- "One reason people see marriage therapy as a shameful thing is that they think marriage is some kind of a triumph or achievement. But marriage is not the finish line; it’s the starting block of a different sort of race." Tweet This
- "Spending all that money [on the wedding] and doing all that planning but not thinking about the marriage that comes after is like blowing your entire fortune on a high stakes poker game and then not really knowing how to play." Tweet This
- "I do not want the happiness of our central relationship to be a conservative or a progressive issue. I personally think that marriage is the most radical wealth-sharing institution we have." Tweet This
TIME magazine editor-at-large Belinda Luscombe begins her new book, Marriageology, by describing one of her husband’s most annoying habits: repeatedly asking her to help him find the envelopes whenever he needs to mail a letter, even though she’s shown him where they are a hundred times. Though our complaints may differ, every person who has been married more than a few years can relate to the irritation Luscombe feels about his forgetfulness, which she writes “makes me want to put stones in my pocket and walk into the ocean. Or even better, take them out and throw them at him.”
It’s personal anecdotes like this one, sprinkled throughout the book alongside the latest science, that make Marriageology such an engaging read. In six, easy-to-digest chapters, Luscombe, who has been writing about relationships for TIME for a decade, shares what she’s learned about how to stay married from experts, research, and especially her own nearly 30-year union. In the following interview, which has been lightly edited, Luscombe shares some of the insights from her book and explains how staying married through the good and bad times has helped her become better at loving her husband.
Alysse ElHage: I enjoyed your book so much, and I have to say it was refreshing to read something on marriage from a mainstream journalist, who is not a conservative, yet recognizes the value and beauty of marriage. What motivated you to write a book about staying happily married?
Belinda Luscombe: Well, I cover human relations a lot for Time. And I get a lot of books sent to me, probably two or three a week… Books about parenting and how to raise happy children, or how to be a good leader and a successful person or happy in your life. But I don’t get that many books about marriage. And it seems to me when you ask anybody how their kids are or how happy they are, it really is reflected a lot in how happy their marriage is or how happy they are with a co-parent, or how happy their relationship is to their closest most intimate friend, which is what a spouse really is. So, it seemed to me there was a huge gap…
And also, you’re right. I do not want the happiness of our central relationship to be a conservative or a progressive issue. I personally think that marriage is the most radical wealth-sharing institution we have. I mean, you say to somebody, “Everything that I have and everything that’s good that happens to me, I’m going to share with you 100%. And every bad thing that happens to you and every misfortune or illness or whatever you go through, I’m going to be there and share that with you, too.” That’s crazy! It’s so un-American: no questions asked, we’re in this together. It’s like the very smallest act of microsocialism, or the world's smallest trade union. I felt like we’re looking at marriage all wrong, and that bugged me.
ElHage: In one of the most personal parts of the book, you share about going to see a marriage therapist with your husband. You write that when your husband suggested it, it came as a surprise, especially when you found out he had already found a therapist. Some people view seeing a marriage therapist as the last hope, or even worse, as a sign that their marriage is over. Why do you think that is?
Luscombe: In the book, I use the analogy of physical therapy. If you have a wound, if you over-extend yourself in sport, they’ll send you to a physical therapist. And it doesn’t mean your body is on its last legs. What it means is, something’s gone wrong. You’ve overused this particular body part, and we’re going to build up some muscles to restore it to its strength. I think if people could see that analogy, it would seem less shameful.
One reason people see marriage therapy as a shameful thing is that they think marriage is some kind of a triumph, some kind of an achievement. It’s crossing the finish line—we’ve done it. My life is great; I’ve gotten married! And then if that achievement isn’t working out, it seems like you’ve failed. Like you got demoted at work.
But marriage is just not like that. It’s not the finish line; it’s the starting block of a different sort of race. So, I don’t think everybody needs to go to therapy necessarily; I do think everybody could probably take a look at their marriage and think about it and learn some skills… As you go along in your marriage, you get better at loving people. That’s the point; that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. So, if occasionally you go to somebody who knows the higher-level skills, I don’t see why that would be shameful at all…
Being married to the same guy [for nearly 30 years], I’m just better at him. I’m better at loving him. I understand what he needs, and there’s a satisfaction in being able to do things well. There’s a satisfaction in just being good at him.
I think the other problem is that going to therapy is an admission that you’re having trouble. And yes, [therapy] worked for us. We were in quite bad straits. But having trouble in your marriage is being married. You do meet people who just sail through, but it’s unlikely—especially in this day and age where so many expectations are put on marriage—that you’re going to live your entire life and never have a profound and seemingly unsolvable disagreement.
ElHage: True, and to follow up on something you just said: why do you think we put so many expectations today on marriage?
Luscombe: Marriage is in a very interesting position right now. Because all the benefits that marriage used to offer—sex, children, status, for women 50, 60 years ago, a provider, for men 50, 60 years ago, a housekeeper—those have all been outsourced. We don’t need to get married for any of those things anymore. What is the point of marriage now? And I think the wedding industry, God bless its heart, has done a wonderful job at making people think that it’s the most important day of their lives. And in some ways they’re not wrong, but I say in the book that spending all that money and doing all that wedding planning and not thinking about the marriage that comes after is like blowing your entire fortune buying into a high stakes poker game and then not really knowing how to play, rather than even thinking about taking one poker lesson beforehand. So, I think the wedding industry is part of it.
There are a lot of government benefits that accrue to married people, but I actually don’t think anybody goes, “I’m going to get married so I can get a tax break.” I think people do fall in love, and it’s a wonderful thing. And we have for many decades created a wonderful mythology around marriage, all these movies and Shakespeare plays and songs that kind of end with this this marriage feast. So we have weighted it down on the one hand with all this kind of privilege and beauty and promise of bliss, while on the other hand, all the things it’s actually brought you, you can get elsewhere. So now it’s become this kind of bright glittering object, which doesn’t necessarily have the buying power that gold used to have. Marriage has all the buzz now and much less of the purpose, so when people get married, they think, I did it! And then they’re like, wow, this is hard. I think they get a shock.
ElHage: In your discussion of divorce, you talk about the U-shape of marital satisfaction over the years. And you write that it reminds you of a riverbed. “You just have to forge on and keep your head above water,” until it gets better. This reminded me of the study we featured by Paul Amato, which found that marriage tends to get better over time, especially after the 20-year mark. Many people have a hard time just sticking things out. Any advice for couples who are maybe struggling?
Luscombe: First, I have to stress I’m not a therapist. I don’t give “this is what you should do” kind of advice. I feel like that would be fraudulent on my part. The U-shaped happiness thing is a well-established sociological phenomenon where people’s happiness is up high when they’re young, in their 20’s, and then it goes down in their 40’s and 50’s, and then it goes up again. Marriages kind of follow what our lives follow, anyway.
I remember once asking Henry Kissinger if he thought Arab Spring would make the situation in that region better. And he said something like, “No, there are no solutions. You are just punching your ticket to a different set of problems.” A 2002 study that looked at 645 unhappy couples and checked back on them after five years, found that those who had divorced were no happier than those who didn’t.
And I think about that sometimes when my spouse is driving me mad: there are no solutions. This situation may not be the one I love at the moment, but is the situation where he’s not here better? Would I find happiness with another person? I feel like you put so much work into learning a person, that even when things are a bit tough, you’re probably better off with them because of how much you know already. Super romantic, right?
ElHage: You say that marriage is the “longest project” you’ve ever stuck with, and you are grateful you stuck it out. What makes the work of marriage worth it for you personally and more broadly, what would you say about the good of marriage in general in a culture where, at least among some populations, marriage appears to be in decline?
Luscombe: Well, I have to say that if you can stick with somebody for 50 years and don’t get married, then to me, I just consider you married. Maybe you’re losing some of the benefits that the government offers. Marriage, the institution, seems to protect the couple a little bit. It seems to help them plan for the future. And some people argue that getting up and announcing your intentions to stay together in front of all your friends is significant. But I have a brother who’s been with the same woman his whole adult life and has kids with her. And I just call her his wife because, to me, they’re married. So I don’t see those things as that different.
Marriage is not something that happens to you. It’s something that you do.
I think the problem that the less wealthy are having [in regards to marriage] is this kind of achievement attitude that we have about marriage—that I can’t get married because I don’t have a stable job; I can’t get married because one of the partners is not employed, and I don’t want to be on the hook for them or a drag on them. I think that the American government, for all that it loves marriage, does not support families very well. The minimum wage here is a joke; people would have to work 25/8 on that to support a family. There’s so little family leave. It’s brutal, especially at the lower end of the wage spectrum. If you don’t work in a knowledge industry, if you’re sort of an hourly employee, it’s incredibly hard to have a family and have children. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin writes a lot about how the working classes have abandoned marriage partly because it’s an achievement and partly because getting married suggests a plan for the future; it’s an optimistic thing to do. And I think that often people find that they just don’t have enough hope in the future to be able to make that statement…
Personally, for me, marriage is a little bit like learning to write. I could write a bit when I started my career in journalism. And now I’m better at it, and it’s satisfying to be better at something. And being married to the same guy, I’m just better at him. I’m better at loving him. I understand what he needs, and there’s a satisfaction in being able to do things well. There’s a satisfaction in just being good at him. Just speaking Jeremy.
As I write in the book, pair bonding, finding a mate, that’s an incredibly natural thing to do. The entire animal kingdom does that. We, as humans, are one of the rare species that tries to do it forever. So, in many ways, it’s not natural. But it’s not natural in the same way that reading is not natural or dancing or rap—all these fantastic things that we do, like poetry. What’s natural about poetry? They are higher-order skills that are really, really worthwhile.
That’s the way I feel about marriage. It’s not something that happens to you. It’s something that you do. I mean, that’s love. Love is not just something that you fall into—it’s something you learn to do.
*Photo credit: Peter Hapak for TIME