Monday, December 07, 2009

In defense of a "good-enough" marriage.

The New York Times magazine recently had an interesting article about a couple's trip through couples therapy and whether it was even worth it. Written by Elizabeth Weil, it chronicled her reasons for going through therapy and the issues it dredged up -- none of which are even remotely pretty.

I do suggest that people read the article -- I thought it was a fascinating view on couples therapy when people often go there looking for solutions and making things better. More profoundly for me was when she discussed at the end of the article, the idea of the "good-enough" marriage:

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.

In the end, I settled on this vision of marriage, felt the logic of applying myself to it. Maybe the perversity we all feel in the idea of striving at marriage — the reason so few of us do it — stems from a misapprehension of the proper goal. In the early years, we take our marriages to be vehicles for wish fulfillment: we get the mate, maybe even a house, an end to loneliness, some kids. But to keep expecting our marriages to fulfill our desires — to bring us the unending happiness or passion or intimacy or stability we crave — and to measure our unions by their capacity to satisfy those longings, is na├»ve, even demeaning. Of course we strain against marriage; it’s a bound canvas, a yoke. Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.

A disclaimer: I've talked to counselors to clear her head (as recently as BD's birth for postpartum issues), and (I will confess), dragged Jeff to one early in our relationship because while I love him, he was doing things that made me question whether he loved me (that proved beneficial overall -- I married him after all and he's still adorable). I understand the need and desire to talk to someone who's trained for this thing. I also understand the need to have an outside and neutral perspective to help mediate discussion with couples sometimes. We all need that and sometimes friends and family, while lovely sounding boards, aren't always the best people for sound advice.

"Good enough" sometimes sounds like a dirty phrase -- it's like, "It's not perfect, but it will do....I guess." But it's also an incredibly forgiving phrase. It gives you the leeway to forgive yourself and others, get up the next day and try and do better. And if you fuck up, it still will be alright. I remember reading about the idea of "good enough" parenting in a book and feeling liberated. No matter what, things will be alright, despite what the experts may say about my parenting choices.

Where was I? Oh yeah, marriage. From my perspective, after 10 years of marriage and four years of dating Jeff before he proposed, I think that the phrase "good enough" is pretty high praise. I trust him. I go to him for his counsel and we work together to attain the following goals:

1. Keep our daughter alive and happy.
2. Keep the house from burning down.

The rest is gravy.

But we haven't gone the way of becoming a hive mind. We are still separate individuals, with separate tastes. I get restless and have to go out and clear my head, but I will always return. He sometimes needs to sink himself into video games and disappear, but he always returns. We do battle, but it always feels good -- like there's been some progress made, even if it was a complaint aired.

I sometimes wonder if people define marriage by what they see with others, or what they're told it should be by others. Marriage is tricky -- basically it's what the two people involved are fine with -- it may not be perfect, but it's good enough.

And I like good enough. But I'm also admittedly a slacker.

I'm curious to hear other people's thoughts on this issue. What do you think -- is "good enough" good enough?


Eva said...

I read the article today. I found it very interesting and thought provoking. I also found some of what the author said frustrating. She spent so much of her time fixating on her husband's issues and so little trying to understand herself.

She said things like "And I liked being there, for a while. But Dan has a bigger, flashier personality than I do. I feared, in our intimacy, I might be subsumed." In my mind, the next step is to stop and ask yourself, why do I think that would happen? Why does that thought terrify me? She got that far and stopped dead.

If she isn't able to dig and understand herself for herself it's going to be far more painful for her to do it in a room with a therapist and her husband. If she balks and won't do it then she'll never understand the real causes behind her behavior, which means she _can't_ decide if or how to resolve them.

I don't know if I like the phrase "good enough marriage" or not. On one hand, it makes me think of someone throwing up their hands and giving up; on the other, realistically nothing is perfect so the alternative to "good enough" is a silly level of perfectionism.

kat said...

Good one on Introspective Navel Gazing - it helps a lot!

We clearly share similar parenting experiences and views.
I've been reading one that I'm hooked on -
I have a feeling you'd get a lot out of it.

Incredible job on your blog; keep it up.