Good Luck with Your Marriage Strategy

A funny thing happens to me occasionally, even after three years in Australia: I’ll be […]

Stephanie Phillips / 7.16.19

A funny thing happens to me occasionally, even after three years in Australia: I’ll be at the gym, or a cafe, and hear someone nearby speaking, and I’ll startle at their accent. It’s as though I’ve forgotten that I’m still residing in a foreign country — it’s so familiar now! — and the Aussie brogue reaches out and slaps me with the reality that I remain a stranger in a strange land.

Living in grace feels this way. In the world at large, and even Christian circles, law is the order of the day. By this I mean prescriptive living: sermons with life-application points; online listicles on everything from getting rid of cellulite to living your best life (apparently these two are related); self-help sections of bookstores and Amazon booming. Embedded in this law-oriented philosophy is an assumption that karma, not grace, is the arbiter of our destinies. Recently an acquaintance posted on social media that she had been the victim of identity theft and couldn’t understand why, when she lives a good Christian life, bad people have to exist who take advantage of that. 

The world operates in a tit-for-tat, The Secret-fixated format: put good out into the world and it will return to you. Work hard and you will (financially) succeed. Exercise and you will, without exception, lose weight. I often wonder what people in the depths of poverty would say about such a simplistic cause-and-effect mentality.

Gwyneth Paltrow, whom you may know as both Pepper Potts and online purveyor of info about everything from Living Your Best Divorce to effectively steaming your lady parts, recently divulged the secret to a perfect (second) marriage: she and her husband live apart for part of the week, each in their own home, then return to each other to cohabit the rest of the week. I felt myself cynically applauding the Goopstress for her seamless transition from dispensing advice on how to end your marriage to maintaining it, but damn if there aren’t people eating it up with a spoon, along with other celebs’ reveals/counsel, like that of Jill Duggar who recently advised women to give their husbands sex every seventy-two hours for a healthy marriage.

I would like for these women to tell me how to — in addition to maintaining the perfect life without access to nannies, trainers, chefs, etc. — deal with my anxiety and depression and their recent fun manifestation, rage. Yes, reader, I have been battling some sweet, sweet rage lately as I attempt to taper down my meds, finding myself hiding in the bathroom or seething over fitted sheets, wondering why, by virtue of being a woman, I am destined for childbirth, hormonal onslaughts, secretarial work for my family, an endless career in laundry, minimal headspace for my own thoughts in the midst of constant “why”s from my kids, ovulation pain, period pain, higher body fat than men, more difficulty losing it, an overwhelming emotional load on behalf of my kids, and being the official school liaison for them NO MATTER WHAT (seriously, does the office there even have my husband’s number?!). And this is a very partial list. 

I need Gwyn and J Dugg to write me a prescription for having two of my biggest dream roles come to fruition — wife to a good man and mother to incredible sons — while still battling not only ingratitude, but resentment. I need a listicle on what to do with the broken bowl(s) left over from my kids’ changing-by-the-minute demands for food, or How Not to Leave an Angry Post on My Husband’s Boss’s Facebook Page Telling Him Just What a Jerk He Is. Hell, sometimes I need advice on how not to leave that post on my husband’s page. I need counsel that goes deeper than (but still gets rid of) cellulite and wrinkles.

I suspect that I will not get this information from Goop.

Strategies will not fix the aching abyss that resides within each of us when our dreams are exposed as not being enough even when they come true, when we are exposed as not being enough even when we try hard. Sure, there are things that help. For me, an incomplete list includes medication, meditation, yearly hotel nights by myself, music, a well-placed glass of wine or f-bomb. But these things, gifts though they are, do not make the rage disappear; they only temporarily subdue it. They don’t fill the aching abyss, but they do distract me from it.

Reese Witherspoon (whose own perfect Instagram does not, I’ve noticed, contain her 2013 mugshot) has embodied an iconic character in Big Little Lies’ Madeline Mackenzie. Madeline zips around Monterey, CA, clad in the latest athleisure or designer pieces, handbag situated just-so on her arm, hair freshly colored and coiffed. Madeline also has had an affair that her husband just found out about, is an accomplice to a murder, and, a few weeks ago, lost her proverbial shit at a school parents’ forum. She fell apart onstage so beautifully I wanted to applaud. Don’t get me wrong — I thoroughly enjoy catty, Halloween-party-throwing Madeline, but I am here with bells on for ice-cream throwing, stage-crying, messy Madeline.

The difference between the two is in which one is telling the truth. And it ain’t the one with the Louis Vuitton dangling from her forearm.

Madeline is the ultimate strategist, and you just hate/love to see a strategy fall apart. It’s sort of how I felt watching Chernobyl, the most recent offering in the pantheon of Hard but Required Viewing (see also: The Handmaid’s Tale). Seeing the head guy try — and fail — to avoid blame by employing the “I Was in the Bathroom” strategy was chef’s kiss perfection after four episodes of his not answering for it. In the end, it all comes down to whether we’re pretending to be what we’re not (which is called lying, by the way), or telling the truth — to others and ourselves. As Jared Smith voices over, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

According to Gwyneth, the key to getting divorced is making it positive when it can actually be brutal; the secret to staying married is pretending, part-time at least, that you’re not. Meanwhile, there’s the life philosophy recently offered in the movie Yesterday: “Tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.”

Which isn’t so much a strategy as it is a submission: to the lack of control over the outcome. To the possibility that we will be taken advantage of. To the unfairness of a world that, in the end, doesn’t operate according to the predictability of karma but does show plenty of evidence of grace — most of it not in law-oriented wish-fulfillment but in quiet acts of love: the whisper of my younger son telling me he loves me as he drifts off to sleep, the eye contact my older son gives me as I cup my hands on his face and he says, “Good morning, Mommy.” This is grace in the midst of my rage and ingratitude, moments that don’t fix everything but point to a love that ultimately will — and until then, that love allows me to crawl to its well time and again to behold it and slowly, not strategically, be changed.

Maybe the world is falling
It wasn’t strong enough
Tell me you’ll soon be crawling
Into the Arms, into the arms of Love