“I Can’t Make You Happy”: The Words That Changed How I Date and Pray

My first kiss with my now-husband took place at the pinnacle of castle ruins. In Spain. At sunset.

I was 18 and couldn’t imagine a moment more perfect. I had fallen for Seth, a caring, thoughtful boy four years prior, and now — finally, surrounded by all this — he had fallen for me too.

We were abroad with another friend on the Camino de Santiago, walking more than 20 kilometers per day toward our pilgrimage destination. It was a setting ripe for serious thought and deep conversations. Sometimes all three of us would walk together, gabbing and musing, praying and singing, and sometimes we would each find our own pace and meet up later on the road.

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A few days of jubilation followed that first kiss, but it wasn’t too long before I happened upon Seth, who was seated with his backpack on a low stone wall. His expression was clouded and dark.

Right away I knew something was wrong, and when I got to him, his admission spilled out: 

“I can’t make you happy,” he said.

Growing up, I had witnessed the ups and downs of my parents’ lasting marriage. It was this, combined with a desire to respond to the clear agitation in my new beau, that prompted my reply:

“I know.”

Somehow (I credit grace), the answer was easy to say. It carried neither judgment nor thwarted expectation. 

Its effect was immediate and clear as Seth sighed with relief. His shoulders relaxed and his expression brightened. We had gotten used to 30-pound backpacks, but I saw then that the weight of an assumed responsibility for my happiness had been far more crushing.

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The dramatic impact of that simple exchange surprised me, and it’s changed our relationship ever since.

There’s no question that movies, books, and TV shows subconsciously change our exceptions about what a romantic relationship is supposed to be. We have #relationshipgoals and idolize “perfect” couples. But the truth (which was confirmed for me that day) is that no person can bear the responsibility for completely fulfilling another. 

The answer to our hearts is so much larger than any one, imperfect individual. This is not to say that a partner can’t ever make you happy. Not at all. Was I happy when Seth kissed me on those ruins? Was I happy when he hugged me in relief during our conversation a few days later? Was I happy when he proposed? When we got married? When our first child was born? I can’t even begin to describe this joy!

And yet.

His love for me is a sign of God’s greater love. He brings God’s light to my life, just as the moon (which has no light of its own) brings the light of the sun to the earth.

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My husband is only human, which means sometimes he makes mistakes, and sometimes (even when he’s perfectly fine) I still need something that he can’t provide himself (girl time, time alone, or prayer, for example). 

My heart has more questions than any one person has answers. St. Augustine calls this the “God-shaped” hole in our hearts. This God-shaped hole cannot be filled by a person, even if they are one’s vocation! 

Recognizing this truth out loud took the pressure off my partner and allows me to realistically consider what I want and need. It is not my husband’s role to completely satisfy my heart; neither is it my role (or ability!) to satisfy his. As Christians, this does not dishearten us because we know there is one who can satisfy, and who yearns to do so.

As on the Camino, my husband and I are walking together on this earthly pilgrimage. We help and support each other as best we can, mindful of our souls’ true yearning, our spiritual destination: God.