A few years ago my friend Lisa looked at my 30 New Year’s resolutions with distaste. “Those aren’t resolutions,” she said, slugging her quad espresso, “that’s a to do list.”
Then there was the year I was reading Harriet Lerner’s book about facing your fears and resolved to get more rejections. That year I broke into the travel section of the New York Times. When I smarted over the fact that I could also wallpaper the living room with all the rejections, my husband told me to cheer up. “You’re fulfilling your New Year’s resolution!” he reminded me.
This year, inspired by my friend Alisa Bowman’s new book, “Project: Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairy Tale Falters,” as well as her tenacity in publicizing the book and reinventing herself (she went from being shy of public speaking to a Power Point pro, from barely wearing lip gloss to a make-up expert for TV appearances, and to someone so much more comfortable in front a keyboard to a put-yourself-out-there-because-no-one-will-find-you-if-you-hide kind of person), I am resolving to work more on my marriage.
Despite Alisa’s frankness about the problems in her marriage, it’s a taboo in this country to admit to marital problems.
I think that’s why her book, which I found so compelling that I read the advanced copy the publisher sent me in two days, has garnered some vitriolic reviews on Amazon.
Alisa’s marriage was so unhappy that she fantasized about her husband dying. She started drafting a novel about a woman who murders her husband and began to consider what it would take to divide their finances and separate their lives.
She asked a divorced friend, who is now happily remarried, when do you know it’s time to leave?
Her friend told her it’s time to leave when you’ve tried everything, and asked Alisa what she had tried.
The question surprised her. She realized that even though she was used to applying self-help techniques to other aspects of her life (like fitness and health), she hadn’t really tried to save her marriage. She was so unhappily married, she had fallen so far out of love with her husband, and he had done so many disappointing and even cruel things during their marraige, that the relationship felt beyond saving.
But she pledged to herself to try.
I have to admit, I was skeptical. From everything I read in the book about Alisa’s husband Mark I was starting to resent him. He seems worse than clueless. He came across to me like a passive aggressive procrastinator who barely listened to his wife. When he loses his job (twice!) he sits in the easy chair watching sports on TV, barely cognizant that Alisa is working her tail off to provide for them both, instead of finding another job. While he’s unemployed he spends $8000–every penny of their money–on a ski trip. He leaves the crib she’s been asking him to assemble to literally the eleventh hour and then goes out drinking with his friends the night before she is scheduled to have a C-section, even though she’s told him, in tears, that she is terrified of the surgery.
Things get even worse after their daughter is born.
Her husband’s behavior is so awful that I don’t want to tell you any more about it because it made me furious when I was reading about it and thinking about it is making me angry all over again.
But the advice books Alisa reads (twelve in all!) suggest that she begin with herself to improve their marriage, the experts ask her to examine what part she is playing in their family unhappiness. To his credit, Mark obviously loves her, is often unaware of the effect of his both literal and figurative absence, and is willing to work on their relationship as much as she asks him to (as long as she takes the initiative.)
I love several of the premises of this book:
–Marriages take work.
–We have to start fixing what is broken by examining and changing ourselves.
–We have to work on improving an unhappy situation instead of just walking away from it without even trying.
But I wanted to love Alisa’s husband by the end of the book and I just didn’t. She started off improving her marriage by forgiving Mark for the past. But since I didn’t read those books, since I felt so protective of the narrator, and since I did not understand in any profound what the reasons were for Mark to act so badly, as a reader I wasn’t able to find the forgiveness that Alisa tapped into as a wife. Instead I felt like Alisa was doing all the work of improving their marriage: doing back flips to make things better between them, earning most of their family’s money, responsible for way more than her share of the care of their child.
“What should I write about Alisa’s book?” I asked James.
Since Alisa is a friend and colleague, a sometimes reader of this blog, and a writer and a person whom I respect tremendously, I felt nervous about being honest about the book. I enjoyed reading it. I found it totally gripping. I thought it was very well written. But I so badly wanted to feel that she was in good hands, being taken care of, and respected the way she deserves to be by the end of the book. And I didn’t.
Case in point: They decide to renew their wedding vows. Alisa showers and gets ready. She does her hair. Then she waits and waits for Mark. And waits some more. Mark shows up inexcusably late. Alisa, who has done a lot of work on herself during the months of her marriage improvement project, lets go of his lateness. I’m still smarting.
“What did you learn from it?” James asked me.
“That I have the kindest, most incredible, most wonderful husband in the world, that I totally take you for granted when I shouldn’t, and that I don’t appreciate you enough or work enough on insuring that our marriage is solid.” I put my arms around him and gave him a million silly kisses on the cheek, like the kind I give Baby Leone.
James guffawed. “Sounds like a good book!”
“Project Happily Ever After” is a good book. I admire Alisa for working out the kinks in her marriage and I’m grateful to the book for inspiring me to work out the kinks in mine.
If you’re married or in a relationship, what do you do to nurture that relationship? Did you find having babies put stress on your marriage? If you’re divorced, how did you finally decide it was time to leave? (Want to read this book? You can buy it anywhere that books are sold, ask your local library to order a copy, or check back with Candace Walsh, who will be giving away a free copy on her blog A La Mama.)