The following text is excerpted from Elizabeth Weil's new book, "No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make it Better."
I recently spent a year trying to improve my marriage, and among the most effective 73 seconds I spent were watching a web video called "Your Life Being Married." It starts with a series of racehorses entering the gates at the Honeymoon Is Over Downs.
"They're out of the gate, and they're off," the announcer calls, as if at the Preakness. "Jumping out in the lead is Romance & Affection, with Domestic Bliss in close behind. It's Romance & Affection and Domestic Bliss... Here comes Marriage Vows followed by Immediate Child. Romance & Affection falling off quickly. Mortgaged Up The Ass overtaking Domestic Bliss... And here comes Nasty Attitude, followed by More Children and Drinking Heavily." By mid-race it's "I Don't Give A Shit taking the lead, followed by The Fucking House, You Cook Like Shit, and I Fucked Your Brother... Here they come spinning out of the turn. I Don't Give A Shit still in front. Up Yours Keith challenging for the lead. Up Yours Keith and I Don't Give a Shit neck and neck. And down the stretch they come... Up Yours Keith is pulling away from I Don't Give A Shit by a length. Coming on strong is I Am Outta Here, and passing the pack is The Fucking House. And at the wire it's Up Yours Keith, The Fucking House, I Don't Give A Shit, and I Am Outta Here."
I loved this -- totally loved it, which was surprising, even instructive, given that until I'd watched the video, one of the things I'd been most reluctant to change about my marriage was my delusion that it was entirely unique. Embarrassingly enough, I'd maintained the fantasy that my whole life was unique until I found myself screaming on my hands and knees in labor, feeling intense kinship with a woman in Mozambique I'd read about. During a flood, she'd delivered her daughter in a tree. She and I were sisters (at least according to me), two humans giving birth. As a mother, I welcomed knowing that the most important thing in my life was also the most banal. But this sentiment did not extend to my marriage. My marriage was supposed to be special, sui generis. Cookie cutter marriages -- Stepford marriages -- were creepy and for dopes.
Then came the mortal blow to this indulgence: that Imago therapy workshop. Imago therapy focuses on how our relationships with our parents and our baggage from childhood influences our marriages. It starts from three assumptions.
1. We're all born whole.
2. We're all damaged, usually unintentionally, by our parents.
3. We're all looking in romantic love for stand-ins for those parents, people who share our mothers' and fathers' strengths and weaknesses, thus can help us repair our childhood wounds.
My husband, Dan, skipped the workshop -- improvement fatigue -- so it was just me and six other couples listening as the facilitator whispered to us through a cordless microphone.
"Close your eyes, relax your body, breathe through your belly. Now you're 30 years old, now you're 25, now you're 20, now you're 15, now you're 10, now you're five... You're in a warm safe space, filled with light."
And there I was in my Speedo, with my bowl haircut, lying on a towel next to the Wightman Tennis Center swimming pool. I feel awkward, and I like I have very bad hair.
"Now invite your mother, or your mother-like caretaker, to the edge of your safe space... "
And there she is, not in her one-piece swimsuit with the huge molded cups (why did she wear such matronly swimsuits? Did she not feel beautiful, either? She had a pin-up's figure) but in her street clothes: brown loafers with no socks, brown-and-orange chevron-striped pants, brown turtleneck and bouffant hairdo. She's standing, happy but rushed -- her usual mode -- eager to race off to the grocery store.
"Now say goodbye to your mother, let her drift away, and invite your father or your father-like caretaker to the edge of your safe space."
And, boom, there he is, too, like the apparition of Jodie Foster's dead father in the Carl Sagan movie "Contact," only in fantastically preppy clothes. I stare at my father, in his blue poplin pants with the red embroidered lobsters, and he stares back. He's warm, smart, and gentle, but I've frozen him out. I don't feel known or understood. I appreciate that he loves me, but I feel scared that he loves me too much, that I don't deserve it, that his love is based on a fantasy.
Imago does not subscribe to the idea that our marriages are our own creations. Instead it subscribes to the poet Philip Larkin's "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" school of thought. To make this absolutely clear, after whispering us out of our safe spaces, our instructor sent us outside to complete six pages of charts: five detailing what we loved and hated as children about our parents, how they'd made us feel incomplete or whole; then a sixth page on which we used our previous responses to complete a psycho-marital MadLibs.
After I filled in the complicated blanks --"My unconscious agenda was to get my caretakers who were sometimes (items circled on page 17) with whom I often felt (items circled on page 23, #2), etc. -- there was my psyche, exposed as in an adolescent game of truth-or-dare. My parents made me feel hurried and unknown, whereas Dan was a master of lingering and tuning in. Even more importantly, he saw me as beautiful, and that helped me see beauty in myself.