Dear Book Therapist: How Do I Survive My C- Marriage?
One Letter-Writer Wants to Retreat from the World; Another to Find Peace in It
Do you have a problem? Do you want a book to help you solve it? Book Therapist is Rosalie Knecht, LMSW, a licensed therapist and author of the novels Relief Map and Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House, June 2018). She will be taking questions monthly for Lit Hub at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @rosalieknecht and Instagram @rosaliekn.
Dear Book Therapist,
I’m working with the idea that a person can be in an “imagined moment” to help mute chronic pain such as mine. I’m also on a very small dose of Percocet and four different medications for my chronic depression. I’ve had a successful amputation below my left knee, which has helped reduce my pain significantly, but I’m waiting to be ready to get a prosthesis to walk. I’ve been in a wheelchair for most of the last three years. “Lousy cartilage genetics, birth defect expressing itself now,” are terms surgeons use to describe my physical maladies.
Concentration is a constant frustration for someone who has read “like mad” to stay sane since I was old enough to be bullied. I am open to recommendations of poetry and literary fiction (which can be funny, but doesn’t need to be), memoir not so much. I have read H is for Hawk, and please no Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. I have read most books by Sharon Olds. The Gold Cell is my favorite.
I spend a great deal of time on my back, but prefer to read books in paper format, so big fat tomes won’t work (I keep trying to reread Nabokov’s Ada but it’s too heavy, and too big because I have arthritis in my hands as well). I have been married and divorced three times, and say I’m between engagements. I am looking for a book to read as I start rehab, get my prosthesis, and learn to walk again.
A book that will please a poet, that’s engaging, that can easily be held up in bed without tiring your hands. And a book, although you didn’t say this, that does that trick of opening up a large inner space, accordion-style.
Jorge Luis Borges told a story about being injured as a young man by cracking his head on the underside of an open casement window while running up the stairs at his family’s home. The injury was complicated, and he was in bed for many months. Afterward, he said that this was the time that made him a writer. The boredom and confinement forced him into his mind. Borges was a public figure, and he loved the city of Buenos Aires, where he lived most of his life, more than anything; in other words, he was out and about quite a lot. But when I read his work, I can still sense that boy on bed rest. The intricacy of his imagination suggests a person who is not sure he can rely on the world to keep him occupied. His later blindness reinforced that.
The Borges story that has followed me around all these years since I first read it is “Funes the Memorious,” the story of a man who, in the aftermath of an accident that paralyzes him, develops a perfect memory: he can remember every single thing that has ever happened to him, which means that remembering a day takes him as long as living one. He lies in bed, remembering.
Like most people, I’ve often felt sad about the way memories slip away, the huge swathes of our lives that disappear into the ether. But only by forgetting most of what happens can we make any kind of sense out of what’s left, and only by leaving most things behind can we keep moving forward. Because Funes knows everything, he can’t understand anything: “He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas . . . His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion.”“The intricacy of his imagination suggests a person who is not sure he can rely on the world to keep him occupied.”
He can’t distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t. He can’t find patterns. Without limitations, without loss and entropy, there’s a static, awful chaos. This story helped me see that the basic facts of the human condition—mortality, inadequacy, decline—aren’t just a bad deal being inflicted on me personally. (What can I say? I was 20 when I read it, and hadn’t figured it out yet.)
The story appeared in his collection Artificios in 1944, and is collected under the name Ficciones now, translated by Anthony Kerrigan. Ficciones also includes the story Borges himself loved the most, “The South.” It’s a slender little book, easy to hold up in bed, and all the stories have the brainy lyricism of this one.
Dear Book Therapist,
I am in my mid-sixties and have been married for 35 years. We have two responsible, kind, and independent adult children. We both served long and enjoyable careers in public education but suffered from burnout upon retirement. I am grateful to be in this place, free from work and child-rearing responsibilities with sufficient retirement income to make the bills every month and have a little left over to go out to dinner or take an occasional long weekend adventure. Seems ideal, right? Wrong.
What’s missing is any type of intimate relationship. I would characterize our marital relationship as cordial and respectful. It can be playful, and it certainly is stable. What it’s not is warm, affectionate, or real. There is very little genuine conversation, although we do talk about the details of the day. We have grown in different directions and make plenty of room for the other to pursue their interests. He is overweight, not particularly interested in eating healthily or exercising in any way (except for puttering in the yard), and interested more in TV and sports than in books or hiking. I have always been physically very active, more concerned about healthy diet, and an avid reader, artist for fun, and sometimes writer.
In short, the connection is not there despite the fact that we are joined by a long history, family ties, and tightly bound finances. We worked with a couples therapist for several years and, for a while, things were better. But the insurance ran out and old patterns resumed. I suggested recently that we might want to check back in with the therapist but his response was essentially, “What’s the point? We’ve talked it to death. It is what it is.” If we were filthy rich, I would push to have my own residence, and I would want to open the marriage up more but we are not rich at all.
So I’m looking for the path to surrender or acceptance. It is a companionable but passionless marriage. I don’t see the marriage going back to its intimate origins nor do I see it turning abusive or disrespectful. It is a C marriage—sometimes rising to a B and occasionally downgrading to a D. I am looking for a book that might show surrender, particularly in a relationship. I am looking for some kind of understanding of what it means to be lonely while entrenched in what should be a connected relationship and accepting that for what it is. Ideas?
–Open to Learning
Dear Open to Learning,
In feeling around for a book that meets these specs, I keep putting my hand on Casablanca instead, like when you’re trying to find a pen in your bag and keep coming up with the same Chapstick over and over by accident. It seems perfect—the kind of ending that kids hate, and adults understand. Of course she got on the plane! Life is complicated!
You and your husband no longer connect, a risk of spending many decades together, since you’re inevitably different people at 65 than you were at 30. The shine has come off. You wish he was different. More introspective, more artistic. More fit, which seems a touch unkind, since most of us get softer and rounder if we’re lucky enough to age. You’re preoccupied with the gap between you. But you’ve looked at your life, and you’ve concluded that you’re better off together.
By putting you so often in a room with another person, marriage forces you to reckon with yourself. When you’re alone, your quirks and rigidities and fixations can dissipate into the air. When you’re living in a pair, all those things bounce off the other person and come right back to you. You’re aware of the other person, yes. But you’re excruciatingly aware of yourself. Sometimes we mistake this feeling of being tired of our own bullshit for the feeling of being tired of our spouse’s bullshit. We try to manage this feeling by managing the spouse, exhausting them and ourselves and sometimes being kind of rude. “WHY are you chewing so loud,” we say, when what we mean is, “Why am I so irritable and tense? Why do I feel so rattled by everything?”
What I hear in your letter is a person who likes to talk about books, and has no one to talk about them with. Maybe a person who likes to talk, period, and is married to someone who doesn’t speak up unless he has something specific to say. I’m guessing here. But consider the fact that your husband is also married to a person who differs from him in fundamental ways, who is uninterested in some of the things that matter the most to him. How is he dealing with it? Well, he says, it is what it is. If that’s really how he feels, then he’s a step or two closer than you are to the place where you say you want to go—surrender, or acceptance. Maybe this is what he offers you, what drew you to him in the first place. Maybe he has a flexibility, an acceptance of difference, that you have trouble reaching.“When you’re alone, your quirks and rigidities and fixations can dissipate into the air. When you’re living in a pair, all those things bounce off the other person and come right back to you.”
At the risk of being a little on-the-nose, may I suggest Tessa Hadley’s Married Love? The eye of Hadley’s narrator is always astute, but also merciful. She both delights in the small compensations of living and considers the drawbacks at length. The space between two people who have gotten used to each other, and then gone pretty far past that point, crops up often in her work. Consider this passage from the title story, about a college student (Lottie) who shocks her parents by marrying a professor old enough to be her grandfather (Edgar), and then what happens after the wedding and the babies, when most narratives of this kind would have faded to black. In this scene, the mother of the young wife contemplates her elderly son-in-law and realizes that his former air of glamor has dissipated, because it was his ex-wife Valerie who had lent it to him in the first place:
To his credit, Edgar didn’t seem to resent the intrusion of the babies into his life, or even to be wiped out by them, exactly: he gave himself over to their existence with a kind of bemused wonder. He drew himself down to their level, noticing everything they noticed, becoming involved in their childish chatter and speculation, as Lottie didn’t have time to be. They adored him—they ran to cling to his legs whenever their mummy was cross. Edgar’s appearance was diminished, though, from what it had once been: his white hair had thinned and was cut shorter and lay down more tamely on his head; his clothes were the ordinary dull things anyone could buy in a supermarket. Hattie realized with surprise that it must have been Valerie who was behind the charcoal-gray linen shirts, the silk suits, the whole production of Edgar as exceptional and distinguished.
Edgar’s facade crumbles, but we’re allowed to see the value of what’s left behind. To me, Hadley is comforting as a writer who refuses either to romanticize or to slander family life. I think you would enjoy her.
P.S. It was so difficult to think of a great novel about acceptance that my first thought was, “OTL should write it.”
P.P.S. In all the frenzied activity of a long career and raising kids, sometimes friendships fall away, and our culture often tells us that we should be able to have all our emotional needs met within a romantic relationships, which is impossible. How might the pressurized loneliness you feel be eased by friendships with people who share with you the things your husband doesn’t share?