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No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Betterby Elizabeth Weil
I have a good marriage.
I had a good marriage before I spent a year improving it, and I have a good marriage now. In fact, my marriage is better, truly better. Although not in the ways I’d expected.
When I set out to improve my marriage, I assumed that better would look like a Photoshopped version of good: essentially unchanged, unsightly elements gone. Dan would no longer butcher headless, skinless pigs and goats on our kitchen island. I would not tidy up, literally and psychologically, by shoving junk in drawers. We would quit outsourcing the production of our children’s religious identities to our parents. We’d stop vibing—yes, vibing, we used that word—our bank balances, spending more when we felt flush, less when we felt broke. Instead I got a better marriage in the “before enlightenment, chop wood carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water” sense. I feel humbled, grateful, and transformed, and Dan is still leaving single brown socks (how to tell if they’re dirty or clean?) strewn about the house.
The first time Dan and I discussed the possibility of a better marriage we were lying in bed, under our white duvet, amid our white walls, in that little sanctuary of peace and purity that Dan had built for us in our flimsy, hundred-year-old earthquake shack of a house. I believed in marriage. I liked being married. But I did not feel expert at it. Shortly after our wedding, nine years prior, we’d started to joke that we needed to take more advantage of being two people, that we really shouldn’t do our errands together, write for the same editors, read the same magazines. Back then, Dan had felt alarmed, nearly panicked, that some nights we’d sprawl together on the couch reading our then-still-separate subscriptions to The New Yorker. Weren’t lovers supposed to maintain, even exaggerate, differences? Certainly his happily married parents had.
I was an even less likely candidate than Dan for a wholly merged life. One of my more telling memories of myself as a young woman and of how unbending I was in love happened the evening a new boyfriend wanted to make me a cilantro-lime pesto, and instead of walking with him on that warm spring evening to buy limes, I suggested he run the errand alone. By the time I met Dan, at age twenty-eight, I’d shed some of that rigidity. I knew more about who I was, so I felt more comfortable being swayed. But nearly a decade into marriage, and sincerely hoping to remain married to Dan for many decades more, I did not understand how much I should be swayed by my husband. What algorithm should determine how much I tipped over into the warm bath of our union and how much of myself to keep separate, outside?
Since our wedding, Dan and I had been bumbling along, more or less successfully, with two basic ground rules: no cheating and no dying. We spoke these rules out loud to each other. We considered their breakages the only trespasses our marriage could not survive. But that night, under our white duvet, as I lay next to Dan’s warm and increasingly muscled body, I started wondering why we were being so cavalier. Why weren’t we caring more for our marriage, making it as strong as it could be? Dan is really the very best thing that’s happened in my life. He squints like Clint Eastwood. He calls me “darling.” He’d cook me three meals a day if I let him (which I don’t; again, the question of independence). He’s a great conversationalist and he makes me feel like one of the more interesting people on earth. So why were we bumbling? Why weren’t we being more deliberate? I’ve never been one to leave well enough alone, nor have I ever believed that marriage is binary—that one moment you’re single and the next you’re not, some alchemy happening at the altar. I’ve always believed that you get married, truly married, slowly, over time, through all the dental plaque you inadvertently flick into each other’s faces; through all the sunsets you watch on remote Baja beaches after you’ve locked your keys in your rental car, again; through all the near-hypothermic panic attacks because you decided it would be a good idea to swim together from Alcatraz to San Francisco; through all the frozen pig skulls your spouse power saws in half (in order to make pork stock); through all the pain, tears, and absurdity; through small and large moments you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure.
But then you do: You endure.
That night, for dinner, I endured a deep-fried pig’s tail. (Same pig, opposite end.) Some other wife might have endured the NFL. And as I lay next to Dan, later, feeling gustatorily put out, I started wondering why I was being so passive. Not in the sense that I wasn’t fighting back. Why wasn’t I applying myself more to being a spouse?
I loved Dan utterly. I even made him say this aloud—Lizzy loves me utterly—whenever he felt depressed. My marriage was the very center of my life. Sure, we’d taken some hits and suffered some losses, enough to know life and love are fragile. But none had driven a major wedge, at least as far as we acknowledged. So we just kept cruising, promising each other we would not cheat and we would not die, working off the lazy theory: so far so good.
This motivational soft spot around marriage was not unique to my own. Most of my peers had spent their twenties and thirties applying themselves: to school, work, sports, health, friendship, and, most recently, parenting—which in my case meant trying to figure out how best to raise an eight-year-old so lost in her dreams of The Secret Garden that she falls off the kitchen stool while eating breakfast, and a five-year-old so outrageous she’s on track to be the next Sarah Silverman. But in this critical area—marriage—we’d shrugged and turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted to stop accepting this. Dan, too, had spent his twenties and thirties working tirelessly—okay, obsessively—at skill acquisition. Over the course of our eleven years together, he’d taught himself to be a meticulous carpenter and excellent, if catastrophically messy, chef. He’d buy mountainous stacks of books. Read. Take notes. Practice. Read more. Take more notes. Practice more. Repeat. In this way he’d learned to sweat pipe, run electrical wiring, hang drywall, cut stringers for stairs, salt cod, cure pancetta, build sourdough starter, reduce fifty dollars’ worth of veal bones down to two cups of stock. On the night in question,Dan had been working on his so-called “fitness unit,” studying the obscure Soviet-era weight-training manuals of Tudor Bompa, in hopes of transforming his already-reasonably-fit forty-one-year-old body into that of a young marine. My point here is that this man, my husband, was not an if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it kind of person. Yet he, too, shared the seemingly ubiquitous aversion to the concept of looking inside and trying to improve our marriage, and doing so not because our marriage was in crisis but just because marriage is so important and prone to drift.
That night, in bed, the image that came to mind, and that I shared with Dan, was that I’d been viewing our marriage like the waves on the ocean—a fact of life, determined by the sandbars below, shaped by destiny and the universe, not by me. And this, suddenly, seemed ridiculous. I am not a fatalistic person. In my twenties I even believed that people made their own luck. Part of the luck I believed I’d made for myself arrived in the form of Dan himself, three days after I’d moved to San Francisco, in the spring of 1998. Meeting this rugged freckled redhead was beyond the best-case scenario I’d envisioned for a move I’d worked diligently, of course, to make quite smooth. Before leaving Chicago, where I’d been living, I’d arranged to rent a small office in a group space for San Francisco writers called the Grotto. Every Tuesday these mostly young, mostly single writers met at a bar called Mars. That first Tuesday, in walked Dan.
He looked like he’d just climbed out of the ocean, as in not even showered before pulling on his jeans. His nose was straight, sunburned, and peeling. He had salt caked on his eyelashes and in his hair. He was tall, angular, calm, and handsome, and when he talked he covered his mouth with a hand, to hide the gap between his teeth. But I liked this—his vulnerability, his apparently thin skin. I thought it made him approachable. He had blue eyes, startlingly clear, which he also hid behind ancient gold-rimmed glasses. They were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen.
Just that afternoon, Dan told me, he’d gotten “bageled,” meaning he’d caught no waves, while surfing Ocean Beach.
“I know, it’s pretty pathetic, right?” he said, nodding, covering his mouth, seeing if he could recruit me to agree.
“No, it’s not pathetic at all,” I said. “Or is it? I mean, I don’t really know.”
“Believe me, it’s pathetic,” Dan said. He was a big hunky insecure mess.
Dan was also a catch. A few years earlier he’d written a surf memoir called Caught Inside, and for this, in a review, he’d been anointed an “ontologist of dudedom, Henry David Thoreau doing aerials on a fiberglass board.” Dan didn’t tell me about the book. Mostly he wanted me to know that prior to getting bageled he’d spent the day depressed, lying on the floor of his room, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars the previous tenant had glued to the ceiling. I learned about the memoir the following day when I walked up Valencia Street and bought Caught Inside myself. I didn’t read the memoir for months. I was too scared. I just memorized the jacket copy and stared at Dan’s author photo. He stood on a dune, gazing into the sun, looking self-conscious and endearing.
That spring I’d left Chicago because I wanted, needed, something to happen in my life. I’ve always tended toward stability while fearing boredom, so every few years I give myself a swift kick. Before San Francisco my plan had been to move to South Africa to witness the post-apartheid truth commissions. This struck me as a good way to solve two core problems: my feeling that I didn’t know anything about anything (which I now see was related to the problem of being twenty-six) and my increasing annoyance with the chirpy magazine articles I wrote to pay my rent. But then I heard about a man building a civilian spaceship in the Mojave Desert, and, wanting change more than I wanted anything in particular, I decided to write a book about him. I loaded my clothes into my Honda Civic, bought a Johnny Cash box set, and pointed west. En route I blew my head gasket and skidded out in a spring blizzard in Donner Pass. Still I kept moving forward—my specialty and downfall—hoping to leave behind the last traces of what I considered to be an embarrassing youth.
Like the textiles. God, the textiles. I’d grown up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in a home filled with awful fabrics—pastel chevron-striped sofas, rust velour loungers, a canary yellow pleather couch. Worse, I seemed to have inherited the bad textile gene. Before my junior year in college my mother drove me to Bob’s Discount Furniture, where she allowed me to pick out a pink-and-white-striped La-Z-Boy chair. I felt fantastic about the chair until I moved it into my dorm and saw with hideous clarity that I carried the family curse. As I drove west from Chicago I committed myself to a lifelong plan to thwart the gene’s expression: I’d buy only wood furniture. The plan worked for a couple of years.
A few days after meeting Dan, I thought up an excuse to call him. A friend was visiting from Chicago. We’d driven to the Marin Headlands, looking for a gorgeous hike, but ended up in Muir Woods with the tourists on a paved path. My ontologist, surely, could deliver me from this problem.
“That’s it, huh?” Dan said, teasing, when I phoned. “You just thought maybe I could suggest a pretty hike?”
“It’s true!” I protested. Or at least it was partly true.
The next Tuesday, at Mars, Dan arrived flecked with salt again.
“So, did you make it to Coyote Ridge?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you. Did you get bageled?”
He laughed, eyes bioluminescent. Then he put me out of my misery and asked me on a date.
Everyone has a theory of marriage; few of them agree: The happiest marriages are based on the least romantic expectations; the happiest marriages are maintained by spouses who cling to rosy lenses and insist on holding their partners in delusionally high regard. In a happy marriage, the focus is inward, the relationship comes first; in a happy marriage, each spouse encourages the other to attain individual goals.
One popular, if superstitious, belief is that you can learn a lot from people’s origin stories. Mine with Dan is built on the idea of destiny. Dan’s version rests on destiny, too, though he skips my move from Chicago and our meeting at Mars and starts instead the following Friday, on our first date, when, over Knob Creek whiskey, he told me about his soon-to-be-published novel and how, in it, the protagonist takes advice on how to pick up girls from an article called “How to Get the Love You Deserve,” published in Rolling Stone.
I set down my drink, unnerved. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I wrote that article.”
Dan stared, thrilled, his self-deprecating guard dropped.
A month later, Dan read from his novel at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. The house was packed with his surf buddies, his warm and gracious family, and the former Berkeley High School water polo team. Dan held the room rapt—breaking away from the funny stories he’d written to tell funny tangents not in the book. He looked fantastic, in his faded Levi’s and plaid shirt, and he was very charming. So much so that as I left, a man I knew from college yanked my elbow and said, “Oh my god, he’ll date you?”
I pretended, in the moment, to be offended. But to be honest I felt the same way: stunned that Dan would throw his lot in with me, amazed that he was mine. Eleven years later, I still felt this: proud, nearly giddy, to be his wife. Of course as I lay in bed, digesting the pig’s tail, that giddiness was buried beneath the mess in the kitchen, the ever-toppling stacks of weight-training books, the small domestic disturbances that often appear huge, the way a thumbnail held up to the night sky might cover the moon. But I loved Dan. I loved him more than I did at the start. Plus now we had two kids, two jobs, a house, a tenant, a sprawling local extended family—what Nikos Kazantzakis describes in Zorba the Greek as “the full catastrophe.” And I was going to be passive about how our union worked out?
Our children, Hannah and Audrey, bless their klutzy selves, were no longer desperately needy. Our careers had stabilized. We’d survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, one could say I feared stasis. (For the first time in our lives together, neither Dan nor I was trying to finish a book, or pregnant, or nursing, or reeling from a lost pregnancy, or living in a construction zone.) More positively, I had energy for Dan once again. Whatever the case—undoubtedly some of both—I borrowed Dan’s furious skill-acquisition method. I decided to apply myself to my marriage by any and all means. I also took notes, all of which turned into what you’re reading here. I quickly learned that my idea was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappily married six years before presenting at therapy, at which point, according to The Science of Clinical Psychology, the marital therapist’s job is often “less like the emergency room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but to the swelling and the bruising, the sore hip and foot, and the infection that ensued.”
I didn’t want to become one of those people. I had a strong tendency just to keep marching forward in life and I didn’t want that to lead me to become like Sandra Tsing Loh, a woman I identified with and admired. She described in the Atlantic Monthly leaving her husband of twenty years, how she sat in some therapist’s office, realizing that she lacked “the strength”—more rightly, the will?—“to ‘work on’ falling in love again” with her marriage. Because just as I believed that marriages formed slowly over time, I also believed they broke that way. People drifted. Dan and I had drifted. Needs diverged. Thus far Dan and I had managed always to return to each other. But what if someday the husband, the wife, the proverbial falcon started flying off a little farther than usual? At some point the center—the marriage—cannot hold. There’s only one direction to go: out. No coming back.
We’d been married nearly a decade, yet we knew so little. Nobody else seemed to know much, either. When I looked around my block or my city, among my family and friends, I found many happy marriages, filled with qualities I envied, but not a single one for which I’d want to trade. Some had combustive chemistry but cycled through burnout and renewal. Others had financial security but had traded footloose selves for traditional roles, and that seemed hard, too. Becoming parents had helped nobody, and the standard remedies—the date nights, the weekend getaways—often felt cosmetic and under-gunned, like opening a beautifully wrapped and ribboned box to find one’s own clothes. I felt changed by marriage, shaped by marriage, mostly for the better. But it also scared me. Dan was my “elected homeland of the heart,” to borrow a phrase from Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook, one of his favorite books. I needed him. He understood me and he loved me—nobody else in the world offered both. Still the images of marriage I found most arresting I also found most troubling. Along with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?, I adored John Updike’s The Maples Stories, stories in which twelve years of marriage feel “almost too long” and Joan and Richard Maples are jaded and hard. In “Twin Beds in Rome,” the couple flies to Italy to “cure or kill” their union. The whole vacation is a gauntlet thrown. “You’re such a nice woman,” Richard says to Joan as they unpack in their hotel. “I can’t understand why I’m so miserable with you.”
I didn’t want this narrative—nobody did. Still, Dan was not completely enthusiastic about my marriage improvement concept, at least at first. He feared—not mistakenly, it turned out—that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. That first night, in our bedroom, he met my marriage-as-waves-on-the-ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: If you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d better be prepared to scare out some snakes.
© 2012 Elizabeth Weil
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