Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Secret to Staying Married for Sixty Years

My Grandpa Don was an alcoholic.  When he died last fall, he had been sober for 55 years and five months.  At the time, he had been sober longer than any other alcoholic in the state of Minnesota.  The Gopher State Roundup is an annual state-wide Alcoholics Anonymous conference in Minnesota.  The last time I went to the roundup, for the 50th anniversary of Grandpa’s last drink, his wife, my Grandma Shirley, was just months away from succumbing to liver failure.  The cause of my Grandma Shirley’s death was ironic because, as a good Mormon girl, she never drank.  My Grandpa Don used to joke that she took co-dependence a bit too far...after all, he was the alcoholic.  This is them:

At the count-down meeting at the Gopher State Roundup they asked all of the alcoholics to stand up.  Then, starting at just a day, and then a week, and then months, and years, and decades, they asked those who had been sober for longer than that amount of time to stay standing.  When it was time to stand up, my Grandpa asked my Grandma Shirley to stand with him.  She stood up from her wheel chair, depending on him to hold her up, beside him until, out of the thousands of alcoholics, there was only a one other person still standing.  Tears filled their eyes and mine as they stood together, him recognizing and displaying how integral she had been in his sobriety.   Beneath the thunderous applause, he leaned over to my Grandma and whispered, "I'm going to out live that son of a bitch."  He did.  Some of the young guys in his AA group used to ask him what the secret was for lasting so long in the program.  His answer was simple: “Don’t drink and don’t die.” 

Craig’s grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Terrill have been married for 62 years and 3 days.   This is them:

This year, Craig and I were in Indiana with them for their anniversary.  It got me thinking about what it takes to stay married for that long.  I suppose that the secret to a long marriage is a bit like sobriety -- don’t get divorced and don’t die.  

Sixty-two years probably seems like forever for those who are in unhappy marriages...or at unhappy times within their marriages.  Right now, sixty-two years doesn’t seem like long enough to spend with Craig.  Sometimes I wish that I would’ve met him sooner...or that we would’ve married sooner.  We’ve only been married for five years.  Those years flew by.  It’s hard to think that after just 11 more five-year segments we will have been married for sixty years and we will both be almost ninety-years-old.  Our daughters will likely have had children and those children will have had their own children.  I want to have a long marriage like his grandparents and I want our children and our grandchildren to be inspired by our love, by our dedication to each other, and by our dedication to the sanctity of marriage. 
But marriage, like sobriety, isn’t always easy.  If it was, then we wouldn’t need divorce lawyers (or a program like AA).  Sometimes marriages feel like they are surviving one day at a time.  Life happens, and life can be painful.  Inevitably, if we live long enough, we will experience loss -- a lot of loss.  We will lose our youth, opportunities, jobs, and loved ones.  Each loss will take a bit of our selves with it.  Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, loss is tough.  Each time we experience loss, we are forced to re-evaluate who we are, what is important, and how we will move forward.  Recovering from a loss can also be detrimental to relationships...and loss is only one thing in life that can make marriages that start happy move to a place of unhappiness.
In fact, statistics show that the happiest moment in most marriages is the wedding day.  A week or so after we are married (when the honeymoon is over) we start a steady decline into unhappiness that peaks at around seven years (commonly called the seven-year-itch).  It’s not surprising, is it?  By about seven years, couples typically have a couple of kids and their careers are into full swing.  Instead of turning toward each other, couples typically neglect their relationship and they begin to grow apart.  
In love, we have a great potential to hurt others and to be hurt.  Yet still, we choose love.  In the movie Shadow Lands, C.S. Lewis asked "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."
And so, like C.S. Lewis we have to ask ourselves, is loving worth it?   Is sticking it out in a marriage that seems unhappy worth it? 
My answer is YES.  Love is worth it and marriage is worth the investment.  Here’s the good news.  After the seven year peak of unhappiness in most American marriages, happiness levels start to increase again.  At about twenty years of marriage, a typical couple will finally get back to the level of happiness that they felt the day they got married*.  I understand that twenty years seems like a long time to wait for the happiness to return.  It doesn’t have to be a love-less time!  But, even if we wait twenty years (until our kiddos are typically out of the house and on their own) for our happiness to return, if we live long lives like Grandpa and Grandma Terrill, then we have forty-two or more years to live in love together.  
Craig and I may only be five years into our marriage, but we have high hopes for the future:  We hope that we stand up together like my Grandpa Don and Grandma Shirley did at the Gopher State Roundup, not for fifty years of sobriety, but for fifty years of a marriage spent helping each other through the ups and downs of life...and we hope in sixty years, that we, like Grandpa and Grandma Terrill, sit with our grandchildren on our anniversary, inspiring them to love each other for a lifetime.
*A note to those of you who may be contemplating aren’t moving yourself closer to a happy marriage.  If you end your marriage, you start over from day one of a marriage.  Sure, the first week will be great but, after that, you have twenty more years before you get there again.  Unless you are dealing with abuse or you and your children are in danger, Stick it out.  Choose to stay married.  And, if you’re going to stay together, then choose to see the best in each other.  You’ll be on your way to twenty-years in no time. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Guess Who: Identity Issues

This weekend I am presenting a paper at an academic conference about identity.  The formal title is, Finding Myself in the NFL: An Autoethnographic Exploration of a Divided Self.  In non-academic terms that just means that it’s about the identity conflicts that I experienced when I was a graduate student in Florida while Craig was playing for the Seahawks in Seattle.  

Preparing for my presentation has sent my mind wandering and wondering about who I was then, how it changed me, and how I see myself today.

How do our relationships affect how we feel about ourselves, how others see us, and even who we become?

Until I met Craig, my main identity was that of an academic.  I was in my first year of graduate school with at least four more in front of me.  I never cared whether or not my shoes matched my outfit, only if I was prepared for that week’s classes.  I wasn’t focused on pleasing a man, but I was happy to entertain the idea of a man who could find a way to fit into the life I’d established for myself.

In December of my first year of graduate school, I went out to dinner with Craig and fell passionately in love with him.  Three months later he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.  That evening, we were in his bedroom in Indiana discussing the future of our relationship. 

“I still have four years of school in Tampa and it’s my dream to teach, to write, to be a scholar.”

“I know that – and I love your dream. Everything will work out,” he told me, “I promise.” I didn’t believe him.

“I believe in your dream too,” I told Craig, “and I will support your dream wherever it takes you,” I promised him.  As soon as I did, I wondered if I would be able to honor that promise. Can I hold on to my career aspirations, the aspirations that have become so ingrained in who I believe myself to be? Do I even want to be the girlfriend of an NFL player?

The following week, I scheduled an appointment with my academic advisor to talk through my dilemma.  He listened patiently as I described the scenario and weighed the pros and cons. 

“Will you kill me if I go to Seattle?”

“I wouldn’t kill you, but you might be disappointed. Follow your heart, but don’t lose your head.”  

A few weeks later I chose love over logic and made the decision to move to Seattle, telling myself that I would still be an academic, focusing on studying NFL relationships.  Once I’d made the decision to move with Craig, I was thrust from the comforts of a predictable graduate school life into the unknown and unfamiliar world of the NFL.  

My first real friend in the NFL was Melissa. Her husband, Grant, played on the defensive line with Craig. He was a veteran starter and took Craig under his wing.  About a year into our marriage, we were all together playing bocce ball. We played in teams as couples.  After we won, Grant said “Team Wistrom will beat you next time,” as he and Melissa gave each other a high-five. 

Grant moved closer to Craig and asked, “Are you team Terrill or team Binns- Terrill? 

“We’re just team Binns today,” I teased. “We take turns using our last names.” Melissa looked at me as if she felt sorry for Craig. 

“Remember what I told you? They need to feel like men. You really need to change your name.” 

I was confused. My husband, a professional football player, needs me to change my name to help build his masculinity? Who feels more like a man than an NFL football player?  

Looking back, Melissa was probably just passing along what she had learned from her time in the NFL: individual identity was not valued.  To fit in as a “good wife,” I would need to sacrifice my personal desires and identity for the betterment of my husband. 

I was being instructed that day that the correct response in the world of NFL wives was for me to change my last name and to keep my mouth shut to protect my husband’s masculine status among his teammates.  I saw Melissa seeing me as a sub-par wife.  By keeping my last name, it was clear that in the world of the NFL I did not measure up.

Before graduate school, I hadn’t even considered keeping my last name when I got married.  But nearly every female professor in our department had kept her last names.  It seemed like the thing that educated women should do.  Looking back, my resistance to change my name was likely a combination of my academic socialization and a response to my feelings of invisibility (compared to my husband’s hyper-visibility) as an NFL wife.

The values of the NFL and Academia are different.  The progressive politics of academia encouraged me to think like a feminist: don’t submit to a man, don’t dress up for a man, keep your own identity, your dreams are just as important as his. The NFL valued women who were feminine: Let your man feel that he is in control, do everything you can to make his life comfortable, his job and health are most important, looking good for him and submitting to him will help keep him faithful.  

As I spent more time in the NFL, I became more like the other NFL wives I knew.  In fact, after having our first daughter, I changed my last name from “Binns” to a hyphenated “Binns- Terrill”.  I told myself that it was for a more evident shared identity with my daughter.  Before having our second daughter, I changed my name “for insurance purposes” to Rachel Terrill.  But, three months after she was born, when I walked across the stage to commemorate earning my Ph.D., they announced my name as Rachel Binns Terrill.  

Perhaps I have settled on a compromise somewhere between what I learned I should be as an academic and what I should be as an NFL wife. My time spent in both worlds strongly shaped who I am, what I believe, and who I want to be.   

After spending years unable to identify fully as an academic or an NFL wife, I now feel that both are a part of who I’ve become. Now, I’m no longer an NFL wife and I’m no longer a graduate student.  But my time spent navigating both identities helped met to feel confident in who I am today... A future professor, Journey and Jocelyn’s mom, Craig’s wife... Rachel Binns Terrill, Ph.D.

After writing this blog, I can’t help but wonder...are we as Americans too shifty with our identities?  Perhaps the lack of a strong cultural identity has left us susceptible to this shifty-identity syndrome?  

Has your relationship changed how you see yourself?  By allowing our identities to be shaped by others, do we lose parts of ourselves?  Do we, perhaps, lose the very parts of ourselves that our spouses first fell in love with?  Could this be why so many marriages fail in America?  

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Crazy in Love


Rachel: I'm crazy in love with that possible after just one week? 

Friend's Mom: Both are possible
Rachel: Both of what?
Friend's Mom: You could be in love, but more likely you are just crazy.  It's not your fault -- it's just what happens sometimes at the beginning of relationships.
Rachel: How can I tell if it's true love and not just crazy love?
Friend's Mom: Just wait.

I first fell in love with the idea of love when I was about fifteen years old. I saw a boy. He was cute. He seemed smart. He had brown hair, drove a cool car, and he was tall -- all things that were on my "must have" list.  I couldn't stop thinking about him.  My mind raced.  I doodled my first name with his last name. I couldn't focus on anything else.  I felt like I had OCD. He must be the one, I reasoned....because I can't get him out of my mind!  
A couple of months passed and I realized that the boy probably only seemed smart because we didn't share any classes together.  He was tall, but my fifteen year old mind was sure that he'd wasted his inherited height by never learning to play basketball.  He was definitely not the one.
Then it happened again. And again. And again. Met a boy. Became "crazy" for a boy. Then the feelings faded, I wasn't crazy for them anymore, and I was sure that the relationships weren't meant to be.
It wasn't until I met with Brant Burleson, one of my professors at Purdue University, that I was introduced to the formal name for the craziness I experienced at the beginning of relationships -- it was LIMERENCE!  
"Why do you want to go to graduate school," Brant asked me.  "What do you want to learn?"
 I closed my eyes for a moment, wondering how he might react to the truth about what I yearned to know.  Feeling crazy in love didn't seem very academic, after all.  
"I want to study love", I told him -- "the crazy love that makes relationships feel meant to be".  He listened intently, and smiled a knowing smile.  A few days later, I received  a book in the mail from him -- Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, by Dorothy Tennov.  
It turns out that the chemical reaction in our brains when we're falling in love (or when we experience unrequited love) is exactly like the chemical reaction in the brains of those who suffer from obsessive disorders or OCD.  No wonder I felt crazy -- I was!  
A few years and a few heartbreaks later, I was in my first year of graduate school studying love.  One of my classmates from Purdue (Craig Terrill) was in town to play in The Capital One Bowl.  We met for dinner and something clicked.  How had I never realized it before?  He was cute. He was smart. He was tall -- and he even had a decent jump shot, although he preferred to play football.  He was a poet. He was a singer -- and he sang love songs for me. I was smitten. Had I learned nothing!?
After that dinner, I started making a list of all of the things that I loved about Craig.  I couldn't stop. During my graduate school classes, I couldn't make out the words my professors were saying because I couldn't stop thinking about Craig.  Within four days, I had a list of over four hundred things I loved about him. I was obsessed -- and I loved it. I had no idea if he felt the same way, but I was sure that I wanted to be with him forever.  It was the best and worst feeling in the world.  Does he like me too?  Is he thinking of me? What if he doesn't feel the same way?  Am I crazy or is he the one, I wondered.

Rachel: How long do I need to wait until I know if it's really love?
Friend's Mom: Just until the feeling that you are calling love starts to fade.
Rachel: That's when I typically leave relationships.
Friend's Mom: Then you've left before the best part had a chance to begin.
Eight years later, still a bit crazy for Craig, I realize that she and Brant were right.  Before Craig, I'd never made it more than a year in a relationship without a breakup.  Looking back, I realize that I bailed when the limerence ended. In retrospect, I'd never given love a chance to grow. Love can only begin when limerence ends.  The obsession fades and we can more clearly see the reality of the person we're with.  
I realize now that Craig's jump shot isn't as great as I thought it was...but it's getting better as he spends time shooting outside while playing with our daughters.  Other things that I thought were "perfect" about him I realize now aren't perfect, but that's okay.  In fact, I'm glad he isn't perfect because I'm not either, and living with someone who really was perfect would be miserable for someone as flawed as I am.  We appreciate and love each other both despite and for our imperfections and weaknesses.  It gives us a chance to need each other.
The limerence that we once felt for each other occasionally resurfaces, mostly as romantic passion that allows us to see each other through the eyes of infatuation and perfection from early in our relationship.  It's fun and exciting, but it would be exhausting to live in that state of obsession all the time and it wouldn't be conducive to real life.  We'd be unable to focus on other things like school, parenting, and finances.  We'd also be unable to grow toward each other because we'd be too consumed with our own infatuation and the fear of losing our love.
I recently read that scientists are working on a drug to help combat limerence.  I was saddened by the idea and I hope it doesn't get passed.  Sure, limerence can be tough while you're in it, but it's also exciting, passionate, and the basis for most marriages in America.  It may be an immature reason to get married, but it's an exciting way to start a relationship.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sex: What is it good for?

I read a wonderful blog this morning that a friend of mine wrote about navigating the issue of sex after divorce (  I don't know what I would do in her situation.  Craig and I have been married for six years and the thought of being back in the dating world again (as much as I loved it when I was there) frightens me.  I've come to depend on Craig for so much in life that, if I had to date again, I would want him beside me helping to guide my dating decisions.  That's just silly, I know.  I hope that if I ever had to date again, to navigate love and life without Craig, I would depend less on my emotional reactions and more on what I have learned about the empirical facts about love.  

I first fell in love with love because of the emotional whirlwind that it inspired within me, the "just meant to be" feeling of new relationships, and the thought of keeping that love alive forever and ever.  I was so in love with the idea of love that I dedicated my academic life to studying it.  I wanted to investigate: What is love?  What brings us together and what keeps us together?  

I learned that what brings us together has VERY LITTLE to do with what keeps us together...and that the sexual attraction that can pull us toward a potential lover really is better if not realized before you make a decision to spend your whole life loving that person.

When a woman has an orgasm, a chemical (oxytocin) is released in her brain.  It's an AWESOME chemical that provides an AWESOME feeling of attachment.  In fact, it's the same chemical that is released when a mother nurses her child.  It makes sense -- mothers should bond with their children (and sometimes we need help feeling a bond with the small cryer that keeps us up all night) and women should bond with their partners, provided that they already know that the person is worth being attached to...

If we have sex before we're sure that we're with the right person...I mean really sure, as in our likes and lives match up in a way that makes sense to spend every day together...then the oxytocin that is released during orgasm can make us feel attached to guys who may or may not be right for us.  With that attachment, we are blinded to the reality of the situation. 

Unfortunately, the same thing doesn't necessarily happen for men. We can't make men loves us, or even feel more attached to us, by having sex with them.  Men, if you are reading this, don't get too excited.  You can't have sex before marriage without consequences either.  There are downsides for you too.  For each sexual experience a man has before he is with his wife, he will have a reduced level of attraction to and satisfaction with subsequent partners...including his future wife.  Every sexual experience will be compared to his first orgasmic experience (or at least his first orgasmic experience with someone other than himself). His brain locks in his first sexual experience as what "feels good" and what he should think of as sexually attractive.  Sex for him can still be good in the future, but it will never compare to the experience he had with his first partner.  That doesn't mean that a man who has sex before he meets his wife is doomed, but each subsequent partner he has will reduce his ability to feel great and to be as sexually attracted to his future wife.  

What can we do?  What's the answer if having sex with someone won't help us figure out if they might be a great partner for us for years to come?  Love is always a gamble.  But if you want to see how a relationship with someone might progress, ask about their past relationships. What was right?  What didn't work?  Find out about their family situation -- who are they closest to? What type of bond do they share? Is it a type of bond that you respect? Does their family think that you are right for them?  Does your family think that he is right for you?  Turns out that our families can often predict with better success which relationships will work and which ones won't better than we can.  In fact, couples in arranged-marriages report higher levels of long-term happiness than do those in emotion-based marriages. 

So, what is the answer to navigating sex and dating after divorce?  I wish I had the answers for my friend.  I don't know what is right for her and I don't know what I might do if my emotions got involved and the chemicals of new love clouded my judgment.  I hope that if I ever find myself in that situation that I will have people around me who love me, who will help me clearly see the relationship that I'm in....and that I will tread lightly, believe what others tell me, and avoid the pitfalls of premarital sex until I'm certain that I've found the person I trust and respect enough to spend my life loving.