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.