Tuesday 16 July 2019

Review: This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness by Laura Munson

Piatkus Books, €11.99, Paperback

Your husband announces that he is no longer in love with you and maybe never was. What do you do? You cry, of course, and you rage. You blame, you throw him out -- right? Well, not if you are Laura Munson, an American writer who believes that the best way to resolve a relationship crisis is often to refuse to react at all.

Munson's crisis came in 2008 when the man she had loved for 20 years, who had given her two children and helped her to build a home in the wilds of Montana, announced he was moving out because he didn't love her. "I'm not sure I ever did," he said. "The kids will understand," he added.

The words hit her like a punch in the stomach. But Munson, now 44, refused to engage in her husband's drama. "I don't buy it," she said to him. Recognising, despite all the hurt and rage she felt inside, that he was going through a midlife crisis, and that this was all about him, not her, she told him that she was willing to give him the space he needed to resolve his issues without hurting the family. Her husband, also 44, reluctantly agreed to stay.

In the following months he routinely spent the evening drinking in bars and frequently didn't come home at night. He didn't answer his phone. He would be gone for days at a time. He forgot her birthday.

Munson, meanwhile, threw herself into her summer activities: horse riding, organising play dates for her children and gardening. She didn't suspect that he was having an affair, so she decided not to get involved. This was his crisis, not hers, and he would have to work it out on his own.

Her husband, whose breakdown seems to have been triggered by the failure of his business and his dismay at no longer being the family provider, began to change. When he went to stay with his sister, who was dying of cancer, and he began to realise the things that really mattered were not determined by his career, but by having a loving family. After six-and-a-half months his crisis was over.

That, however, is not the end of the story, because Munson then did something truly extraordinary. After rescuing her marriage from the brink of collapse, she persuaded her husband -- a man so wrapped up in himself at one point that he thought his children wouldn't mind him moving out because "they will want me to be happy" -- to allow her to lay it all bare in an article in The New York Times.

The piece triggered hundreds of sympathetic reader responses and Munson followed it a year later with a memoir called This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. It fast became a bestseller and will be published in paperback here next week.

Speaking three years later, she is at pains to explain that her book is not a "how to" relationship guide, but merely a telling of her own story. "This is not a self-help book about '10 easy ways to hang on to your man'," she tells me. "It's about me trying to be wise and to share my philosophy."

Is that the doormat philosophy, I wonder, that allows a woman to be walked all over? But Munson will not be provoked. She is a woman who has been to hell and back and is inured to what others may think. She patiently explains that getting angry with her husband (even though she was tempted) would have made no sense, since she believed that his behaviour was driven by his own demons, not by her.

"I was not in denial. When he said he didn't love me, I thought: 'Wow, he must really be in crisis.' I still loved him and I realised that it made no sense to react to things entirely beyond my control. It's only when you stop wanting things outside your control that you become happy. So I decided not to become the victim."

So where did she find the strength to take it on the chin when her husband rejected her? As a writer who had struggled and failed for years to get her work published, Munson had learnt to cope with rejection. "When my husband rejected me, I thought to myself, 'I know how to do this'," she says.

So does her husband have any regrets about allowing her to publish the story? "He didn't agree to me publishing it out of a sense of guilt and he's never once said, 'I wish you hadn't put certain things in the book'," Munson insists. "He says he's proud that we got through this hard time together. He's proud of how I handled things and he's proud of himself that he got through it."

Munson describes her marriage now as "a work in progress". "We have been good together and we have been bad together and it's important to know how to do both," she says, adding that her book has become something of a handbook for her and her husband. "Sometimes when talking about our relationship, we refer to scenes in the book and how we handled things," she says. "It actually helps us to talk through things objectively."

She is protective and proud of her husband and stresses that she never attempted to turn him into the villain of the story. Her purpose was only to demonstrate the depth of his crisis: "You have to remember that in the end, he powerfully chose to stay."

None of the letters Munson has received has been critical of her husband, she claims. "People write to thank him," she adds. I want to believe her, although I find it hard. There were moments, reading the book, when I wanted to punch him in the face. Was I really the only one?

Munson adds, more credibly, that most of the letters have been addressed to her and that all express thanks to her for showing how it is possible to get through a relationship crisis by not taking things personally.

As I read the book and talk to Munson, I find myself increasingly trying to apply her principles to my life, if only because she has helped me to see that it ultimately makes life a lot easier if you decide you are going to react only to the things you can change.

"It really isn't a book about staying together," Munson says. "It's about my journey of self-preservation and about how sometimes it actually felt good to keep my mouth shut."

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