When Even Your Marriage Counselor Tells You to Get Divorced

James Braly and his wife stayed married for years, even though almost everyone in their lives urged them to split up. Why? And how did it feel when they finally did part ways?

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On The Atlantic and elsewhere recently, there have been plenty of arguments and explorations about the timeline of marriage: whether to marry earlier or later in life, what marriage looks like through the decades, and whether it makes sense to get married at all, ever. As for me, I feel like if you haven't had a decade-long clandestine relationship necessitated by seemingly insurmountable cultural differences and parental disapproval, followed by a year-long, grin-and-bear-it religious conversion and a massive wedding, the preparation for which nearly kills the betrothed, you just aren't ready for that kind of commitment. Yes, most of us married folk think we are experts on the institution.

Lately, though, a lot of my peers are abandoning the whole endeavor. About once a month, a friend announces the dissolution of his or her marriage. Aside from the concern I have for the kids of the couples, I've been a bit surprised at my own reactions to these announcements, which have been ambivalent in the extreme. I am saddened that a couple I had known and loved will no longer exist. But I'm also giddy with vicarious excitement at the prospect of people just like me who will be single once again: free to change and grow, independent of the influence of their partners, and, most importantly, turned loose in the wilds of the dating market. It's nothing I would want for myself, mind you. The very idea scares the crap out of me; also, I still enjoy being married to my wife. But I have a certain respect for men and women who strike out their own, romantically and emotionally.

James Braly has been performing monologues about his own difficult relationship with his wife for years, during most of which he remained married, despite the advice of friends, family, and many of the dozen marriage counselors he and his wife burned through. He's a regular at The Moth and has appeared on This American Life. In 2006, he started doing a one-man-show, and soon thereafter took it on the road. Last month, St. Martin's Press released Braly's memoir, Life in a Marital Institution, based on these monologues. The book is a collection of funny, sometimes touching, and often nearly unbelievable stories of marital discord, interwoven with a portrait of family dysfunction on the occasion of the author's sister's death. Many who have read the book or seen the show—myself included—have had two reactions: 1) "Wow. I thought my marriage was tricky sometimes. I had no idea"; and, 2) "Why did they stay together for so long?"

The philosophical differences between Braly and his wife are many and vast, but perhaps best illustrated in the area of childrearing. James seems to have fairly conventional ideas about parenting, with "attachment" leanings. Jane is, well, kind of extreme. For instance, she insists, against all medical advice, in her mid-40s, on a homebirth in a kiddie pool with the couple's second child (the first was delivered via C-section), and the results are very nearly tragic, involving a frantic late-night scramble to a New York City emergency room. She saves the placenta from the second pregnancy for years, transferring it during moves, thawing and re-freezing it while deciding on its final resting place. She refuses to get her children vaccinated, lets them go hungry when organic, local produce is unavailable, and breastfeeds them well into gradeschool. And those stories comprise just a couple chapters in the book.

I was interested in asking Braly, in his capacity as an expert on his own marriage, how he felt, not only about the question of when to get married, but also about whom to marry, and how long to stay in a marriage.

The first thing I confirmed is that his highly chronicled marriage is (mercifully, some would say) now officially over. I pointed out a bit that the comedian Louis C.K. does, in which he argues that you shouldn't make a sad face when you find out that your friends are getting divorced, because "divorce is always good news...no good marriage has ever ended in divorce."

Were congratulations more in order than consolation? Did Braly feel relief at finally putting an end to over twenty years of conflict, or was the conflict somehow attractive and energizing to him? He responded over email:

It's actually very sad to me; one of those emotional battle scars you carry through life. I still and always will love her—not just as the mother of my kids, but as the woman with whom I went through every major stage of adult life, from graduating college, to renting an apartment, buying a home, having children, burying parents and on and on. She is a member of my family. She was there. (Often, it must be said, fighting!) And when I hear of couples who went the distance, I feel like we could have somehow made it too, if only I'd stayed for one more marriage counselor.

On the other hand, not one person in our shared community—which, you might not be surprised to hear, shrunk over time—encouraged me to stay. They understood. (That includes several marriage counselors!)

And THAT was—and is—a major variable. When the people charged with helping you keep it together say, even tacitly, let it fall apart, it's much easier.

As to whether conflict (what you are implying is "destructive" conflict) is energizing, I suppose it can be—but I see it less as energizing and more as an essential (if undesirable) component of a relationship when one's sense of self is not so deep that one is convinced within one's self of the "rightness" of one's opinion.

In other words, your opinion is NOT enough for you. THAT is how little you regard yourself! You need another to agree to achieve clarity. It's kind of like needing an emotional exoskeleton.

So the path to harmony then is to develop belief in one's inner voice.

I also asked the author to weigh in, based on what he has learned from the cycles of his own marriage, on the recent chatter about when to get married, and how people considering marriage were supposed to know, as well, if they were making the right decision about whom to marry.

I think I would file both of these questions under, The Disintegration of Convention. People are, increasingly, adrift, as society gives us fewer and fewer ritualized signals, as anything increasingly goes—in relationships and everywhere else. I mean, think of a society where when you were out of your house and wanted to make a phone call, you went to a booth, just like you "went to the bathroom." It was PRIVATE, and you knew when and where to do it. How you were supposed to behave was very, very clear. Then cell phones came along. And chaos. That quiet ride on the bus became a telephone booth, as did everywhere else. And arguments with people (like me!) who did not want to ride the telephone booth down Broadway. God forbid the invention of portable personal toilets! Closer to home, my 14-year-old boy complains to me that I treat his 11-year-old brother more or less the same—allowance, bedtime, etc. This spurred an examination where I could see that the few rituals we had: for example, get a driver's license at 16—were very calming signs on the road of life. Take those away, and when do you give the license? How do you choose?

For most people, for a long, long time, marriage used to be determined by one thing alone: When you (the man) could no longer wait to have sex, and you had enough prospects to persuade the woman to give hers to you. Very simple. THAT's how you knew who AND when. I'll give you my treasure if you give me yours. This worked a little different for the aristocracy, as we know. And of course there were some hookers mixed in there for the middle class. But for the poor men who could not afford to pay for sex—and most men were poor—it was pretty simple, I think.

Now we in this country—those of us who write these ideas you speak of, and those who read them--have many more choices. Or we think we do. One thing surplus choice introduces is opportunity cost: the ennui (and confusion) that goes with giving up viable choices. Just walk down the street on a spring day in New York City counting skirts and you'll feel what I mean. How do you choose? And, why? What is the limiting factor? Go back to my example with the driver's license. The limiting factor used to be social conventions, i.e. community. But people to an increasing degree are disconnected from community. THIS I think explains much of what we are discussing: if the community steps in to my marriage and helps support it...well, would we be having this exchange? And if you are viewing marriage in the context of a community into which you want to fit, the notion of when (and who) clarifies instantly. Orthodox Jews, I think, are not asking these questions.

The rest of us (and that's most of us) in this country I think are suffering from lack of community. We can switch jobs and locations (and have people dear to us move away) overnight. Poof. We are a product of a society that has not made many deep social commitments. How are we expected to know how to make them ourselves?

Braly's memoir documented an unconventional and complicated marriage. It was a compelling read, and I laughed aloud (with a little guilt because the joke was always at the author's expense), but had difficulty relating to his character because I just wanted to shake him and scream, "GET OUT OF THERE!" He is currently working on monologues about his divorce, and based on our correspondence, I suspect that they will have more universal appeal, and even more heart, than Life in a Marital Institution. There's no doubt that they will be as hilarious as they are painful.