Tuesday 24 May 2011

Laura Munson: Save a marriage by doing nothing

Laura Munson is a writer or was an unpublished writer. Over the years, she had suffered rejection notice after rejection notice and ended up with over a dozen unpublished books. Nevertheless, she had a happy marriage, two kids, and a farmhouse on 20 acres of land in Montana. Then out of the blue, her husband announces he no longer loves her and wants to move out. Her response? Do nothing.

Munson tried to approach this problem the same way she had been dealing with the professional rejection she had gotten as a writer. She knew her husband had suffered a career failure, was drowning in debt, and was afraid of losing their farm. As she wrote, she decided to give him space to work through his issues. While he took his problems to nature, fishing, camping, and hiking and was distant, unreliable, and sometimes cruel, Munson did not take it personally just like she didn't take it personally with her writing career. Rather than, as she put it, succumbing to the victim supposedly unloved by her husband, she forced herself to "let go" and go back to focusing on herself, her children, and her own life. She found peace and eventually her husband found his. The two of them worked through the crisis and their marriage survived.

She wrote an article in the New York Times about her ordeal which generated a great deal of interest in her secrets; how had she managed to survive the crisis without getting a divorce. This developed into the 2010 book "This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness" and ended up on the New York Times Best Seller list (#18 - April 25, 2010). From there, her dream has come true: a book tour, national television, and is now being taken seriously as an author.

The Beginning of the Crisis
The New York Times published an article by Munson called "Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear" on July 31, 2009:

"I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did."

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.

He drew back in surprise. Apparently he’d expected me to burst into tears, to rage at him, to threaten him with a custody battle. Or beg him to change his mind.

So he turned mean. "I don’t like what you’ve become."

Gut-wrenching pause. How could he say such a thing? That’s when I really wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn’t.

Instead, a shroud of calm enveloped me, and I repeated those words: "I don’t buy it."

You see, I’d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I’d committed to "The End of Suffering." I’d finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I’d seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.

She gave him space. She set the table for four and he had the option to show up or not. There were no ultimatums, only options. Apparently she had given him six months, but he only needed four. His sister was diagnosed with cancer and after going to look after her, he came back a changed man.

And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing 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. He mentioned needing wood for next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the future.

It was Thanksgiving dinner that sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly and said, “I’m thankful for my family.”

He was back.

He figured out and came back. But figured out what exactly?

I saw what had been missing: pride. He’d lost pride in himself. Maybe that’s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we’re not as young and golden anymore.

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.

The critics
Munson is a doormat. Munson should have booted him to the curb from the beginning. A comment in the NY Times:

As a longtime reader of the Modern Love column, I don't recall ever cringing as much as I did when I read Ms. Munson's contribution. Despite her assurances to the contrary, there is clearly a mother-child dynamic between the spouses. In the end, the errant child returns to the breast of the saintly, long-suffering mother. My skin still crawls just thinking about it.

Love Yourself
In the original NY Times article, Munson wrote: happiness has to start from within. In her Huffington Post blog Munson added, I stopped letting things outside my control ... define my well-being or self-worth. What had Munson hit on? Her books are rejected but instead of taking it personally, she continues looking for the right opportunity. Her husband tells her he doesn't think he loves her anymore but instead of taking it personally, she gives him the time and space necessary to resolve his own issues. Today she is a published author and she's still married.

Final Word
Laura Munson did something unusual. She did nothing. Her husband was in crisis and rather than take it all personally, react, and possibly irrevocably alter not just her life, but the lives of her children and the entire family, she chose a path ofttimes overlooked. People sometimes do things which look totally crazy. Nevertheless there is usually a good reason. Nobody starts out wanting to be crazy and nobody would want it to go on record that they were crazy. Given time, anybody - okay, 99% of the people - will eventually come round to not being crazy. I think of this quote from the television show House: Everybody does stupid things; it shouldn't cost them everything.

Munson says in a Time interview: It was a philosophy to preserve my well-being. ... I was faced with a choice: I was going to let this take me down, or I was going to learn to base my happiness on something that was within my control.

I must confess that upon reading about Laura Munson I immediately thought of Molly Monet and all that she has described about her divorce. (Postcards of a Peaceful Divorce) Get mad, declare World War III, irrevocably alter the lives of everyone around you, or take a deep breath and deal with it as something other than your own life, your own self-worth, and your own well-being.

Would this method, what Laura Munson did, work in all cases? Not all of us are the same. Nevertheless her story raises the question of seeing ourselves as an independent being who is not defined by outside success. Whether we get published or not, whether our significant other stays or goes means that we can't base our personal happiness on things entirely outside of our control.

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.


New York Times - July 31/2009
Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear by Laura A. Munson
[This is the original article which started it all.]

official web site: Laura Munson

The Huffington Post: Laura Munson's blog

Time - May 9/2010
How to Save Your Marriage by Not Doing Anything By Belinda Luscombe
So is it accurate to say that your strategy for handling this situation was to do nothing?
It was not a strategy to stay married. It was a philosophy to preserve my well-being. For 20 years, I've been in a lot of pain, because I love to write but I now have 14 unpublished novels. That's a lot of rejection. With the death of my father and a big publishing deal falling apart simultaneously at the last minute, that's when it really peaked. I was faced with a choice: I was going to let this take me down, or I was going to learn to base my happiness on something that was within my control. I'd been working with this philosophy for several years before my husband had his own crisis.

More Sex Daily
Author Laura Munson on ‘mixed-messagy’ sex in the middle of a marital crisis
[Laura] says “I understand the irony of two people who are having an impossible time connecting emotionally and verbally yet they can still connect physically. It’s not like we were having a whole lot of sex, but it happened, and it did make me feel confused. I remember one time I said to him “that is so mixed-messagy” and yet we still ended up having sex.”
Laura recognises that “most women in my situation would probably have said I’m not going anywhere near you”, but it is also true that had she shut the door on her husband physically, she might, simultaneously, have shut the door on the possibility of reconciliation. Though it is often confusing at the time, couples who manage to sustain some form of physical intimacy through a marital crisis are more likely to knit their failing relationship back together again.

The Huffington Post - Apr 8/2011
Choosing Your Emotions Instead of Letting Them Choose You by Laura Munson
I stopped letting things outside my control like the publishing industry, and then later, my husband's love for me, define my well-being or self-worth.

This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (April 1, 2010); Hardcover: 352 pages

When Laura Munson's essay was published, The New York Times was so flooded with responses that they had to close down the comment feature. Readers wrote in saying that they had sent the column to all of their friends. Therapists wrote Munson to tell her that they were passing it out to their clients.

What did Munson write that caused such a fervor?

Laura detailed what happened when her husband of more than twenty years told her he wasn't sure he loved her anymore and wanted to move out. And while you might think you know where this story is going, this isn't the story you think it is. Laura's response to her husband: I don't buy it.

In this poignant, wise, and often funny memoir, Munson recounts a period of months in which her faith in herself-and her marriage-was put to the test. Shaken to the core after the death of her beloved father, not finding the professional success that she had hoped for, and after countless hours of therapy, Laura finally, at age forty, realized she had to stop basing her happiness on things outside her control and commit herself to an "End of Suffering." This Is Not The Story You Think It Is... chronicles a woman coming to terms with the myths we tell ourselves-and others-about our life and realizing that ultimately happiness is completely within our control.

Amazon: Customer Reviews
[It is interesting to read the various reviews/comments from the readers. Some are for it; some are against it.]

ABC News - Apr 5/2010
Excerpt: 'This Is Not the Story You Think It Is' by Laura Munson
Probably the wisest words that were ever uttered to me came from a therapist. I was sitting in her office, crying my eyes out over my then unsuccessful writing career and my husband's challenges at work, and she said, "So let me get this straight. You base your personal happiness on things entirely outside of your control."


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Unknown said...

everyone has their path ... her's is wonderful ... because she stood strong

Towards Joy said...

Thanks for reading my blog! I would LOVE for my husband to go to counseling, to talk to SOMEONE through this crisis of his. Unfortunately, he is fairly convinced (not completely as he hasn't packed his bags yet) that he needs to experience life without me. I JUST read Laura Munson's book; I love the ending. I am now onto Stacy Morrison's "Falling A Part in One Piece,"...she's equally as calm as Laura in such a confusing situation, unfortunately, her 13 year marriage does end in divorce. I am not sure how my story will end but what I am discovering is some people make it out of their crisis and return to their life, better and more aware; others feel the only way towards happiness is to exit completely. (sigh)

BigLittleWolf said...

I stopped letting things outside my control... define my well-being or self worth...

Always a good thing, but not necessarily the "path" to a good outcome, or rather, what each person considers a good outcome.

Still, compared to the alternative, especially when in crisis (of many sorts), perhaps it helps.