For Better or Worse, til Death Do You Part by Macaroni

by Macaroni

I know nothing about marriage. How can I? Pesto and I have
been married less than three months. That said, I  know about failed
relationships having experienced my fair share. Similarly, my
parents divorced when I was just 13. Succeeding at marriage is one of my
deepest goals. Yet, what makes a good marriage when you have nothing to model
it after? Before Pesto and I married, we read and asked, The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do"
by Susan Piver (highly recommended
).

Following the honeymoon we undertook major
apartment renovations that took longer than expected, displacing us for more
than a week. While the end result was a fabulous living space, it set off a
series of arguments and prolonged bickering. Even with punctuated fun-filled
“date nights,” we couldn’t seem to shake the nasty pattern that inadvertently developed.

Once again, Pesto and I turned to books for guidance. Currently we are reading John Gottman's The Seven Principles
for Making Marriage Work
. Gottman claims he can predict
with 90% accuracy whether a couple will stay together after observing them
interact for only five minutes. Based on a range of data (interviews,
observation, biological feedback, etc.) he argues that conflict resolution
ultimately determines whether a couple will make it or not. For example, does
one person attempt to deescalate the conflict by inserting humor or simply taking
a break?

Yesterday’s New York Times,
Those Aren’t Fighting Words,
highlights Laura Munson’s private and painful admission that her husband wanted
out of their marriage. She shares her poignant story, which offers a lesson for
married couples of how she “stayed the course,” weathering a rocky period.
Is Munson's reaction to her husband's threats, ultimately what saved her marriage? 

Is
Gottman’s claim that how conflicts get resolved is most important? And, how do
you navigate the rough patches in a marriage?

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25 thoughts on “For Better or Worse, til Death Do You Part by Macaroni

  1. I think Munson’s article was interesting — she realized that he was having a reaction to things that didn’t directly involve her, and she gave him some space to work it out. She doesn’t get into details, but I’m kind of assuming he wasn’t permitted to sleep around (or she wasn’t willing to sleep with him during that period), but I think giving him some space to workout his own thing was brilliant.
    I’ve been married for almost 19 years — and there have been some difficult times — but, once I realized that a) there are many good reasons we’re together and b) he’s not a mind-reader who can be all things to me, it got much better.

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  2. “Following the honeymoon we undertook major apartment renovations that took longer than expected, displacing us for more than a week.”
    Renovations and home-buying are supposed to be a big no-no for newylyweds.
    “he argues that conflict resolution ultimately determines whether a couple will make it or not.”
    I vaguely remember a rule of thumb that says that you need 5 positive interactions for every negative one with your spouse.

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  3. I think the Gottman book is good, but I also often think, about books that try to alter behavioral patterns, that they only really work for people who had the right behavioral inclinations to start out with. The key question is how much can we alter behavior if we are aware of it? and I think the psychological answer is not very much. I think what we need more than awareness is tricks to trick us out of the bad behaviors (the taking a break is a big one).
    I found the Munson article very interesting — and, I don’t think that there were necessarily any “rules” with the separation. Philo-P suggests sex as the big dealbreaker, but Munson details that she let her husband participate/not participate in family life as he wished. In the plan that she outlines, it seems like sex would be part of the same deal, and putting it on special status would undermine the basic concept of “letting him figure things out.” She states a time limit, but nothing more. Should we expect a book of that time? seems like NYT Op eds generally signal that? I would be intrigued.

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  4. PS: I like the Gottman book, and do actually think it’s useful, giving language to get out of conflict ruts, giving ideas for interpreting other points of view. But, I cannot imagine having used the 100 questions book to talk with my husband before we married 21 years ago. The questions there seem banal. Now, I’m just using the “surprise me” to glance at random pages at Amazon, and I think the point of the questions is that they are supposed to foster discussions. It’s possible that we had the discussions without the questions, but I can’t imagine us having picked up the book and asked each other “what should different rooms in the house be used for” and having any answers to that question influence our subsequent decision making.
    Though not offering any advice, I think what I would say looking back at our relationship is that we’ve changed together. We’ve been together so long that it’s kind of hard to remember what each of us would have been like without the other.
    You should enlighten us on how the 100 questions book was useful.

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  5. What I liked about the 100 Essential Questions were some of the topics that maybe we had not discussed as thoroughly as we ought. I also saw it as an insurance policy of sorts, though of course there’s no guarantee.
    The chapter on finance raises questions about bank accounts. When you marry later in life (I suspect?) you likely have established systems financial systems. I couldn’t imagine after 20+ years of having my own bank account that all of a sudden we would have a joint account. Or for example, in the discussion about children we never discussed what we would continue a pregnancy, if a child had a birth defect. Or similarly, how far should children be spaced (this was not in the book, but it was raised elsewhere, and the answer Pesto gave surprised me–but we were on the same page). In the chapter about family, one of the question asks “How do you wish to spend holidays?” This question raises my anxiety levels through the roof (juggling now 4 “sides”.) I don’t like Thanksgiving. Instead, I want to go to an island and bask in the sun. Pesto loves Thanksgiving. Reconciling this has been difficult. While I realize the importance of family, I become somewhat petulant and complain–even though I like his family. (Note: The first chapter is not that interesting.)

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  6. Yes, AmyP you’re right–5 positive interactions for every one negative.
    Never heard not to do any renovations/house purchases in the first year. I don’t think we’ll be doing anything else fortunately : )

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  7. “5 positive interactions for every one negative”
    That may boost my theory as to why the divorce rate is so high among the more fundamentalist Protestants. So many of them don’t drink and drinking is so often the key to positive interactions.

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  8. “Or for example, in the discussion about children we never discussed what we would continue a pregnancy, if a child had a birth defect.”
    See, for example, this is one on which I think that it’s nearly impossible to say what one would do, until one is faced with the facts. It certainly doesn’t hurt to discuss (strong feelings, religious faith will certainly influence decision making later on). But, anything my 22 year old self would have said would certainly not have committed my 35 year old self to anything. I think many of the other questions are like that as well, things that one might have opinions about, and talking about them certainly wouldn’t hurt, but also ones in which people’s opinions might change substantially over a lifetime together.

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  9. Munson’s piece was amazing, wasn’t it? Frankly I had mentally filed it under “public punishment of spouse a la Elizabeth Edwards” until she mentioned that her husband had encouraged her to write about it. I am just too much the girl from Minnesota to ever write publicly about such a thing.
    On the topic of finances for couples who had both lived independently, this was once an interesting conversation at work. During a break between conference calls some colleagues and I all started talking about family finances. It turned out that, of the four married people in the room, each had a different approach to family finances. (All in one pot, separate accounts for each individual + a shared expense account, proportional split of shared expenses coming out of personal accounts, stipends.) We also all had different approaches towards pre-existing debt such as college loans.
    Finances are the final frontier in the States, I swear, the one area where even your closest friends & family may know no details about you. I think it makes it harder when you’re a newly married, as you feel like you can talk to your friends about it only if they’re at roughly the same level of income. (Otherwise it somehow seems either obnoxious or proof of abject failure as an adult.) But maybe that’s just me.

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  10. “Finances are the final frontier in the States, I swear, the one area where even your closest friends & family may know no details about you.”
    True, and especially odd when you come from other cultures where finances are discussed much more openly. With some frequency, people ask me straight out how much my house cost. It turns me for a loop (fairly americanized around here), but I suppress my midwestern upbringing and tell them. I’m convinced that a lot of craziness comes from lack of knowledge of how much things cost and how much people earn. I continue to be surprised by how the “rich” are portrayed — people who make 1M a year do not, for example, routinely fly first class.

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  11. “With some frequency, people ask me straight out how much my house cost.”
    Can’t they just look it up on the internet?
    “…people who make 1M a year…”
    I know plenty of people with $1 million in assets, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who makes that in a year/

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  12. I’m pretty sure a thick skin will get you pretty far in life and, apparently, a marriage.
    I could definitely see myself doing what Munson did. I could see my husband doing what Munson’s husband did. I’m keeping this strategy in my toolbox for potential future problems. 🙂
    One of the best things that ever happened for us was when my husband started his own part-time business in photography, the primary purpose of which is to fund his desire to buy fancy new photo equipment. I would have a fit every time a package from B&H showed up on a doorstep. My packages from Amazon were usually paperbacks for $5.99; his from B&H were usually camera crap for $400. Serious marital stress. He started having them sent to work. But once he started gaining some income from photography, enough to pay for the new camera crap every few months, we were much happier.

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  13. I agree with BJ and Doug–I’ve been married 16 years (my parents are coming up on 50), and I don’t have any advice: not the sort that I could put in a book or sell to all kinds of people that I don’t know anything about. (Well, perhaps laughter, I guess. My grandma said to us, a few days after our wedding, “have a sense of humor,” and seeing as it worked for her for nearly 60 years, we’ve tried to make it work for us.)
    That may boost my theory as to why the divorce rate is so high among the more fundamentalist Protestants. So many of them don’t drink and drinking is so often the key to positive interactions.
    Anmerican Mormons as a whole do not have a significantly different divorce rate from that of any other group, but amongst those who are most dedicated to their faith (married in a Mormon temple, etc.), which is also a group with vanishingly-small-to-non-existent rates of alcohol consumption, the divorce rate is dramatically lower. So there’s a possible problem with your theory right there.

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