Should you stay or should you go? In this uncensored look inside a marriage therapist's office, psychologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Mark O'Connell shows why it's worthwhile to make the difficult decision to work on long-term relationships and explains how to grapple with unrealistic expectations of marriage. An excerpt.
Growing up together: Midlife challenges and midlife relationships
This is a book about marriage, but it’s not the kind of “how to make your marriage better” book that we have come to expect. This is a book about how stretching the boundaries of what we imagine to be possible can turn our intimate relationships into remarkable opportunities for growth and change. This is a book about how our relationships can make us better. And this is also a book that offers a radical and contemporary answer to an age-old question. Why stay married? Because our long-term relationships can, at their best, help us to navigate the maddeningly relentless passage of time. They can teach us how to find purpose and meaning even in the face of life’s most immovable limits, making growing older an expanding, rather than a diminishing, experience.
Philip and Marie slipped into the empty seats, a rarity for rush hour on the Lexington Avenue subway. Usually they met at their uptown apartment, often quite late now that Drew was off at college and Kaetlin spent most evenings with her high school friends. But last night Philip had proposed dinner in the Village at a new restaurant he’d seen reviewed in the Times.
Marie had been pleased by her husband’s suggestion. Things worked fine between them; Philip was kind and fair, and she didn’t doubt they loved each other. But they had talked less and less to each other over the past few years, and when they did it was mostly about the business of their marriage — money, kids, social engagements, and the like.
As the train picked up speed, heading downtown from the Fifty-ninth Street station, Philip glanced at his wife and saw her brief return smile. He wanted to talk to her, he knew he could start a conversation about yesterday’s argument with Kaetlin, but he wanted something else, and he couldn’t find the opening. In their familiarity with each other she somehow seemed to have grown more unfamiliar to him.
Marie had seen Philip’s glance, and she wanted to grab her husband’s momentary availability. But by the time she could think of anything to say he had opened his briefcase, extracting one of those manila folders that always seemed to occupy the space between them. She, too, opened her briefcase, though she bypassed the briefs and depositions for the college catalogues: Kaetlin would be heading off next fall.
The subway pulled out of Union Square, heading toward Bleecker. In place of the predictable middle-aged disgorgements of the midtown offices, their car now filled with young people; kids dressed in black, with lots of piercings, and with this the quiet turned to laughter and loud conversation.
A woman in her early twenties caught Philip’s attention. She’s not exactly beautiful, he thought, noting that he’d gone from being awed by the power women held over him to regarding them with some kind of controlling, clinical evaluation. Still, there was something about this girl: the smoothness of her skin, the litheness of her body. But it’s more than her looks, he thought, it’s that sex is still her currency. Marie was still beautiful to him, but since the kids had been born she had dressed to be taken seriously, not to be sexy.
Marie noticed Philip’s interest in the girl. She always noticed when he looked, and always she wanted to ask: “Will you fantasize about her?” “Do you wish I looked like that?” She didn’t really fear the answers to these questions, she just wanted to know. When they were younger they had talked about everything, but somehow, over the years, so much of what they thought about seemed to have become off-limits.
Philip had seen Marie notice his glance. Did she know that his looking at women wasn’t really about sex but about something else — a time past that he missed, even a part of himself that he seemed to have lost? He wanted to talk to his wife about these things, but something blocked him, embarrassment maybe, and beneath that a lurking sadness that he needed to turn away from.
Now Marie looked at the young woman. She remembered when she was that lean, twenty-five years and two kids ago. She missed the feeling of being alive in her body, of waking up and swinging her legs out of bed, her feet landing lightly on the floor. What was worse, the thickening of her body seemed to have been accompanied by a thickening of her mind. She watched the girl’s eyes dart between her companions, taking as much pleasure in the emerging power of her own young being as in the company of her friends, and she remembered when she had felt ironic and sharp, when she had looked at life from those slightly off-kilter angles. She wanted to tell Philip all of this, but she feared he’d see her as even older and less appealing than he probably already thought she was.
The sign for Spring Street appeared through the train’s window, and Philip and Marie rearranged themselves. Standing together, they shared a quick smile as he touched her shoulder, gently ushering her toward the door.
We are growing older, but are we growing up?
A generation of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) has reached midlife. Most of us have made the life-defining choices — jobs, spouses, and even, on a deeper level, outlooks and philosophies — that have become the stuff of our lives. If we have worked hard, been wise in our decisions, and, perhaps more than we would like to admit, been blessed with a bit of plain old good luck, our lives hold many rewards and satisfactions.
We have also, however, become acutely aware of the paths we have not taken, of the costs that accompany even our most rewarding choices. What once felt like life-expanding opportunities now feel, more often than we would like, like life-narrowing obligations. Where previously we thought in terms of what could be, now we are faced with daily reminders of what will probably not be. And where before we imagined an unlimited future, now we ask the questions that come with the awareness that time is finite: What must we concede as being unattainable? What will we look back on as having really mattered? And what will be the most rewarding and meaningful way to spend the precious, and hopefully not insignificant, time that remains?
Over the next twenty to thirty years, we baby boomers will need to answer these questions. They are, however, questions that our generation is uniquely ill-equipped to address. Products of a “we can have it all and if we don’t somebody is to blame” culture, we hold tight to our already overextended adolescences. We imagine that all gratifications are possible, that all losses are avoidable, and that all constraints are negotiable. As a result, we experience life’s hardships and complexities as unnecessary inconveniences rather than defining, meaning-making aspects of being human.
The result? Perhaps more than any previous generation, we will struggle with the inevitable reckoning with reality that comes with middle and older age. Bluntly speaking, we risk becoming the first generation to die before it actually grows up. Fortunately, there is help. Powerful help. In the pages that follow, I will argue that our long-term intimate relationships can help us to grow up, or, to put it another way, they can help us to live fully and creatively even as our private hopes and expectations meet the immutable realities that come with our advancing years. Even better, they can help us with core midlife challenges while bringing us joy, allowing us moments of unexpected laughter and lightness, and helping us to become our best selves.
Of course, things that are this good are rarely easy or free. There is also a hard truth lurking in all this good news. For starters, our mutual relationships, like our individual selves, face a litany of midlife problems:
We are dealing with the loss and disruption of our kids leaving home. We are embarking on the sometimes oppressive task of tallying our losses and disappointments; in life, in work, and, of course, in marriage. We are trying, often unsuccessfully, to avoid the seduction of infidelity, a seduction that beckons us not only as an alternative to boredom and disappointment, but also as a balm for our growing sense of diminishment. We are struggling to reengage with each other after years of focusing on work and children. We are negotiating the often excruciating hardships of increasing medical and health problems. We are combating the legion of habits and addictions that we have used to mitigate our anxiety, depression, and boredom. And we are looking to find each other sexually even as our libido is lowered for both biological and psychological reasons.
And if all this weren’t daunting enough, we have to meet these challenges within a society that encourages us to think that our wildest wishes and expectations should be seamlessly transformed into our daily realities. A society that tells us that someone or something is to blame when life delivers us anything short of lasting romance, a stunningly attractive partner, great sex, exceptional kids, impeccable health, and easily resolvable disagreements. We have to come to terms with things as they really are, even as we are increasingly inclined to believe that we should be given a “cheat code” whenever the game of life doesn’t go our way.
If we baby boomers are poorly equipped to age well, we are even more poorly equipped to age well together.
Jason and Leslie Phillips: "Love shouldn't have to be this hard"
Throughout these pages I will illustrate my ideas with in-depth stories about long-term relationships. Some of the couples that I describe are taken directly from my practice, though carefully disguised. Some of these couples have read what I’ve written, making corrections when they felt that I portrayed them inaccurately. Others are more loosely cobbled together, based on composites from years of practice.
As you read these stories, please keep in mind: this is not a book about therapy, rather it is a book about the creative, reparative, and transformative potential of lasting intimacy. Therapy can certainly be a useful catalyst, but when it comes to growth and change, a long-term, trusting relationship is at least therapy’s equal. (Current research suggests that it is the relationship that is the most important factor in therapeutic outcome.) In these pages therapy is meant only to be a privileged lens, one that allows unique access into the intimate lives of some remarkable people. If you hold on to this perspective you will be halfway to the central take-home message of this book: we have the power to change ourselves, often in surprising and important ways. And we change best when we allow ourselves to be changed by someone to whom we are very close.
Finally, because this is a book about what relationships at their best can be, the stories that I have told portray some of the most creative and resourceful couples that I have known over twenty-five years of practice. Please don’t be daunted. If we are willing to do the hard work of building loving and trusting relationships, and if we are then willing to risk leaning back into that love and trust in order to be open and real with each other, we can all be changed, even in those places that we feel to be most injured, and, it follows, most immovable.
Now let’s introduce the first of the many couples that populate this book. Jason and Leslie Phillips show us something about the problems of growing older, and of growing older together. And they also show us how those very problems can be turned into remarkable opportunities for overcoming, indeed for growing through, the central challenges of middle age.
At first glance, Jason and Leslie seemed a good fit. Both were a bit on the short side, slightly overweight, and, it seemed, possessing of a certain shared softness — in both features and demeanor. Their clothes were high-quality without being obviously fashionable, and I noticed that they had arrived at my home office in a Mercedes.
When I asked how I might help, Jason and Leslie shared a wary glance. He took the lead. “We’ve been married twenty-three years,” he noted, his tone pointedly factual. “We were really in love with each other early on, at least I think we were, it seems so long ago. Then the kids came along, and — well, you know what happens. They’re almost grown up now — our daughter is already off at college and our son is going to start next year. There weren’t any big fights or anything, it just seems like we drifted apart ...”
“No big fights?” Leslie glared at Jason, her voice brimming with anger and hurt. “Aren’t we having a pretty big fight now?”
“I was just about to get to that,” Jason answered, his factual tone persisting in the face of Leslie’s fury. “She’s referring to the fact that I’ve been involved with another woman.”
My job, during our first few sessions, was to try to limit the damage, and, once things had settled down, to help the couple see what could be salvaged. For starters, this meant pointing out that Jason and Leslie were going about things in all the wrong ways. He was willing to break off the affair, but not the relationship.
“She understands me in a way that Leslie never could,” Jason said, though I thought I could see him wince at how clichéd his words sounded.
Leslie threw herself back into the sexual relationship with Jason, hoping that by giving him excitement reminiscent of their early days together she could save their marriage.
While Jason paid lip service to his responsibility for having had an affair, he blamed Leslie for the marriage’s coldness and estrangement, and he didn’t understand that he had been equally responsible for letting things become stale.
Leslie, similarly, couldn’t see her contribution to their marital troubles. She could be bitingly critical, and over the past several years it had become her habit to retreat into four or five glasses of wine every night.
Both Jason and Leslie had conspired to preside over years of growing estrangement, disappointment, and bitterness. Each partner blamed the other, and neither talked about his or her own responsibility for things.
It took a few sessions to establish some ground rules. First off, did they want to try to repair things? Leslie immediately indicated yes, and when Jason, after a moment’s pause, added, “That’s why we’re here,” his conviction surprised me. Well, I noted, there were things each would have to do.
Jason would need to break things off entirely with the woman he had been seeing; as long as he could turn to her whenever things got hard with Leslie, he would be less inclined to commit himself to the kind of work that would be needed.
Leslie would have to stop drinking; alcohol enabled her to retreat from the feelings that she needed to talk about with Jason.
Jason needed to take a hard look at his notion that the problem had to do with the lack of excitement and romance: this belief would lead them away from building the foundation they needed to repair things.
And Leslie needed to stop trying to appease Jason by providing that excitement.
“I suspect that, at least right now, you can trust hard, painful talks more than great sex,” I told them. “And you’ve got to work on how you have those talks. You’ve got to find a way to replace all this blame and defensiveness with a willingness to be open about how you feel, about what you want, about who you really are.”
Jason was skeptical about my plan. “All that sounds like such hard work,” he said. “It’s not that I can’t work hard, I’ve done it all my life. But I’m tired. Marriage, raising kids, my job. Where’s the fun? I don’t expect it to be like when we first met, but I need there to be a little more life and understanding.”
“Understanding?” Leslie interrupted, her voice dripping with contempt. “Is that why you look at the pictures of celebrities in bikinis while we’re waiting in line at the supermarket, why your eyes follow every young thing that walks by you? To feel more understood?”
I considered stepping in here. Leslie had a right to be furious, but we were still trying to establish a framework within which the couple could talk without things spiraling into blame and recrimination. To my surprise, however, Jason softened things with some subdued but heartfelt words.
“I am having trouble with being just one more middle-aged guy who no woman would ever look twice at,” he said. “I can’t stand the idea that my life is nothing special, OK? But what exactly is the point of all this hard work? It just seems — I don’t know — love shouldn’t have to be this hard.”
Why stay married?
From Philip and Marie to Jason and Leslie, from basically good relationships struggling with the accumulated weight of compromise that occurs when two selves must find breathing room in a space that often seems to have room for only one, to relationships shredded by acrimony, grievance, hurt, and disappointment, the same advice applies: know yourself. Recognize and respect your differences. Talk to each other. Be respectful. Reinforce the positives and minimize the negatives. Don’t blame. Be honest with each other. See things from each other’s perspective. Don’t judge. As a psychologist who has tried to help many couples with their relationships, I know firsthand that implementing this advice will make a relationship better.
Sounds good, but now let’s throw a wrench in the works: Is making our relationships better good enough? For that matter, is even a “good” relationship good enough, particularly now that advances in fertility technology, changing attitudes about single parenthood, shifting moral sensibilities, and other alterations in our social and economic landscape have provided viable alternatives to traditional marriage? What if it is no longer enough to merely make one’s relationship “better”?
If marriage is to be anything more than an encumbrance, a vestigial holdover from another time and another convention, we’d best ask a question that we rarely, if ever, ask: whystay married? Well, of course we do ask this question, but usually we ask it in the spirit of a rhetorical exercise in which we already assume the answer, or else we ask it in moments of frustration and despair, lamenting the fact that we have to choose between the rock of staying in a lousy marriage and the hard place of divorce. Rarely do we really ask ourselves why we stay married. Rarely do we enter into an open-minded exploration with the intent of finding a meaningful, rather than a conventional, reason for all of the sacrifice and commitment required to make an intimate relationship last.
As it turns out, this is a terrific time to ask ourselves why we get, and stay, married. It’s a terrific time because for this baby-boom generation, at this life stage and at this moment in cultural time, there is a relevant and contemporary answer. That answer — that our long-term intimate relationships can change us, that they can make usbetter people — is not, as it might seem on first impression, a self-serving rationalization. It is not just another way of asking “What’s in it for me, anyway?” Indeed, the opposite is true: at their best our intimate relationships are life-enhancing crucibles in which we can learn to trade in our at times adolescent self-centeredness for more real and enduring values. These include:
Knowing ourselves: Being part of a long-lasting relationship is the best way to more deeply know ourselves.
Keeping our memories alive: Sharing a history with someone we love helps us to remember.
Aging creatively: An intimate relationship can makethetime of growing older one of expanding, rather than diminishing, possibility.
Being more generous: Our intimate relationships can help us to grow into our best, and least self-centered, selves.
Accepting ourselves: Lasting intimacy can teach us to appreciate, rather than deny, our human fallibility.
Continued growth: Intimate partners can help each other to achieve the relentless renegotiation of self that is the hallmark of vitality, change, and growth.
Finding freedom through our limitations: The most direct path to freedom lies in remaining true to our commitments.
Deeper love: Love can get better over time, and really loving someone is the most important thing we do in our lives.
Reaping the rewards of our emotional investment: There is a mother lode of untapped possibility in the lives that we already have.
Appreciating the degree to which our intimate relationships can bring us these benefits will help all of us.
It will help those of us who are involved in relationships characterized by distance, acrimony, injury, and mistrust. One of the reasons for the low success rate of most marital therapies is that while we know the nuts and bolts of what to do to make things better, we don’t know why we’re doing all that hard work in the first place. Having a sense of purpose will enable us to more easily make sorely needed changes.
It will help those of us who already have good relationships. Without a sense of relevance and purpose even our “good” relationships are but a fraction of what they could be. Understanding that our relationships can be powerful forums for personal growth and real change will make even the best of our relationships better.
And it will help all of us baby boomers; those of us who have good relationships, those of us who have bad relationships, and all of us who fall in between. It will help us because a lasting, loving relationship can enable us to meet the signature challenge of growing older: that of meeting the harder, nonnegotiable edges of reality — of time, of aging, and of loss — with just the right mix of realism, vitality, and hope.
Excerpted from "The Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together." Copyright (c) 2008 by Mark O'Connell, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing.