The Prospect Of A Truly Great Marriage

Brooks’s best paragraphs on marriage highlight Tim and Kathy Keller’s insights:

“In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller describe how the process of improvement and elevation happens. First, you marry a person who seems completely wonderful and mostly perfect. Then, after a little while—maybe a month or two, maybe a year or two—you realize that the person you thought was so wonderful is actually imperfect, selfish, and flawed in many ways. As you are discovering this about your spouse, your spouse is making the exact same discovery about you.

The natural tendency in this situation is to acknowledge that of course you are a little selfish and flawed, but in fact it is your spouse’s selfishness that is the main problem here. Both spouses will also come to this conclusion at about the same time.

Then comes a fork in the road. Some couples will decide that they don’t want all the stress and conflict that will come from addressing the truths they have discovered about each other and themselves. They’ll make a truce, the Kellers say. Some subjects will not be talked about. You agree not to mention some of your spouse’s shortcomings so long as she agrees not to mention some of yours. The result is a truce-marriage, which is static, at least over the short term, but which gradually deteriorates over the long one.

“The alternative to the this truce-marriage is to determine to see your own selfishness as a fundamental problem and to treat it more seriously than you do your spouse’s. Why? Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it,” the Kellers write. ‘If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.'”

Jives with my experience.

 

Dreaming of Solitude

A “Dear Prudence” letter from Slate.com.

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?

—Dreaming of Solitude (DoS)

Here’s my prediction on most people’s gut reaction to reading this, “What a whiny, self-centered, loser. She’s symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the U.S. today!” I read it differently and not just because I’m a huge fan of solitude. I feel for DoS because her dilemma highlights a central challenge in any long-term committed relationship.

For peace to prevail over time, you have to do two things. First, you have to consciously ignore most of the low-level aggravating things your partner does on a daily basis. For example, The Good Wife has to try to accept the fact that I selfishly turn off the bedroom light at night whenever I’m ready to sleep whether she’s mid-paragraph in her book or not. She has to try to accept the fact that right at that moment I’m thinking more about my running partners waiting outside for me in seven hours than I am her. And she has to do that type of thing every day in myriad ways because I’m a selfish pig.

Second, you have to continuously shake off a steady stream of low-level irritants without allowing so much resentment to build that it eventually bubbles over in grand gestures to have separate bedrooms (where I can be in control of the lighting my own damn self) or to live three thousand miles apart. That balance, having decent enough communication to talk about and work through low-level resentments (The Good Wife, “In the future, could you please ask me if you can turn out the light so I can at least finish my sentence?”) is an exceedingly delicate balancing act that’s easier to get wrong than right.

In my reading of DoS’s letter, the key phrase is this, “. . . furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want.” Three annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t amount to much or even if taken together for a short period of time probably wouldn’t amount to much. But the longer they’re not talked about in the light of day, they metastasize and drive a wedge between otherwise intimate people.

Imagine if DoS had come clean with her husband about her feelings years earlier. Three separate dinner discussions. The first. “For a long, long time, I haven’t felt enough freedom to decorate differently.” The second, “For far too long, I haven’t felt nearly free enough to be more messy.” The third, “For as long as I can remember I haven’t felt sufficient freedom to eat whatever I want at whatever time I want.” If the husband is as good a guy as he seems to be, he’d be sympathetic and try to be much more understanding of her need for those particular freedoms.

There’s no guarantee those conversations would go so well that the resentment would dissipate to the point where moving across the country wouldn’t be necessary, but not having them is a larger risk. By not having them the husband is in for a major surprise, one he doesn’t deserve if she’s said too little for too long.

Postscript: I thought I had turned the comments back on awhile ago, but learned today I had not. They’re back on. So comment away on Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Ms. Dreaming of Solitude, or whatever you want to get off your chest about those you’re most intimate.

The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.