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March 30, 2012

The Marriage Critique

How a therapist's unconventional advice changed one woman's marriage.

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Photo Credit: Laura Lettinsky/Gallery Stock

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"You are never allowed to criticize Aaron again!" Dr. W demanded.

"Very funny," I said, laughing at this silly mandate from the male couples therapist whom I saw with Aaron, my new husband. How sexist, I thought.

But Dr. W was serious. Worse, he turned out to be right.

As a 35-year-old workaholic journalist and book critic, I depended on my deft denunciations and scathing honesty for my success. I didn't realize that what made me good at my work was wounding the man I adored.

I fell for Aaron, a curly-haired TV/film writer, for his looks; sweetness; and brilliant, creative brain. Yet after we'd pooled every cent and borrowed to buy a co-op, I started knocking him for being disorganized. A compulsive neatnik, I'd scan the piles of books, comics, DVDs, and scripts on the floor of his den (aka The Bat Cave) and snap, "You're such a slob. When are you going to clean up this mess?" I was eternally early; he never met a deadline he couldn't miss. When he'd come home at night, I'd ask, "Have you ever paid rent on time once in your life?"

He'd shut the door and turn on his computer. I'd read in the living room until midnight, feeling lonely. I couldn't see how my big mouth was marring my marriage. I was sure being neat and organized and paying bills punctually was the correct way to avoid late fees and improve our credit.

"You're right," Dr. W conceded. "But you can be very right and very alone."

Shockingly, Dr. W then said that it was OK for Aaron to criticize me. That was because growing up with three sardonic kid brothers, I'd become immune to sarcasm. Insults rolled right off me. If Aaron called me a bitch, I'd flip him the finger, barely noticing. Yet if he ordered French fries when I was dieting, I'd burst into tears. Thus, Dr. W insisted, Aaron had to shun junk food in front of me while I stopped trash-talking him. The rules didn't have to be fair or equal to be effective.

Dr. W was happily married, and Aaron trusted him. So I agreed to stop slamming my husband. Instead, I'd say something sweet the next night. It seemed like a stupid, phony exercise. When he walked in, I reluctantly mumbled, "Nice shirt you have on."

Aaron looked at his button-down, then at me. "Really? You like it?"

I nodded. "You look good in green."

"Thanks." He smiled. "Remember you got me a light-green Gap shirt? I'll wear it tomorrow."

I swear he stood up straighter and pumped his shoulders proudly. "Want to watch Letterman?" he asked. I did. Snuggling on the couch led to steaming up the bedroom.

To keep getting closer, I kept watching my words. Not that I got a lobotomy. If Aaron's collections became chaotic, I joked, "Uh-oh, your piles are sprouting other piles." To avoid monthly anxiety, I self-deprecatingly asked, "Since I'm OCD about being early, mind if I pay bills from our joint account?" (He didn't.) OK, so when I saw his VHS tapes erupting everywhere, I stashed them on a shelf while he was out, swearing to myself. When he flipped out, calling me "an anal neat-freak," I was about to retaliate with "psycho hoarder." Then I remembered how my carps chipped away at Aaron's feelings — and the affection I wanted. I held my acid tongue and said, "You're lucky you're cute." He winked.

Recently celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary, I thought of how toning down my gripes had begun as a way to please and placate him. But whom did it benefit most when my mate felt bigger and stronger? Yes, Aaron spent years working on a network TV drama, enabling us to renovate our dream home and office. But the best surprise was the enhancement of my career: Since marrying, I've published several memoirs and two novels — all with a funny, affectionate male hero.

"You couldn't sell a book until you had a loving man in your life and your plots," my shrink annoyingly said. As a loudmouth, raging feminist who is pro-men and marriage, I learned that a little less raging got me a lot more love.


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