Stand by your man, redux

This week's "Modern Love" prompts the question: Are we too quick to bolt from our troubled marriages?

Published August 3, 2009 12:04PM (EDT)

As a regular reader of the New York Times' "Modern Love," I know what to expect. Love gained, lost, revisited or rekindled -- the kind of writing that elicits a twinge of sadness or a sigh of contentment but doesn't necessarily make me think or even remember its contents a day later.

Not so with this week's entry, which I just can't stop thinking about. Writer Laura A. Munson's story begins with a litany of smug-married details: After 20 years together, she and her husband had "the 20 acres of land, the farmhouse, the children, the dogs and horses" and are practically the perfect parents who have given their kids a life full of "Disneyland, camping, Hawaii, Mexico, city living, stargazing." But Munson isn't looking to brag; the picturesque details she provides only highlight the pain that comes next.

"I don't love you anymore. I'm not sure I ever did. I'm moving out. The kids will understand. They'll want me to be happy." That's the speech Munson's husband makes, out of nowhere, on a beautiful summer day. In a similar situation, many of us would scream, cry, beg. But Munson did none of this:

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.

So confident was Munson that her husband's announcement was the result of "a profound and ... troubling meltdown that comes not in childhood but in midlife, when we perceive that our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did," rather than their marriage, that she resolved to ignore his attack. She had seem him struggling, recently, as a new business venture faltered and he began to lose his identity as the family's breadwinner. Like the mother that she is, Munson "decided to respond the same way I’d responded to my children’s tantrums" -- which is to say, she "tries to go about her business as if the tantrum isn’t happening. She doesn’t 'reward' the tantrum. She simply doesn’t take the tantrum personally because, after all, it’s not about her."

In practice, this meant giving her husband the space she felt he needed and temporarily absolving him of his fatherly responsibilities. "Go trekking in Nepal," she suggests to him. "Build a yurt in the back meadow. Turn the garage studio into a man-cave. Get that drum set you’ve always wanted. Anything but hurting the children and me with a reckless move like the one you’re talking about." What he ends up doing is staying out late (Munson never makes it clear -- perhaps because she still doesn't know -- whether he was seeing another woman), skipping family functions and avoiding his wife's gaze. He didn't even acknowledge her birthday.

But Munson soldiered on, as friends urged her to see a divorce lawyer. "This man was hurting," she writes, "yet his problem wasn’t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could solve it." This story could have had a horrible ending, but it doesn't: After months of putting up with his second adolescence, Munson gets her husband back. He begins to fix up the house again and, by Thanksgiving, has a new announcement to make: "I am thankful for my family."

Munson is aware that not everyone will understand what she did and anticipates and deflects some heavy criticism:

I know what you’re thinking: I’m a pushover. I’m weak and scared and would put up with anything to keep the family together. I’m probably one of those women who would endure physical abuse. But I can assure you, I’m not. I load 1,500-pound horses into trailers and gallop through the high country of Montana all summer. I went through Pitocin-induced natural childbirth. And a Caesarean section without follow-up drugs. I am handy with a chain saw.

I believe her, and I don't want to judge her decision. And, apparently, Munson's instincts were correct, and her empathy and self-control kept her family together. But for me, the column raises more questions than it answers -- and none of them have to do with whether the author "should" or "shouldn't" have indulged her husband as she did.

For one thing, I wonder if what Munson proposes is nothing short of a radical shift in how we see marriage and divorce. Her approach reflects a true long-haul mentality, an attitude more prevalent to 50 years ago, before divorce had become so ubiquitous. We tend to think about the days in which couples stayed married at all costs (for the children, for their image) as repressive, but despite all our self-help books and couples therapy, have we lost some lessons about soldiering quietly through marital discord? About staying put in a situation when all our instincts tell us to bolt? Is it possible that we're too quick to blame our problems on our partners, rather than taking the time and responsibility to work out issues that may have nothing to do with them?

The piece also leaves me wondering how Munson and her husband managed to heal the more intimate aspects of their marriage. Her column focuses on how she coped as a mother, leaving out the details of when and if the couple stopped sleeping together (or even in the same bed) and whether they salvaged their romance along with their family -- especially considering that he may have been seeing another woman. Even if he wasn't, how did they rebuild the trust that was lost during so many late nights out?

Finally (and because this is Broadsheet, perhaps you saw this coming), I have to ask whether this could have happened had the genders been reversed. Would Munson's husband have put up with her irresponsibility around the house and with the kids? And would it even have been possible for her to neglect familial duties, considering that her husband seems to have worked long hours outside the home, leaving her with most of the housekeeping and child-rearing? I'm willing to entertain the idea that more couples should do what Munson did. I would just hope that both husband and wife would be able to work through their midlife crises in peace.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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