In the beginning, if you’re lucky enough to have a kiss between the two of you make the world stand still, you might think that it’s always going to be that way. But then, months and years later, many people find themselves asking where the magic went. For Elizabeth Weil, author of No Cheating, No Dying, a pretty good marriage wasn’t good enough. She explains how she improved her marriage and offers advice for anyone who’s relationship has run out of steam.
Q: You had a good but not great marriage. What does that mean? What was lacking?
A: I didn’t think that anything was lacking, exactly. I just felt that I wasn’t devoting myself to it, making it all it could be. I had a very romantic notion of marriage: that it was either star-crossed or it wasn’t. I didn’t think in such a passive way about other areas of my life — friendship, being a mother, my health, my writing. So I decided to stop being so laissez-faire about my marriage, too.
Q: Did you ever consider simply throwing in the towel and walking away from the relationship?
A: No. But I didn’t ever want to get to that point, either.
Q: How did you go about improving your marriage?
A: I started by reading. Specifically, I started reading a really great book called Can Love Last? by Stephen Mitchell. It’s amazing! Mitchell argues that romance doesn’t die in marriage due to neglect. Romance dies because we kill it, on purpose, as it becomes increasingly dangerous. Especially in marriages like mine, Mitchell writes, in which each spouse is a domestic one-man band — cradling an infant with the right hand, straightening a tie with the left, conference call pinned to the ear, kissing a spouse goodbye. We can’t bare to think of our spouses as anything less than entirely predictable. We are too reliant on them.
Mitchell lays out the commonly-held theories why romance degrades: “because time and success are its enemies”; “because it’s driven by sexuality, and sexuality is very primitive in its nature”; “because it is inspired by idealization, and idealization is, by definition, illusory”; “because it easily turns into hatred”; ”because nothing stays the same, especially people.” Then in his cool, laser-like way, Mitchell tells us that he believes none of these theories, at least not entirely, as none accounts for our complicity — our desire to mute romance’s dynamism, our impulse to paint our spouses as knowable, our need to believe our mates lack the right stuff to play entrancing romantic leads.
After that we tried some self-help books. Then we took a marriage education class. We did several different kinds of therapy. We consulted with clergy and financial advisors. We even did a big open-water swim together, from Alcatraz Island back to San Francisco, where we live. Lots of research shows that it’s important to have adventures with your spouse. The swim was fantastic.
Q: What did you learn about your marriage in the process?
A: My goodness, I learned so much. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was that we needed to be focused on having the best marriage for us, and not worry too much with what people think makes a good marriage in the abstract. Going in, I believed one of the smartest things ever written about marriage was a line from Lorrie Moore’s short story Real Estate. One character muses that marriage is “a fine arrangement generally, except one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically.” By the end I felt that what was important was that I loved Dan, my husband — I love him, specifically.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who feels like their relationship has run out of steam?
A: Yes, don’t give up! The energy you put into your marriage will come back to you, it really will. Just take a step and another step. Sometimes you may think ‘What the hell am I doing?’ as pushing through problems can be painful and scary. But that’s how you get to where you want to be. That’s how you find your way back to love.