Going for “Good”

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back.

Ball and ChainMaybe.

Come on. Men and women. Is there anything more fascinating? Don’t we always want to know more about the private lives of our celebrities, our politicians, even our next door neighbors? Who’s hooking up? Who’s breaking up?

So aren’t we all looking for the perfect pairing and the happy ending?

And yet.

And yet 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and with remarriage, that failure rate increases.

And yet we hunger for our image of domestic bliss as everywhere we turn, we’re told not to “settle.”

In a tidy little piece promoting the notion that a “just okay” marriage is not okay, I find myself on familiar (irritating) turf, objecting to what some will call semantics, including the word “just.” You know, that nasty little modifier that insinuates itself into our psyche and our speech, that seduces and diminishes, that spills its toxic judgment which is anything but just.

When it comes to romance, to relationships, to spouses, to partners – couldn’t we change the conversation? Ease expectations away from concepts of commodity coupling, list-love, and throw-away marriage?

Leaving the “OK” Marriage: Fast Track to Nowhere?

The article offers a quickie interview with author Pamela Haag, who talks about her book Marriage Confidential, and her concept of the Just Okay Marriage. She says:

I haven’t felt totally fulfilled by marriage. So I conducted a survey of almost 2,000 people and found that many of them felt the same way…  It’s not that the marriage is terrible, with people who are arguing or miserable. But they’re stuck in an ambivalent stage.

She goes on to say:

Experts say compatibility is key. But when a marriage is too much like a friendship, it loses energy.

The interviewer then asks how the “semi-happy” rut can be avoided, to which Ms. Haag responds:

It’s more about how you live in a marriage than whom you choose. I think people in happy marriages live like they’re on vacation all the time, in the sense that they’re paying attention to each other and trying to have some fun. Marriage should be enjoyable rather than just hard work.

Are you kidding me? Live like you’re on vacation all the time?

In all fairness, Ms. Haag makes points I agree with, including the fact that women increasingly shoulder the burdens of breadwinning and the lion’s share of domestic duties. Moreover, she says children take too much focus, reminding us that once upon a time “kids were told to scram” so that adults could be, well… adults.

So what do we do? Opt for okay? Go for good? Battle for best or get the hell out? Are our marital expectations based on fairy tales?

Pairing Up: Narrowing Focus, Narrowing Options

Some might say that knowing what you want – and going for it – is the only way to get it. I would agree.

Some might say that if you narrow your focus too restrictively, you may miss out on other opportunities. I would agree.

So where is the happy medium? Yes to every invite if the guy has a pulse? Dating every eligible woman, even if you’re not initially attracted?

And what about the issue of “okay”  being not okay? The settling syndrome that seems so unsettling? Like you, I’m subject to the same pop culture influences that convince us we’re entitled to fantastic jobs, incredible spouses, beautiful homes (and naturally, well-behaved children), but I take those inputs for what they are – wishful thinking, a bit of escapism, and often, a distraction.

I also take issue with them. Because they’re damaging. Because they establish false expectations. Because in my universe, good is solid. Good is relatively great. A good man, a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good friend, a good boss – these are damn difficult to find – or achieve – in a culture that seems to be losing its compass.

If you’re dating and you find you’re missing a deal breaker (and there shouldn’t be 101 of them!) – then factor that in. And if it’s not, are you walking away from something good because you assume there’s something better?

Boredom By Any Other Name Would Smell…

So. When marriages become boring, do we dutifully focus on the positives – like raising children and being comfortable – and ignore the rest? Is that why we look up years later and tell ourselves there’s nothing left or, at best, what’s left is “just okay?”

What if you’re early in your marriage or relationship, with or without children, and you feel things slipping away? Can you still see what is good? Can you discuss it? Do we lack the tools – or the discipline – to talk to each other? To strengthen relationships rather than scrambling for the nearest exit?

I know, I know.

There’s the toilet seat that’s always up (or down). The toothpaste tube, the clothes on the floor, the silent treatment after a long work day. There’s the way she chews, her fatigue in bed, the hours she spends with the cell to her ear and it isn’t you getting close, and you’d like to get closer.

Defining the problem may be easy. Or not. How many of us have couched what we don’t want to examine in “we’ve grown apart” or “he doesn’t understand” and we leave it at that? Even if we can define the problem(s) – solutions?

Another story. Never easy, never painless, never straightforward. And we may have waited so long we’re buttressed by our convictions that our way is the right way, our grievances the only grievances, our happiness – individual happiness – the one that counts.

Marriage Talk, the Marriage Walk

Oh, I admit I’m thinking a good deal about relationships these days – what makes them work and what causes them to deteriorate. Perhaps it’s because I’m in the dating world again. Perhaps it’s because I’m watching older teenagers hook up, break up, fall in love and then tumble out again. And yes – sometimes in that (woeful) order.

I’m also pondering a culture that approves of relationship deal breakers that have little to do with values or character, and I’m concerned about how foolish that seems – to me. And it is potentially detrimental – to our children.

My thoughts – as if they weren’t already clear?

I suggest we dispense with “just,” reposition “okay,” and go for good. Let’s go for seeing the good and acknowledging it. If we think we have good, we may be able to make it better. And that is about work, the partners we choose, and if we’re fortunate – the occasional vacation.


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    • BigLittleWolf says

      I hear you, April. But it’s interesting how time changes things. It’s also good how time changes us. If we’re lucky.

  1. says

    I read the article link. Dumb. In any case, marriage was never supposed to be totally fulfilling. At least, unless you’re both total bores. Save me.

    Of course, I do believe Fran’s as good as it gets. And that’s saying a lot.

    I notice that most of your pictures are of glamorous-looking young models appearing to have a romantic time. Can that be a problem of expectations?

  2. says

    Realistic expectations make a world of difference. But some things are hard to gauge. Who I am at 42 is not who I was at 27 and I expect that things will change again.

    Not to mention that the stress/changes that come with children have a huge impact. This is not new or profound insight but you can’t predict very well how these things will go.

    Friends of mine are getting divorced. She’ll tell you that he killed their sex life and that she wasn’t willing to live with it only happening occasionally.

    He’ll tell you that her insistence on sending the kids to private school meant working ridiculous hours and that left him too tired for sex.

    Which leads to sort of an interesting place. What I mean by that is that many of the friends think that it is ok for a woman to be too tired to have sex but won’t extend that to the man.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      That’s a really interesting observation, Jack – about the expectation that women are too tired for sex, and men – rarely.

      And the expectations – so important, as you point out.

  3. says

    I just get the feeling that if you aim for a C paper, you have no chance of getting anything higher. But then, maybe that’s just me. Do your research, take some chances, and maybe, just maybe, have fun along the way. There are so many cool people out there.

  4. says

    Once upon a time, I was naive enough to believe that passion and romance, poems and flowers will lead to happy endings. Well, that chapter of my life didn’t go so well. I grew up with my next relationship and started to have so much respect for the hard work that it takes. Good relationships are hard enough to come by, let alone the ones where it feels like a vacation every day. Really? They exist?

    Just this past weekend, with hormones and stress running at an all time high, we hit a low, but just like that, the next day, after a heart-to-heart to confront the issues, we were able to navigate the tricky waters and had a wonderful day together. It’s hard. It’s wonderful. It’s frustrating. It’s euphoric. It’s not always the same everyday, and certainly not a daily vacation.

    But when we’re both willing to work at it together, good sometimes feels pretty fantastic to me.

  5. Linda says

    When you wrote about relationship deal breakers, that made me think of the exchange between Peggy and Alexis on “Real Housewives of Orange County.” :)

    My daughter is just beginning to date and I struggle with what to say as I may not be the best role model for relationships. The other night while we were sharing a dessert I simply told her his, don’t make someone a priority when they only make you an option.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And that scene from Real Housewives of OC was exactly what I was thinking of, Linda. I found it staggering, frankly. The “requirements” these women had for someone they considered suitable for marriage.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Maybe it takes living through a lot of instability (and disappointment?) to appreciate that solid is great, and does not preclude exciting. They are not mutually exclusive.

  6. says

    This is why I love Simone Weil:

    It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction.

    But I think she might have been hell to live with.

  7. says

    I have been in a so-so, unfulfilling marriage … and we’re still married. Only things aren’t so-so anymore. Thanks to multiple do-overs and the patience of Job (his), my husband and I rounded the corner. Despite my best efforts to run him off, he stayed. Somewhere along the way he rooted out my innate belief that eventually he, too, would leave me. I just had to let him love me, which is all he really wanted to begin with. Sure changes things.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for this remarkable comment, Planner. And for joining the conversation. This isn’t an easy one to talk about, but I’m glad we’re trying to do so.

  8. says

    I sometimes think my marriage is not exciting/vacation-y enough, but I’m happy in it and feel safe in it. I definitely accept “okay” often, but that’s because the “good” happens often, too.

  9. NoNameRequired says

    These words, all words, are slippery: settle, good, good enough, vacation, solid, steady. We would have to draw descriptions with long conversations over wine in winter and G&T in summer. Then, with our respective (DAW and commenting community) Venn diagrams clearer, we could say, “Like that?” “Yes, but not quite.” “More this?” “Yes, that is it.–But with green furze leaves of hope in it.”…..

    Now, I am in a since-September relationship, seven years post divorce. This post is making me think of suitable adjectives. Surprise. tenderness (including some interior bruising on both parts), fittedness, and perhaps vouchsafed. as in granted in an unbidden way.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      NoName – you are a poet, a soulful adventurer, a survivor, a thriver. You have captured so much in your comment. Thank you.

  10. says

    I’m always surprised that the failure rate for later marriages is higher than for first marriages. In my unscientific review of all the multiple marriage couples I know, it always seems like they’re working harder at their relationship than first marriage couples. I assume that’s because they learned lessons the first time around that they put into play the next time. Statistics would disagree with me.

    So what causes that higher divorce rate? Are a lot of people settling? Jumping too quickly into later relationships, that ultimately fail, because they don’t want to be alone? Are the rest of us single because we consider too much? When I was dabbling in the online dating world I agonized endlessly over the content of some poor guy’s profile, most of which I wouldn’t even know about if I’d met him in a coffee shop, but there it was to be dissected. I knew it was crazy but couldn’t seem to stop myself. I finally had to quit that avenue knowing I may well have ignored someone who would have been great.

    We’re the only ones who can label our relationships as “settling” and if that’s how we think of them then they are probably doomed before they start. ARGH!! Such a tough topic with so many areas of consideration and no real answer.

  11. says

    I wonder if we as a culture and a society aren’t missing a bigger picture with regard to love, marriage and family. I know this is going to sound a little bizarre, but maybe we are supposed to get divorced. Maybe that is the natural order of things. Maybe it is better for everyone if children grow up with a little adversity, bouncing from mom’s house to dad’s house every weekend. Maybe the mother of your children doesn’t have to be the love of your life.
    What if raising your children as a team, where you each get a few nights a week to yourself to enjoy a social life, explore your sexuality, go back to school, read a book or whatever…. is a good thing? You know they say it takes a village and all.
    It’s what we do anyway. Our first mate is usually a good mother, she cooks and cleans and is maternal. Once those things are no longer in demand (the kids are grown) we move on to search for a mate who has other traits we desire. Younger, hotter, more sexually open perhaps. Definitely less maternal, usually someone who doesn’t challenge us as much.
    I mean instead of sitting back and asking WHY do men and women do this, we should accept that it is the natural order of things and go into the program with our eyes wide open to the fact that it WILL happen. Plan for it.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Interesting perspective, Jack. Especially considering my morning musing (just now published). I believe those lessons of adversity serve kids well. I’m not sure divorce needs to be one of them – but something – within reason, should be.

      You’ve raised interesting points. Worthy of much more discussion.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      One other thing, Jack. If the “natural order of things” in your mind is that men discard women once they reach a certain age, what are the women supposed to do with that, in your scheme of things?

      Like I said – much more to discuss…

  12. says

    Eh… these days I’m great with just going with the flow. Maybe life isn’t meant to be stagnant anyway…

  13. says

    Thanks for such a great post. It’s difficult to voice these thoughts and yet everyone has them – thanks for being so honest.

    I agree – Good can be Great. I have found my own marriage to get much better with kids. Maybe because we have learned to value the little things. Sometimes the little things can be magic.

    Enjoy dating! It can be rough, but I am so excited for you and the promise of new love!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks so much for commenting, Pamela. And glad that you’ve found “good” to be pretty great, too!

  14. says

    The male comments didn’t sting me at all. I do divorce mediation in Alabama and there are just as many women who lose interest and want to move on to sexier, greener pastures with a man who would make a much better partner than the one they’ve cooked and cleaned for and raised children with, during chapter one. These women have usually come to a place where they are given little to no appreciation or attention by there long term chapter one loves. Your article ignores the selfish women who leave marriages for something better. I’m sorry, “til death do us part” was written at a time when people didn’t live to be 95, they died around age 50. MAKES SENSE.

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