When I was younger, my mom had a subscription to Ladies Home Journal, among a few other magazines. One of my favorite columns to read, even as a young girl, was “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” The column would start with a recap of a situation, then the wife would tell her side of the story and the husband would tell his. And then the counselor would magically tie everything up in the end with a bow and, while there may have been some columns where the answer was no, I don’t remember them. Saving the marriages in this column required honesty, forgiveness, and some form of compromise. It would be interesting to go back and find out how many of those marriages actually were saved over the years, and how many eventually fell apart.
We interrupt this post for a Public Service Announcement: I should probably interject here and reassure my friends and family: my marriage is not in trouble. This column is not about my marriage. I am using marriage, and counseling, and the considerations of reconciliation or divorce as a metaphor for something else. I have been in unhappy relationships and been divorced, and so has my husband. We love what we have built together and work hard to maintain it.
It’s not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.Friedrich Nietzsche
I have a friend who referred to marriage counseling as “how to be a better husband class.” Another called it “Wife Festivus” – after the made-up holiday popularized by an episode of Seinfeld. One part of Festivus is the “airing of grievances.” Before the Festivus meal, the family gathers around the table and the head of the table tells everyone how much they’ve disappointed him in the past year. This man’s experience was that in marriage counseling, he found out that his wife was really angry about a lot of stuff and he was supposed to learn how to listen better. His complaint about this experience was that there weren’t any actions to figure out why his wife was so angry, or what they could work on together to help dissipate that anger or try to avoid it in the future. I said, didn’t you talk about things that were bothering you? “Sure, I had grievances, too. But I lived with them. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. If I had told her what was bothering me she’d just be furious and tell me why I was only thinking of myself. I just didn’t have the energy for that.” So, counseling for that couple was a superficial one way street. Here’s why I’m mad, here’s why you’re insensitive, here’s all the ways you disappoint me. To which his answer was a half-hearted, “I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better.” And they’d get in the car and drive home together – his wife, feeling unburdened and perky, would inevitably suggest they go out to dinner and relax, or maybe go see a movie, as if nothing had been said in the past 45 minutes in front of the counselor that he had any reason to be uncomfortable or unhappy about. Exhausted, he’d say sure. They’d run into the neighbors or some friends from church, everyone would have a good laugh, and they’d go home. She would go to bed convinced she was helping their marriage by telling him all the ways he was making her miserable and getting things off her chest. He would go to bed wishing he could figure out a way to go out for a gallon of milk and never come back. Eventually, that’s exactly what he did, and she was shocked because nothing had ever come up in their counseling sessions.
The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.Joe Klass, Twelve Steps to Happiness
Looking through the archives of those old “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” columns, as I started to think about this post, I came across an article with a list of behaviors that cannot be tolerated in a sustained, healthy marriage. Some of them are specifically marriage-related, but others apply to our union with each other as American citizens, as well. We have some major warning signs if this list is any indication:
- constant criticism
- continual lies, dishonesty
- denial of an addiction, refusal to seek help – in this case, addiction to what I call “rage porn” on social media is one example
- excessive spending
- inability to compromise
- lack of empathy
- lack of respect, contempt for each other
- no sense of responsibility
- playing the blame game
- no sense of remorse or regret
As I look at how divided we are in this country today, and all the rhetoric and invectives that have been thrown in both directions for years now, I’m finding myself wondering if this “marriage” we’re all in as Americans can be saved. And, much as I want to say yes, the most I can muster right now is an “I’m not sure.” The bigger question is, “do we want it to be?” Marriage counseling always fails if one or both parties’ goal in counseling is to change the behavior and thoughts of the other person, and not address their own. Always. Going to a marriage counselor because you think someone besides you needs to “Go all Dr. Phil on their ass” isn’t going to help you be a better spouse. You have to decide if you are going to be able to start anew, with everything you know, and move forward. If all you want to do is continue to browbeat your spouse (or fellow citizen), that can’t happen.
There are no easy ways around what must happen in all of our homes and communities, amongst our elected officials, between our states and parties, if we want to move toward real change and unity, not just superficial change and unity that only works one way. We all need to play a part, and not just “wait for the other guy to come around.”
How did you go bankrupt?
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”
We didn’t get here in the last week, or month, or year or 5 years or even 10 years. As Hemingway said so perfectly, our union has been in gradual decline for years. Both sides seem to have blinders on when it comes to their own behaviors, and attempts to draw comparisons or moral equivalencies are dismissed out of hand. Our very real issues, denied and ignored by almost everyone for years, are no longer simply the elephant in the room. Asking people to just sit down and be quiet now so we can all just go back to some sense of “normalcy” is going to turn out like that couple who had Festivus for Wives counseling. Too many of us feel like we are being asked to do this:
Denying there is a problem, ignoring concerns, ridiculing or blaming the messenger or banishing one side from the internet and all “polite society” so we can “get back to normal” isn’t going to fix this. Feelings that aren’t acknowledged or allowed to be expressed are not going to go away, they will only multiply and ferment under the surface and show themselves again at a certain to be inopportune time in an extremely unfortunate manner. We have seen this already, from riots in the streets and burning down entire city blocks all summer long, or anger boiling over into the halls of our nation’s capitol building. We have to work on helping transform anger into positive action and reform. We don’t want to allow it to ferment and metastasize in our society. Shutting it down or tuning it out might be the easy way out, but just because we don’t hear it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Anger not transformed is transferred.Father Richard Rohr
If we want to save this ‘marriage,’ we have to be able to have meaningful conversations with each other. We have to nurture our bodies and minds with productive activity, community involvement, good deeds and positive attitudes and not continually poison ourselves with hysteria, outrage and anger. We have to find the common interests we have together, without putting each other into buckets based on what we think we know about a person based on their politics. The media has become an echo chamber largely because they don’t know anyone in real life who doesn’t think like they do. They don’t want to, because they don’t have to. That’s fine, but the problem is that they’ve convinced us that we don’t want or have to, either. With all the shutdowns, they’re largely right. We don’t get together as larger groups anymore where there are always people who don’t vote or think the same way as us, but we have fun, get along, and work together ANYWAY, whether it be family gatherings, work functions, community events, charity fundraisers, or whatever the case may be. We’ve forgotten how to be united despite our differences, rather than because of them. If, as Nietzsche said, marriages are unhappy not because of lack of love, but lack of friendship, then I think it’s true of communities and countries, too. I, for one, am going to try to be a better friend.