Last week, I blogged about Laurie Abraham's new book, The Husbands and Wives Club. The nonfiction book follows five couples through their marriage counseling. This week, I asked Abraham some questions about the value of couples counseling, her own marriage, and the most common mistakes we make in our relationships.
Q: The divorce rate today, as most like to cite, is at 50%. What are some problems specific to modern marriages? Is this institution on the rocks?
LA: A therapist whose work I quote in my book, Michael Vincent Miller, has this great line where he says: “A man and a woman used to make love in a cosmos filled with widely shared communal and religious beliefs. Now they make love only in a bed, to which they bring all their anxieties and dreams.” Miller is also a poet, by the way, and what he’s saying is that marriages and nuclear families have become quite closed off--nobody in the wider community is invested in them, and at the same time, they’re expected to meet all our needs for human connection. It’s a fraught situation, and so when something does start to go sour, your sense of yourself as a worthy man or woman is so on the line that it’s hard not to lash out and blame your spouse, which starts a vicious cycle.
Q: Can marriage counseling really help a couple?
LA: The couple who was worst off [before our group started], who was hardly having sex and seemed to loath each other, have [since] had a huge renaissance in their relationship. I visited them last June, and I was shocked. They seemed so comfortable and light in each other’s presence, and they were having sex a couple of times a day. No joke. So that’s a great outcome.
Q: How did you meet your husband, and what would you like to change in yourself to improve your marriage?
LA: I met my husband at a party in Washington, D.C., and I still have a vision of him approaching me in a black turtleneck and jeans, looking so upright, respectable, but also a little vulnerable. It’s hard to introduce yourself to a woman, and he was brave!
I will spend my whole life, I think, trying to be less reactive in the moment, and to not import past slights and pain into my present interactions with my husband. I also, definitely, want to appreciate him more. It’s easy to become shy in a long term relationship--anger and just domestic responsibilities and who knows all what else wall us off from each other, and then even when we feel glimmers of love and appreciation for our spouses, we find ourselves tongue-tied.
This passage is from my book, one of only a few that refer to my own marriage: “I’m underground, waiting for the subway with my husband, the father of my two daughters. We’re about to go our separate ways, me on one train, him on another. His hair looks curly the way I like it. I want to say something to him, acknowledge him. Now, he’s opening the New York Post; now I’m fishing in my bag for the Times. This is how it goes in marriage, ‘Well, if you’re gonna’--fill in the blank--‘then I am too, damnit!’ But his hair looks curly the way I like it, I want to feel his mouth on mine.
“I have to make myself touch my husband. I’m such a connoisseur of his faults--why do I let my other tastes for him atrophy? I brush casually against his bare forearm, like an animal approaching a potential mate, like a schoolboy pulling a girl’s braids. He doesn’t seem to notice. Am I going to have to make the first move? I must speak, act. I have to. ‘Tim?’”
Q: Do most of us need to get married to avoid loneliness in our culture?
LA: No. But it can be difficult for people to fend off the cultural expectation that without a central love relationship life is empty. If you’re not part of a couple, you can still find human connection, obviously, fill your life with rich relationships, but again, as one of my favorite writers, Daphne Merkin, recently wrote in ELLE, in her review of a book on chronic loneliness: “I know my own feelings of loneliness have spiked during the periods in which I’ve been uninvolved with a man and that I begin to look at twosomes with an idealized gaze, despite the recognition that most couples are imperfect unions at best. What I miss most has less to do, I think, with sex or companionship than with body warmth, pure and simple: knowing there is someone breathing beside you at three o’clock in the morning when you wake up disoriented from a bad dream. That kind of silent partnership.”
Q: Did you learn that there are some big common mistakes people make with their partners? Can you name any of them if so?
LA: -- Talking too much. When the couples I observed managed to connect, it was often with just a few direct words, or a simple acknowledgement that they didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know how to solve the problem. But as they said this, they were looking at each other full on, speaking with regret and empathy rather than bitterness.
The less rather than more approach also seemed effective for asking for what you want. First, you have to figure out what you want, which isn’t easy, and then if you can ask for it without a lot of preamble, a lot of justification, a lot of explanation of why your partner should give what you’re asking for, why you’re perfectly entitled to ask for it, etc., you’re a lot more likely to have your request seriously considered. When you throw words at someone, it’s so easy for him to get defensive, or pick out one small part of your argument and counter it, and what you were really after gets lost.
-- Making your partner too “safe”: There was a great, now deceased analyst named Stephen Mitchell who talks about how humans have two primary needs--for safety/home and for adventure--and how in marriages, we tend to use our partners to fill all our requirements for safety. In other words, we make our spouses a lot more predictable than they are, more predictable than anyone is, and that completely denudes the relationship of possibility, of excitement.
I’m in a quoting mood, but the analyst Adam Phillips perfectly captures part of this dynamic in his book of epigrams, Monogamy: “While betrayal makes us too real to each other, its impossibility makes us invisible.” In the same book, Phillips wrote, “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it’s a cure for the terrors of aliveness. The two easily confused.” This is what I’m getting at.
-- Waiting too long to go to therapy, or address in some way their problems. There is tons of research to show that people get into vicious cognitive ruts, and that in distressed marriages, we tend to shunt all incoming information into the same old pathways. I have one chapter called, “The Impossibility of Doing Good in an Unhappy Marriage.” So a husband brings a wife flowers, and she thinks, “Oh, he must’ve just had a good day at work. This isn’t like him; tomorrow, he’ll be back to being the same old jerk,” or something like that. Or worse, she thinks: “What’s up? What’s he trying to hide?”
That said, engrained negative patterns can be disrupted, with practice and earnest intention to change. I saw it in the group, and it was quite moving and inspiring. As Pollyannish as it sounds, there’s always hope