Married With Issues
I have a pretty good marriage. It could be better. There are things about my husband that drive me crazy. Last spring he cut apart a frozen pig’s head with his compound miter saw in our basement. He needed the head to fit into a pot so that he could make pork stock. I’m no saint of a spouse, either. I hate French kissing, compulsively disagree and fake sleep when Dan vomits in the middle of the night. Dan also once threatened to punch my brother at a family reunion at a lodge in Maine. But in general we do O.K.
The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I’ve never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married — truly married — slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn’t applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly — some might say obsessively — at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?
That night, the image that came to mind, which I shared with Dan, was that I had been viewing our marriage like the waves on the ocean, a fact of life, determined by the sandbars below, shaped by fate and the universe, not by me. And this, suddenly, seemed ridiculous. I am not a fatalistic person. In my 20s I even believed that people made their own luck. Part of the luck I believed I made arrived in the form of Dan himself, a charming, handsome surfer and writer I met three days after I moved to San Francisco. Eleven years later we had two kids, two jobs, a house, a tenant, a huge extended family — what Nikos Kazantzakis described in “Zorba the Greek” as “the full catastrophe.” We were going to be careless about how our union worked out?
So I decided to apply myself to my marriage, to work at improving ours now, while it felt strong. Our children, two girls who are now 4 and 7, were no longer desperately needy; our careers had stabilized; we had survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, you could say that I feared stasis; more positively, that I had energy for Dan once again. From the myriad psychology books that quickly stacked up on my desk, I learned that my concept was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappy six years before first attending therapy, at which point, according to “The Science of Clinical Psychology,” the marital therapist’s job is “less like an emergency-room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot and the infection that ensued.”
Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes.
A quick bit of background: Dan and I married on July 1, 2000, in Olema, Calif. I wore a white dress. Dan was 32; I was 30. We vowed to have and to hold, to love and to cherish in sickness and in health, etc. We were optimistic, cocky and vague about the concept of marriage. We never discussed, or considered discussing, why we were getting married or what a good marriage would mean. It all seemed obvious. I loved Dan; I loved how I felt with him. Ergo I wanted to be his wife.
During the first nine years of our marriage — that is, until we tried to improve it — Dan and I thought little about our expectations and even less about our parents’ marriages, both of which have lasted more than 40 years. Our families had set very different examples of how a marriage could be good. Dan was raised in Berkeley, Calif., by VW-bus-driving lefties who were so utterly committed to their own romance that Dan sometimes felt left out. Each meal and each sunset was the most exquisite. When girls refused to talk to Dan in high school, his mother told him they were just too intimidated by his incredible good looks. My parents’ marriage, meanwhile, resembled nothing so much as a small business. They raised their three children in Wellesley, Mass., where civic life was so tidy that kids held bake sales at the town dump. All conjugal affection took place out of sight. “You’re a good Do Bee” was considered high praise.
After our wedding, with some money from a boom-time book advance, we bought a run-down house in San Francisco. We assumed that our big problems would be money (or lack thereof; we’re both freelance writers) and religion (I’m Jewish; Dan’s Christian). Neither turned out to be true. We built — or more accurately fell — into a 21st-century companionate marriage. But Dan and I were not just economic partners, lovers, (soon enough) co-parents and best friends. We were also each other’s co-workers, editors and primary readers. Both working from home, our lives resembled a D-list version of Joan Didion’s and John Gregory Dunne’s, whose days, according to Didion, “were filled with the sound of each other’s voices” — except with what I can only assume is a much more egregious lack of boundaries. We lost steam 95 percent of the way through our D.I.Y. home remodeling and, as a result, have no master-bathroom door.
But how to start? What would a better marriage look like? More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear. We all know what marriage is: a legal commitment between two people. But a good marriage? For guidance I turned to the standard assessments. The Locke-Wallace Marital Adjustment Test instructs spouses, among other things, to rank themselves along the “always agree” to “always disagree” continuum on matters ranging from recreation to in-laws. This struck me as scattershot and beside the point. For all the endless talk about marriage — who should have the right to be in one, whether the declining numbers of married-parent households are hurting America’s children — we don’t know much about what makes a marriage satisfying or how to keep one that way. John Gottman, in his Love Lab in Seattle, claims that he can analyze a conversation between spouses and predict with 94 percent accuracy whether that couple will divorce over the course of six years. But many academics say that Gottman’s powers of prophecy are overblown, that he can’t truly predict if a couple will split. Those not selling books, workshops or counseling admit to knowing surprisingly little. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, likens our current understanding of “relationship science” to the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man “feels the tusk, inferring that elephants are hard and sharp-edged, like a blade. Another touches the soft, flexible ear, concluding that elephants are supple, resembling felt. A third imagines massive strength from grasping the pillar-like structure of the leg. The perspective of each person touching the elephant is valid, as far as it goes. . . .” But no one understands the whole beast.
Dan and I decided to dive in, trusting that the terms of our better marriage and the yardstick by which to measure those terms would emerge along the way. It seemed safest to start in private, so we began our putative improving with Harville Hendrix’s Oprah-sanctioned self-help best seller, “Getting the Love You Want.” I let Dan pick the first exercise. It seemed only sporting. I assumed he would choose “positive flooding,” which includes making a list of all the qualities you wish your partner would praise you for but never does and then sitting in a chair as your spouse walks circles around you, reading that list in an increasingly loud and emphatic voice. (I was terrible at giving Dan compliments, even though he craved them; I sided with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who writes that in marriage “the long applause becomes baffling.”) But instead Dan chose “reromanticizing.” In hindsight, no surprise — Dan’s parents were dreamy and passionate.
Step 1: Complete this sentence in as many ways as possible: “I feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”
Dan quickly jotted down “submit to kissing, clean the kitchen, tell me I look studly.”
“Let’s try for 10,” I said.
“Ten!” Dan said, teasing but serious, one of our most common modes of conversation. “You can think of 10?”
In “Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion,” the psychologist Michael Vincent Miller describes marriage as mocking our “fondest dreams,” because the institution is not the wellspring of love we imagine it to be. Instead it’s an environment of scarcity, it’s “a barbaric competition over whose needs get met”; it’s “two people trying to make a go of it on emotional and psychological supplies that are only sufficient for one.” And true enough, with “Getting the Love You Want” splayed on our bed, I began seeing Dan as my adversary, the person against whom I was negotiating the terms of our lives. I remembered well, but not fondly, this feeling from early in our marriage, when nearly everything was still up for grabs: Where would we live? How much money was enough? What algorithm would determine who would watch the baby and who would go to the gym? Recently those questions had settled, and our marriage felt better for it. But now the competitive mind-set came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan’s vision of marriage and away from mine or the other way around. Admitting too much satisfaction seemed tantamount to ceding the upper hand. So I held my ground. I, too, failed to think of 10 things Dan did that made me feel loved. “O.K.,” I said, “let’s quit after 8.”
Step 2: Recall the romantic stage of your relationship. Complete this sentence: “I used to feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”
Dan made one of those circles with a line through it on his paper, symbolizing, he ribbed, “the null set.” Then he grabbed my list. “ ‘Looked giddy to come through the door and see me,’ ” Dan read. “Are you kidding me? You don’t even see me when you come through the door. It’s like you’re blind and deaf to everyone but the kids.”
I thought I had avoided becoming one of those mothers who transferred all of her romantic energy from her husband to her children. Apparently I failed. But Dan, in my view, hadn’t mastered the spouse-parent balance, either, only his problem was the opposite: at times he ignored the kids. While reromanticizing, I asked him, testily, “Do you really think a 6-2, 200-pound man who works at home with his wife needs to compete with his small children for their mother’s attention before those children leave for school?” Great. Now we were having a fight. Dan retreated to the bathroom to check his progress on his six-pack. My doubts set in. This was the fear, right? You set out to improve your marriage; it implodes. What if my good marriage was not floating atop a sea of goodness, adrift but fairly stable when pushed? What if my good marriage was teetering on a precipice and any change would mean a toppling, a crashing down?
Much of the commentary on modern marriage is frankly terrifying. Miller describes “the marital ghetto” — the marital ghetto? — as “the human equivalent of a balanced aquarium, where the fish and the plants manage to live indefinitely off each other’s waste products.” Perhaps we’d been striving in raising children and not in marriage because child-rearing is a dictatorship and marriage is a democracy. The children do not get to vote on the direction of the relationship, on which sleep-training or discipline philosophy they like best. But with a spouse, particularly a contemporary American spouse, equality is foundational, assumed. A friend had recently told me that he thought I was the boss in my marriage. Did I really want to negotiate my marriage anew and risk losing that power? From the bathroom, Dan asked, “Do you really think this project is a good idea?”
I realized that my favorite books about marriage — Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” — included one spouse who was dead.
Still, one Saturday last spring, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley to attend a marriage-education class. In academic circles, marriage education is known as a “prevention” program, an implicit admission that by the time most couples get to the subsequent program — therapy — it’s too late. The classes, sadly, have all the intellectual glamour of driver’s ed. But they’re based on the optimistic idea that you can learn to be better at marriage. As Bernard G. Guerney Jr., a clinical psychologist, family therapist and the godfather of the marriage-education movement, wrote in his 1977 book “Relationship Enhancement,” unless an unhappily married spouse “is suffering a biochemical deficiency or imbalance, he is no more sick than someone who wants to play tennis and does not know how, and the professional is no more providing ‘therapy’ or ‘curing’ his or her client than a tennis coach is ‘curing’ his clients.”
We enrolled in a 16-hour, two-Saturday course called “Mastering the Mysteries of Love.” The classes teach students how to have “skilled conversations” or rather, I should say, how to stop having the let’s-see-who-rhetorically-wins skirmishes that were standard in our house. A skilled conversation is an exercise in forced empathy. One person starts by describing his or her feelings. The other person then validates those feelings, repeating them back nearly verbatim.
Midmorning, with the gongs of the supposedly soothing spa music crashing in the background, Dan and I retreated to a couch with a template for having a skilled conversation about a “small disagreement.” Among our most longstanding fights was how much energy and money should go into Dan’s cooking. Shortly after our first child, Hannah, was born, Dan and I started having the same conversation every night: do you want to cook dinner or look after the kid? He always picked cook, I always picked kid, and now, seven years later, Dan was an excellent, compulsive and profligate chef. We spent far more money on food than we did on our mortgage. Sure, we ate well. Very well. Our refrigerator held, depending on the season: homemade gravlax, Strauss organic milk, salt-packed anchovies, little gem lettuces, preserved Meyer lemons, imported Parmesan, mozzarella and goat cheese, baby leeks, green garlic, Blue Bottle coffee ($18 a pound), supergroovy pastured eggs. On a ho-hum weeknight Dan might make me pan-roasted salmon with truffled polenta in a Madeira shallot reduction. But this was only a partial joy. Dan’s cooking enabled him to hide out in plain sight; he was home but busy — What? I’m cooking dinner! — for hours every evening. During this time I was left to attend to our increasingly hungry, tired and frantic children and to worry about money. That was our division of labor: Dan cooked, I tended finances. Because of the cooking, in part, we saved little for retirement and nothing for our children’s college educations.
I garnered no sympathy from our friends. Still, Dan’s cooking and the chaos it created drove me mad, a position I expressed by leaving whole pigeons untouched on my plate. Dan, meanwhile, entrenched and retaliated, slipping crispy fried pigs’ ears into my salads and making preposterously indulgent weekday breakfasts, the girls upending flour bowls and competing for Dad’s attention as he made them crepes with grapes and Champagne sauce at 6:45 a.m. I knew Dan’s cooking and his obsessions in general were mechanisms to bind his anxiety, attempts to bring order to an unruly mind. Without an outlet, Dan tended toward depression, and his depression vented as anger. In his early 20s, he learned the trick of focusing and applying himself, at nearly all times, so his energy would not, as he put it, “turn bad.” I respected this, even appreciated it, in theory. But I struggled with the specifics. Dan cooked, because he needed to cook, blitzing through one cookbook after another, putting little check marks next to every recipe. He was not cooking for me, not for the girls. Yet now in our marriage class, following the skilled-conversation template, the emotional distance between us on this issue seemed to collapse. I said, then Dan mirrored back to me, “The chaos is really upsetting, and you’d like to find a way to maintain more peace and calm in our home.” Then Dan said, and I mirrored to him: “Food is a truly important part of family. For you it’s health and pleasure bound together, and it lets you express and pursue the life you want to live three times a day.”
That afternoon, as we talked in this stilted, earnest style — covering such esteemed topics as backrubs and stray socks, the utter banalities of married life — I felt a trapdoor crack open in our marriage. According to a widely accepted model, intimacy begins when one person expresses revealing feelings, builds when the listener responds with support and empathy and is achieved when the discloser hears these things and feels understood, validated and cared for. This is not news. It’s not even advice. Offering a married couple this model is like informing an obese person that he should eat less and move more. But in the days and nights that followed that course, our intimacy grew. We had never considered our verbal jousting to be protecting uncomfortable feelings. Clearly it was. Back home, that first irony-free evening, I found myself telling Dan a raft of antiheroic stories about my childhood, stories I’d never told him, I realized, because I felt insecure. They were tales about suburban bat mitzvahs and the pedal pushers I wore to them, anecdotes from a conventional East Coast world our marriage eschewed. Without the ironclad guarantee of empathy, I had felt that they might go over poorly, especially alongside Dan’s epics of a glorious youth spent playing Frisbee in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.
For the next few weeks, even our sex was more intimate, more open and trusting. Then I found myself recoiling. As if I were obeying Newton’s third law of motion, I had an innate equal and opposite reaction to our newfound intimacy, to living our lives, as the saccharine marriage-improvement phrase goes, as we instead of as me. I loved the idea of digging out of my emotional bunker and going over to Dan’s to live with him. And I liked being there, for a while. But Dan has a bigger, flashier personality than I do. I feared, in our intimacy, I might be subsumed. As many women had, I read in fascinated horror, a few years back, about a Buddhist couple who took vows never to be parted by more than 15 feet. They inhaled and exhaled in unison while doing yoga, walked each other to writing desks when inspiration struck in the middle of the night. “It is very intimate,” the male partner explained. That vision of intimacy as a chain-link leash filled me with dread. Yes, I loved the emotional security of knowing that if I said, “I’m upset,” Dan would repeat back, “You’re upset.” But while such command empathy was comforting to a point, it felt unsustainable, even cloying.
Some days, following intimate nights, I’d walk up to our kitchen from our bedroom below and want to pretend it didn’t happen. Dan would caress the small of my back. I’d squirm away. I knew older couples who slept in separate bedrooms, an arrangement that unsettled me as a newlywed but now struck me as a sound approach to running the chute between intimacy and autonomy over the course of 50 years. Yet Dan and I weren’t going to stop sharing a room — for one thing, we lacked the space. So while working to improve our marriage, I found myself pushing my husband away. I had started our project assuming the more closeness, the better. But that wasn’t turning out to be true, at least for me.
A few weeks later we drove through San Francisco to the tony Laurel Village neighborhood from our house in Bernal Heights for some psychoanalytic couple’s therapy. En route we discussed not shaking the bushes of our union too hard. Dan had just flown home from London where he was working on a story about Fergus Henderson, a chef who defines half a pig’s head as “a perfect romantic supper for two.” Henderson has Parkinson’s but told Dan he stopped reading about the disease, because in his experience “the more I know, the more symptoms I have.” Following suit, we thought it best to stick to dissecting the good parts of our marriage and how to improve them, as marriage can bring out people’s worst. Even those who are tolerant, wise and giving are often short and rude to their mates. I had always winced at the opening of Chekov’s “Lady With the Dog.” The narrator describes the protagonist’s wife as “a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified.” Then he gives us her husband’s view: “he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her and did not like to be at home.” How much did we really want to share?
A word here about psychoanalytic reasoning: I’ve never been a big fan. I’ve long favored the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to life. Why turn over the rocks of your history just to see what’s underneath? In marriage therapy, this fear makes particular sense, because the therapy carries not only the threat of learning things about yourself that you might prefer not to know but also the hazard of saying things to your spouse that are better left unsaid, as well as hearing things from your spouse that you might prefer not to hear. Some in the field are outwardly critical of most marriage therapy; among them is William J. Doherty, a psychologist and the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, who writes, “If you talk to a therapist in the United States about problems in your marriage, I believe that you stand a good risk of harming your marriage.” The science behind marital counseling is also less precise than you might imagine. In clinical trials, among the most effective protocols is Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, an unabashed mash-up of two schools of thought. Couples work on “change-oriented strategies,” trying to find ways to remedy each other’s complaints. They also do “acceptance work,” trying to learn to love the relationships as is.
Holly Gordon, our reed-thin psychoanalyst, did not think much of our plan. “To get the most out of your time here we need to talk about some dissatisfaction or problem, something you’re trying to improve,” she instructed, closing a double set of soundproof doors. So we settled into airing some well-rehearsed gripes — the time Dan came to the hospital to visit me and four-pound, premature Hannah, and all he could talk about was the San Francisco building code. (He’d torn the front stairs off our house and kept rebuilding them and ripping them off again, fearing they were imperfect.) The time Dan proposed a trade: he would clean up more, he swore he would, if I would just French-kiss him spontaneously once a day; I gave up first. (I found the forced affection claustrophobic. I was also still stung, I later realized, by critical comments Dan had made about my kissing style before we were engaged.) These were many-times-told tales, and as such we both felt inured to their dark content. We used them to avoid committing what Doherty calls “therapist-induced marital suicide.” We did not want therapy to set a pick for our divorce.
So instead of speaking our harshest truths, for six weeks running Dan and I pursued the lesser offense of making the other sound crazy. Holly cooperated, too, offering feedback that we used to confirm our sense that the other was neurotic. Some weeks Dan took it in the teeth; others, I did. At home, Dan and I had been following a de facto acceptance strategy. He even convinced me that the best response to his lecturing me, again, about conjugate-periodization strength training was for me to say, “Oh, you lovable, obsessive man, you!” and walk away. But Holly took a fix-it, or at least diagnose-it, approach. This is another major complaint about marital therapy: mental-health professionals find mental-health problems. All of a sudden you’re married to a narcissistic personality disorder; who wants to stick around for that? One day Holly ended our session with this synopsis: “On the first count, you find Dan unavailable because he’s not relating to you. He’s just using you as a sounding board. But on the other hand he feels he can’t reach you either. He wants you to accept his affection and praise, but those attentions make you feel smothered, and that makes him feel alone.” I still believed our marriage was good. But I felt that Holly had reduced it to an unappealing, perhaps unfixable conundrum. Would her vote of little confidence hurt or help?
I did start watching my reactions when Dan told me that I looked beautiful. Did he mean it? What did he want from me? I would try to accept the compliment graciously, even offer one in return. But the endless therapy required to become less neurotic generally seemed outside the scope of this project. I felt confident we could build a better marriage, less so that our individual personalities would change. Marital therapy, to me, seemed akin to chemo: helpful but toxic. Leaving Holly’s office one day, Dan, ever valiant, made a strong play to titrate how much negative feedback we let in. “Do they spray shrink powder in these places,” he asked, “to make them extra depressing?”
Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. This was true for us. On our wedding day, Dan and I performed that elaborate charade: I walked down the aisle with my father. I left him to join my husband. We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan — must my love for Dan — always come first?
This all came pouring out last summer in the worst fight of our marriage. At the time, we were at my parents’ house, an hour northeast of San Francisco. More than food, more than child-rearing, we fought about weekends — in particular, how many summer weekends to spend up there. I liked the place: out of the fog, free grandparental day care; the kids could swim. Dan loathed it, describing the locale as “that totally sterile golf community in which your mother feeds our kids popsicles for breakfast and I’m forbidden to cook.”
For the past few years I dismissed Dan’s complaints by saying, “Fine, don’t go.” I told myself this was justified, if not altruistic: I was taking our girls; Dan could do what he wanted with his free time. But underneath lay a tangle of subtext. Dan wished he spent even more time with his own parents, who were quite private. I felt an outsize obligation toward mine, because they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to us. We’d had some skilled conversations, which helped a bit, as I now knew those weekends with his in-laws made Dan feel alienated and left out of our family decision-making. Yet at root we fought because the issue rubbed a weak point in our marriage, in our monogamy: I didn’t want to see my devotion to my parents as an infidelity to Dan. To him, it was.
That June weekend my folks weren’t home, we’d gone up with friends, but Dan hated the place more than ever. Saturday morning I woke up early, went for a run and came back to find Dan on a small AstroTurf putting green with the girls, ranting about how he hated all the houses that looked the same, with tinted windows blocking the natural light; the golf course that obliterated the landscape and all the jerks that played golf on it. The next day was Father’s Day. I took the girls to do errands with what I thought were the best of intentions, but I was so angered by Dan’s relentless crabbiness that I failed to buy a gift. The final insult came Sunday afternoon as we packed to go home. I informed Dan that I told my mother that she could bring the girls back up the following weekend. Dan erupted in rage. “Those are my actual children. Why do you insist on treating me like I’m some potted plant? I, too, get to decide what happens in this family. Do I need to tell you to tell your mother, ‘O.K., Mom, I’m not allowed to make any plans for our children without getting permission from my husband?’ Do I need to be telling you, ‘I’m sorry, little girl, I make the plans in this family, and I’ll tell you what to tell your mother about where my children are going?’ ”
I stiffened and said, “Of course not.”
“How far are you going to let this go?” Dan kept screaming. “Are you willing to get divorced so you can keep spending weekends with your mom?”
This was the first time in our marriage either of us had ever invoked divorce.
The following Thursday, as we entered Holly’s office, I still felt certain she would side with me: Dan needed to get over his holier-than-thou Berkeley hang-ups. Sure, golf communities are snobbish, but family is much more important. Especially my family, right now — my parents had moved from Massachusetts to California to be near their grandchildren, for God’s sake. And besides, I dealt more with the kids, and I let Dan run amok in the kitchen. So I got this.
Holly, who’d thrown out her back and was reclining in a lawn chair in front of the couch she used for psychoanalytic clients, did not think much of my reasoning. “It sounds like you’ve created these little enclaves of rationalizations: ‘I give on all these other fronts, so I’m entitled not to give on this one.’ ”
She was right. I felt entitled.
“But that does pose a problem — for Dan. Because he feels he’s really not taken into account.”
Dan brightened. “Just as you were talking there, I was having all these fears come up again. I have a real fear of being an appendage in that family, and that Liz’s real family is her and her mother, and I was just a sperm donor. That it would be really fine if I disappeared. Nothing much would change.”
“Really?” I asked. I knew some of the ways I betrayed Dan with the girls. As they grew older we found ourselves forming cross-generation allegiances. Hannah, our elder, and I would wish Dan wasn’t so chronically messy and emotionally florid. Audrey, our younger, would promise to be Dan’s perfect companion; she would do the things I wouldn’t do: climb huge overhanging rock crags, eat whole fried smelt. But I understood less well why there was a conflict with my parents. I often spent 21 hours a day with Dan. When my mother called, I frequently didn’t answer the phone.
I could not believe Dan thought my primary relationship was with my mother. I needed to know if he felt that way generally or just on these weekends. Dan declared the distinction moot: any rupture in our monogamy weakened the whole. I wondered if improving my marriage had to mean cutting myself off from the world? I wanted to gain strength from my marriage — that was increasingly clear. In many ways I did. Dan had faith in me, and that helped me have faith in myself. But clearly I owed Dan a debt of constancy and consideration. Our marriage needed to be a place to gain strength for him too.
Near the end of our session, Holly asked what I thought would happen if I let go of my rationalizations, if I accepted a fuller monogamy. I said I would feel vulnerable, “like a beating heart with no rib cage.”
“So there’s a feeling that if you take Dan into account, he’s going to take it all away, or you’re going to have to give yourself over to him?”
“Yes,” I said. “I imagine I’m going to be squashed.”
Holly sat up in her lawn chair. “We’re going to have to stop for the day.”
Since the beginning of this project, Dan had been waiting for one thing: sex therapy. And I have good and bad news on this front: improving the sex in our marriage was much easier than you might guess, and the process of doing so made us want to throw up.
Here again we began with books. In “Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time,” Stephen A. Mitchell, a psychoanalyst, presents a strong case for the idea that those thoughts you might have about your spouse or your sex life being predictable or boring — that’s just an “elaborate fantasy,” a reflection of your need to see your partner as safe and knowable, so you don’t have to freak out over the possibility that he could veer off in an unforeseen direction, away from you.
Inspired by Mitchell, I decided to try a thought exercise: to think, while we were making love, that Dan was not predictable in the least. Before this, Dan and I were having regular sex, in every sense: a couple of times a week, not terribly inventive. As in many areas of our lives, we’d found a stable point that well enough satisfied our desires, and we just stayed there. But now I imagined Dan as a free actor, capable of doing anything at any time and paradoxically, by telling myself I did not know what to expect, I wanted to move toward him, to uncover the mystery. For years, of course, I felt I knew Dan well, worried that lessening the little distance between us could lead to collapse. Now I was having the same sweaty feelings I had in my 20s, when I would let my psyche ooze into that of a new lover at the start of an affair.
This was great, right? A better marriage meant more passionate sex, this went without saying. But by now I noticed a pattern: improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. More intimacy meant less autonomy. More passion meant less stability. I spent a lot of time feeling bad about this, particularly the fact that better sex made me retreat. There’s a school of thought that views sex as a metaphor for marriage. Its proponents write rational-minded books like Patricia Love and Jo Robinson’s “Hot Monogamy,” in which they argue, “When couples share their thoughts and emotions freely throughout the day, they create between them a high degree of trust and emotional connection, which gives them the freedom to explore their sexuality more fully.” But there’s this opposing school: sex — even sex in marriage — requires barriers and uncertainty, and we are fools to imagine otherwise. “Romantic love, at the start of this century, is cause for embarrassment,” Cristina Nehring moans in “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century.” She berates the conventional marital set-up: two spouses, one house, one bedroom. She’s aghast at those who strive for equality. “It is precisely equality that destroys our libidos, equality that bores men and women alike.” I can only imagine what scorn she’d feel for hypercompanionate idiots like us.
Still, I agreed with Nehring’s argument that we need “to rediscover the right to impose distances, the right to remain strangers.” Could my postcoital flitting away be a means to re-establish erotic distance? An appealing thought but not the whole truth. My relationship with Dan started on rocky footing. When we met, Dan was working through the aftershocks of a torrid affair with an emotionally sadistic, sexually self-aggrandizing woman. She said mean things to him; he said mean things to me (“Why do you kiss like that?”). Not a perfect foundation for a marriage. Nor was the fact that Dan spent the early years of ours writing an erotic bildungsroman about this nightmare ex-girlfriend, the novel at one point ballooning to 500 pages and including references to everyone he’d ever slept with. Even after the book was published, I never quite shook the feeling that my role in Dan’s life was to be the steady, vanilla lay. We never discussed this. We just had a strenuously normal sex, year after year after year.
Then one day at my desk I started reading “The Multi-Orgasmic Couple: Sexual Secrets Every Couple Should Know.” I sent Dan an e-mail message entitled “Nine Taoists Thrusts.”
Page 123, from the seventh-century physician Li T’ung-hsuan Tzu:
1. Strike left and right as a brave general breaking through the enemy ranks.
2. Rise and suddenly plunge like a wild horse bucking through a mountain stream.
3. Push and pull out like a flock of seagulls playing on the waves.
4. Use deep thrusts and shallow teasing strokes, like a sparrow plucking pieces of rice.
5. Make shallow and then deeper thrusts in steady succession.
6. Push in slowly as a snake entering its hole.
7. Charge quickly like a frightened mouse running into its hole.
8. Hover and then strike like an eagle catching an elusive hare.
9. Rise up and then plunge down low like a great sailboat in a wild wind.
This e-mail was partly in response to one Dan sent me a few months earlier, just to see how much he could tweak my type-A sensibility. It was entitled “Strength Benchmarks for Women” and indicated that I should be able to do 10 pull-ups, 20 bar dips, front squat and bench press my body weight and dead lift one and a half times my body weight. Upon receiving the thrust e-mail, Dan ran up to my office in the attic from his in the basement and asked which thrust sounded best. This was a departure for us — after I felt rebuffed in some early attempts to make use of some kitschy erotic wedding presents, we settled into our safe, narrow little bowling alley of a sex life.
Now, high above noisy Franklin Street, in the office of our therapist, Betsy Kassoff, our issues came pouring out. (We chose to see a psychologist who worked on sexuality, because we weren’t contending with physical dysfunction.) Dan began with an exhaustive history. “When I was 15 years old I was dating a girl. . . .” I can’t tell you how monumentally tired I was of hearing about Dan’s ex-girlfriends. Could we please never discuss this again? “We had this completely psychologically sadistic thing that was incredibly disturbing to me. . . . Every few years I’d have a relationship that mirrored that one, and then I had the bull moose of these relationships. It was like sticking my finger in the electrical socket of my own unconscious.”
Betsy, who had a touch as deft as Bill Clinton at a barbecue, just said, “Wow.”
Dan and I had talked around the edges of this before — the trauma of the bull moose, our romance’s unpleasant start. But by the time either of us had any clarity on the matter, we were desperate to pack it away. Strange, now, what relief we felt in opening that rank old hamper. Betsy could not have said more than 50 words before Dan paused, and I jumped in.
Remember that searing detail from the Eliot Spitzer scandal: that he had sex in his socks? Way worse stuff came out. Like how Dan and I hadn’t been talking to each other while having sex. And not making eye contact either. “And what about the darker, more aggressive side of sexuality you talked about in your earlier relationships?” Betsy asked Dan. “Would you say it’s been more difficult to bring those parts of yourself to this relationship?”
Betsy worked gently and efficiently, a nurse undressing a wound. I confessed my craving but also my worry that we could not be sexually aggressive without conjuring the bull moose. Dan swore — eagerly — that this was not the case. The layers of our erotic life kept pulling back. I allowed that I felt hemmed in by our excessively regular sex life and annoyed that, in the context of our marriage, Dan supposedly had an important sexual history while I had none. Dan then admitted his fantasies about my past lovers, his fear that they had accessed parts of me that were walled off from him. How, nine years into our marriage, could our sex life still be under the thumbs of exes we no longer talked to or even desired? The thought made me angry and nauseated.
Fifty minutes later, Dan and I stumbled down onto the street, wrung out and dazed. Then we went home and solved the problem, at least at first. I hate to sound all Ayelet Waldman here, trumpeting her steamy sex life with Michael Chabon, but we had excellent sex. We were terrified not to. Yet once we proved to ourselves that we weren’t fools to be married — that we could have as charged an erotic life with each other as we had with others before — the backslide began. This time, the retreat was painful and abrupt. One day Dan found a box of old snapshots in the basement and brought it upstairs, thinking he’d show his old self to our daughters. The cache turned out to include pictures I saved of ex-boyfriends, photos Dan proceeded to fling, to the girls’ great amusement, across the room.
“Remind me again why you invited so many ex-lovers to our wedding?” Dan e-mailed me at 6 the following morning — neither of us could sleep. “Also, at the time, you had told me that you’d never slept with two of them. It only emerged later over time that you had. So what was going on there? Not completely ready to relinquish the past? Immaturity? Self-protection? Are you enjoying having a sexual history, too?”
In his novel “Before She Met Me,” Julian Barnes explores the rabid jealousy we feel for spouses’ former lovers, as if we expect our partners to have lived in anticipation of meeting us. This jealousy, Barnes writes, comes “in rushes, in sudden, intimate bursts that winded you.” It then lingers on “unwanted, resented.” This was our experience. The inquisition continued for days. Why had I not told Dan I’d slept with _______? I lied 11 years earlier for the weakest of reasons: I lacked the presence of mind to tell Dan the truth, that I did not yet think he had a right to know all the details of my sex life before him. But now Dan was my husband, my full catastrophe. He allowed this reckless poking into all corners of our marriage. He even stopped seeing me as predictable and tame, and the old lie hurt. “This is the central trust issue in a marriage,” Dan said the next day as he made me lunch. “Can I trust you when you tell me you haven’t slept with somebody else?”
The following weekend: jealousy again (or was it an attempt to fuel our eroticism with tension?). I said yes a bit too forcefully when Dan asked if I’d noticed a well-muscled young man at the pool. Dan was allowing for my sexual free agency, granting me my full humanity. We lived, raised children, worked and slept together. Now we needed to gouge out a gap to bridge, an erotic synapse to cross. It was exhausting. “That guy did the epitome of bad-values hypertrophy training” — vanity weight lifting, in Dan’s estimation, just to get buff. “You’re like a guy admitting he likes fake boobs. And he had chicken legs. Did you notice that, too?”
What is a good marriage? How good is good enough? Ultimately each philosophy of what makes a good marriage felt like a four-fingered glove. The passion apologists placed no stock in the pleasures of home. The communication gurus ignored life history. I came to view the project as a giant attempt to throw everything out of the messy closet that was our life and put it back in a way that resembled an ad for the Container Store. Not everything fit. It never would. We could tidy up any given area and more quickly and easily than we anticipated. But despite ongoing sessions with endless professionals, we couldn’t keep the entirety of our marriage shipshape at once.
Still, night after night, I’d slide into bed next to Dan. He often slept in a white T-shirt and white boxer briefs, a white-cased pillow wrapped over his head to block out my reading light, his toppled stacks of cookbooks and workout manuals strewn on the floor. He looked like a baby, fresh and full of promise. In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.
In the end, I settled on this vision of marriage, felt the logic of applying myself to it. Maybe the perversity we all feel in the idea of striving at marriage — the reason so few of us do it — stems from a misapprehension of the proper goal. In the early years, we take our marriages to be vehicles for wish fulfillment: we get the mate, maybe even a house, an end to loneliness, some kids. But to keep expecting our marriages to fulfill our desires — to bring us the unending happiness or passion or intimacy or stability we crave — and to measure our unions by their capacity to satisfy those longings, is naïve, even demeaning. Of course we strain against marriage; it’s a bound canvas, a yoke. Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.