February 21, 2012 at 11:48 am , by Cherise Bathersfield
No Cheating, No Dying is journalist Elizabeth Weil’s account of the year she devotes to making her self-described good marriage even better. Weil and her husband, Dan Duane—both writers and overachievers—submitted to couples counseling, sex therapy, group workshops and more, applying themselves to their marriage as they would to a new writing assignment, hobby or exercise regimen. But being married with two children is no two-mile swim (which the couple did from Alcatraz to San Francisco). It’s complicated. For every issue unearthed, resolved and shelved during Weil’s marital spring-cleaning, another seemed to pop up to take its place. Weil shared some insights with us about her sometimes tumultuous journey to rehab her “good enough” marriage.
Q. After nearly a decade of a marriage that was not broken, what made you decide to fix it?
A. I noticed that I was being lazy-brained about my marriage in a way that I was not about the rest of my life. I had stacks of book on how to be a good mother. I kept up with the latest research on how to stay healthy. I put a lot of effort into my friendships, my work life and staying fit. But I had an attitude about my marriage that it was either star-crossed or it wasn’t. And once I noticed that attitude, it seemed silly. So I decided to change it.
Q. How did your husband, Dan, react to your proposal?
A. With horror! I’m sort of kidding. But his first reaction, when I brought it up, was “I can’t think of anything worse.”
Q. Where did the name of the book No Cheating, No Dying come from?
A. Those were our secret vows. Of course we stood up at the altar in front of our friends and family and promised to love and care for each other for richer and for poorer, in sickness and health and all that. But privately we said to each other: no cheating, no dying. We figured our marriage could survive anything else.
Q. You refer to a lot of marriage psychology publications and self-help books. Which ones did you find particularly helpful to you as a couple? Why?
A. Stephen Mitchell’s Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time really had a huge impact on me. Mitchell argues that romance doesn’t die in marriage due to neglect. Romance dies because we kill it, on purpose, as it becomes increasingly dangerous. We are so dependent on our spouses. These days husbands and wives aren’t just lovers or financial partners. We’re also co-parents, emotional supports, best friends. We can’t bear to think of our spouses as anything less than entirely predictable. And as a result we can start to think they’re boring and unromantic. But really, we’ve just put our spouses in that box. We need to take them out again.
Q. You and your husband went to therapy to work on your marriage. Do you recommend that other couples with “good” marriages do the same? If not, what should they do to keep their marriage on the right track?
A. Absolutely! And when we started this project, I was not a big therapy person. I figured why muck around in the past? But therapy turned out to be so valuable for us. It helped us understand ourselves and our marriage before little problems metastasized into big ones. Once the little problems start growing, the problems cause secondary problems of their own. You start hurting each other. You start becoming estranged. Even going to therapy becomes scary — what if it pulls you farther apart? But when you’re in a good place in your marriage, therapy can be wonderful. Think of it in the same terms you think about physical therapy. Therapy can be all about wellness. Take care of your relationship and your emotional life like you take care of your body.
Q. What effect did your marriage-improvement experiment have on your children — 8-year-old Hannah and 5-year-old Audrey?
A. You know, the kids were so young that they didn’t really know about the marriage-improvement experiment. They saw us have a couple of fights, which probably wouldn’t have happened had we not decided to stir the pot, as it were. But they’re also really the beneficiaries. Dan and I are even more solid now than we were when we started. There is a huge upside for our children in that.
Q. Since you had never been to therapy before, it was particularly hard for you to open up during your counseling sessions. How easy or hard was it to share with readers difficult personal moments like your worst fight with your husband and the heart-wrenching decision to terminate your pregnancy because your child faced devastating birth defects?
A. I knew when I decided to write about my marriage that I needed to be 100% honest with the reader. So I had a mantra for myself when I was writing No Cheating, No Dying, “Just be totally honest and everything will be okay.” Readers know when you’re telling the truth. The truth has power. Staying in that place of total honesty was harder some days than others. Writing about the terminated pregnancy was very difficult.
Q. Are you still using any of the techniques that you learned while working on your marriage? If so, which ones?
A. Yes! Some of the techniques that seem the most silly and hokey when we were learning them have really found their way into our lives. For instance, we took a marriage education class that focused on communication skills. Some of them seemed so petty and basic like: don’t exaggerate, precede criticism with praise, and don’t just listen to your partner’s words, slow down and feel what your partner is feeling. I knew all these things at some levels. But now I think about them.
Q. How would you describe your marriage today?
A. It’s fantastic. So suffused with love. It’s both more passionate and calmer. I feel incredibly lucky.
Q. A bone of contention in your marriage was your husband’s monopoly over the food preparation in your household, and you are very detailed in your description of the exotic family meals that he creates (cardoon fritters one day and tripe the next, for example). What’s for dinner tonight?
A. I’ll have to consult the chef. Hold on . . . Okay, he reports that he’s making an oven-roasted chicken with farro and kale with preserved lemon. What time will you be over?
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