Laura Munson had the perfect life. Or at least she thought she had. She was happily married and lived with her husband and two kids aged 12 and 8 in a farmhouse set in 20 acres of land in Montana. They had dogs and horses and lots of fun, and as far as Laura was concerned, they were all on course for happily ever after.
Then, out of the blue, after twenty years of marriage, her husband turned to her and said “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”
When someone you have shared a life with for two decades hits you with a statement as unarguable as “I don’t love you”, the usual response is a plethora of four letter words and some decent legal advice, but Laura simply refused to accept what her husband had said. “I don’t buy it” she replied, and she meant it too.
She felt hurt, sure, but she also recognised that her husband was in trouble. “Our careers had really defined our values. He had always been the breadwinner but his career had collapsed and he was struggling to deal with that. His self esteem was in pieces and he felt he was a failure.”
Laura knew a thing or two about failure herself. After years of writing unsuccessful novels, her first real shot at a book deal had ended up falling apart and she had gone into therapy to help repair her own self worth.
“I’d finally learned that it is not a job, or money, or a book deal or a spouse, that brings happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. I had made a conscious decision to take responsibility for my own happiness and not allow things that were beyond my control to cause me pain,but my husband hadn’t learned any of that stuff.” And besides, laughs Laura “If I had screamed and wailed and said Oh My Gawd, he’s having an affair and some other woman is going to raise my kids and all that bullshit, I mean even if it was true what could I do about it? I loved him so much that I had to let him go because I knew he needed to work things out for himself.”
She believed that if she engaged in her husband’s drama she would simply be giving him the opportunity to turn ‘his’ personal problems into ‘their’ marital breakdown and she wasn’t prepared to let that happen. “I think he expected drama – he wanted it. When we are pointing fingers we are in a place of blame and in victim hood it is easier. It means you don’t have to take responsibility and you get to be right. I think if I had freaked out he could have justified leaving.”
Instead, Laura offered him their life savings and said “Go trekking in Nepal. Build a yurt in the back meadow. Turn the garage studio into a man-cave. Get that drum set you’ve always wanted. Anything but hurting the children and me with a reckless move like the one you’re talking about.”
Her refusal to engage made her husband even meaner. “I don’t like what you’ve become” he hissed. He was convinced that her refusal to respond to the situation was a way of either turning the kids against him or pressuring him into doing therapy. But she was convinced that the problem was his, not hers, and despite the fact that she was often in private turmoil, she sustained her Zen like calm and began writing the diary that would eventually turn in to her best selling book ‘This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…: A Season of Unlikely Happiness’.
Laura’s book rapidly became a publishing phenomenon in the US, and it has just been released by Piatkus in the UK. What strikes most people who read it is Laura’s capacity to remain emotionally detached from situations that would cause most people to tear their hair out. Laura simply compares her reaction to the way a parent responds to a child’s tantrum.“A child gets mad and tries to hit his mother. But the mother doesn’t hit back, lecture or punish. Instead, she ducks. Then she tries to go about her business as if the tantrum isn’t happening. She doesn’t “reward” the tantrum. She simply doesn’t take the tantrum personally because, after all, it’s not about her.”
Laura’s husband didn’t move out, but he did stop coming home after work and when he was in the house he was distant. He even failed to wish Laura “Happy Birthday” Still, instead of issuing ultimatums, yelling, crying or begging, Laura continued to entertain the kids, to set the table for four, and when he wanted it, she also continued to have sex with her husband.
Laura has not spoken about this aspect of her marital crisis before, largely because some US critics accused her of being a doormat and the revelation that the relationship continued to be sexual might easily have been misinterpreted. She says “I understand the irony of two people who are having an impossible time connecting emotionally and verbally yet they can still connect physically. It’s not like we were having a whole lot of sex, but it happened, and it did make me feel confused. I remember one time I said to him “that is so mixed-messagy” and yet we still ended up having sex.”
Sex in the middle of a marital crisis is indeed ‘mixed-messagy’, but when people feel vulnerable and scared about the future, they look for comfort wherever they can find it. That’s why so many affairs are coincident with a marital crisis.
Laura recognises that “most women in my situation would probably have said I’m not going anywhere near you”, but it is also true that had she shut the door on her husband physically, she might, simultaneously, have shut the door on the possibility of reconciliation. Though it is often confusing at the time, couples who manage to sustain some form of physical intimacy through a marital crisis are more likely to knit their failing relationship back together again.
Laura suggests that she is “able to enjoy the physical connection without it having to mean something emotionally. We are all so complex but I think I can compartmentalise in my brain. Maybe it is because I am curious about the human condition.
You know the saying ‘writers will steal the coppers off your dead mother’s eyes?’ I guess for me, everything is potential material. I think ‘what is it like to have this experience?’ or ‘so this is what it feels like when you have sex in a crisis’. It was a different kind of sex. It wasn’t like, sex to make a baby, or sex when you are 20 or sex when you are in your 80’s or even make up sex. It was ‘maybe this is the last time I will ever have sex with this person’ sex.”
Though she never said anything to her husband, privately Laura gave him a six-month window in which to sort himself out. It only took four, largely because his sister was diagnosed with cancer.
“He went to look after her and when he came back he was a changed man. He had been telling himself that he was desperate and that he wanted to run away from his life with us but then he chaperoned his sister to Chicago to participate in clinical trials and he got to really see what it really feels like to lose your life. He woke up and he realised he needed to stop paying attention to media stories telling him that he could only consider himself a success if earned this or had a woman like that.”
Laura says her marriage is still “a work in progress” but her husband has set up a new green building business and thanks to the success of her memoir, Laura is now being taken seriously as a novelist. The experience has been a huge learning curve and the press attention has sometimes felt a bit overwhelming. She says “ I read one news paper article with the headline “ How to save a marriage by doing nothing” And that’s really inaccurate because I did a lot. I worked really hard to stay focused on being responsible to, and for, myself. Let me tell you if it was nothing, it felt like a whole lot of nothing.”
Laura’s daughter and son have obviously registered what has happened and she recognises that they have developed certain “playground politics” as a result. They have learned that “emotions are always your choice, and no one can make you feel guilty, or bad, or unworthy.”
Any kid who genuinely understands those concepts has nothing to fear. Mind you, I suspect any kid with the inimitable Laura Munson as a mother probably has very little to fear anyway.