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The Marriage in the Mirror

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Sandra Tsing Loh’s unblinking (and, to some, too unapologetic) review of her infidelity and the subsequent breakup of her 20-year marriage in the July/August 2009 edition of The Atlantic asks, “Why do we still insist on marriage?” It is an interesting follow-up to Lori Gottlieb’s apology for settling in a March 2008 article in the same magazine about marrying “Mr. Good Enough.” Is the ever-sagging success rate of marriage in America due to our persistent optimism or our low expectations?

There is something snarky in the tone of The Atlantic to begin with (and we are subscribers in my house, so I say that without malice), which could be the source of my irritation. I am willing to concede, however, that the writers are tweaking my own optimism; perhaps I am annoyed because they are bumping up against some of my long-held values or ideals, dusty and banged up as those may be.

Still, I suspect the issue with marriage, divorce, and settling is, in part, a failure in the area of "knowing thyself" (which on my own snarky days I might rephrase as "growing up"). Powered by our pioneer and immigrant spirit, we spend our days looking outward, searching and exploring, often for Mr. or Ms. Right. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if we would do better in many areas of our lives, including our relationships, if we spent a little time sitting with ourselves first. Perhaps the secret to a happy marriage is a mirror.

It is not enough to reevaluate our expectations and ideals, as Gottlieb correctly asserts is necessary when looking for a good mate. We must have the courage to look inward and to ask ourselves why we seek certain qualities in a person. Does he really have to have a full head of hair? Does she have to be a good housekeeper? Lie back on the shrink's sofa in your mind and ask, "And why is that important to you? What do you need in that?"

Loh wonders why we have to work so hard at keeping a relationship afloat. I have found it helpful to do the work up front, engaging in some self-evaluation before committing. In my experience, this work builds the emotional muscle necessary to trust one’s intuition, aiding in the possibility of choosing rightly before signing on the dotted line. I neglected this step before my own failed marriage, which was doomed by his alcoholism and my enabling of it, so file this measure under “I know that now!”

Loh rejects the work of reinvigorating her marriage as “another arduous home-self-improvement project,” but could it be that we look to our “staggering…to do list[s]” to demonstrate our self-worth? Our achievement-centric focus in life obscures the clear sight required to engender and maintain vigor in marriage in the first place. And those to-do lists are also handy fall guys when the whole enterprise unravels. Once I stepped off the hamster wheel and engaged in some pointed self-reflection, my subsequent ability to fill my own spiritual well took the pressure off my marriage to serve that purpose. I then found it impossible to continue to overlook my husband’s destructive behavior, so I finally listened to my intuition and left.

On the subject of intuition, both articles discuss the issue of sex at length. I emphatically disagree with Gottlieb that it is acceptable to settle for a person if the thought of his or her embrace gives you a creepy "cold shiver down your spine." Lack of intimate physical connection is a non-starter. Period. Heebie-jeebies = the wrong person! But when Loh questions the viability of monogamy, I go back to the issue of self-assessment: we would do well to have the courage to face ourselves and engage in honest dialogue with our partners often (perhaps before our "commitment to monogamy…[comes] unglued"?).

One of Loh's friends says this of his wife of over 20 years: “My heart doesn’t lift when she walks in the room. It sinks, slightly.” What a depressing, discouraging thought. I look forward to seeing my current and, dare I say (or, I dare say!), forever partner every single day. I think the reason is that before we met, we both had stepped back from the relationship playing field and spent time getting really comfortable being alone and existing in our own tiny little minds. So now, togetherness no longer has the clenched fists of "grasping and wanting," which Buddhists like Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron say is the root of all unhappiness. Instead, our open hands lift us up.

I finally figured out that I had long believed happiness to be a right of other people, not me. I worked on compassionate self-reflection and a willingness to do as the Buddhists do, "lean into the spear" and sit quietly with the lousy feelings about life and self. The resulting openness created room for the right relationship, but it sure was hard to get there, which is why I think so many of us prefer to enter into and stay in, if not rotten, then ill-fitting relationships. When our expectations are so low for ourselves, how can we bring expectations of success to a relationship?

The LA Times' James Rainey quotes Loh as saying “she had felt ‘the gradual, continental sinking of the self’ [in her marriage.]” The preventative measure of knowing thyself is an effective buoy in times like these. We would all do well to grab hold.

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About Catherine A. Mulligan

  • I’m not sure that the success rate in America is “ever sinking”. It’s been holding close to 50% for quite awhile.

    While I applaud self-reflection, I think that a successful marriage is far more than being comfortable with being alone. I’ve been married for 20 years and without exaggeration, both my husband and I still adore each other and would rather spend time together than do anything else. Our hearts leap when the other walks in the door after an absence.

    Such a relationship started out on a passionate high, but it held that together based on communication, a willingness to compromise, and a desire to put the concerns of the other party first at least half of the time. Most marriages fail because people are selfish, egotistical, rigid, or too neurotic to assert themselves or their needs. They also fail because people marry the wrong person.

    And “the wrong person” is often defined by people in superficial terms – physical appeal, sexual chemistry, status, income, etc. There are powerful psychological indicators of the success of a relationship and they have little to do with an objective list of criteria. It has to do with some core compatibility issues. People who desire a lot of attention are not a problem as long as they marry someone who enjoys giving it. People who want to be with their spouse all the time are fine as long as they marry someone who is like-minded. There’s no “wrong” or “right” type of person as much as someone who has a very basic psychological incompatibility.

  • @Shari – Many thanks for your comments. I am sincerely delighted to hear that there is room for leaping hearts in your marriage! I have that now too, and don’t you just wish more people had that in their lives?

    And you’re right: it’s so true about people marrying the wrong person. I suspect that if we engage in honest self-reflection to understand our best attributes and our neuroses, we’ll be better able to identify in ourselves and in others those “core compatibility issues,” upping our chances of meeting the “right” person (yes, different for each of us) in the first place.

    Then we would be better positioned to develop the skills you so rightly identify as necessary for success, such as communication and compromise. It is still work, to be sure, but the partnership then has fertile ground in which to thrive.