How I tried to make my good marriage better. . .
Caitriona Palmer talks to a couple who spent a year in therapy – until they were sacked by their therapist
It was the winter of 2009 and lying in bed in her cosy little home on a San Francisco hill, Elizabeth Weil – wife, mother, writer – was contemplating the state of her marriage.
It was a good marriage, she surmised; even after nine years, two kids, a house remodeling project, the stresses of making do on a writer's salary, and the chaos of sharing a home and work space with her husband, fellow writer, Dan Duane.
But despite the happy state of her union, Weil felt that her marriage deserved more. A self-confessed "wound up" American east-coaster, Weil (43) was used to applying herself to life – striving to be a better parent, a more successful writer, a faster runner, a more caring friend.
So why not then try to be a better spouse? And so she made a promise to herself: a decision that began an intensive year-long marital skills improvement course involving a heap of marriage books, introspection and multiple visits to the offices of psychoanalysts, marriage therapists, sex therapists, and even the local Rabbi.
"I'm not kidding when I say I had a good marriage," Weil, author of No Cheating, No Dying, said. "I had a good marriage. Then I tried to make it better," she told the Irish Independent from her home in San Francisco. "It was great."
"Dan and I work together. We share a home, we share friends. We share everything. But I realised that I wasn't trying at my marriage. Once I started thinking about it, I started asking, 'Why am I not trying?'"
'Strange' is the opinion that bemused friends and family offered when Weil informed them of her plan to improve her happy marriage. "Everybody," apart from the odd therapist friend, she said, "thought it was nuts."
Even Dan, a committed self-improvement geek, raised his eyebrows when his wife told him that she was undertaking a year-long project to put their nine-year union under a microscope. So did his friends. "Dude, I think I know how this one ends," a surfing buddy told Dan sympathetically.
In March 2009, Weil and Duane drove to their first marriage counselling session. They were met by Holly, a rail-thin, short haired therapist. Sitting opposite Holly, her hand in Dan's, Weil could not help but feel a little smug: here she was, her loving husband by her side, her 'good' marriage on show. Surely Holly could not fail to be impressed?
But two sessions later, having discussed Dan's "obsessive" tendencies toward his hobbies – in his quest to learn how to cook Dan had taken to butchering entire animals in their small kitchen – and Weil's distaste for French kissing: "Holly reduced our pretty-good marriage to an unappealing, maybe even unsalvageable conundrum."
Improving an already happy marriage, Weil concluded, was going to take some grit.
'If you're going to poke around the bushes, you'd better be prepared to scare out some snakes', is an old ranch-hand saying, and one that Dan readily quoted to Weil when she first suggested improving their marriage.
A couple of months into their marital experiment, Weil was starting to realise that her husband had a point.
"We got very defensive," Weil said. "If you're going to rip the curtains back, it gets a little scary."
As did the couple's capacity for arguing. "It was really stirring the pot. So, as things were shifting and we were looking more deeply at our patterns and mixing things up, we fought more – rather than less – initially."
Following on from their first counselling session, Weil and Duane signed up for a 16-hour, two-day marriage education class called Mastering the Mysteries of Love. In between sessions, the couple traded weekly phone calls with Don, their marriage education coach.
By the time Weil signed up for an Imago therapy course – based in the belief that our adult relationships are heavily influenced by our parents and childhood – Dan was suffering from "improvement fatigue" and so Weil was forced to go alone.
As she watched other couples pretend to be the other's parent in an excruciating role-playing exercise, Weil was glad that her husband had stayed at home. Her relationship with her parents, including her insistence that they spend every other summer weekend at her parent's condominium in a Napa gated community, was the one truly explosive bone of contention in the marriage.
Next up was sex therapy –the only part that Dan had been looking forward to – and the opportunity to banish the spectre of former lovers from the marital bed.
The couple were hopeful – a better marriage means better sex, right? But Weil soon discovered that as her sex life took off, "improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. More passion meant less stability. More intimacy, less autonomy".
By the time the couple entered the final phase of therapy, they began to realise that there was little to fix. As their new therapist listened unimpressed to their litany of minor woes, he made a decision to fire the couple on the spot.
Now, two years after their marital skills crash course, Weil and Duane are happier than ever, thanks in part to a bag of relationship improvement techniques.
Now when the couple begins to argue in circles, Weil says, they catch themselves and try to talk things out. Instead of the rote date-night dinner routine, they try to shake things up –doing more adventurous things together, such as a joint swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco that they took in January 2010.
They even, Weil admits, turn to some of the "corny stuff" from the classes, such as repeating out loud what each person means to the other.
And if things do go wrong, Weil says, she knows that therapy can help: "When we hit a bump in the future, the prospect of going to therapy won't seem like an admission of defeat."
Weil acknowledges that most couples cannot realistically expend the same amount of time or energy on improving their marriages, but that some simple techniques can help – by simply thinking more about marriage, for example, and getting help before there is a real crisis. As in learning to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of one's life partner.