The implied promise of Valentine's Day is that the key to happiness is finding Mr. or Ms. Right. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. A remarkable story from a Montana writer may spice romance with reality.
Her story was in the weekly feature in the New York Times' Sunday Style section that is my new favorite, "Modern Love." The one that got me hooked was an essay last summer from a gal who lives in Whitefish titled, "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear."
The words in question came from her husband one fine summer day after 20 years of pretty much happy marriage. He said, "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."
The fact that her husband's words sound like a bad Hollywood script doesn't diminish how remarkable or unexpected was the response from Laura Munson. She decided not to believe him. She refused to take the bait. She figured it wasn't really about her. And she was right.
He: "I don't love you anymore. I'm not sure I ever did." She: "I don'êt buy it." He (turning mean): "I don'êt like what you've become." She (after gut-wrenching pause): "I don't buy it." She: "What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?" He: "Huh?" Marital jujitsu.
Her husband was struggling, she got that. What she also understood was that it wasn't about her. Not really. It was about him. It was about his arrival at that time of life, "when our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward." It was about the fact that his new business endeavor wasn't going well and, 'êhis ability to be the breadwinner was in rapid decline. He'd been miserable about this, felt useless, was losing himself emotionally and letting himself go physically."
This story reached out and grabbed me by the throat because I happened to be floundering myself at that time. Back in the States after a year of university teaching in Canada as a visiting prof, the reality of the recession struck home. Some lively future prospects rolled over on their backs, feet to the sky. I turned the corner of 60 and somehow the future no longer looked bright and open, but shadowy and tight. A bunch of the things I'd invested in — newspapers and book publishing, church and seminaries — all seemed on the ropes. I was feeling something I'd seldom felt: scared. No, I didn't tell my wife I was leaving her. But I was a fairly regular pain in the ass.
There are two themes in Laura Munson's story that seem to me incredibly helpful and timely, and also counter-cultural. First, she doesn't take it (her husband's fighting words) personally. They hurt. I'm sure of that. But she didn't burst into tears, beg him to stay or threaten him with attorneys and custody battles. She told him to take the time and distance he needed without hurting the family. "This man was hurting, yet his problem wasn't mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of the way to solve it."
Not taking responsibility for someone else's happiness, especially when they blame their unhappiness on you, is not only remarkable, it's counter-cultural. We seem to have accepted the idea that if we're unhappy, someone is to blame, only that someone is seldom us but almost always someone or something else. The result of such thinking is a society that seems increasingly short on grown-ups while overstocked with perpetual adolescents.
Munson's bracing, grown-up response to her husband'ês contention about the kids' understanding, and desire for their father to be happy, was to say, "It's not age-appropriate to expect children to be concerned with their parent's happiness. Not unless you want to create co-dependents who'll spend their lives in bad relationships and therapy. There are times in every relationship when the parties involved need a break. What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?'ê Score one for the grown-ups.
The other timely theme here is the effects of the recession on men. Some are referring to this as a "mancession," because men have lost proportionately more jobs than women. As men are unemployed or under-employed, many face the issues and frustrations that led Munson'ês husband to think taking a flyer on his marriage would be the answer. For most of us, work has a lot to do with life meaning and purpose, not to mention relationships. Just how much it has to do with all that, we may not really know until work as we have known it has changed or disappeared.
In time Munson'ês husband did sort it out for himself and return. The sign that he was back was archetypally American. He mowed the lawn. "A man doesn't mow his lawn if he's going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed a door that had been broken for eight years. He made a comment about our front porch needing paint. Our front porch."
With passing time and some inner work, my own floundering ship has righted itself, too. Munson's observations about all this hit home: "When life's knocked us around and our childhood myths reveal themselves to be just that, the truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: it's not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal."
Valentine's Day promises that if we just find the right person we will be happy. Maybe that is true, though not in the usual way. At least sometimes the right person we need to find, the one we've sometimes lost, is our self.