a hard time saying no to our partner validating all of our ideas, beliefs and actions. But we also know that being a yes man or woman to our partner is a bad idea.

None of us are immune to misguided thinking, and as a partner in life we play an important role of counselor to our spouse. Although we may resent our spouse for occasionally raining on our parade, most of us recognize the importance of one of us having a cooler head when it comes to both everyday and major life decisions.

This is especially important when it comes to the over-entitled spouse. Commonly over-entitled partners will try to get support for every idea or belief they come up with under the guise of marriage entitlement.

It is very helpful to have the kind of language available to us to counter the argument that if we don’t support their every idea or belief that we are not being supportive. By being able to tell our spouse that we are very concerned with supporting their general happiness, but that we will not be supporting every thought, idea or belief that they come up with, we can keep an over-entitled spouse in a more realistic frame of mind.

Now that we’ve addressed how we should support our partner’s happiness and how much support they are entitled to have from us, let’s take a look at how to handle the over-entitled spouse who does not want to support our happiness.

It is very common for an over-entitled spouse to withhold support of their spouse’s happiness. Much of the time their withholding is a subconscious act. In other words an over-entitled spouse may not know why they are sabotaging or withholding support for their spouse’s happiness. And there are many reasons why people withhold support.

Here is a list of common reasons why any one of us may withhold support from a spouse.

Resentment from an action a spouse took in the past.
Retaliation for an action a spouse took in the past.
Feeling rejected from an action a spouse took in the past.
Buildup of resentments that have not been communicated to a spouse.
Assuming one’s spouse doesn’t need much because we don’t need it.
An attempt to signal the need for more space or alone time in the marriage.

Our list can go on and on, but most of these reasons we will find have nothing directly to do with a spouse’s behavior. Yet they are issues that can and should be brought to the surface for the health of the marriage. One very good way to bring them to the surface is to ask about the reasons behind a lack of support.

The best way to communicate about a lack of support in your marriage is to arrange a sit-down talk where you say you don’t feel like your partner is supporting your happiness. This statement by itself can be easily taken negatively, so it can be helpful to use a followup that takes the blame off of the partner.

You might add that you know that it’s not because your spouse doesn’t care. You were just wondering if something going on that might be distracting them. This allows the concept of support being an entitlement to sink in without your spouse feeling blamed.

If the problem still remains after you bring it to their attention, another sit-down discussion will be necessary. At this point if your spouse doesn’t respond positively with plans to do better you can state more directly that you believe support is a need that is an important part of any marriage. Few spouses will find themselves able to justify withholding support when presented with this kind of direct approach.

Now let’s move to the third aspect of marriage entitlement to happiness. We’re going to look at our ability to get our personal or individual happiness needs fulfilled while being in the marriage. This is a very important aspect of needs that is often overlooked. With this particular aspect it is the partner of the over-entitled spouse that is likely to suffer from unhappiness. Let’s take a look at why.

Individual Fulfillment Within a Marriage

Over-entitled spouses usually struggle with one very specific problem. Deep down inside they are often unable to believe that they can fulfill their own needs. And it is usually the panic that comes from fear of not being able to take care of their needs that makes them want to take more than their share from others.

When it comes to individual happiness, if they are afraid they won’t get their own personal happiness met, an over-entitled spouse is very likely to feel threatened when their spouse takes care of their own needs. Their insecurity of not having their needs met can lead to a false belief that there is a scarcity of needs. This makes them feel like if one partner gets their needs taken care of the other one won’t.

In order to learn how to communicate effectively to a spouse the concept that each of us has our own needs within a marriage that have nothing to do with our spouse, we are now going to pull another legal concept out of our bag of legal tools. The legal concept we are going to be borrowing this time is one that is used to judge our right to liberty or freedom.

Because fulfilling individual needs is an essential component of maintaining our autonomy within a marriage we will find that the legal understandings developed in relation to personal freedoms are easily applicable to a marriage.

It may at first seem strange to want to apply such a lofty concept as liberty to our personal relationships. But what you might not realize is that the concept of liberty is not a really a lofty principle after all. It is not a concept that is derived from intellectual understanding.

The need for freedom through autonomy is actually the result of a personality trait that all of our species possesses. This universal personality trait creates in each of us an excessive need for personal freedom that seems to be an integral part of our genetic makeup. It is actually the rules of government that stem from this invisible behavioral trait, not the other way around.

The legal concept based on liberty that we are going to use is the concept that we are all free to make our own choices for our life as long as it doesn’t infringe on the freedom of others. In this case we will be talking about the freedom of our spouse.

The way this concept translates into marriage entitlement to happiness is just as it is important for each of us to be autonomous and free as individuals in society, we also need to have autonomy and freedom within our marriage in order to stay healthy. Therefore we need to be free to pursue our personal happiness in any way we choose as long as it does not infringe on our spouse’s personal happiness.

Let’s now begin our exploration of entitlement to happiness using our concept of liberty as a framework. We might say that we are free to pursue whatever makes us personally happy as long as it doesn’t infringe on our partner’s personal pursuit of happiness.

The reason we need to have a clear idea of this type of boundary is because our very close relationship with our spouse can bring with it a tendency to judge what the other person is doing. Our closeness can cause us to lose sight of how important each of our autonomy really is. We will find that it takes actual conscious thought to stay out of our partner’s business when it comes to their pursuit of personal happiness.

And because the things we do for fun or recreation tend to be extremely varied and are based on criteria that may be difficult even for the person themselves to understand, we often cannot justify the things in life that create personal happiness.

Add to this the fact that autonomy is so precious to the human species, we often feel protective and vulnerable when it comes to the pursuit of personal happiness. For this reason it is doubly important that we practice the discipline of staying out of our partner’s business in this area whether we approve or not.

But as with all entitlements, there are certainly limitations to our pursuit of personal freedom. They come into play when our pursuit of personal happiness infringes on our spouse in some way. For instance, we are free to choose to play video games as our chosen recreation without judgment from our spouse. Our partner is obligated to support our enjoyment of these games unless it infringes on them in some valid way.

This infringement can take many forms. Maybe the amount of time we put into playing causes an addictive element to take over our marriage. Our partner has a right to ask us to play less. If our playing regularly gets in the way of social events or domestic chores our partner has a right to ask us to curtail our playing. If we are spending unreasonable amounts of money on our hobby, our partner has a right to complain.

Now let’s take a look at our pursuit of longer term goals or dreams that fulfill our personal happiness. This fulfillment can begin even before we choose our mate. We need to think about whether important lifetime goals can be fulfilled within the confines of our life with a chosen mate.

Having closely aligned goals and dreams are an important element of choosing a life partner. At the very least we should be cognizant of what we might have to give up when choosing a partner who isn’t able to accommodate our dreams.

Once we enter into a marriage, neither partner is entitled to fulfill a dream or major life goal at the expense of the others’ dream. And dreams and goals should certainly be talked about before marriage in order to ensure that neither partner’s dreams are going to be dashed because of differences between spouses.

Now that we’ve explored what personal happiness consists of, let’s take a look at what kind of language can effectively communicate your needs to an over-entitled spouse.

Most of the time the over-entitled spouse will not complain that you are paying too much attention to yourself. They will instead say that you aren’t paying enough attention to them or to the family.

We’re now going to use a legal tool to ensure for yourself that you are not depriving your spouse or family of your attention. We’ll be using our neutral third-party tool so you can verify whether you are spending the proportion of family time that a person with reasonable care and judgment would think was enough.

If using this tool you recognize that you are fulfilling your family duty you can tell your spouse you believe you are spending the kind of family time that a person with average care and good judgment would think was enough. You can also explain that everyone needs a certain amount of time for themselves to recharge.

This form of boundary setting may upset an over-entitled partner. Similar to boundaries with spoiled children, boundaries with over-entitled spouses may initially upset them but eventually give them a structure that makes them feel safe.

This explanation should also be used whenever an over-entitled spouse tries to limit your interaction with friends and more importantly with your extended family. Although personal time with family can be very threatening to an over-entitled spouse, it is crucially important that they learn to tolerate their insecurity and begin to develop some personality autonomy for themselves.

Now that we have covered all of the areas of marriage entitlement to happiness and the language that will help you communicate this important boundary, please stay tuned for Part 4 where we will be discussing entitlement to relationships with our extended family.


Marriage Entitlement: When Your Spouse Takes Too Much or Gives Too Little

Marriage Entitlement: When Your Love Is Not Enough

Are You Being Blamed For Your Wife’s Relationship Insecurity?

Is Your Spouse On Your Side?

Four Questions You Need To Be Asking To Help Save Your Marriage

A Stress-Free Approach To Resolving Marriage Conflict

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