Are you expecting too much? Are you just "settling"? Ginger Tobias asks ten pointed questions about the state of your union.
You don't need NFL training to hurl a pizza across a New York City apartment. I found this out as I ducked to avoid my husband's dinner (he didn't fling it at me, he claims). "They folded the slices," he bellowed. "Ruined." I bit my tongue hard—but not, unfortunately, before "Did you lose your nappies?" slipped out (nappies being what they call diapers in England, which is where he's from and where, at this point, I was wishing he had stayed). Big mistake. He went off like a car alarm, the honk-honk-beeeep-honk of his tirade so familiar, I'd long since learned to tune it out by doing guided imagery: Single Me with full custody of remote control. Single Me released from his rancid pessimism. Single Me without tomato and extra cheese dripping down my newly painted white (of course) wall.
Airborne pizza has a way of speed-dialing every doubt you've had about your marriage. And I expected such moments when I signed up. What has thrown me, however, is the drag of compromise, the extra weight of two lives trying to trundle forward together but instead holding each other back. After five years of gradually easing off good behavior, we're left with a nearly constant scrape of differences.
Freedom beckons intoxicatingly, but then I wonder if my expectations aren't unrealistic—whether I've got the makings of a good marriage but am foolishly holding out for perfect. Paul Amato, PhD, professor of sociology, demography, and family studies at Penn State, conducted a 20-year study on 2,000 subjects who started off married, and says 55 to 60 percent of divorcing couples discard unions with real potential. Most of these people say they continue to love their betrothed but are bored with the relationship or feel it hasn't lived up to their expectations. "It's important to recognize that many of these marriages would improve over time," Amato says, "and most of them could be strengthened through marital counseling and enrichment programs."
So how do you know if you have one of those fixable marriages? A place to start is with the work of British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who lets women obsessed with being a perfect mother off the hook. According to him, the "good-enough mother" loves and cares for her child but, being imperfect, doesn't satisfy every need perfectly. While the baby may wish for better service, it's the ordinary mother's failures that prepare her child for life—motivating her to get what she needs for herself while teaching her to tolerate frustration. Similarly, the idea of the good-enough marriage relieves couples of the pressure to have a perfect union, and the inherent disappointments and difficulties may spur them to evolve as individuals. Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy (Simon & Schuster), offers herself as an example. "In the early years of my marriage, I envisioned our lives as being joined at the hip. He didn't," she says. "At first I was miserable, but then I started going places by myself and I became much more independent. I never, ever would have done that had it not been for his stubbornness."
1. Are you exaggerating the negatives? For the next two months mark the good and bad days on your calendar to get a reality check.
2. Have you already left the marriage by emotionally withdrawing? Or by giving up all attempts to make the relationship better? If so, can you find a way to reengage?
3. Do you get so angry that you hit each other or throw things at least once a month? If the answer is yes, are you hanging on to a terrible relationship because you're afraid of being alone? Or because you're convinced it's the best you can do?
4. If you're frustrated because your husband won't change (you'd like him to be more forceful or manly, for example), is it really necessary that he does? Is there anything in your family history that may be driving your need to transform him? (Your father never stood up for you when you needed him.)
5. Have you been teaching your husband the wrong lessons by not challenging his hurtful behavior? (You don't say anything when he criticizes you in public. He never washes the dishes, so you just do them, resentfully.)
6. Do you have fun together? Even when things are tough, do you make jokes about it? (A good sign.) If not, can you make time in your marriage for more play?
7. Are there conflicts that you've avoided in the relationship? What do you fear would happen if you confronted them?
8. Do you simply need more time alone? A weekend on your own every so often to make the heart grow fonder?
9. Has something occurred—a death, a big birthday, a job loss—that's throwing off your relationship and needs to be addressed?
10. Have you done everything you possibly can to make this marriage work? Are you certain he has heard your complaints? Have you tried a marriage-education class or couples therapy? If he won't go to counseling, have you gone yourself to see how you might save the relationship?
While pondering these questions, I remembered—from somewhere deep—many of the delightful aspects of my marriage. (Did I mention that he surprises me with candlelit lavender baths and singing Chanukah mugs?) And we do talk and make up well. For me the most clarity has come from thinking of marriage not as a noun, or a state of being, but as a verb, as in what "I do" (you say those two words for a reason), and therefore something I can do better. So rather than hang my marriage on the clearance rack, as I fear I've done, I vow to try to understand—even appreciate—his faults, er, growth opportunities. You know, I always wanted a red apartment, and just think: pizza-proof.
*Mira Kirshenbaum, Judith Sherven, Olga Silverstein, and James Sniechowski also helped develop these questions.