Does He Spark Joy? Is this the only question you need to ask in your relationship?

Recently I had lunch with best-selling author and good friend of mine, Heather Maclean. She was in town for a quick visit and luckily had time to see her old reality TV friend. As we caught up over a spicy chicken pizza, the topic inevitably turned to books. One that seem to be all the rage today is The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, which Heather had just finished and I had just started. Although the book had many interesting and unique tips and advice on how to declutter your life, the one that stood out the most to her was the practice of sorting through your things, holding them up and asking yourself one question…”Does this spark joy?”

Being a purger myself, and always looking for new ways to organize, I really loved this technique. After all, at the end of the day, isn’t that the best reason to keep something in your life? Because it brings you happiness? As Heather and I chatted on about the author’s brilliant rumination, we began brainstorming what other areas could this simple question be applied? Dozens, apparently. It could work for the small things like selecting music to buy, as well as the bigger things, as in what career path to choose. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to consider if this could also work for relationships. So many of my clients contact me when their relationship is in a state of flux, looking for guidance on whether they should work to save it or walk away. They agonize over their pros and cons list, lament over the few things they can’t seem to change, and vacillate between starting all over and just sticking it out. The question they always ask me in the end is, “What should I do?”, and perhaps now would be a good time to answer their question with a question. If a relationship no longer sparks joy, then what purpose is it serving anyway?

Most people, even those in volatile relationships, might jump to defend themselves when posed the joy question. “Yes, it brings me joy!” They might say. “It just also frustrates me, makes me sad at times, and forces me to do more cyber stalking than I’d like.” The key it seems would be making sure you truly understand the meaning of the word joy. Because if a relationship is bringing you a significant amount of pain, it’s likely that what you think of as “joy” is really the pleasure portion of the pleasure-pain cycle taking it’s turn. (If I’m losing you, just bear with me.) Joy is a feeling that arises from within you, and pleasure is something that is always tied to something outside of you. Pleasure is not ever in our control and therefore, can instantly turn to pain when it goes away or changes on us. (For example, we might feel great about our relationship until we send a little text and don’t get an immediate response. Suddenly, all the warm and fuzzy feelings fade and we are in a flat spin of negative emotions.) Of course, we might be sad when a relationship ends, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t bring us joy. It’s natural to feel brokenhearted when love is lost. It’s while you are currently in the relationship that this question must be asked. If you are truly in love, and with the right person, then joy should arise despite little (and some big) bumps in the road. Regardless of his annoying habits, or her idiosyncrasies, you should really feel immense joy within yourself just be being around the other person. If, however, what you mostly feel is stress, anxiety, and a constant rollacoaster of emotions, then it’s likely that this relationship is not sparking joy.

I have seen too many of my single female clients stick out a relationship that strikes more fear than anything else. The joy they claim to feel is really just a brief buzz when anxiety is absent and the guy is “being nice” for a change. In cases like this, the joy question is definitely a fitting one. What about couples that are married, and have been married for many years though? Does the question still apply so fittingly after kids, second mortgages, ailing parents, and the many other responsibilities that lean heavily on a relationship? Is the joy question too simple, and too flippant for all that a marriage is? Can we really boil down it’s worth to such a simple yes or no question? At this point, to me, the query is not one of evaluation anymore, but more so a reminder that the reason we chose to be in together in the first place was because life is inevitably better when it’s shared with someone, and joy is something we do have control over. So after years of being together, if our relationship isn’t sparking joy anymore, we can take a look at ourselves and ask why not, and what can we do to reignite it? The answer to that may not be so straightforward, but it does spark thought, self-awareness, and reflection…and none of those things are bad.

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