I’ve been in a good marriage for a couple of years now, and I wonder why.
What changed? For many years, maybe six or even eight, my husband and I weren’t that happy. There were many reasons for this. Some health issues, his grief over his previous wife’s death, my grief over the end of my first marriage, my grief that I couldn’t provide my son with the childhood I’d envisioned, some trying periods financially—a general level of stress and overwhelm so terrible that we couldn’t even summon the energy to leave each other.
So we didn’t.
We also had a certain level of stubbornness. As my husband has said several times, marriage isn’t a commitment to a person, but to a relationship. This is a value we share. We have a sense that it’s our responsibility to work on both the relationship and ourselves so that we can be a better partner to one another. Even though for a long time we weren’t officially married, when Tony moved in we committed to one another as though we were. For my part, I was terrified of another failure, and of what kind of example it might set for my son. However, I’d say that although our intentions were good, we didn’t do too well at the actual work of marriage for the majority of those years.
Fortunately, we continued to feel attracted to one another. Not that we’re shallow. No matter how angry or frustrated I’ve felt, no matter how much I despaired of us working out our shit, I have always, every morning, been glad to see his head on the pillow next to mine. He says he’s felt the same. I’ve seen and been in other relationships where this wasn’t the case, and a lasting loss of physical interest is a hard thing to overcome. (I do think it’s normal to experience occasional drops in that interest.)
In “experiments” conducted at the John Gottman’s Love Lab, researchers found that in order to maintain a healthy relationship, couples need to have a 5:1 ratio of good times to bad times. Not just, say, good vacations to bummer vacations, but positive moments throughout the day to negative ones. Actual fun as opposed to just sitting in front of the TV. Honestly, I think this ratio is unrealistic if you’re working, raising children, trying to stay in shape, etc. Modern life and modern jobs are simply too stressful to allow for that much fun and positivity, unless you’re one of those annoying people who insists on positivity to the point of dishonesty. Also, externals, like illness, injury, or job loss, can drive your average right down. So, let’s say that 3:1 is a more realistic ratio.
I’d guess our ratio was something like 1:3. Ouch.
I’ve been thinking of all this as I watch friends separate on the basis of much the same complaints Tony and I have had about each other. I’ve thought, too, about my first marriage, wondering if simply waiting it out might have resulted in reconciliation by now. But then, how many years of discontent or outright misery do you endure in the faint hope that one day you’ll turn the corner in the proverbial tunnel and see that distant glimmer of light?
No, I think sometimes it’s better to leave. Even if it’s not the right decision, it’s a decision, and that can be better than stagnating. Especially if the dynamic between the two people is eating at one or both partner’s core sense of self. So, I’m not second-guessing my friends’ choices or even my own with my previous marriage. I don’t even know if I’m glad that Tony and I stuck it out. Perhaps we would have found more happiness apart. Or perhaps we’d have been even more miserable. No way to know, not worth thinking about.
I know I’m glad now.
But why am I glad? I mean, what caused the gladness? Maybe it’s hormone replacement therapy. I know that as I was going into menopause, I lost any desire to nurture others, or to nurture a relationship. As a character in one of my stories says, even the houseplants seemed to ask too much of me.
Tony and I spent some time apart, also, but this did not make our hearts grow fonder. Tony took a job four hours from where we were living, and a year later I took a writing fellowship 2000 miles away. The residency was great for me, but it came at a bad time in our relationship. Our phone conversations during this period were not productive or mutually supportive.
When I returned from the fellowship, I had no idea what I was coming back to. Would we still be a couple? Roommates with benefits? Only roommates? I knew absolutely no one in our new town. The place we’d moved to was (is) beautiful, but I had never felt “called” to live there, the way I had when considering other places, such as Crestone, Colorado, or Taos, New Mexico. I had a 30-year history in the Boulder area. Friends I’d gone through everything with. For example, while Tony was working on the Western Slope, I broke my leg. I lived in a canyon with few neighbors. Those neighbors, as well as friends who drove up from Boulder, helped get me to doctor appointments, stack wood, change my 5-gallon water bottles, walk my dogs, keep me company. You don’t leave something like that lightly.
The relationship was in such a bad state, I didn’t think the tradeoff of moving would be worth it. Why then did I go to join Tony in his new community?
Really: because I felt I had little choice. Our house in Boulder was rented out. Some health issues had become so acute I couldn’t manage the deadline pressure, responsibility, and visibility that had characterized my previous positions. I’d only entered the workforce after my divorce, so I didn’t have a lot of retirement accrued. The market downturn had drained the equity from our house, we’d killed our “rainy day” savings during a gap in Tony’s employment and some unpredictability with my contract work, and now I questioned my physical ability to return to a job with a livable salary.
I was scared to death. When I’m that frightened, I become unable to think. I hyperventilate throughout the day. My arms and legs go numb, and I have to sit with my head down between my legs until that passes.
So, unable to think through my options, and despite a lot of screaming on the phone as I pulled a U-Haul across the country by myself, I showed up at Tony’s house.
And then, despite a few more serious setbacks, things got better.
A series of relatively small events or communication errors can cause a relationship to spiral downward. Perhaps it’s only a few small things that can turn it around.
External pressure had never been that strengthening for us. What did not kill us left us morose. We became kinder to one another when some of those pressures lifted. Once we could settle into a house after several moves, after all the brain-breaking decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of that each of those entailed. Once Tony began to feel more secure in his job. And once some of my health symptoms abated, which made me a lot easier to live with.
I also think there was something in the physical separation—not from one another, as that experience was mostly negative—but from our previous lives, that was positive for us. I no longer ran into my ex-husband or heard from formerly mutual friends about what he was doing. Tony seemed to be able to let go some of his residual grief, too. You don’t recover from a loss like that, but sometimes you can have an emotionally rich life anyway.
I also changed my attitude after a conversation with a friend, a few years divorced, who said she had no interest in finding another partner. She said she only ever hears people complain about their relationships, so why go back there? That’s an awfully good point. When I’m talking with my friends, how often do I share the good parts of my life with Tony?
So, even though I want to be honest when I AM troubled, and I do still need insight from my friends sometimes, I made a commitment to speak more about the positives. This in itself may have changed my orientation toward our relationship.
There was a certain come-to-Jesus moment, after our third move in about as many years, when I couldn’t find much to be happy about. We discussed sleeping in separate rooms. I thought that given the trouble we were having connecting in general, losing the physical element of sleeping in the same bed would destroy us. I said that if we stayed together, I didn’t want to look back on the next ten years and say, Shit, that sucked. Because that’s how we were looking at the previous six years. And Tony, who is a decade older than me, said, I don’t HAVE ten years.
That was a rock-bottom moment. It was either split or make it better.
But mainly, I think the secret is that we’ve been having some fun. There’s sex, which neither of us takes for granted after those months of separation. There’s a lot we can do outdoors without spending much money. Which is a very good thing, because the remaining stressors on our relationship are financial.
As the breadwinner, Tony daily makes a decision to let go of his worry about money. We can’t change it right now. We just have to keep doing the best we can and enjoying the parts of our lives that don’t cost money. The great thing about Tony is that he has enough maturity and self-awareness to do this kind of daily work, instead of allowing our financial stress to tear at the relationship.
We’re aware that the external pressures we’ve faced in the past could recur. And that we might encounter stressors we haven’t even thought of so far.
But for now, I believe I’m the happiest, relationship-wise, that I’ve ever been. And that goes a long way toward extending happiness into the rest of my life, as I discovered in reverse during my previous marriage.
I don’t know that I’ll ever say I am grateful for those hard years. But in a weird way I do feel thankful for the fear and dependence that made me come home to Tony. Independence, financial or otherwise, is a good thing in a lot of contexts. But sometimes genuinely needing the other person is a path to power.
I was reading the other day about people who think their successes or defeats are internally or externally driven. The author, Daniel Leviton, says that “internal” types are more successful, and generally happier, even when they are hit by indisputably external events like wildfires or tornadoes. I say it’s more complicated than that. Remaining dogmatically convinced that success is always due to personal character rather than luck just means you’re unrealistic (dishonest with yourself, even) and possibly lacking in compassion for the very real challenges other people face. Sometimes life really is a series of Fortunately/Unfortunately events.
At the same time, personal drive and a commitment to do the best you can helps you get through the bad times. There was a time in my life when I never would have accepted the current “best I can.” Being more realistic helps me work hard to achieve what I can, while finding joy even when I can no longer do what I imagined. Most of those standards for what I should be able to do were established when I was 18, with lots of talent and no limitations that I was aware of. Rather than trying to be an internal or an external, you might as well assess these things realistically: try hard to overcome challenges, both internal and external, yet realize when you’re up against something insurmountable. Meanwhile, do what you can to find joy.
Crap. Was that the Serenity Prayer?
I hope that this little rest from nasty treatment from the universe (KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK on holy wood), and this genuine enjoyment Tony and I are taking in each other, will give us some resilience for dealing with whatever further setbacks come our way.
Right now, we’re lucky, fortunately.
*Hat tip to Ann Patchett’s recent book title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.