Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Reading for perspective on marriage

Edited by Jill Wright,

It's probably fair to say that I am addicted to literary novels (and to reading them on an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, which is so much easier to hold in bed at night, and doesn't require a reading light), but I maintain that they provide us with the most revealing insights into the human condition.

I am often struck by the way the stories my clients tell me have a parallel in a novel that I am currently reading, or may have only recently finished. Who knows, that might, perhaps, be a fascinating topic for research one of these days: the synchronicity of client cases with therapist reading lists. And perhaps I can use it to justify a tax deduction for my Amazon bill! And for that matter, my subscription to (another addiction) the New York Review of Books.

That's where I read Elaine Blair's thoughtful review of Jenny Offill's brief novel, about,as Blair puts it, "marriage and adultery", Dept. of Speculation.

Blair quotes another review - of Monica Ali's 2003 novel, Brick Lane - by James Wood: “Adultery has withered as a fictional theme because it drags such little consequence behind it nowadays"

And from Jeffery Euginedes's novel, The Marriage Plot (2011), she takes another quote, from fictional college student Madeleine Hanna, summarising the views of her English professor:
"Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely”.

Blair tells us this is a reference to Eugenides' own ambitions in writing about love and marriage, and his view that while these novels can still be written, "they can’t be draped with the kinds of meanings they might once have had. Today the novel of marriage asks, Why marry?"

The implication is that the break-down of a marriage is, as the reviews heading puts it, "The smallest of possible disasters."

But Blair offers some interesting reflections on why it is anything but small in the minds of those who go through it: "No wonder the narrator’s howl of pain: the marriage, at that moment of revelation, for all practical purposes, is the self. And it is one’s sense of self that is held together with chewing gum and string; marriage is a part of the jerry-rigging that might, with some luck, temporarily give a person the feeling that she is not a needy, grasping, emotionally unstable wreck. This is the true idyll offered by marriage. But this blissful interlude, which does not feel like bliss but only like ordinary life, can come to an end."

As someone who works in couples therapy to help people to avoid that end and make their marriages less jerry-rigged, Offill's novel underlined for me the importance of perspective, compassion, and a sense of humour in strong, rewarding marriages.

There's an interview with Jenny Offill in the latest edition of the Paris Review. She teaches writing at Queens University, Brooklyn College and Columbia University. From that I discovered Offill's list of influences ... which I have no doubt will lead to more discoveries for me, and for anyone seeking to understand and strengthen their relationships.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.