Why Even the Best Marriages Are Hard Sometimes

5 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

Everyone who just got married is psyched about it. It’s a new adventure they’re embarking on with their best friend forever. Everyone who has been married for 50 years or more is psyched about it. They’re living with their oldest friend, it’s been a trip, totally worth it.

But the people in the middle, they’re, well — You know, they’re fine. They perhaps didn’t quite expect marriage to be as much work as it is. Not just the childcare and the housekeeping and the paying the bills, but the parts that are supposed to be fun, the talking, the planning, the throwing a leg over. They had been led to believe it would feel easier, more natural. The thing about walking off into the sunset together is that then it gets dark and you’re stumbling over each other.

Two new books address just this mid-life marital ennui, The Rough Patch, by San Francisco clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe and Happy Together, by husband-and-wife marital educators Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski. (The second comes with a recommendation from no less a marriage champ than seven-time groom Larry King.)

The midlife crisis is an old cliché, of course, with little support in lifespan research, but when we dismiss it, “we are actually trying to disarm the intensity of the forces we are grappling with,” says de Marneffe, whose previous book Maternal Desire looked at the competing impulses with which mothers wrestle. “The midpoint of life represents the moment of maximal conflict between our drive to seek external solutions to our emotional dilemmas and our recognition that ultimately, they don’t work.” It’s also often the point where our tenacity seems to falter, and the neat selvages of our certainties about who we are and whom we chose start to fray.

The work of being married, as Ben Affleck so memorably implied while accepting an Oscar for Argo, can be like making a movie in a hostile nation. There’s a lot of negotiation, a lot of compromising and a point at which progress seems unlikely. How do you get unstuck? Happy Together‘s co-authors, who claim theirs is the first book to apply the principles of positive psychology to romance, keep their advice straightforward and practical. (They even offer quizzes.) How does one accentuate the positive about an institution like marriage? By “building and broadening”— expanding the life you have together—and “lengthening and strengthening,” which sounds like a shampoo commercial, but is about savoring the good things you have, a sort of slow food movement for feelings.

Some of this, of course, requires an attitude adjustment. People prefer to be married to a non-downer, partly because emotions are contagious. In order to “prioritize positive emotions,” a key part of this approach, we readers are advised to “plan our days in ways that are more likely to result in the natural experiencing of positive emotions.” That is, schedule things that bring us joy.

While this seems both obvious and unhelpful, since fun seems to be a zone reserved exclusively for single people, it’s long been a marital chestnut that couples in it for the long haul should find new things to do together and new things to do apart. Positive psychology offers the philosophical and neurological underpinnings that might further propel couples to try.

De Marneffe’s book, which has an unfair advantage over the Pawelskis’ because its author can write, is situated in the more highly-therapized air of San Francisco. She too offers a two-pronged approach, which she calls feeling-with-and-thinking-about. The response spouses need from each other, she claims, is one that is empathetic and helpful.

When a child comes home with a scrape, good parents don’t just coo sympathetically. Nor do they just turn away and reach for antiseptic. They do one and then the other. In the same way, relationships thrive when partners can acknowledge each other’s existence and feelings and troubles and then seek to improve them. For the same reason, saying to your spouse, “I just want you to listen, not help,” is depriving them of half the ways they can show love.

Ultimately, both books agree, the best way to right a marriage is everybody’s least favorite: to hold up your end of the couch. The Pawelskis spend half their book on cultivating character, becoming a person whom someone might like to be married to, someone a spouse can admire: “Satisfying relationships require active virtue, and not merely a theoretical knowledge of how we should behave.”

For those for whom that sounds noble but bewilderingly vague, de Marneffe offers up clarification. Yes, there’s work, but it’s in “facing authentic emotion and vulnerability.” She encourages her patients to not settle, to have unflinching conversations about sex, money, drinking, bodies, desires, the whole mess. The research on marriage points one way: suppression is never the best way to manage emotion.

If the only advantage of growing older is greater self-knowledge, then it follows that growing older with another offers a still richer source of feedback and material. (Presented, one hopes, with compassion.) And yet, even self-knowledge is not the point of spending life as a twosome. Marriage’s chief promise is another-knowledge, a decades-long exploration, as de Marneffe says, of “a distinct being whose contour and interior you have yet to truly know.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.