Marriage Rules: How to Have Good Communication, Good Sex, and a Good Marriage

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My friend Gillian (all names changed to protect privacy) just announced that she and her daughter are looking for a rental because she’s separating from her husband.

Then there’s my friend Anne who moved out, leaving a marriage of over twenty years. Anne was suffocating in a relationship that looked perfect to the outside world: a handsome, kind husband; two healthy energetic children; a successful professional career.

When another friend stopped by our yard sale awhile back and announced a bit too enthusiastically that he had “Big news!” I felt my face go numb before he even told me what it was.

“Fiona and I split up,” he said heartily.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

“No, no it’s all good. And Alex—” he gestured to his son, “got a new kitten!”

Disney brainwashes us all to believe otherwise but the truth is marriage is hard. Maybe all relationships are hard but I venture to assert that relationships where you spend time horizontal and naked exchanging body fluids are even harder.

You bring all your baggage from your family of origin into the bedroom with your spouse. Once the honeymoon phase of a relationship is over and you no longer have that heady oxytocin-induced feeling that your partner can do no wrong, everything you didn’t resolve from your childhood—your insecurity about your parents’ love, your anger issues and lack of impulse control, your impatience with dirty dishes—comes galloping into your marriage.

But it’s not just family of origin issues that affect a relationship. It’s also how you feel about yourself, your life, and what you’re doing now.

If you feel like you haven’t achieved what you’d hoped, if you are restless in your career, if your kids are making you crazy and being a mother or father hasn’t brought you the fulfillment you hoped it would, it’s very easy to blame the problems on your spouse.

It’s easy to get stuck and unhappy, to feel angry all the time, and to sweat every single time he leaves his whitie tighties on the bathroom floor.

So a lot of us end up deciding that the best way to fix things is to make a Big Change. According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, about half of all first marriages in America end in divorce.

Change is good. Big changes can help. But often—dare I say usually—leaving a marriage will not solve the underlying problems.

We can leave a spouse but we can’t run away from ourselves, our feelings of loneliness, or our problems.

Chances are if you’re miserable in your marriage—unless you are unsafe at home, your partner has an addiction problem, or is being unfaithful to you—you have work to do ON YOURSELF.

But nobody wants to hear that, do they? It’s not my fault when my husband makes me late. It’s not my fault when he doesn’t do the dishes after dinner even though I cooked. It’s not my fault that he’s on his iPod during family time.

Then again, maybe it is.

Since I know my husband needs more time than I do, I can be proactive about lateness (we can go separately, I can give him extra time by telling him I want us to leave 15 minutes before I really do). If the undone dishes really bother me, I can sit down with him at a time when we’re both rested and not feeling defensive and talk to him about the problem. If it doesn’t change, I can do the dishes myself and channel my inner Thich Nhat Hanh while I’m washing them. If cleaning the kitchen after I cooked dinner bothers me too much, I can hire a teenager to help with the dishes and bedtime. Then there are those rugrats of our own who can also, of course, help out. And, honestly, Jennifer, have you ever told your husband in a quiet moment when you were both communicating well just how much you hate it when he’s on the iPod? If you haven’t, are you expecting him to read your mind?!

So there you have it. Chances are you are honestly and truly 50 percent responsible for what’s going wrong in your marriage even though you absolutely don’t see it that way and would never want to admit it. Chances are you are enabling the dysfunction. And chances are that when you get remarried again that the same thing will happen with your new relationship. The divorce rate in second marriages is actually higher—around 67 percent—than in first marriages.

My husband’s parents divorced when he was three. My parents divorced when I was ten. It’s very painful to grow up with parents who are no longer together, who harbor resentment against each other, who get so busy with their own lives that they prioritize their careers and new horizontal play partners over their children. But I also know from friends whose parents stayed together but never solved their problems, harbored tons of resentment against each other, and modeled unhealthy relationships that staying in a loveless unhappy marriage is no good for children either.

So if divorce isn’t the solution and an unhappy marriage isn’t the solution, what is?

I’m glad you asked. Enter Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice, a best selling author, and a wise married woman who has weathered many decades of marriage.

Harriet is my aunt’s close friend from college. I’ve read all of her books (she wrote the bestselling Dance of Anger), and Harriet has been a mentor and inspiration to me for years.

But I have to be honest and admit that when she sent me a signed copy of her new book, Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and Coupled Up, I didn’t really want to read it. I’m not super big on self-help books and I was already in a bad mood. I picked it up and read a page that suggested I be nicer to my spouse since I know best how to make him feel special. I read that aloud to James, who I was feeling a tad bit annoyed with at that particular moment.

“That sounds great, ” James enthused. “I’m so glad you’re reading that book!”

Arrgghh. I did not feel like being nice to him. I felt like being mad and grumpy. And I especially didn’t want to read a book that put the onus on me and made me responsible for having good communication and a good marriage. I wanted to pout and be angry. But how can you be angry when you are working on yourself? That’s the problem. You can’t. So I chose to stay annoyed, ignore Harriet’s good advice, and put the book aside.

A few months later I read the book from cover to cover, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a wise, funny, compassionate, honest book (just like Harriet herself) that everyone—whether you’re in a healthy marriage and getting laid regularly or you’re on the brink of walking out the door—can learn from.

I liked it so much that I bought a second copy and sent it to a friend. I suspect I’ll be buying several more.

Part of the book’s charm is Harriet’s voice and inclusiveness. She manages to speak both to women and men, both to straight couples and gay couples, both to people in the throes of parenting and those who chose not to have kids or whose kids have flown the coop. She also manages to make the latest social science research accessible to any reader. I strive to do this in my writing. With much less success, I fear.

The book has 106 rules in it. Here are three of my favorites:

Rule #15: Talk Less
“Over-talking on your part will lead to under-listening from your partner,” Harriet writes. “If you go on too long, you’re actually protecting your partner, because he may shut down and vacate the emotional premises.”

I had a chance to try out this rule with my 13-year-old. When I’m upset with her she tends to stare at me blankly and I tend to go on and on and on and on. But the last time I was angry with her I stated my point of view once. Then I literally bit my lower lip to keep myself from saying anything else. After what felt like a long silence, she shared her point of view. I listened. I apologized. She apologized. We hugged and both felt better. It’s not usually that easy, of course. But talking less is really good advice for an over-talker like me.

Rule #39 Pursue Your Goals, Not Your Partner
“Try this experiment,” Harriet writes. “Set aside at least a few weeks to stop focusing on your partner. Put 100 percent of your energy into your own life.” Meryl Streep, are you listening? James and I were too late to see the latest Bourne movie and we ended up in Hope Springs instead. I hated it! Partly because Meryl Streep’s whole life revolved around a creep of a husband and I did not really want them to work out their relationship. Streep’s character needed to read Harriet’s book and find ways to make her life meaningful beyond the bacon and eggs she cooked for her husband every morning.

Rule #106 Email: Do Not Press Send!
“Post this sticky note on your computer: ‘If you are feeling angry, misunderstood, or otherwise intense, do not write that e-mail!’” Harriet advises. I’d say the same for text messages, having been on the receiving end of several nasty ones recently from a particularly angry relation. The tone of an e-mail is easily misunderstood, sending an angry e-mail or a text message is usually an act of immaturity and cowardliness, and nasty e-mails really get us nowhere with our spouse or our extended family. “Face to face conversation requires courage,” Harriet reminds us, “and e-mail requires none.”

I don’t think Marriage Rules will save a doomed marriage. I don’t know if anything can. But I do think it should be required reading for anybody in a relationship. Harriet’s wise advice can help us all be a little kinder, fight a little fairer, and act a little more mature.

If you’ve read this far you may have noticed that I didn’t give the keys to the good sex kingdom in this post. You’ll have to visit again soon for that. In the meantime, what rules do you have that help you have a good marriage? What are your favorite books or blogs about relationships?

LEAVE A DETAILED COMMENT BELOW BY SEPTEMBER 7th, 2012 TO WIN A FREE SIGNED COPY OF THE BOOK. I’m not giving mine away but I am going to buy two more copies (friends buy each other’s books!) and Harriet has graciously agreed to sign them (well, she hasn’t yet but I know she will). I’ll chose the two comments that are the most inspirational.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. She has been a contributing editor to Mothering magazine and a Fulbright fellow in Niger, West Africa. Her latest book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, was published by Scribner in April 2013.

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  1. For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been writing a monthly feature for The Oregonian called “Northwest Love Stories,” mostly profiling long (70+ years!) and happy marriages. Much of the advice I hear from these couples is right in line with the “listen more, talk less” tip above. Having a good sense of humor and being able to commit to “hanging in there” when things are tough seem to be key, too.

    As for my own relationship… I can say that I look forward to reading this book! 🙂
    Jennifer Willis recently posted…astronomy round-up: 24 August 2012My Profile

  2. “Talk less” wouldn’t be the best advice coming from a background of not talking about ANYthing! Completely unexpressed feelings can find an outlet in resentment, teasing, gossiping. Some happy medium of course is best.

    As I said to you on FB, Jennifer, I met Harriet long ago and have always enjoyed her books, glad she’s still writing!

  3. The other night, I attended a Toastmasters meeting (I joined so I could improve my public speaking skills). Every meeting features a segment called Table Topics, in which attendees are asked a random question, to which they must respond off-the-cuff, in 1 to 2 minutes. These mini-speeches are often light and fun (though also nerve-wracking; I’m terrible off-the-cuff).

    The other night, I was called on to give three tips for a successful marriage. I know my fellow club members were expecting something light and goofy. That’s the type of stuff I usually deliver. But my husband and I almost separated last year and, as I was standing at the podium, trying to gather my thoughts, I was suddenly hit with a wave of emotion.

    It was gratitude. Gratitude for my marriage. Gratitude for still being with Michael. Gratitude that we were now stronger than ever. It took me by surprise, but I decided to go with it.

    When I finally addressed the attendees, I told them:

    1. Marriage is not a rom-com. Marriage is hard. Marriage is about choosing the person you want to be with… and sticking with it. I told them that understanding that concept was crucial to remaining happy in their marriage.

    2. Communication is key. Before going crazy, try to understand where your partner is coming from, and how they’re feeling. Resolving an argument is not about winning. It’s about understanding each other, and moving forward from that place of understanding.

    3. It’s easy to take your partner for granted once you’ve said “I do.” Don’t do this. Make your partner a priority.

    Once I’d gone through my whole spiel, the group stared at me. Their expressions were all like, “whoa… shit just got real.” I felt really self-conscious as I made my way back to my seat. I thought of all the things I didn’t have time to say.

    The one thing I forgot to tell them is something you mentioned above, and which is SO important:

    If you’re looking to fix your marriage, look at yourself first. Ask yourself: How am I responsible for the state of our union? It’s a question that serves me to this day. I always like to ask myself: How can I be a better wife? If I make the effort on my end, my husband usually follows suit.
    Steph Auteri recently posted…Why I Don’t Want to Have It AllMy Profile

  4. Cassie Premo Steele

    I love this post so much I want to marry it. I want this book so much I would take my clothes off for it.

    I just had lunch with some friends recently and when we talked about our marriages, every single one of us agreed that the marriage was doing about as well as we were– as individuals. If we were happy, the marriage was good. If we were healthy, the sex was good. If we were angry with ourselves about something we couldn’t fully face yet, you can bet that the marriage was a bag of hot mess.

    So yes, I agree: work on your own stuff. And in the meantime, I have found that watching recorded episodes of The Big Bang Theory in bed and laughing together at which characters we most resemble is both therapeutic and seductive.

  5. Megan

    My husband and I had a great foundation when we had our first child almost 7 years ago. We had known each other since junior high, and were friends as well as romantic partners. But, even in a great relationship, having kids is hard — we had kids with some scary health issues that produced a ton of anxiety and ER visits over several years — and can take its toll. I never went “back to work” at the university, as I had planned, and grew exhausted and depleted from doing the home-and-kids thing 24/7/365. Our relationship became strained, as WE were both strained, and the recession didn’t help the matter. At one point about a year and a half ago, when the conflict and distance between us was growing, we had a major heart-to-heart. We wanted to prioritize our relationship, we wanted to be happy together, we wanted it for us and for the kids. So, we did some hard work. We tried one appointment with a counselor (total disaster!). We took a course through (that was good — helped us both speak some truths and learn some good strategies). We read some books, had some date nights (some good, some “eh.”)

    But, really, what I think made the most difference (and probably was also part of what we learned from the other pieces as well): I took a hard look at myself, just like you are suggesting, Jennifer. I had to admit I needed to shift the paradigm of our family — get over the guilt about that, and take responsibility for it. I needed to work more again, even though financially that made “less sense” than my husband working more and me being home alone with the kids more. (What “sense” would it be if I had a complete meltdown and so did our marriage?) So I spoke up and said that I wanted to start my own business, and I wanted to shift the home-work dynamic back closer to what it was before kids. I invested in some major spiritual sessions and connected with my soul-self in ways I had neglected. I spent spring break painting furniture (and buying a used piano and painting it red!). I did a major green juice cleanse — and my husband decided to join me for that. As I began to feel better emotionally, and we both began to feel better physically (the cleanse led to a major uplevel in our eating and overall health and energy), our conflict lessened without even focusing on it. Seeing me get inspired, I think (and so he tells me), inspired my husband to make some changes for himself, and he began to look better and feel better.

    I feel alive again, and so does our marriage. It’s not perfect, no marriage is, but I have confidence we will keep working on it, and on ourselves. Turns out that “working on the marriage” was only one piece of “working on the marriage.” For us, it has taken both: both working on our relationship, and, perhaps even more, working on ourselves, following our dreams and speaking our truths. I don’t see any other happy road for us but to keep doing both. (And, whew, I look forward with a lot more optimism now than two years ago!)

    Well, this just poured out unexpectedly — but I’m going to hit “send” now, and maybe possibly get another book to read on the subject! 😉

  6. I love your post, Jennifer.

    If more people understood the dynamics inherent in marriage, they could certainly have more fun (or perhaps wouldn’t get married in the first place?) Unrealistic expectations of what a committed relationship looks like dooms many couples from the start, in my experience. It certainly doomed my first marriage.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of “rules”, having seen them used as weapons with the couples I have coached, so I rather doubt I will read Harriet’s book, as much as I respect her wisdom. I truly believe that there is no right way to have a good relationship, though many of us may end up in the same place after dancing down our unique paths.

    Certainly, self-help books have been very helpful for me in learning more about myself. Many years ago, Gay & Kathlyn Hendrick’s book “Conscious Loving” was HUGE catalyst for me. But using a book as a manual for how to have a great relationship? Not so helpful, at least in my life!

    From the excerpts you shared, it does look like she & I are mostly on the same page around relationship—and in my marriage we eventually dropped all of our early rules and have found that our vows to being real and to using the relationship as a crucible for our personal growth keeps us doing our work on ourselves so we can enjoy being together even more. Not easy, but definitely worth it!
    Sondra Rose recently posted…Nutrition for a Juicy MenopauseMy Profile

  7. Good communication. Without it, a marriage is doomed. I’m grateful my second husband and I have always been able to communicate. Thanks for writing about this book. I know several people who need it.

  8. Kelly McCoy

    Well, I don’t know that I’m capable of writing an “inspirational” comment right now, but I did want to say a sincere thank-you for the timing and content of this article. My eyes are still puffy from a blowout emotional night confronting some seemingly out-of-left-field changes in attitude from my partner. I am sad to say at this moment I feel awkward using that term for him. We have a 4 1/2 year old son and a shared life, but suddenly our outlook on the purpose of life, goals, standards and everything else seem to be in conflict. Unable to imagine living in such restriction for the rest of my life, I threw out the notion of leaving him and he was shockingly quick to jump on board with that idea and start planning the details! My life as I saw it in the near and more vague long future is suddenly blank. We are going to attempt counseling but I don’t know if either us can change enough to meet the other. It feels like we are well, healthy and happy in the family dynamic but completely disfunctional as two individuals. There is very little heart energy between us right now; it is combat, instead. I realize there is no winner here and that the most likely loser is our son if we carry on down this path, but I am at a loss about what to ‘do’.

    I appreciate the spirit of the article, and I thank you for pointing out another perspective to work from. I will try to look at what I am able to affect and improve within my own abilities, choices and words. Thank you.

  9. Shannon

    Well, the three sample rules sound like spot on good advice to me, so I’d read it. I’d like to sick hubby on #39 especially. We are so committed to making it and after 10 years needing to do some “work”. Good review!

  10. Shelley Camba

    I enjoy your writing. I enjoy what I have read of Harriet’s writing too. I don’t have many details to share, but I am slowly moving, inch by inch closer to the freedom of focusing on myself and my growth rather than that of my husband. I hope I win the books, but more than anything I hope to be transformed into true happiness and joy.

  11. Catherine B

    The most important marriage advice I was ever given came from my grandmother. She would ask: “Would you rather be right, or be married?”

    Over the next 30 years and 3 bad marriages, I had forgotten her question, but after the failure of my third marriage, I was cleaning out some boxes of old paperwork and found a letter from her with the advice. After giving it much thought, I purchased “Enchantments of the Heart: A Magical Guide to Finding the Love of Your Life” by Dorothy Morrison and DID THE WORK IN THE BOOK. Most of the work consists of getting yourself ready for the perfect person, and the perfect relationship to be successful. The most important lessons I learned in that book were to be responsible for myself, and to love myself so I could love others. And that marriage is not a game-you don’t get points for being right-in fact, if you insist on being right all the time, you lose.

    Shortly afterwards, an old friend asked me out, and it turned out he had been doing the same exercises from the same book. We have now been happily married for 5 years, and together for 8, without a single argument, no resentments built up, and lots of happy memories of great times spent together.

    I can feel my Grandmother smiling and saying “I told you so”.

  12. Shari

    Hi I want the book because I have been married for 36 years and everything is quite amiss right now what with my husband seeking comfort with another and me being very confused and not able to take action.I am num and so sad but not in tuch with my anger

  13. Denise G-W

    Catherine B’s comment about her grandmother reminded me of some advice my own grandmother gave me: “Nothing lasts forever.”

    At the time, she was going through a very bitter, awful divorce after 30 years of marriage that ended with affairs and suicide attempts. In light of that, her advice sounds very dark, especially considering I was about 11 years old when she told me this.

    But as an adult, I’ve taken it to heart in a different way. My first marriage was tumultuous, with a partner who used drugs and was minimally employed. We fell into bad habits in how we treated each other and how we treated ourselves. And one day, he overdosed and died. Nothing lasts forever.

    Now that I’ve been remarried nearly 10 years, I am thankful for my spouse and kids every day. Even on the hard days… or months (since we’ve also had some serious kids health issues to contend with). Because nothing lasts forever. The bad times will pass, as long as we don’t allow them to become a habit. And the good times will go quickly as well.

  14. cory

    Relax, relax, relax what seems like a huge deal or crisis this minute won’t seem that way tomorrow, heck you might not even remeber it tomorrow

  15. Estey

    Hey Jennifer! I have loved reading all the other comments – so inspiring! I’ve been married for just a year now, and we’re expecting a child in March! So exciting. Though I’m a bit nervous about how our new addition will shake up the dynamics in our marriage. I’m sure we will continue learning how to work together effectively and harmoniously as we nurture our bundle of joy. This Marriage Rules book seems like it would be an excellent resource for someone like me who’s just starting out and hasn’t really had to deal with any major marriage problems yet – maybe I’ll avoid some of the toughies? That would be nice. I’m sure I could get a lot out of this book not only for my marriage, but for all relationships at work, with family members, and friends. The 3 tips you listed above definitely apply to more than just a marriage relationship. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share this journey with my husband and I’m looking forward to beginning our lovely family of 3! All the best <3

  16. Jennifer, this blog says it all. Thank you so much. I left my marriage in the late 80s because I didn’t know how to resolve the conflicts in our marriage, but now I wonder if I didn’t try hard enough. Thanks for telling the truth about marriage. You’re right that’s it always about working on yourself unless there’s abuse, of course. A complex issue that you have handled so well, as always.

    I too was ambivalent about Meryl’s character in Hope Springs and felt depressed the day after seeing it. Are we back in the fifties? Seems like it was from another generation. But, maybe she speaks for women who are sexually repressed.

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Peggy. And thank you for your very kind words. It’s an honor to have you on my blog! (I miss Mothering magazine every day.)

      I’m so glad you didn’t like Meryl Streep’s character either. I wanted to shake her. And him. And I hated the Sprite product placement, which just seemed so crass and gratuitous.

  17. Margaret

    Great post! I clicked through from Project Happily Ever After and am glad I found this blog. Love hearing the truth spoken about how difficult marriage is. Why don’t we all talk about this “secret truth” more often! I’ve gotten a lot out of Harriet Lerner’s other books and am looking forward to reading “Marriage Rules”.

  18. Marni Koopman

    Thank you for writing this Jennifer. I both agree and disagree. As you know, my husband and I are living separately. We absolutely needed that space to get out of some old patterns and habits, to rediscover who we were as individuals, to experience what it was like to live independent of one another, and to explore our priorities in life. So while making the “Big change” might seem like a cop out to someone on the outside, it created a freedom for us that allowed us a fresh start. Our relationship needed a big shake up and we got it!

    I agree that ending a marriage without doing the work on yourself that you need to do might not be the best decision, but doing that work without support or effort from your partner is a lonely place to be. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change the dynamic.

    • Thank you for this comment Marni. I appreciate your nuanced response, and I totally agree that it’s important to realize every relationship and every situation is different. Plus I’m glad that the shake up is helping you and Jason have a fresh start. However things shake down I will love you both forever! And I think you will appreciate Harriet’s book. I didn’t do it justice in this short review (short review albeit long-to-read blog post.) She really manages to take a lot of different situations into consideration. I’m in awe of her ability to be expansive in her writing.

      • Marni

        Thank you Jennifer. I forgot to add the most important piece. We’re HAPPY where we are now! Isn’t that what matters? I would love to read Harriet’s book.

  19. Leslie Becknell Marx

    I remember advice about sex from a smaller blog post list of rules for marriage (cannot remember the author now – sorry) that stuck with me. Tell your marriage partner what you really want regarding sex because this is your only sex partner and this is the only place you get to have what you want sexually. Seems obvious but kind of konked me on the head when I read it.

  20. Isobel Sturgeon

    Been married for 24 years to a man I’ve known 28 years. We don’t talk a lot, but when we do we try very carefully to convey information that the other can use without assigning blame. Or we talk about subjects larger than our own little relationship. Occasionally we’ve failed (like when he burned Christmas dinner on the BBQ and I panicked; it worked out). We spend most of our time together doing fun things together and sharing activities. We started out working together and progressed to sailing and racing together. After winning regattas around the world, we retired to ballroom dancing together. Now, no matter how aggravated we might be with each others’ foibles, when we dance we have to trust each other and move in concert with lots of touching. Sometimes the movements call for acting sexy even when we’re put out with each other. After practicing the dance we are back in love. Sailing together also required trusting each other and moving in concert. It makes the little aggravations (the weird man noises in the morning and my monopolization of the bathroom and bedroom, for examples) disappear.

  21. Wow, I’ve got some tough competition in the inspirational comment department, but I really want the book, so I’ll give it a whirl. After 30+ years together, a liver transplant, financial woes stemming from said liver transplant, and now just barely hanging onto the house because of said financial woes stemming from said liver transplant, it’s been a struggle. I feel like we’re more like friends who live together than romantic partners. I feel like no one in the world has weathered the struggles we’ve weathered (which is totally not true, of course, but how I feel sometimes), and yet when I see old couples who’ve been together for a million years, all I can think about is how much crap they’ve gone through together and yet they’re still together and still seem, well, happy. I know we’ll get there, too, but it won’t be easy, that’s for sure. Because nothing good in life comes from just sailing through with no problems. The good stuff comes after you’ve weathered the storm together.
    Jane Boursaw recently posted…Happy Labor Day! Thank a Worker and Watch a Union MovieMy Profile

  22. Hetty

    This is a wonderful discussion. I am learning two important practices that help marriage and life. First, to appreciate what I have in life, including my spouse. This is often easier said than done. And then, to hold my vision for my marriage and my life lightly, and to offer it up “for the best good of all beings.”

  23. Sue

    I loved your description of choosing to be pouty and grumpy – I feel like that describes a situation I find myself in time after time. There is always a moment where I can shape my destiny and have a good day just by choosing to be happy. But it’s sooooooo difficult!

  24. Thoroughly enjoyed your post and look forward to the book:

    Interesting thought I just had: Does getting married really mean that you’ll spend a good portion of your time together fixing the horrific blunder you’ve just made?

    Sure seems that way. You travel to any book store and bam, your eyes are bombarded by an entire section jam packed with books on screwed up marriage. A quick sample: “Help, I think I’m going to shoot my husband.” Or: “911—Rescue your marriage from life support!” Or, this bestseller: “Gay—what do you mean my husband’s gay?”

    (If it sounds like I just randomly made up those titles, you’re right but that’s beside the point!)

    The fact remains that there are tons more books on fixing what’s wrong with marriage than those pontificating on the wondrous delight of marriage itself.

    The thing is, folks who get married are not dumb people. They have to be aware that what they’re about to do is so fraught with risk and unlikely to bring them long term joy—that they are like two hapless passengers aboard a canoe attempting a counter-current voyage up the Niagara river, sans engine or rowing implement.

    Yet, the bride and groom still shuffle down the aisle, gaze into each other’s eyes grinning, fully aware that they’re about to completely screw up both their lives.

    Is there an alternative? The obvious one is, of course, not to get married in the first place.

    Ah—but if life were only that simple. Strangely enough, stats seem to show that unmarried folks don’t have any monopoly in the long term bliss department; in other words being unmarried doesn’t exactly make you a tax paying citizens of that cozy hamlet called Happyville.

    If anything, stats suggest that unmarried folks are even more surly, peed off and disgruntled about the sorry state of their lives than the married ones.

    I have one word for all of this—encouraging!

    Now, to some of you my little diatribe may come off as sarcastic, cynical and not exactly thrilled about the merits of marriage. My simple retort: I might actually be making a somewhat left handed recommendation that folks should still at least consider getting married.

    Why not? I couldn’t talk you out of it if I tried. And besides, apparently you’re going to be thoroughly upset with your life any way you slice it.
    Adam D. Oglesby recently posted…Abstinence Doesn’t Work: How Long Can You Wait?My Profile

  25. Jennifer,

    What a lovely post combined with practical suggestions!

    I agree that it’s not a good idea to focus on changing your partner. I’ve learned firsthand that I have the best shot at changing myself. If I change how I behave I have a better chance of getting my husband to treat me the way I like.

    One thing I did recently was to sign us up for tango lessons, with my husband’s permission. Sharing a new experience brought us closer together.
    Susan Weiner, CFA recently posted…3 ways to speak plainly while giving financial adviceMy Profile

  26. Crystal

    This is really great! We’ve got a 6 year anniversary coming up in a couple days, and a 2 year old daughter at home. We are usually harmonious, but have some old patterns and reactions that are frustrating, so I’d love some new insight on how to make marriage work (especially post-child!) One book I love is by Robert Augustus Masters, its called Transformational Intimacy. He says: “The passage from immature to mature monogamy is not only a journey of ripening intimacy with a partner, but also a journey into and through zones of ourselves that may be very difficult to accept and integrate with the rest of our being.” Check it out here:

  27. I’ve got to say… I’ve read all sorts of things about marriage. I’ve been married to my second husband for over 23 years and the last 7+ years have been, um, DIFFICULT. I’m not sure any book really works if only one person reads it, I’m not sure any changes really work if only one person is trying. I do know that Rule #39 Pursue Your Goals, Not Your Partner works on the level that you can create a life when your marriage ceases to be a source of joy and comfort. You can make a life, find fulfillment, even find joy. It changes the rules of engagement, and sometimes changes happen. It’s not a cure-all. It might not cure anything. But when you’re committed to not leaving, and you’re committed to not just surviving, it’s a workable third alternative. I grieve off and on, in an ongoing way. I try for kindness and respectfulness, because I can’t have closeness and partnership. I don’t know if this book will change that, but I’m willing to read one more book. Sigh…

  28. Julie

    After 2 recent pregnancy losses – and my husband’s seeming inadequate performance/support with my 2nd traumatic loss – I’ve been feeling pretty burned out on my husband. And I’ve had so many friends and professionals question my marriage – and really suggest that I should consider leaving. The constant theme from everyone has been that since my husband let me down with his lack of support, he’s not worth keeping. Even when I have 3 children and have been married for 15 years. Being in a post-loss hormonal state, I felt so vulnerable to the constant negative talk re my husband. I bought into it, and got caught in that thinking for a few months. I’m finally pulling out of it and realizing that my husband does love me – but that he is human and had difficulty coping with our losses. And marriage is a journey and not necessarily an easy one. We must stick it out, even when it is tough. But this is so not the message from society today – very unfortunately. Harriet Lerner’s book is encouraging and refreshing in her real belief in marriage.
    My husband would be a major fan of rule #15 “talk less”. I tend to talk a bit too much, and I do think he is much happier when I can be quick and to the point and end it there 🙂

  29. Sarah

    Marriage Counseling has not worked for a relationship yet. In my experience, one partner is willing to try but the other wants to shift blame and responsibility. It takes two to tango. If both won’t try to make the marriage work, it takes one very patient and forgiving person to keep the household together. I am giving up hope on the institution of marriage. Maybe I didn’t learn the “rules”.

  30. Cinders

    Living with irrational and sometimes scary anger throughout my life from loved ones is both dramatic and traumatic. “Dance of Anger” really saved my sanity. Your sage teachings could have been written about me…except I’m going deep to keep my 15 year marriage as one of the rare ones that survives. Post-marriage reality/epiphanies can be so dichotomous from what we had expected and are so rarely addressed without an attempt at making light of it (as if our lives were meant to be dark comedies). When the walls disappear and we see a woman huddled in the corner of a room crying soundlessly, it is no laughing matter. Our society’s power-obsessive thought-forms slink into our American bedrooms, like a serpentine mist, and slyly imbed within our psyches…seemingly egging us on to be the one to win the argument, no matter the cost. Gandhi told us, “Nobody can hurt me without my permission…” so that we know that we are accountable for our own emotions ONLY. We may choose NOT to pick up someone else psychic lug-G/AGE. Who wants to lug around another’s old stinky bagg(age) anyway? I have carried such luggage before, even for more than a decade, and recently I unloaded it, like Atlas removing the world from his shoulders. When this happens something marvelous occurs, you look at the luggage as something now detached from you. And remember, you can walk away from the luggage without walking away from the beloved who owns this stuff. It is up to the beloved to decide what to do with it…NOT YOU! Release the outcome of how they may deal with it, this is not your concern. Being treated with respect is not a want in my book, it is a need AND a reality…as I so chose. Now when I am dis-respected, I am brave enough to walk away…to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Look to your inner radiance by looking into your own eyes (all three if you can) and tell yourself how absolutely glowing you truly are. This inner glow is LOVE. True love yourself first. Then when your chalice of love is overflowing and you would like to share some…go for it. Expect nothing back and you will not be disappointed. Gift your love only when you’ve filled your chalice first and often. You’ll never run dry if you fill it daily many times; perhaps to make it easy just imbue your seven glasses of ordinary reality water with love and drink it down and in. Just stay high-drated with love, and joy is a very probable outcome. Blissings into love! “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” ~Gandhi

  31. Amazing post, Jennifer. (This is actually my first visit, I am going to be a regular one from now on 🙂 ).

    What you say about people not wanting to work on themselves is oh so true. When I’m writing about marriage, that(along with learning to communicate positively and effectively) is the main thing I try to put across to the readers that are having difficulties in theirs.

    I often find myself looking at people who jump from relationship to relationship(married or otherwise), and thinking that the reason none of them last, is simply because they have never taken time to work on themselves. But they will point the finger at the other people, or say “I just haven’t found ‘the one’ yet”.

    As for rules, my wife and I live by a set of pretty simple ones really. If something is bothering either of us we always talk about it. We know our roles(be it the household, financially etc) and we do our best to stick to them. If we aren’t happy with them for whatever reason, we talk about it. We certainly didn’t get to this stage(just over 10 years married now) easily though – we had a rough beginning and had to work on ourselves and our marriage. When you are prepared to do that, the rewards can be amazing.

  32. Jenny

    We just had our 16th wedding anniversary. Five kids has been a stress on our marriage for sure- but now we have in home babysitters and are so enjoying our moments together for a walk or to lunch. We have been through some marital challenges, but we have always held our intention that we chose to travel our life’s journeys as partners. I am so grateful for our shared commitment.

  33. Holly

    I don’t have any rules, per se, because marriage is such an individual, unique thing — and people change so much over the course of a long relationship — that it’d be nearly impossible to apply any hard-and-fast guidelines to making a marriage work during all its twists and turns. (Not that I wouldn’t love some simple steps to follow — my kingdom for a workable road map!)

    Having said that, there’s one basic principle that’s kept me mostly focused over the course of my 22-plus-year relationship with my husband: Commit to the commitment. That is, during those dark times (of which there will be many) when you’re ready to run screaming for the door, flinging your wedding ring in his face on the way out, remember the *commitment* you made — not always to the person (that bastard!), but to the notion of sticking it out together, come what may. (Obviously, the caveat is that you should never “stick it out” when you’re dealing with infidelity, abuse, or a spouse who becomes a Dallas Cowboys fan.)

    Staying focused on the *commitment* itself also reminds you of why you’re with this person in the first place. There’s a reason you chose him/her as your life partner, and barring some horrible, intolerable development (see “Cowboys,” above), it’s likely that whatever event or transgression is causing you to come unglued at the moment isn’t significant enough to abandon the entire relationship over.

    Committing to the commitment isn’t perfect — we’re emotional creatures, after all, and no one sees clearly when they’re overcome with anger, despair, annoyance, or exhaustion — but it can clarify the bigger picture during those moments when you’re absolutely certain no bigger picture exists.

  34. susan selfridge

    I have learned two tricks recently which would have been great tools to have had a long time ago…1st, if I am pointing a finger at you, there are three pointing back at me. What’s up and what is really going on with me, here? 2nd. I ask myself what is MY part in this. Not yours.

  35. Gabrielle Smith Dluha

    Here’s a gem from my wonderful Aunt Nancy, married for 50 years:

    You’re never upset for the reason you think you are.

    Hmmm.. makes you stop in your tracks when you’re seething at your husband and it seems so blatantly to be his fault.

  36. This giveaway is now closed.

    I’m inspired and overwhelmed by these excellent, thoughtful, well articulated comments.

    The comments are all so fantastic that Harriet Lerner and I have decided to give away SIX autographed books instead of just two.

    I wish we could give away 40!

    The comments are also so fantastic that I could only choose at random, which I did via

    The six lucky winners, who I’ll also contact separately, are:

    1. Cassie Preemo Steele
    2. Shelley Camba
    3. Cinders
    4. Gabrielle Smith Dluha
    5. Steph Auteri
    6. Catherine B

    Please email me your mailing address so we can get a signed book out to you ASAP: professor margulis [at] gmail [dot] com, no spaces.

    THANK YOU ALL AGAIN! Remember you can ask your local library to purchase a copy of the book — so that you will get to read it and others can as well.

    I hope you’ll come visit my blog again soon:

  37. “Change is good. Big changes can help. But often—dare I say usually—leaving a marriage will not solve the underlying problems. ”
    I couldn’t agree more and these issues will simply be carried into the next relationship or marriage.

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