Case study #2 for Ring EXchange book - Marilyn

Marilyn has been married four times.  In her late 60s, she has a Ph.D., teaches writing classes and the occasional management seminar.  She and her current husband are now retired and blending their responsibilities for children and grandchildren with community activities and interests.  She comments about her current marriage, "Got it right this time!"

Marilyn, who grew up in a rural area of upstate New Hampshire, was the eldest of two children who lived with happily married parents.  The family was active in church and had cousins and friends who lived nearby.  She comments, "I had a very happy childhood.  We had a comfortable, upper-middle-class  lifestyle with lots of freedom, some responsibilities, and many activities outside of school.  We did change schools often because of the redistricting that went on, but we stayed in the same house."

As for when Marilyn's first boyfriend appeared on the scene, she recalls, "That was in the fifth grade. I actually had several proposals from boys I walked to grade school with. I was quite impressed with that! Dating, and my first serious romantic relationship, came in junior high." 

Marilyn was engaged for the first time at age 19, and married at 20 -- interestingly enough, she was one of the last people in her high school class to marry.  At the time, the qualities she was looking for in a marriage partner were:  ethnic, religious, and educational similarity, attractive, common interests.  But at 19, she had a pretty vague idea of what an "ideal marriage" might be -- equal partners, mutual support, lots of friends, activities we could do together.

Her first marriage lasted 18 years and, as Marilyn remarks, "I spent years and years trying to make that marriage work.  So I experienced a lot of guilt feelings about the fact that I was unhappy.  Basically, my first husband was a nice, responsible man.  In fact, we're still friends, and the kids love him.  But he's a scientist and not in touch with ordinary reality.  I was often lonely, and the loneliness led to my fooling around.  But then I would feel so guilty after doing that, I knew I would have to leave the marriage in order to be able to live with myself from a moral point of view."

Marilyn continues, "After my first divorce, I couldn't wait to get into a more positive relationship.   In hindsight, what happened was that I rushed into a second marriage, with someone I thought would be fun.  It turned out that he was an alcoholic, and the alcoholism ultimately took his life when he was just 48.  We had been married for 14 years.  Before he died, he really did a lot of damage -- to me, to the kids, and to our budget."

After her second marriage ended with the death of her husband, Marilyn never said to herself, "I'll never remarry."  Instead, she just vowed to do better next time.  "Now I was very sure about what I didn't want: addicts, and absent-minded, physically absent scientists.  What I did want was a good companion, a real partner."

"Shortly after my second husband died," Marilyn goes on, "I met a widower who worked as a manager for one of my client companies.  He was bright, attractive, ethical, and interested.  We dated for a few months and then had a small family wedding.  It was 1995; I was 53."

Relating a shocking turn of events, Marilyn says, "We left for our honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas, and had a magical five days before my new husband died of a massive heart attack."

After that completely unforeseen event, Marilyn was in shock for a while.  When she decided she was ready to date again, she knew that her goal was still to find a life companion and partner, but preferably a healthy one.  She dated about eight men before becoming involved with the man who is her current husband.  They married in 1997.

Marilyn now has this picture of what comprises an "ideal marriage":  "For me, an ideal marriage means putting your partner's interests above your own, at least part of the time; being with each other's friends and family; taking a lively interest in each other's health and happiness; building memories together; planning a future together; and working together for the community, the church, and the environment.  The list of attributes I used to have for an ideal husband have evolved into some non-negotiables and a lot of negotiables that make up the ideal marriage."

Marilyn and her current husband have an activity that they call "earning martyr points"  -- for engaging in, or tolerating, any activity one partner dislikes but the other partner likes.  This is not a formal process with scorekeeping and figuring out how much a certain "sacrifice" is worth, but just an opportunity to become more aware of the other partner's likes and dislikes.  The martyr points are now more of a joke, used to ease tension when one partner is making an unreasonable request of the other.  Sometimes one partner will do an activity alone or with friends, if the other one really does not want to participate. The couple also makes an effort to find activities, such as tai chi, that both of them enjoy.

"And," she adds meaningfully," this is the magic element to an ideal marriage: Give each other a lot of space and trust."