What is a “Good-Enough” Marriage?
December 7th, 2009 by Christina

3495309417_a115020f57 Once again, the blogosphere threw me a bone. Just when I was feeling low on inspiration, Sunday’s New York Times Magazine landed with a thump at my front door and begged for my attention. So, thank you, Elizabeth Weil, for writing Married (Happily) With Issues (and, btw, feel free to introduce me to your editor because I’ve always wanted to write for the Magazine; actually, I got close once, but then…oh, never mind.)

The article chronicles Weil’s foray into marital therapy with her husband–only they engage in it before they’re on the verge of divorce. According to Weil, by the time most couples enter therapy, they have been unhappy for six years, making the endeavor futile. So kudos to her for trying to nip that shit in the bud (and sorry for cursing, but it felt necessary). Seriously, I’d estimate that 90 percent of couples I know who have gone to marriage therapy have ultimately ended up in Splitsville anyway.

Weil’s marriage follows the standard script: Boy and girl fall in love during their clueless, carefree 20s, get married, skip around and play house for a while until the game turns serious. Then they have babies and lose sleep and spend the next few years singing the Alphabet Song and groggily emptying the Diaper Genie until–surprise–one day they emerge from the fog and notice that the romance has mysteriously departed from their relationship.

Which is not to say that the kids are to blame, because of course we all love our kids and they add immeasurably to our lives and we can’t imagine a world without them (there’s also that pesky biological drive to perpetuate the species).

Ultimately, Weil concludes that maybe the “good-enough” marriage is, well, good enough. She asks what, exactly, a better marriage would look like: “More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear.”

Now I’ll confess that my goal in writing this blog post and how to reach it are also strangely unclear. I’ve been mulling this what-is-a-happy-marriage stuff over and have not come up with satisfactory answers. I do, however, have a few new questions inspired by Weil’s piece:

  • Do couples who remain childless by choice experience anything like the classic benign-neglect scenario that afflicts the married-with-children?
  • Do people without children (or those with grown kids) feel pressure to stay married if they’re not happy? Or is it primarily the notion of keeping a family with kids together that fuels a couple’s obligation to remain married?
  • Does simply not believing in divorce mean you don’t get to indulge the I-need-to-be-happy-get-me-outta-here thoughts and therefore focus on finding thrills in other areas of your life?
  • How do couples who get together later in life–say, after their first marriage with kids dissolves–fare overall? What are the variables that they have to contend with?

OK–your turn. What are your questions and/or answers on this subject? My inquiring mind must know.

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3 Responses  
Julie writes:
December 8th, 2009 at 10:39 am

“Does simply not believing in divorce mean you don’t get to indulge the I-need-to-be-happy-get-me-outta-here thoughts and therefore focus on finding thrills in other areas of your life?”

We are childless, married 26 years and don’t believe in divorce. But that attitude meant that when we weren’t rowing in the same direction, we had to work on communicating rather than finding other thrills.

I think a lot of the turmoil people talk about in a sour marriage comes from your definition of happiness. If you think that state equals having everything perfect in your life; or being at the peak of positive emotions all the time; or having the world evolve around your needs, your wants, your whims … you’ll be a difficult life partner to live with no matter who you are hitched to.

Jessica writes:
December 8th, 2009 at 10:54 am

Hi Christina–my DH (dear husband) and I were very intrigued by this article. Also, we have not had kids yet and want to so we often wonder how how marriage will change. I think one thing that happens to married people with OR without children is that a familiarity creeps in. And that kind of is a killer for romantic-sexiness-intimacy and as that dies out other things do too. Schmuely Boteach talks about this in his book The Kosher Sutra. (not a fan of his either way, but I designed the book). Since I mentioned this to DH we are a little more aware of this. It’s a double-edged sword though since familiarity is nice! It’s nice to be cozy in sweats and stained t-shirts… the word family comes from familiar after all. So I guess it becomes even more important to have those date nights. DH is all for that but for him it could be ordering in japanese and watching netflix. It works better for me if we both dress up a little and actually go out. Then that becomes the ‘work’ of marriage, to make the time to go on dates (must be even harder with kids!).
We also think treating each other with a lot of respect goes a long way. We see too many couples who fight together and laugh together but their marriage is getting erroded anyway and we think we see a lack of respect between them. (Always easy to be the armchair analyst though!)
I will also say that me and my DH feel like a family so to split this would rock my world. Not as much as the thought of rocking my kids world which I imagine I would be fiercely protective over, though. So it would be hard for us to contemplate a split, too.
Lastly, marrying late in general with or without kids may make a difference. We got married at 40 (me) and 36 (him) and had each had therapy for 5 yrs (me), and 10 yrs (him). We also had previous relationships that we understood what went wrong etc. We think we are more knowing of ourselves and more patient in general being older. Not to say we are aren’t lovey-dovey as newlyweds some time or crabby as married-forevers other times (We’re been married 6 years and were together 2 years prior to that.) One variable we have from younger folk is ailing and or dead parents. Depending on your family that could have different affects of stress/grief.
I don’t know if I really answered your questions or just raised more issues but thanks for starting an interesting conversation!!

Ulrike writes:
December 10th, 2009 at 12:08 am

I wonder whether a happy marriage has anything to do for how strong the relationship was BC (before children)? I have been with my husband for over 22years now (married 19) and we have a 13yr old daughter. We had a long time – by choice -of just being a couple and although we love our daughter more than anything, we instantly revert back to being a couple even if she’s just out for a sleepover. I sometimes think we are being unfair to her because we are very happy just the two of us and she, especially being a single child, may well feel left out sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, we are a happy family, but very much a strong couple as well.
Maybe if you cement ‘coupledom’ before doing the ‘family-thing’, that makes you happier? I don’t know, I’d be interesting if there was any research.
Anyway, I have just discovered your blog – and website – through FLX, and am glad I did. It gives me an insight into a subject I didn’t know much about – I like your style.

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