Paper Walls – your neighbors know if you are working for a good marriage

loving divorce2:19am: neighbors can hear you
at each other = bad marriage.
2:19am: neighbors can hear you
making love = good marriage.

Marc Cohn’s “Paper Walls” is about a hotel room, but it might as well be my crappy college-town apartment. The next door neighbors probably know exactly how often my spouse and I make love. I definitely know how often they fight. Tonight they woke me up, again, and after knocking on their door to let them know they’d woken me up, again, I thought I’d let all of you know about it. Hey, at least I’m not waking you up screaming through your wall.

I’m not saying happy couples don’t have fights. But let me give you a tip: if you find yourself screaming “Don’t call me a f-ing b-tch!!!” at the top of your lungs at 2:19am, it’s time to remember what you told your 9 year old earlier that day when he was fighting with his brother. Stop. Take a time out. Go to a different room. Go for a walk.

Two gold rings - reflected candlesMy wife and I are very happily married. I know it’s a cliche. But it’s true. And guess what? It’s really, really hard work. Happily married is not something you get if you are lucky. Getting to be one of the NOT divorced couples among your friends – or among the general American populace – takes time and energy and commitment (remember that word?) every day, every week, every month, every year, forever. If you are not married yet, and are thinking about getting married, think long and hard about whether you are willing to WORK at it, every day, forever.

And yes, I’m talking to all you same-sex couples in California who have been patiently, or not so patiently, awaiting the ruling in the Perry case to determine if Prop 8 will be overturned and same-sex couples will be able to start marrying in California (again). If you have been together for years and understand exactly what I mean by marriage being hard work, go ahead and start printing those wedding invitations. If you have been madly in love for a few months and/or want to make a political statement by getting married on the first day it becomes legal (again), come to a screeching halt.

– It’s Really Hard Work to Stay Married

Before my wife and I got engaged in 2002 we came to an important agreement: neither of us was allowed to stop working on getting better. We knew we wouldn’t stay the same. We knew that the people we were then and the people we would be 10, 20, 50 years from then would be very different. We agreed that we would accept that we would both change and would still stay together no matter what, as long as the change was for the better or at least that we were each trying to be better. We also agreed it wasn’t my job to change her or make her be a better person, and it wasn’t her job to change me either. I don’t get to say what “better” is for her. I just see that she is trying, and she sees that I am trying.

We also learned (with the help of this great group called Recovering Couples Anonymous) that the 2 people in a couple are like 2 legs of a 3 legged stool. There is a 3rd leg without which the relationship will not stand. The 3rd leg is an entity unto itself: the couple. There is YOU and there is ME and there is WE. People forget to take care of the “WE.”

We have a “Relationship Binder.” It has sections for capturing our agreements about money, sex, and parenting. Guess why most couples get divorced? Three reasons: disagreements about money, disagreements about sex, and disagreements about parenting. We have “Relationship Maintenance” meetings with each other every week (usually) to go over what ever we need to: syncing up our calendars for the week, disagreements over parenting, worries about sex or money, plans for summer vacation, scheduling a party, scheduling a trip to a couple’s counselor to get help with a problem we haven’t been able to solve on our own, whatever. There is a place to write down topics that need to get covered next time we meet, and we can “table” things for next time but never bury an issue. We also have “Date Night” with each other every week (usually). It has come to my attention that in order to have intimacy people have to actually spent time together doing things they find enjoyable. And we each go to therapy. And we have family meetings with our child. And we use a “talking stick” to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard. And on and on and on. It’s hard work. It’s totally worth it. Because I love her like crazy. Also, because I know what the alternative is.

– It’s Even Harder Work to Get Divorced

Another thing you should know, if you are already married and wondering whether all this work is too much, is this: as hard work as it is to stay married, getting divorced is even harder work. Just a few months of working in family law made that fact extremely clear. Look at the steps above: maintenance meetings, date nights, family meetings, negotiations, rules for arguments. Now compare that to the following: break up, move out, separate your record collection, fight over the kids, fight over the house, file for divorce, serve papers on your not-so-soon-to-be-ex, file the service of process papers with the court, get bank statements for the past year for every financial asset you have, get financial statements from before your marriage if you want to prove something is separate property, wonder what in hell is separate property, get furious when you find out everything you earned during your marriage is only half yours, blame your lawyer (if you can afford one), sell your house (if you have one) and put the entire equity in a retainer to pay your lawyer and your not-so-soon-to-be-ex’s lawyer, fight over the kids and the house and the money some more (both in and out of court), if you can’t afford a lawyer try to figure out how to complete declarations of disclosure yourself when you don’t even understand what they are, try to figure out in what order to file and serve judicial council forms and get it wrong over and over, realize that 5 years has gone by and you are STILL married to the person you separated from 5 years ago even though you don’t know where he lives, because you can’t figure out which box to check on a form… If this sounds extreme, it’s not. It’s worse. I’ve been a child of divorce. I’ve been a legal document assistant filling out divorce paperwork in California since 2007 and a family law attorney since 2012. I’ve seen all these things. The only light in the darkness I’ve seen so far is the One-Day-Divorce clinic I volunteered at this week. I helped a woman finish her divorce in One Day… over 5 years after she initially filed. So technically that’s a Five-Years-Plus-One-Day-Divorce, not a One-Day-Divorce.

Oh, and you know how I said marriage is hard work forever? Well divorce is hard work forever too. You are co-parenting those kids, forever. If you have been married more than 10 years a California judge might have jurisdiction over granting or modifying spousal support (aka alimony) forever. So if there is a chance that hard work can save your marriage, don’t think divorce is easier, or faster. It’s not.

commitment-wordSo when I have an argument with the love of my life (it happens), I think about the couple next door, and I think about how our tools have worked for us in the past. Then I pull out that Relationship Binder and write down that issue on the topic list and schedule a maintenance meeting in our calendars. I think about whether there is something I need to do to change for the better, and I collaborate with my wife on what we can do to change for the better, and I let her be in charge of whatever she might need to do for herself. We do the hard work required to have a good marriage.

Speaking of topics for the list, we really must get back to that issue of “find a house to rent.” I finished grad school. It’s time to get out of the crappy student apartment I relegated myself and my family to for the past four years. Maybe I’ll leave the couple next door a copy of this article as a going away present just before our U-Haul pulls out of the parking lot, to let them know how inspirational I found their marriage.

9 Comments on “Paper Walls – your neighbors know if you are working for a good marriage”

  1. Catherine Adams says:

    Loved the detail. This is so much better than the simple, “work on your marriage”; and speaking of work, great art work!

  2. Catherine Adams says:

    A Hymn and Prayer for Marriage

    O God of love, to thee we bow,
    and pray for these before thee now,
    that closely knit in holy vow,
    they may in thee be one.

    Whatever comes to be their share
    of quickening joy or burdening care,
    in power to do and grace to bear,
    may they in thee be one.

    Eternal love, with them abide;
    through change and chance be thou their guide;
    let nothing in this life divide
    those whom thou makest one.

    • I’m not sure I would agree with the “two become one” concept in the prayer, not without making it clear that the two individuals still exist as two whole individuals, and the marriage creates a third entity, the “WE” I talk above in the article (called the “coupleship” in RCA).

      • Catherine Adams says:

        Quite right; I agree … one should avoid “enmeshment”, but that was a prayer I found while looking for something for your (first) wedding … & I rather liked it. Think of it as that “third leg”

  3. The neighbors woke me up again screaming at 7am. Sigh…

  4. Catherine Adams says:

    What, you don’t think the kids hear as well s you do at 2AM?

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