The Rough Patch
1 The Rough Patch: An Introduction
You are forty-three. You have been married twelve years. You didn’t marry too young. You had your adventures and your choices. You now have two little girls (ten and seven), or two little boys, or one of each. You were in love when you married. That’s what you’ve always believed, at least, although now sometimes you wonder. You knew you were different from each other, but at the beginning that was fine—it helped you feel stable, or it helped you grow, and it was even exciting, as you noticed how much you wanted to reach out and understand and even indulge each other’s differences. Yet now you feel too different. Sometimes you drive each other crazy. Or leave each other feeling deeply hurt. Or kind of neutral. Or each of these, at different times.
A lot of advice is out there to help you deal with the problem. Social scientists tell you that
people are happier at sixty-five than forty-five, so if you wait it out another twenty years, you might feel better. The couple specialists, the work-family balance people, the sex and intimacy experts, all have something to say that almost fits. But somehow they don’t get at the crux of the problem. The crux is that you feel lost, or lonely, or at times almost blindingly miserable. Sometimes you feel you can’t breathe. It’s true that you’re exhausted at work, or your mother’s ill, or your hormones are out of whack. But it’s hard to believe that that’s the whole story. You didn’t always feel this stuck in your relationship. There was a time when the marriage made sense.
What changed? And why?
Perhaps you felt fine about your marriage, until you surprised yourself by becoming infatuated with someone else. Or maybe you were absorbed by the care of your kids when they were small and didn’t give much thought to your personal satisfaction. But now your older daughter/son spends time texting her/his friends (how did that happen so quickly?) and doesn’t seem interested in being around you on the weekends. Even if the child-centered marriage didn’t foster much passion, at least it provided a meaningful framework. Now things are shifting. What felt tolerable before doesn’t anymore. You are left wondering, where am I in all this? Who have I become?
It’s not quite fair, but you can’t help blaming your partner for how dissatisfied you sometimes feel. It’s hard to imagine putting up with her/his workaholism/drama/withdrawal/insensitivity for another few decades. Yet you know feeling this way is wrong somehow. Marriage takes work. Immature people think relationships should be easy or fun; selfish people leave when the going gets rough. You’ve always been a good worker; you’re great at work. But it’s not clear what you are working for. Deep down, you aren’t sure things can change. And the truth (shameful and hard to utter) is that sometimes you feel you’re not sure you want things to change anymore. You don’t want to have to work so hard for whatever incremental satisfactions you might gain. Occasionally you feel a whiff of freedom, and it is shockingly exhilarating. You feel guilty about it, but on the other hand, you are still youngish. You deserve to have some intimacy and passion and real connection in your life. You won’t have your energy or looks forever. How long is it reasonable to go on like this?
But you don’t want to make any destructive decisions. That’s the path your sister/uncle/best friend took, and look where it left them. The kids, let’s face it, suffered. Shuttling back and forth between houses, forced to witness their parents’ heartaches at way too close a range, and no money saved for college. And the adults imported their same old problems into the next relationship. Lately, though, you find yourself calling to mind the success stories: the kids who seem to have emerged unscathed, and the parents who seem so much happier, like new people. Still, you don’t want to divorce. It would be easier,
better, if you could find a way not to be so unhappy in your marriage. Or maybe not to be so unhappy, period.
* * *
THE ROUGH PATCH. “Lonely.” “Confused.” “Stuck.” “Stirred up.” “Going through the motions.” “Falling apart.” I see a hitting-the-wall unhappiness in the middle slice of life, when people struggle, alone or in pairs, to figure out why their marriages don’t feel right. In my work as a therapist, I am reminded every day of people’s conundrums:
• Is my problem that I need to find a way to resuscitate some loving feeling toward my partner? Or is it my own harsh insistence that I shouldn’t give up?
• I know I should think about my predicament, but I’m so sick of thinking. I just want to feel for a change.
• I know my infatuation with my coworker is a “fantasy,” but why does it feel like the most real thing in my life?
• Reminding myself how grateful I should be for what I have just makes me feel worse.
• Can I, or should I, spend the rest of my life with minimal affection or sex?
• Can I, or should I, keep living with my partner’s substance use/spending habit/mental illness?
• My partner is withdrawing from me but I don’t know if I can, or want to, change in the ways (s)he wants me to.
• If my greatest goal is to give my children a happy childhood, how can I do that if I am unhappy in my marriage? Yet what if trying to find more happiness for myself comes at the expense of theirs?
People who seek my help often feel they are caught between what they should do and what they feel. When I spoke with Lisa, a professional, she had just turned forty-seven, and she struggled with the sound of it. “I never felt middle-aged. Then I turned forty-seven. It’s a number that sticks in my mind. Forty-seven is a big deal. Fifty is a big deal.” Why? “I feel like I should have figured it out by fifty.”
She hadn’t figured it out; she felt more confused than ever. Feeling exhausted from work, parenthood, and family life, and alienated from her husband of fifteen years, she found herself acting entirely against her values, embarking on an affair with a younger man. “I was shocked to be with someone I was excited about—texting and calling someone I can communicate with, without the burden of all the family stuff. My physical relationship with my husband is dismal, and I sort of chalked it up to the inevitable effect of aging. What’s funny is this guy reminds me of my husband—smart, professional—but ten years younger. Now I’ve really become a middle-aged cliché: almost fifty, in a rut in my marriage, finding someone young and exciting . . .”
I am struck by how often people try to dismiss their marital distress as “cliché,” embarrassed to have fallen prey to the “midlife crisis,” a construct toward which they felt, until recently, comfortably disparaging. We’re voyeuristically critical toward middle-age flameouts—“She’s divorcing him and marrying their tenant!” “He ran off with a lap dancer and now he’s bringing her to the kids’ soccer games!”—partly to protect ourselves. We feel vulnerable to life’s surprises and attempt to fortify ourselves through the communal conviction that people should be more grown-up. Finding ourselves susceptible to feelings that we so recently judged as selfish or immature in others is a rude awakening, especially destabilizing when we felt, not so long ago, pretty confident and successful about our choices.
But humbled as we are by our lack of originality, we may privately feel something momentous is happening. We feel we are waking out of a stupor, and that we can’t bear to go back and re-anesthetize ourselves. Perhaps we had a strange sort of relief in plunging into the childrearing years, when our own desires were back-burnered. Serving our children’s needs allowed us to take a break from wanting things for ourselves, and all the complicated dilemmas it engendered. But somewhere inside we knew this wasn’t a tenable long-term solution. Kids grow up. Statistically, we may be looking at another forty years of life. Unlike in the 1950s, it’s no longer realistic to wait for our two-pack-a-day habit to kill us at sixty-two. It’s obvious we can’t keep swallowing the vague adage that “marriage is compromise,” if
compromise means suppressing whole swaths of our personalities. Life is too long, and too short. We have to find some way to stay vital, engaged, desiring, and ourselves while being married, if married is what we want to be.
When we trivialize the rough patch as a “middle-aged cliché,” we are actually trying to find a way to disarm the intensity of the forces we are grappling with. We hope that if we can distance ourselves from others’ crises or minimize our own, we might escape their disruptiveness. But something important and meaningful is occurring in the rough patch—even if we don’t yet know exactly what that meaningful or important thing is. We don’t call it a cliché when a two-year-old starts saying no, or when a teenager starts experimenting with sex; we consider these to be common expressions of what it means to be a two-year-old or a teenager. Both the toddler and the teenager are trying to grow, to become more complex and whole—the toddler’s task is striving for autonomy, the teenager’s is figuring out how to be a sexual person. Though the tasks are different, the challenges of the rough patch are in some sense the same. Like the toddler and the teenager, we are looking to discover and fully express who we are, while staying connected to others. We want to take risks and feel secure. We want autonomy and connectedness in optimal balance. These are completely valid goals at any age. We have every right, and even a responsibility, to pursue them. So what makes the rough patch so rough?
* * *
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. In the rough patch we are forced to realize, often against our will, that the life-building activities of youth—job, relationship, children, house—have not taken care of what’s unresolved within. We still yearn—for what we’re not sure—and what we’ve achieved doesn’t entirely fill us.
But it’s not only that external achievements have not taken care of internal problems. It’s that we’ve begun to take a more complicated
view of ourselves. By virtue of experience, we know more, and this unsettles us from three directions.
First, we know more now about time and loss. Our own eventual mortality is becoming less of an abstraction and more of a fact. We’ve almost inevitably suffered some disappointments and setbacks along the way. The spiritual wisdom of the ages is starting to make visceral sense. No person, job, or acquisition, no matter how wonderful, can ever entirely fill our sense of incompleteness. We even begin to sense that those who “have everything” are in exactly the same boat.
Second, the passage of time gives a new urgency and poignancy to the state of our intimate relationships. This is our life. Can this relationship last for the next four decades? Is now the time to reckon with that question? We may begin to feel tendrils of doubt, the upwelling of inconvenient longings and needs, an uneasy sense that suppression or chronic discord will not be sustainable. We may encounter dread, fear, and a desire to escape through work, or screens, or drink. We’re dimly aware we may have to lose in order to gain, that painful upheavals may be the cost of emotional growth or inner peace. Oscillating between what is and what could be, between reality and possibility, between embracing and relinquishing, we feel disoriented and confused.
When things feel bad, two options may loom up in our minds: endure (for the children, the shared history, the finances, the stability, the vow) or strive (for something more, another chance, a better relationship). Surrender or escape. Give in or start over. Depressive resignation or manic flight. These occur to us largely because it’s not at all clear where else to go. But the thought that soon follows is that we want to be honest, and we ask ourselves, what is the line between seizing vitality and manically defending against decline? What’s the difference between “settling” and acceptance? How might the effort to have more in our lives unwittingly result in less? When does accepting limits help us to make the most of what we have, and when does it signal premature resignation? Our dawning awareness of life’s limits means we know that we’ve reached the point where dismantling what we have and starting something new does not come
cheaply. We know there’s really no such thing as “starting over,” only starting something different and trailing the inevitable complications in our wake. The acting out we see around us, which till now we’ve casually dismissed, begins to looks like one way that people try to combat the stasis of depression with the action of escape, attempting to transcend (at least temporarily) the “hitting a wall” feeling that this life stage can induce.
Finally, as time presses in, we inevitably confront questions of value. What are our values about marriage? What might it mean to stay or to go?
“An open secret in our world is that we do not know what legitimizes either divorce or marriage,” wrote the philosopher Stanley Cavell. Deep down, many of us don’t know where we stand on marriage. Sociologists find that people absorb highly contradictory cultural messages and
hold stunningly inconsistent romantic narratives within themselves. We believe, for example, both that couples should stay together for the children and be free to pursue their own happiness. We maintain that relationships that begin with exciting strong attraction are simultaneously highly desirable and likely to be “unrealistic.” We espouse the romantic worldview that marriage derives meaning from the unique specialness of our mates, their status as “one and only.” Yet we endorse the more functionalist ethos that life is long and people “grow apart,” and that different people may be better partners at different stages of life. We’re constantly trying to strike a psychic balance between the ideals of freedom and domestic life. If we are even moderately self-aware, we know enough to be suspicious of the ways our longed-for romantic and sexual experiences conform so predictably to scripts handed to us by Hollywood and advertising. But unless we can nest a sexually or romantically compelling element within our long-term relationship, we fear we won’t make it through the decades that yawn before us.
Trying to ground our marital values in universal principles seems next to impossible.
Not many rules are left. The rules that remain are all pretty much self-assigned, and this seems true even among those who strain to obey a higher law. Studies indicate that people on
the religious right divorce more often than other people, not less.
Orthodox communities that insist on the sanctity of marriage vows often have benighted views of women’s rights and purvey an oppressive model of marriage. Instead of shared social values or universal principles, the most robust determinants of whether people get married and stay married are money and education.
Demographic research over the past two decades demonstrates that people who command more economic resources and education marry and stay married at higher rates than do people with fewer resources. Greater resources not only correlate with fewer divorces; they allow for more choices in living arrangements. But regardless of their position on the economic spectrum, increasing numbers of people view the goal of long-term monogamy as separate from the
goal of being a good parent.
Still, for many of us, our qualms about divorce relate directly to our children—their feelings and their growth into loved and loving adults. Couples often feel that children are the most compelling reason to revitalize a marital bond. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion wrote, “There is absolutely no substitute for parents who have a loving relation with each other. No amount of talk or theory is going
to take the place of parents who love each other.” Where children are concerned, parents sharing a loving bond comes close to an absolute good. But parents sometimes feel they don’t have a loving bond. People want to stay married for the children, but also because they have a loving relationship.
On the values questions about marriage and divorce, the culture at large doesn’t offer much guidance. For one thing, it keeps throwing us back on youthful preoccupations and sows panic about “giving up” on “our potential.” The market’s desire-stoking engines promote the mirage that there’s nothing about our dispiriting situation that we can’t buy, or trade in, or surgically alter our way out of. For another, the culture continues to play the seductive refrain that romantic passion is the preeminent conduit to personal renewal. Even if you entertain the idea that long-term monogamy could be an enduring vessel for romantic love, you will face countless reminders that new love is essential to life, and its monomaniacal focus is a state to be prolonged and nurtured. Its attenuation signals not the bittersweet end of an
era, but a sign that a relationship is static, dead, and in need of correction. At minimum, it demands the purchase of candles, massages, and getaway hotel packages.
I am an enthusiastic proponent of psychotherapy, but aspects of therapy culture can encourage the tendency to scrutinize our love relationships and find they come up short. To get through the rough patch you may have to enlarge your perspective and expand your focus beyond your marriage’s minute emotional ebb and flow, but such outward focus arouses therapeutic suspicion that you are “not taking care of your marriage” or “not being emotionally present.” Consumerism urges us to look at the small details and slice them as thin as possible (how else are we going to be convinced we need the next iPhone?), and this mentality can seep into our view of relationships, encouraging us to focus on tiny details and amplify pockets of discontent. Where does an admirable attention to personal growth end and a “more-different-better” mind-set begin? It’s a fine line we can’t always detect, and the cultural surround encourages us to blur it.
Glowing youth. Passionate sex. Romantic love. All great things. I’d say they are among some of the very best things. But that’s different from saying that the only way through the rough patch, to a sense of renewed vitality or purpose, is to somehow double down on our preoccupation with them. With that kind of striving, people too often end up in misdirected solutions, relational or otherwise, that can only temporarily relieve their desolation. The reality that life is lived in one direction means that things we might have had in concrete form at earlier points in life—youthful beauty, our high school sweetheart, Herculean sexual stamina—become increasingly costly and delusional to pursue. As time passes, the stakes of not squarely facing the reality of loss, of relinquishing what you can’t actually have, get higher. We have to develop and refine other capacities, inner capacities, if we want the second half of life to go well.
Of course, living in America at this cultural moment means not always knowing what constitutes a realistic acceptance of limits. Our cultural heroes are guys who hang out in their dorm rooms fooling around on their computers, until, at twenty-six, they become
internet billionaires. Teenagers inhale the daily doings of suddenly world-renowned YouTube personalities, aspiring to their instantaneous and magical reach, while their parents look on with mystified boredom. We all now live with prosthetic minds called smartphones that extend our communication and knowledge exponentially, while colonizing our consciousness in as-yet incomprehensible ways. Seventy-year-olds can look fifty, through good health or body modification, and the “longevity dividend”—the twenty to thirty more years than our grandparents had—means that a whole life phase is only now being truly charted.
Yet even as we extend the boundaries of the possible to previously unimaginable limits, we live in bodies that die, and most of us believe we have only one life on this earth. If this leads some of us toward a “seize the day” impulse to escape marital malaise, it leads many others back toward their marriages in hopes of making them more fulfilling. If these people turn to self-help, they may encounter the secular religion of health, where research findings suggest that it’s worth staying married as protection against heart-attack risk. When in doubt, these writings seem to imply, we should think of marriage as part of a fitness routine, even if couching it as a good workout rather than
the marriage of true minds lacks for a bit of inspirational grandeur. More psychologically oriented are the studies of happiness, which document that changing some key habits—setting goals, practicing gratitude, cultivating optimism—can improve our relationships to a surprising degree. Working in the spiritual genre is the raft of latter-day sages who counsel that the ego is a delusion, and detachment holds the key to personal transformation. When we’re unhappy in our personal relationships, they suggest, it derives from our limited view of love, namely our attachment to form (i.e., the personal) over formlessness (i.e., infinity and transcendence).
Certainly it’s a relief to breathe in the practical, empowering spirit of positive psychology, which pinpoints the aspects of happiness we can attain through effort and healthy routines. Ironically, though, the well-intentioned messages about the health benefits of long-term relationships, as well as the New Age–inflected spiritual formulas, carry
with them an astonishingly simplistic view of the one thing that lies at the beating heart of marriage: our emotions.
Our emotions form the core of our sense of meaning. They define and create our central love relationships. It’s fine to intone about detaching from the ego, until you admit that the ego is part of the self, and
self is grounded in emotions, and emotions happen within a body. Marriage, like parenthood, inevitably and necessarily involves the stubborn reality of the flesh. That’s one reason why marriage and parenthood are so hard. When we move from airy abstraction to actual human relationships, we quickly realize that the only route toward wisdom, love, and a sense of aliveness is through the sensitive and skillful management of emotion. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, the dove may wish that the air had no resistance so that it could fly higher, yet resistance is the very thing
that allows the dove to fly. Likewise, we can’t escape our bodies or emotions; we can only discover who we are and how to love from within our fleshly human medium.
What most people want from marriage is affection, trust, safety, fun, soothing, encouragement, excitement, and comfort. They want to have companionship and be left alone in all the right ways, neither intruded upon nor abandoned. They want to be seen, accepted, valued, and understood for who they are. All of this stands or falls on the quality of emotional sharing and communication. That’s why the rough patch inescapably calls us to struggle with our emotions on a whole new level of awareness, and to figure out what they mean for our relationships. This is a profound personal and relational journey. There aren’t any shortcuts. Relationships are messy and complicated. No wonder the deceptive simplicity of all the checklists and tweets and seemingly endless reminders that our happiness is under our own control can come to intimidate rather than reassure us.
From the last three decades of psychological research, we know that
our minds are formed in relationships. This means not simply that our minds are concerned with relationships (which they are), but that relationships shape the ways we process and experience reality.
Psychology has made huge strides in mapping the connections between early
attachment, emotional development, and adult intimate relationships. Throughout life,
our emotions signal what’s important, and what’s important—at any age—is satisfying relationships. In a real sense, then, marriage picks up where childhood left off. As a close relationship that engages body, heart, and mind, marriage offers a powerful lifelong vehicle for knowing another, being known, and developing our deep emotional life.
Overall, research finds that the most important factors in whether our relationships are satisfying all have to do with emotions: how we tune into our emotions, experience them, manage them, communicate about them, calm them enough to respond to others, and align them with our behavior and goals. Throughout this book, I will sum up the key capacities of healthy emotional relating as curiosity, compassion, and control. When we’re curious, we are open to trying to understand our own and the other’s truth. When we’re compassionate, we feel empathy for our own and the other’s struggles. When we exert self-control, we contain and communicate our emotional responses to others in ways that are accurate, sensitive, and likely to get heard. The triad of curiosity, compassion, and (self-)control takes us toward a sense of personal agency, and away from holding our partner responsible for our own feelings. It helps us build the inner capacities we need to reckon well with the rough patch.
Finding a way to be happy in marriage depends on our ability to exercise emotional skill, flexibility, and resilience. But it also depends on something else: our ability to value both the needs of the individual partners and the needs of the marriage. Rough-patch breakdown often occurs when people lose track of one side or the other. Sometimes, they’ve conceptualized marriage as demanding a suppression of individuality, and they reach a point when that solution is no longer sustainable. Or, they find themselves only able to advocate for their own needs, in a sort of zero-sum survival strategy, without being able to hold on to a vision of the marriage as a resource for comfort and excitement, stability and growth. Throughout life, we continually learn about ourselves through pressing up against the personalities of others. Ideally, we don’t simply react, but use our
interactions with others to increase our self-awareness. The result is greater self-definition, which leads to the possibility of more authentic connection. This recurrent back-and-forth of relating to self and other is the engine of adult development, as well as the engine of growth in marriage. If the emotional interactions are basically healthy, we gradually become more self-realized as individuals and more deeply relational as partners.
But marriage itself, not to mention the romantic ideology that surrounds it, so easily tends to produce misunderstanding about who’s responsible for whose emotions. It’s almost as if the ideal of passionate fusion that we welcomed so blissfully at the outset returns, like a swamp monster, in the form of chronic confusion about who’s doing what to whom. As time goes on, if people don’t step up to the challenge of communicating in an emotionally healthy way, they fall into the trap of thinking that individual and couple needs are doomed to conflict. They now imagine there’s no way around the unshakable reality of competing agendas. In both cases, people overlook that their way of handling their own emotions powerfully influences the very ways they conceive of, and participate in, marriage. Throughout these pages, we will be looking closely at the individual—not only because it receives
short shrift in writings on couples, but because, paradoxically, individual development represents one of the most potent paths to marital happiness.
Since marriage presents one challenge after another, we need to bring our best resources, as individuals and as a couple, to solve them. Three of the biggest challenges—children, sex, and work—pervade the emotional climate of marriage, and accordingly, they thread through every chapter of this book. More specific challenges, such as money or aging, are addressed in individual chapters. I hope that couples will read this book together, or at least sequentially. I also hope that each reader will embrace the opportunity to focus on three questions: Who do I want to be as an individual? Who do I want to be as a partner? And how do the two fit together?
My goal is to create more breathing room around these questions. In a broad sense, I believe that the vast and troubling energies of the
rough patch will have been harnessed for good if they contribute to personal progress on the following fronts:
• Becoming a more loving person. Really. By this I don’t mean going on loving-kindness retreats that are stealth missions to indulge a crush on your meditation teacher, but rather engaging full heartedly in becoming more kind and compassionate, toward others and yourself.
• Seeing your partner’s perspectives and experience as equal in importance to your own. This means recognizing narcissism for what it is (it’s not just you, we all have it). Relating to others as genuine people, rather than need satisfiers or projections of your own psyche, is a lifelong effort, never complete.
• Expressing emotion skillfully rather than simply emoting. Marriage offers a ready-made dumping ground for our bad moods and tendency to blame and judge. Taking responsibility for how you express yourself, and repairing after negative interactions, pave the way for closeness.
• Developing a nuanced relationship to your fantasy life. That means cultivating awareness that actions and thoughts aren’t the same thing, building confidence in the difference between them, and using your imagination and fantasy life as a source of creativity rather than for numbing out and escapism.
• Discovering the need for committed living, where a value higher that your own emotional weather prevails. In adulthood, a sense of purpose and meaning derives from the dual psychological movements toward deepening inward and expanding outward. We in the rough patch need to use the fuel of waning youth and the whisper of mortality to vitalize and intensify our self-awareness, love for others, and our engagement with the world.
* * *
ONE OF MY guiding assumptions as a therapist is that you shouldn’t stay in a marriage if there’s no hope for it to become a secure, loving relationship. Another guiding assumption is that staying in a
marriage, even if it is difficult, can be one of the most effective ways of developing a secure, loving relationship. Anyone can decide that being married to one’s partner is not the way one wants to pursue an intimate life. But people can undertake that decision under pressures that they don’t understand. They feel pushed, pulled, and not free to flexibly choose. For many of the people who seek my help, I believe that working through the problems in their marriage is a more direct and ultimately satisfying route to a secure, loving bond than leaving.
In all my talk of the responsibility of the individual in marriage, I might be mistaken for endorsing two common ideas. The first is that the duty of a mature adult (especially one with children) is to suck it up. So what if you are unhappy? Distract yourself. The second is that marriage takes work, a position that consigns me, in some people’s minds, to the camp of puritanical libido-killers who advocate a work ethic for everything from sex to fine dining (“Are you still working on your prime rib?”).
As to the first, I believe that the things we feel are lacking in the rough patch are all good things to want and to strive for: a sense of aliveness, the flexibility to change, the desire to feel, to love and be loved. We should not give up on the goal of having them in our intimate relationship. But we should also think about those goals more broadly—not only in terms of our marriage, but also in terms of the opportunity the rough patch presents for taking responsibility for, and recommitting to, who one is. The challenge of the rough patch is not only to discover whether it is possible to find a way to be happy with one’s partner, but is to reckon—yet again—with our relationship to ourselves and to the world.
As to the second, the idea that marriage takes work: if you ask older married people, they’ll sometimes say
one of their proudest accomplishments is their marriage. They say this because it wasn’t always easy, God knows, and because they recognize the marriage for the creative project that it is. But people generally abhor the idea of marriage as work, not only because it reinforces the message that somehow marriage is the death knell for spontaneity, excitement, and fun, but also because it depressingly pits our current experience of
marriage against the very hopes and pleasures that gave rise to it in the first place.
But this interpretation entirely misnames the activity at the center of the enterprise. The “work” involved is not the drudgery of cleaning the bathroom or the mind-numbing repetition of the assembly line. The work is in facing authentic emotion and vulnerability. The work is in the challenge of opening up—to being present, to listening, to learning about feelings, to having hard conversations, to facing reality. The work is in having the courage to take risks, and to speak one’s truth and listen to the other, in the effort to create an intimate relationship.
When people don’t take those risks, they shut down and disengage, and then marriage can’t possibly feel like anything but boring and static. They start telling themselves, “I shouldn’t have to work this hard.” But if it’s too depressing to think about working on your relationship, think about working on yourself. Not only is it true that the less you work on yourself, the more effort other people put in to deal with you (have you ever noticed how often people stepping forth to renew themselves leave wreckage for others?). It is also true that making the effort to look within, and to struggle with your own demons, repays you in more fulfilling relationships.
The rough patch offers the possibility to become a more integrated person. I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that wrestling with the conflicts that arise is a psychological journey of self-understanding that can take every ounce of your fortitude. It entails holding in tension both the intense reality of what you are going through, and the ability to take some distance from it. The challenge is to arrive at an understanding of your life that is self-compassionate but not self-serving, satisfying but also true.
People are so often caught feeling that their situation is both impossibly complicated and insufferably trite. Simply knowing more about the titanic forces with which we all grapple, in midlife and marriage, can help us apply more compassion and less judgment toward ourselves and others, and to exercise more patience and wisdom in discerning our individual path. As will be obvious, I am not
in the business of keeping
fatally flawed marriages together. Certain marriages should end. Rather, I am interested in the states of mind that beset people in the rough patch, and what they can teach us about living the rest of our lives with verve, creativity, and commitment. The rough patch, for all its pain and bewilderment, presents an opportunity—to know ourselves, to expand our scope, to grow, and to grow up.