Tolstoy was wrong.
He penned one of the greatest opening lines in literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
But the unhappy families I know look a lot alike.
I was recently in an office building waiting for an appointment, alongside a couple who was waiting for their own appointment–for marriage counseling. I was reading my book when a man walked in, talking loudly on his cell phone. His wife comes in a few minutes later; he doesn’t look up. He finishes his call; she immediately says “Who was that? Was it about the check? Did you send the check??”
He nods. And she flips out: “You’re such an idiot. You were supposed to send it last week. You always botch these things. I wish you’d answer me!” And all the while he’s sinking lower in his chair. Not answering. But how are you supposed to answer that?
I’m trying to mind my own business, but it’s impossible to ignore a conversation like that unfolding 10 feet from your face. Their bickering has my skin crawling. If their conversation is this painful for a stranger to listen to, how painful is it to actually be in the relationship?
I’m glad they’re at marriage counseling. I hope this is their first appointment. I wonder what their counselor will say.
I know what John Gottman would say: this is a typical example of nasty marital communication. The conversation begins with a harsh startup–almost always from the wife. (Check.) Contempt is evident. (Check.) Both sides are defensive. (Check.) And the husband stonewalls. (Check.)
I marvel at the sameness of their unhappiness. It looks like everybody else’s.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only unhappy couple I’ve seen this year. Friends and neighbors are fighting, despairing and divorcing over the same old stuff. I used to regard all those doomsday statistics with a skeptical eye, showing what seemed to be astronomically high percentages of couples dealing with credit card debt, internet p*rn addictions, infidelity, workaholism, and contempt.
But this year I’ve known a lot of those couples. I’ve been stunned at the number of my own acquaintances who are dealing with the same. old. stuff. Credit card debt. Gambling addictions. P*rnography. And terrible marital communication. Their relationships aren’t falling apart in unique ways; these couples are unhappy in the same ways everybody else is.
And it’s the sameness of their unhappiness that surprises me. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, one of my favorite quotes on happiness testifies to the truth of my observations.
Now that is a quote worth pinning!
I’ll hope for the best and say a prayer for that couple in the waiting room–and for the oh-so-many other couples I know who are unhappy because of the same old stuff–that they can find their way back to the new, marvelous, intoxicating Real Good.