What Is Satisfaction?

Neil’s a banker who has been working 70 hours a week for nearly two decades. Grace is a former Fulbright scholar who quit her career when she got pregnant. They’ve been married for 18 years. They have sex less than once a month. He feels numb and is searching for meaning in his life. She feels bored and only wishes for her husband to take her on a date. Despite the fact that Neil and Grace are attractive, wealthy and have a healthy 16-year-old daughter in private school, they are unhappy. When Neil catches his wife cheating, he begins to cheat as well, leading to a relationship that looks good but is built on a false foundation.

This is the premise of USA’s new original series Satisfaction. It’s also the premise of millions of marriages around the country. As a dating coach who helps women understand men and find lasting love, shows like Satisfaction are a great leaping-off point for a dialogue about what truly makes people happy.

As they say, “Happy wife, happy life.” Allocate more time to the relationship and your relationship will thrive.

Like the protagonists illustrate so aptly: it isn’t what you think.

The Search for Meaning

No one can adequately sum up “the meaning of life” – although many have tried. But, as I see it, life is an empty vessel, and meaning is what you give to it. When someone like Neil or Grace goes through a midlife crisis, it’s usually because they’re dissatisfied with the status quo. That’s 100% normal. The desire for novelty is common and fulfillment of that desire is important. Studies show that people are happier when they have regular new experiences. This creates a bit of a conundrum for married couples, since, by definition, marriage is about monogamy and forsaking all others, ‘til death do you part. So what can you do if you want to remain happily married for 40 years?

We’ll get to that in a second. But first, I want to circle back to the idea of “meaning.” Neil doesn’t find any meaning in his chosen field of work – investment banking. He sees himself as looking at spreadsheets and making money; there is no human connection to what he does, no betterment for the rest of the world. The way he sees it, if he’s going to spend half of his waking life at work, he wants it to have meaning. To me, Neil has one blind spot and one big choice to make.

His choice is that he can either continue with his lucrative job and how it affords his family a certain quality of life, or he can find a different job that has more meaning and provides better work-life balance. And that segues into his blind spot: how men feel so much pressure to support their families that they fail to see the value in work-life balance. Given the choice, 78% of men want to work full-time after marriage, while 58% of women prefer part-time work. Thus, men like Neil feel that it’s their duty to provide, but fail to recognize the human cost of working 70 hours a week. Sure, you can send your child to private school, but you’re guaranteed to miss her talent show. Sure, you can have a gorgeous house, but if you travel every week and never get to sleep next to your wife, your relationship will suffer. Men have to decide if this tradeoff is worth it. And so do women. It may seem tantalizing to be with a politician, rock star, or athlete who has money and power. But in reality, if his career comes before his relationship, his spouse must suffer with an absentee husband and the illusion of a perfect life.

Why People Cheat – And Why They Shouldn’t

When couples start leading largely separate lives, it creates an emotional void for both partners to fill – and it is often filled by infidelity. It’s a common trope that infidelity is about emotion for women and about sex for men, but that’s not quite the case. 48% of men rated emotional dissatisfaction as the primary reason they cheated, and only 8 percent of men said that sexual dissatisfaction was the main factor in their infidelity.

It’s been said that women initiate two-thirds of divorces, which isn’t too surprising when you think about it. Men are generally more content with their wives than women are with their husbands. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has found that 34% of women who had affairs were happy or very happy in their marriage. 56% of men who had affairs were happy in their marriage.

Life is an empty vessel, and meaning is what you give to it.

If you find it ironic that anyone who is happily married would cheat, you’re not alone. What was striking to me when watching Satisfaction was how the marital discord could have been solved internally without any infidelity. Both Neil and Grace were dissatisfied, but they didn’t do the one thing that could have saved it: discuss it. He was too busy working. She started an affair because he was never around. If only they tried to solve their relationship problems as a team before taking matters into their own hands.

It’s not like Neil loves his job. With Grace’s blessing, he could have looked for a less demanding consulting position at another firm (or a more meaningful career), had more time at home with his wife, gone on more date nights, planned more vacations, and been more available for his family. Problem solved – for everybody.

As Stephanie Coontz pointed out in the New York Times, the most important predictors of marital happiness are not money, chemistry, or education, but how sensitive a man is to his wife’s emotional cues and how willing he is to share in the housework and child-rearing. As they say, “Happy wife, happy life.” Allocate more time to the relationship and your relationship will thrive. That might’ve been helpful for Neil and Grace to know before they started cheating.

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Comments:

  1. 1
    Fusee

    Evan, I totally agree; the meaning of life is the meaning we give to it. Also that meaning can evolve and change over the years, as we go from one season of life to the next. So we first face the risk of making initial life choices based on other people’s expectation, and then we run into the consequences of not examining one’s life regularly, and instead continuing on automatic pilot without mindfulness.
     
    Rebalancing our financial portfolio every year is common advice, but I think it’s even more crucial to reblance our priorities on a regular basis, and realign them with the meaning that our life has taken.
     
    “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates)
     
    And then when that’s on track, a practice of contentment based on a commitment to radical gratitude is the key to satisfaction in life. When we have enough, or more, or a lot, or “everything”… our worst enemy is our own human nature that always seeks more or “something different”. Sure, new experiences can keep meaning or passion alive, but in my opinion being able to sit with “what is” is essential to feeling happy as well.

  2. 2
    Candace

    Evan I love reading your blog posts. I have been following your blog for years through many different relationship stages and your wisdom and advice always rings true. I’m engaged now because of following your advice and still read your blog posts religiously. I loved reading this article because of the application of science and reality. Great write up!

  3. 3
    Rebecca

    I’m having a hard time getting my head around paragraph 8:
    Why should it be true that men are generally more content with their wives than women are with their husbands?  And what does it mean for people to be happy in their marriages but choose to cheat?  Maybe this is my naivete, but when I was happily married, (1) I wasn’t willing to put my marriage at risk, and (2) there weren’t men more sexually appealing than my husband.  Pretty sure my husband felt approximately the same.  ???

    1. 3.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      I’m not going answer why. I’m only going to point out the facts again. Women initiate 2/3s of divorces, which would indicate that, on the whole, they are less content with their marriages. And people cheat within happy marriages for a variety of reasons – but those people don’t feel unhappy per se. I would guess that they’re not entirely satisfied and like the thrill and newness of infidelity – while not considering the high cost of the act.

      As far as your final point, I think it’s wonderful that you didn’t find anyone more sexually appealing than your husband, but it’s perfectly normal to find others outside your marriage more sexually appealing…as long as you don’t act on it. The crime is in the act, not the thought.

      1. 3.1.1
        Jenn

        I disagree. Infidelity starts in the mind and it’s just as much a crime as actually taking action. It’s more likely to translate to a physical act when a person doesn’t bother to consciously stop those thoughts and feelings when they occur. If the person is not very introspective, and/or  they are feeling dissatisfied in their marriage or even just titillated by the prospect of having an affair, they’re more likely to get carried away and act if they don’t bother to examine why they are having those feelings. Affairs start in the heart. It’s one thing to feel attraction for an attractive person (that can’t always be helped), but quite another to allow yourself to get carried away lusting after them.

        1. Jay

          The term ‘crime’ is not really the helpful here (unless you live under a repressive regime). Feelings are feelings. Thoughts are thoughts. That’s it and if we start to police ourselves as to how we ‘should’ be feeling, that repressed energy will come out some other less conscious way. Evan is right when he states that it is actions which might cause problems. There is a space between thought/feeling and action which as Fusee quotes, is where the ‘examined life’ comes into it. If we allow feelings to pass through like clouds we give ourselves permission to make choices about them.  If we stop them at source, we rob ourselves of the opportunity for agency (or being ‘the CEO’) in our own lives.  

        2. Sunflower

          Totally disagree Jenn.  It’s not a crime to have impure thoughts.  Following through makes it the crime.  If you were constantly struggling to make ends meet and often thought about knocking off a liquor store, without actually following through and committing the crime, should you be convicted and sent to prison?  I don’t think so.  

    2. 3.2
      Jenn

      You guys are being way too literal. I did not say that I think that lusting after a person you’re not married to is a CRIME (though I do think that it is a form of infidelity, if not in the literal sense of the word).
       I was disagreeing with what Evan said about the “crime is in the act, not the thought”. Lustful thoughts about a person who is not your spouse, when allowed by the thinker to continue unchecked, are what can sometimes lead to a person committing adultery. It’s one thing for someone to check out a beautiful person and experience a momentary attraction to them, it’s quite another to allow yourself to fantasize constantly about that hot coworker in the next cubicle every time they walk by. You can’t always control your reactions when you see an attractive person, but you CAN stop yourself from getting carried away in your fantasies. If you really want to, that is.

      1. 3.2.1
        AllHeart81

        I agree with you Jen. But the fact is a lot of people *do* want to get carried away in their fantasies. They don’t want to use impluse control around their own thoughts. I think this is especially true of men when it comes to sex and fantasy. Largely because most sexual material and content out there is designed around what pleases heterosexual men the most, not what pleases heterosexual women. We feel entitled to our fantasies and we tell our selves that they don’t influence the state of our relationships but anything that changes our thinking influences the state of our relationship.

        Clearly thinking of having sex with other people isn’t a “crime”, but it’s neither the thing that’s going to build loving, loyal feelings of contentment and committment with your own partner either. Alot of professional sex therapists talk about refocusing one’s sexual energy toward their partner instead of waisting time around putting sexual energy into someone else. When you put your sexual energy back into your partner, you get it back. However, when you put it into a fantasy or someone else, you loose that sexual energy on an unknown.

        Also, just as a side bar to Evan’s statistic about divorce. I don’t think women initate divorce more because they are less satisfied with their relationships. I think men tend to be less self aware of how bad a relationship has got but I also think men stay in unhappy relationships because they don’t want to loose custody of children or loose their money.  

      2. 3.2.2
        Lola

        Too much Tequilla at a bachelor or bachelorette party can lead to infidelity as well, without even “thinking” about it.  I fantasize about Bradley Cooper and Adam Levine, does that make me an adulterer since I’m married?  Actually, when I do, that’s probably the best sex my husband has ever had!

        1. Jenn

          In the strictest sense, no, it doesn’t make you an adulterer per se. But it is being unfaithful to a certain extent. And I sincerely believe that alcohol does not lead to infidelity in the sense you are suggesting (like, it just “happens” because you are drunk). Alcohol only lowers inhibitions – the thought and desire to cheat are largely already present. Alcohol may be a factor in some cases, but it’s not what “leads to” infidelity. What leads to infidelity is already having the desire for sex with someone besides your spouse (however latent it may be) in your heart.

  4. 4
    Noquay

    Yep, lots of problems here. Doing work that has no meaning to you for starters. Disassociation from family, community, even from natural world (this last one is a biggie). People make bad decisions when they feel trapped, alienated, alone. People also change with time; values, expectations, all of it, especially between younger, childbearing years and middle age. Men are unhappy in their marriages, they just rarely initiate divorce because often the financial cost is high and they don’t wanna be the “bad guy”. My dad was divorced 3x and never initiated; he merely withdrew, lots of men do this. Apathy rather than action. My best friend is unhappily married and has been so for a long time. The financial burden is far higher than for her because his earning power is much higher. He lives in a million dollar house that he is not welcome in. Crazy.

    1. 4.1
      Meg

      Noquay:

      Superbly written, could not agree more. I liken it to “spilling out sideways”…when life gets to that place…time to seek help. I’m there…and looking forward to my first therapy appt this week.  Thank you for posting!

  5. 5
    Sass

    Does every comment section on every post on this blog have to be hijacked by the self righteousness of these women who believe that married men should act like blind, castrated, asexual housepets? it’s really getting old and taking away from what’s valuable about much of Evan’s advice. 

    And yes I am a woman.  

    1. 5.1
      AllHeart81

      What in the world are you talking about. Who said men should be blind, castrated asexual housepets? 

  6. 6
    Peter 51

    Women are the scarce resource.  Disatisfied women change their man.  Disatisfied men find another (additional) woman.

  7. 7
    AllHeart81

    What can men do to change that Peter?

  8. 8
    AllHeart81

    Lola – from post 3.2.2

    When you say you fantasize about Bradley Cooper and Adam Levine (who was much cuter when he was younger in my opinion), do you actually picture yourself having sex with them vs your husband? Or is it more of a fleeting thought?
     
    Sure, I think Adam Levine was hot in his 20s. And I like to catch a glimpse of him here and there. But I don’t think about him when I am having sex with other men and I don’t pursue endless pictures of him to look at. 
     
    I am curious what other women do though. 

  9. 9
    Malcolm

    “No one can adequately sum up ‘the meaning of life’ “. 
    How can you possibly know that (?)  YOU may not be able to do so . . . or you may not have heard anyone ELSE do so (to your satisfaction) . . . but that’s not the same thing at all.

  10. 10
    mike

    From a male perspective and the Neil character in the show, he really can’t shift gears without a big chance of losing it all either way, he’s trapped. In his current situation his wife has not just had an affair, she’s hired a male prostitute, that horse has already left the barn.  Had Neil decided to chuck the job earlier he would likely end up in the same spot anyway , his wife would not take kindly to suddenly losing  the perks of being married to a successful man, who  is now thinking about going Buddhist. The big house, the matching Audi’s and private schools would have to go and pretty much their entire former social life with it. 
     

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