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.