Rory remembers the moment he realized his marriage was falling apart. There was no knock-down fight or dramatic revelation. Instead, it happened on an ordinary evening with his wife Elizabeth.
He came home after a long day of work at his job as a line producer at a TV production company. He was tired of the office politics, feeling unappreciated and doing the work of three people in one job.
He sat down on the sofa next to Elizabeth, who was watching TV and paying bills. “How was your day?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said, eyes glued to the TV screen. Rory waited a moment, expecting Elizabeth to reciprocate with “And how was your day?” Instead, she licked a stamp and affixed it to an envelope labeled for the rent check.
He decided to tell her about his hellish day of work. But he slowly realized she was barely listening.
Finally, his conversation tapered off, and the couple sat together in silence. Suddenly, he felt pierced with loneliness. An epiphany overwhelmed him: the woman he had been with for nearly seven years had become a stranger.
“It was the worst feeling,” he tells me. “There is nothing more isolating than feeling absolutely alone in the world when you’re sitting next to the person you’ve promised to love and cherish all your life — and realizing what an impossibility that was going to be.”
Rory and Elizabeth seemed headed to join the ranks of the 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. that end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association.
But they didn’t. In fact, the couple managed to save their marriage and restore their love and affection for each other. It was a difficult journey, but made easier thanks to the creative use of some technology usually criticized for its adverse effects on relationships.
Rory and Elizabeth started off like any promising young couple. They married four years ago in a beautiful California beach ceremony after three years of dating. They met working together on a film set, a hectic, stressful job full of long hours.
Yet, Rory recalls, work didn’t feel like a job at all: he and Elizabeth could barely stop talking to one another. Elizabeth was dating someone else, but she and Rory had a palpable chemistry. The two even got pulled in to be extras on the shoot, playing a couple strolling on a date in the park.
“It was a week-long job but every day I looked forward to seeing Elizabeth and talking to her,” Rory says. Elizabeth herself remembers, “The job felt like a great first date.”
After working together, Rory called Elizabeth and asked her out on a real date. Within two weeks, Elizabeth broke up with the guy she was dating and went out with Rory. The couple was inseparable afterwards.
They hit the romantic jackpot: they had both “chemistry and compatibility,” Rory said. They sparked together in an almost biochemical way, but they also held similar values and wanted the same lifestyle. And they were both ready to settle down.
They moved in together within a year, sharing a beach bungalow in the Los Angeles area, and began the process of building a life together. Marriage seemed to be the icing on an already beautiful cake.
Four years later, however, and the couple struggled. Rory segued into working in a production office as a line producer. It paid well and the work was steadier than his former freelance life, but he hated it. Elizabeth taught filmmaking at a community college, but seemed restless and unfulfilled.
The two also were conflicted about starting a family. Rory was eager to begin, but Elizabeth didn’t want to raise a child whose father would be absent much of the week. Yet who would be able to sustain their lifestyle if he didn’t work? Meanwhile Elizabeth wasn’t getting any younger, as Rory reminded her.
The dynamic between them grew increasingly strained, and the couple whose conversations were once “epic” and “scintillating” became silent and morose in each other’s presence. They were still struggling with their decision to start a family when Rory had his “one fine day moment,” as he called it.
“I realized maybe not having kids was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “That was the first time I realized, whoa, maybe I won’t be with Elizabeth for happily ever after.”
He stopped bringing up the topic of children, and strangely, Elizabeth seemed hurt by Rory’s silence. She withdrew further into herself. Both spent longer hours away from home at their jobs.
Rory wondered how the stalemate between them would break. And then one day, he discovered something that pushed them to the crisis point.
He came home late one night, to a dark house illuminated only with the lights of computer monitors. Elizabeth had gone to bed. Rory went around turning off the devices and glanced at Elizabeth’s computer monitor.
“I normally don’t snoop, but I happened to take a quick glance and noticed she had Facebook chat pulled up,” Rory says. “And I saw she was chatting with an ex-boyfriend of hers.”
It wasn’t innocuous — the two were clearly flirting with one another — but it also didn’t go further beyond words. Rory was a jumble of emotions: anger, relief, bewilderment, sadness.
The next morning, he confronted Elizabeth. Elizabeth denied nothing: she was in touch with her ex over the past few months over Facebook and then the phone. At first it was friendship, but there were definitely romantic feelings, she said. She wasn’t sure if there was anything more with her ex, but she knew one thing for sure: it threw what she called the “emotional poverty” of her marriage into sharp relief.
“I love you, but I’m not sure we’re in love with each other,” Elizabeth said. “And I’m not sure if it’s enough for us to last the rest of our lives.”
It was a sunny morning in California, and the scent of jasmine filled the air. Yet all Rory remembers from that moment was the churning feeling in his stomach. Was his marriage truly over? Was this the end of their relationship? Was there any hope left for him and his wife?
The disintegration of Rory and Elizabeth’s bond was a combination of both an age-old emotional pattern with a new-media twist. Marriage counseling lore often refers to a four- and then seven-year “itch” — a point in a monogamous life-long relationship where a couple drifts apart from one another.
Anthropologists, according to Scientific American, believe this is partly evolutionary — four years, they say, is enough time for a couple to guarantee the survival of a small child together — after four years, a mother and her extended family can take over the task of raising offspring without much help from the father. In the meantime, both partners can pursue a more diverse genetic lineage for their offspring.
Biochemistry also offers an explanation. The rush of feel-good hormones that bonds a couple together begins to fade after the early years of a relationship, according to the BBC.
Couples in the early stages of love and attachment stimulate the production of powerful bonding agents like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in one another. That ability begins to fade unless the couple consciously brings in new elements of excitement, novelty and depth. A couple must then lean not just on their physical chemistry, but their compatibility, as well as shared values, interests, lifestyles and families, to go the distance.
The burgeoning understanding of neuroscience, biochemistry and love also coincides with a new historic moment in the history of marriage. Marriage was once a strategic alliance between families, who traded sons and daughters like pawns to forward their interests. Later, marriage became a way to gain societal legitimacy and respect, as well improve economic and social prospects.
Now, however, many look upon marriage for more. Most people today want emotional fulfillment and yearn for authenticity, trust, truth, eroticism, affection and unconditional acceptance. According to the New York Times, these unions are called “self-expressive marriages,” as opposed to the former “institutional” and “companionate” models, and they demand more self-discovery and personal growth within the marriage. That’s a tall order for a spouse to meet. It’s one we can fulfill, however — though not without a lot of work.
Changing expectations of marriage mean that, for the most part, the quality of the marital bond is overall higher than in earlier years, according to the New York Times. The problem is that most people have no idea how much time, effort and energy these higher-quality bonds need — which leads to higher levels of dissatisfaction among couples having problems. As a result, there’s a growing gap between those who are made happy by marriage and those who report unhappy ones. If you’re happily married, you’re often very happily married — but if you’re not, you tend to be miserable.
Our giant-sized expectations of marriage also dovetail with a technological development — it’s now easier than ever to gratify our emotional and physical longings for love and intimacy through channels like social media.
Studies over the years have noted how social media enables cheating, but according to NPR, researchers also believe social media makes it easier to find emotional support — support that people once turned to their spouses for. Without this give-and-take, marriages rarely tend to grow in intimacy and emotion. Elizabeth had longings for romance and tenderness — and she went to Facebook and her ex to fulfill them.
“I used to think that whole ‘marriage is hard work’ thing would never apply to me and Elizabeth,” Rory says, his voice wistful. “We were so in sync and happy in the early years of our relationship.”
Now, the couple hit a pivotal fork in the road, and needed to decide if salvaging their relationship was worth the time, effort and emotional investment to repair it.
After a few weeks of tension, Rory and Elizabeth decided to go to marriage counseling. They attended both joint and individual sessions with their therapist. Elizabeth also agreed to stop all contact with her ex on Facebook; she realized she was conducting in an emotional affair, and she couldn’t assure Rory of her good intentions unless she stopped.
Rory wasn’t very optimistic about reconciliation. He wondered if Elizabeth was going through the motions, simply to assuage her conscience. He wondered about his own commitment.
“I was frankly in a fog,” he admits. “I was just rudderless, going through the motions as well, perhaps, just in a different way. I kept hoping the therapist would come in and fix everything — tell us what was wrong and how to fix it.”
They spent the first few sessions of traditional therapy politely airing out resentments and practicing trust and communication techniques. They gamely shared childhood memories and examined their parental relationships. Despite the psychological insights, they still found themselves “treading water,” as Elizabeth puts it, in terms of truly improving their connection with one another.
“I still felt the woman at my side sitting on the sofa with me was fundamentally a stranger,” Rory said. “And I know Elizabeth felt the same way about me.”
The dynamic frustrated the therapist, who pointed out a fundamental problem. “He asked us if we were in or out,” Elizabeth says. “We either needed to fully commit to reconciliation, or we needed to use the therapy time to come to terms with the end of the marriage and prepare us for the transition out of the relationship. Going through the motions — which is what we were doing — wasn’t going to help us, together or separately.”
The therapist also said both Rory and Elizabeth were passive bystanders in their own lives, not just in their marriage. This pattern of passivity would repeat itself in future relationships if they didn’t take full responsibility for their own lives and happiness. No marriage or relationship could replace being pro-active in their lives.
“The problem isn’t that you’re incompatible,” the therapist told them. “It’s that neither of you are willing to participate fully in your own lives and keep hoping the other will solve your larger problems.”
It was tough talk. But both Rory and Elizabeth realized their counselor was right. The veneer of careful civility finally came loose. Rory expressed his frustration about his job and how Elizabeth seemed ungrateful for how he kept them financially afloat in an expensive region. Elizabeth let loose a torrent of frustration at everything from their lackluster sex life to how all the romance had left their marriage and she felt more like a sounding board/therapist than a wife and lover — and while he expected her to listen to him, he was never a good listener for her own issues.
“It was difficult to hear, and yes, it made for some really uncomfortable moments,” Rory says. “But it also felt liberating. For the first time in years it felt like we were seeing the real Rory and Elizabeth.”
They had to work through defensiveness and anger, and at times both left the counseling wondering if saving the marriage was worth the pain, agony and confrontation. But at the same time, both felt finally that they had hit “something real,” as Rory calls it.
It was a deep process that Rory likens to “psychic surgery,” but it also had some lighter moments. One of Elizabeth’s chief complaints was that they didn’t have fun together as a couple anymore, and Rory realized that he too felt the same way. The therapist suggested it was a common point they could both work on together to solve. At first Rory and Elizabeth were skeptical — working at “fun” seemed ironic — but both agreed to try.
Working at “fun” turned into a key point of resolution in the process of salvaging their marriage. One of the ways to keep a long-term relationship fresh is to inject sources of novelty and adventure into it. That means trying out new activities together, taking on new challenges as a couple.
Rory and Elizabeth carved out time to try pursuits they meant to explore until the hard work of life got in the way — snowboarding, for instance, gave both an opportunity to learn together, and injected a new energy into their conversation. And the sense of physical adventure seemed to translate into their lives, as both began pursuing new work opportunities.
Fun also meant smaller, thoughtful gestures. “I thought back to the early days of our relationship, and there was definitely more of a sense of play and laughter between me and Elizabeth,” Rory remembers. How could he restore that without seeming hokey and fake? Both he and Elizabeth were allergic to the therapist’s suggestions, like “Go see funny movies together.”
Then, Rory stumbled upon a solution. One of Elizabeth’s most telling comments came from the fact that Rory’s social media presence was often funnier with his friends online than he was with her in person — he often posted quirky articles and stories up in Facebook and made wry comments on other people’s posts. Rory realized Elizabeth’s accusation was true.
“I was surprised she even noticed or cared,” Rory said, “But she did. She felt taken for granted, like I saved my good side for my friends.”
So he began to post more funny items on her profile and began e-mailing her what he read during the day. Soon she began doing the same. Viral videos of baby animals, SNL videos and other offbeat material bloomed between them. The online humor often became the source of inside jokes for weeks in real life.
Even their once perfunctory texts seemed warmer and funnier now. “Elizabeth does a lot of her social media over her phone, so she’d often reply to my stuff with just emoji if she was too busy,” Rory said. “That led to me writing her back in just emoji,” using elaborate combination to communicate his meanings.
“If all else failed, I’d just end everything with that weird poop emoji,” Rory said. “That made her laugh out loud a lot. And that felt like a huge milestone for us. It made me feel good to make her laugh again.”
Of course, it takes a lot more than emoji to save a marriage. Rory and Elizabeth’s example shows that while compatibility and chemistry are important elements in bringing and keeping people together, our new expectations of marriage need innovative, creative approaches. If we truly want long-term relationships that endure, it requires us also to constantly grow and learn as people in a way that perhaps previous generations didn’t need to.
Rory and Elizabeth still have some ways to go until their relationship feels fully healed, according to both. They’re both addressing aspects of their lives outside their marriage, such as work, but “at least we’ve remembered we’re on each other’s team,” Rory says.
True to a new-model self-expressive marriage, they now both see one another as helpmates for each other’s growth — neither can do the hard work of personal growth for the other, but they can facilitate and support whenever they can.
“The old model of psychoanalyzing each other’s separate psychology didn’t work, nor did all the trust and communication exercises on their own,” Rory says. “They helped, but we ultimately both of us had to become better people. Smarter, with more self-knowledge and self-responsibility and acceptance for the other person. And of course, still fun.”
The fun element for Rory and Elizabeth came with a creative use of social media and mobile, which have often been accused of eroding relationships. For the couple, though, it proved a valuable element in their reconciliation.
“Don’t ever underestimate the role that humor and fun have in a relationship, or in life,” Rory says. “The smallest things can make a big impact.”
Couples often tend to neglect the small courtesies and efforts as they stay together longer, but these still go a long way in making deposits in the “emotional bank account” of relationships.
And through it all, they now remember how essential it is they have fun with one another.
“I know that’s really basic and silly-sounding, but it’s so fundamental in a marriage,” Rory says. “You don’t just take vows to love and honor in sickness and health, though that’s important, especially when life gets tough, as it will. You also take unspoken vows to enjoy one another’s company, to give each other room to be ourselves and make each other smile. That’s how you got together in the first place, right?” ♦