A Radically Decent Marriage — Jack and Susan’s Story (Book Excerpt)

Brought together through a dating service, Susan and Jack’s memories of their first date remain vivid, even now, 10 years later.

For Jack, the magic was there from start. As Susan walked up the path to their first meeting, his heart leapt and a warm jolt of energy surged. Susan’s “moment” came a little later. Suddenly realizing, over dessert, how captured she was by the warmth of Jack’s eyes, the gap in his front teeth, and his slightly goofy manner, it hit her: “This could really be the guy I’m looking for!”

What happened that day for Susan and Jack was, of course, that strong visceral/sexual “in love” attraction we all relish – and rightly so. It is, after all, one of life’s great joys and, importantly, nature’s trick for getting us attached to a potential life partner.

But the mainstream culture places far too much emphasis on this “in love” feeling, continually reinforcing the idea that, once in place, “happily ever after” will just naturally unfold. This belief, however, obscures the crucial matter of how these two people will actually relate to one another over time. And, of course, waiting to fill this void are our ingrained, boundary-crossing mindsets.

So it was for Jack and Susan.

The story Jack made up about Susan was that she was perfect – clever, funny, beautiful, wise and confident. Captivated by this story, he forcefully pushed aside anything that contradicted it. When Susan expressed self-doubt, for example, he would counter with: “How can you be insecure? That’s ridiculous. Everybody loves you.”

In our culture, words such as these pass for love. But can you feel its dark underside? With Jack insistently silencing any part of Susan that contradicted his fantasy of who she was, she quickly learned to suffer her insecurities alone, without the support of her intimate partner.

And, of course, the same thing was happening in reverse. With Susan’s obvious pleasure in her image of him as an up and coming professional, Jack felt compelled to minimize his work anxieties and, more broadly, his doubts about building a career in sales.

Standing alone, there is nothing wrong with this initial idealization of your partner. It’s an integral part of being “in love.” However, it needs to operate side by side with an unfolding process of getting to know who this other person really is, beyond our dopamine-soaked fantasy. Absent that, the deep nourishment that comes from being seen and loved for who we really are – in this, life’s most important relationship – will be lost. And what is so problematic in our culture is that, far too often, this deeper relational journey is wholly supplanted by this boundary-obliterating, “in love” fantasy dance.

The next chapter for Jack and Susan was sadly predictable. As the drug of first love faded, the real Jack began to intrude on Susan’s fantasy world, and vice versa. But instead of respecting their differences and getting to know their partner’s real contours, they both fought back. Susan instinctually responded to behaviors that contradicted her romanticized version of Jack with disbelief and anger; a demand for a return of the old Jack: “You’re always pre-occupied and distracted. I’m sick to death of your blank stares and one word responses.” With Jack responding in kind, they became locked in an exhausting, win/lose power struggle.

All too often, this is the point at which a relationship, originally so full of promise, ends. We ask ourselves: Why hang in? I’ll go out and find someone better, someone more like the man (or woman) I mistakenly thought my partner was. The other common outcome – the one that Jack and Susan endured for years– is to stay together in a state of confusion, disappointment and hurt, with the relationship’s initial promise seemingly forever diminished.

Sad to say, this all-too-common journey has fostered widespread pessimism when it comes to romantic relationships:

  • “Love never lasts.”
  • We’re hardwired to cheat and betray each other.”
  • “In the end, we all have to settle.”

The good news, however, is that none of this is true. As couples come to understand the culturally ingrained boundary-crossing processes at work, and the unnecessary pain they cause, they can move beyond them. And that, happily, was the case for Susan and Jack.

The first step was building the tools of intimate conversation. In a typical, pre-therapy interaction, Susan’s frustrated “why didn’t you make the bed,” was greeted with a disgruntled “give me a break, I’m busy getting the kids ready for school.”

But with time, and lots of practice, Jack learned to acknowledge her frustration and problem solve: “You’re right, I didn’t get to it. I’ll be sure to take care of it before I leave.” Then, later that day, with this initial interaction fully behind them, Jack completed the cycle of shared intimacy, telling Susan that her abrupt tone unsettled him and asking her to pay attention to that in the future; feedback Susan warmly acknowledged.

As this nitty-gritty, day-by-day relational work progressed, the ability of this couple to share their frustrations, hopes, and fears – trusting that their partner would listen with curiosity and empathy – grew and grew. Jack and Susan are now realizing the initial promise of their relationship.