Determined to Live Happily Ever After

Alisa Bowman — who (full disclosure) is a friend of mine — has written a smart, timely, tough-minded book about saving her marriage called Project Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters.

Bowman, who also blogs at a site with the same name, bills her book as the “first marital improvement book written from the perspective of a recovering divorce daydreamer.”  In fact, she had also taken up frequently fantasizing about her husband’s imminent death, which she’s pretty sure she would survive quite handily after throwing him a really great funeral.

One night, at dinner with a friend, Bowman confesses her marriage is hopeless.  She and her husband argue, they no longer take pleasure in each other or have sex, they simmer with suspicion and hostility.  Instead of offering automatic throw-the-bum-out sympathy and the name of a good divorce lawyer, Bowman’s friend asks whether she has done everything possible to salvage her marriage.  “Promise me you will try everything,” she insisted.  “He probably just needs you to tell him what you want.  Men are clueless.  Never forget that.”

Bowman promises.  It’s fascinating to watch the transformation of this self-admitted driven, workaholic writer to a driven workaholic wife determined to move heaven and earth and the floorboards of her house to save her marriage.  Or maybe it’s not so much a transformation as a transfer of energy and focus.  Bowman immerses herself in marital self-help books, she begins to talk with her husband about their problems, she makes her marriage and keeping her family together the greatest priority of her life.

Since Alisa Bowman’s writing the book and controlling the narrative, it’s tempting to give her most of the credit for saving her union.  But one person can never save a marriage.  Her husband, however clueless and often clumsy, loves her and wants to stay married.  Together, they move forward and backward and sideways, both of them straining to appreciate and love each other better.  Think of a three-legged race — awkward till you learn to adjust yourself to the other person’s pace and direction, then awkward again when you forget what you’ve just learned.

Along the way, Bowman is funny and starkly honest and doesn’t spare herself from her own lacerating observations.  The book — and the marriage — are a bumpy ride.  Like any other marriage, theirs is a work still in progress.

Bowman’s book reminds me of why I’m always so bored by the long, glowing wedding stories in The New York Times and why I can’t get enough of the 10-, 15- or 25-years later stories that occasionally run in the same section to catch readers up with the lives of the pairs who pledged their troths in the newspaper pages.

The wedding is one kind of story: sumptuous, fleeting, expensive, frothy.  The marriage is something else entirely — messy, complicated, convoluted, rich, gritty.  Angels sing and hound dogs bark, hearts break and — ideally — are healed, intimacy is forged by sparks from that same early electricity and from tens of thousands of tiny moments that feature spilled liquids, incontinent animals and children, and knowing glances and belly laughs no one else in this world but the two of you will ever understand.

I’m glad Alisa Bowman had a friend who challenged her to exhaust every possibility before she divorced.  I’m glad her husband was willing to do his share.  And I’m glad she wrote this book.  A good marriage is worth it — but you both have to want it badly and you have to be lucky.  Project Happily Ever After gives you one couple’s story of two people who learned just that.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite, holiday-appropriate posts about marriage, another anniversary!

17 comments… add one
  • Ruth, have you seen this wedding announcement in the NYTimes? It features a cameo by Will Ferrell. It’s adorable.

    But yes to the part about every marriage, and to the forge.

  • Love Alisa’s line about being a “recovering divorce daydreamer.” Bet there are a few more of those out there. This book is gonna find a lot of readers, methinks — those in recovery (phew!) and those not (help!).

  • Chris Link

    No Sunday is complete without scanning the Vows in the NYTimes. There is usually at least one gem, i.e., the recent two who left their spouses before ever having sexual relations with each other (I don’t actually buy that line) and created such a brouhaha that comments were opened and closed.

    And I know that probably 9 out of 10 married women have had the “widow” fantasy – I wonder if the numbers are the same for married men.

  • Steve Link

    And, today, Beth and I celebrate the 38th anniversary of our marriage. Although I have often commented that the key to a happy marriage was “doing what you’re told,” as your previous post and this post indicate, it’s way more complicated than that. Hallelujah.

  • Cindy A Link

    Ruth — this posting literally made my heart skip several beats. I had to check myself to make sure I wasn’t Alisa Bowman. All I can say is that the three-legged race can be even bumpier than it looks.

  • The book sounds great, Ruth. I have a friend who is struggling in her marriage and always asking for advice. I hate to give advice (because I’m usually wrong), so I will send her this link. Thank you!

  • I think it was Mario Cuomo who said that politicians campaign in poetry, and govern in prose. It occurs to me the same could be said of marriage: we marry in poetry and live together in prose.

  • It takes a lot of courage to admit to a problem and a lot of patience and fortitude to actually encounter the problem head-on and persevere to turn your marriage around. Kudos to Alisa for doing both – and for sharing what she’s learned along the way. I think this book needs to be on every married couple’s bookshelf!

  • This sounds like a book I should definitely buy for a friend who has had some supreme difficulties in her marriage.

  • *** Tessa, liked the Mario Cuomo quote. Perhaps you’ll like this Frank Capra quote– Behind every successful man there stands an astonished woman.

    Perhaps marriage is like a tour of old Hollywood studios. It begins with the magic of Walt Disney Studios. Then moves through the thrills of Paramount, the glamour of MGM, the charm of Twentieth Century-Fox, the domesticity of Columbia , the shoot’em up noir of Warner Bros., and ends with the horror of Universal Studios.

  • Ellen Link

    Fantasies are fantasies, but I feel like smacking anyone who dreams about being a widow or widower. You have no frigging idea what it is about.

  • I’ve read this book too, and I loved it. I’m so glad you’re reviewing it here.
    I love what you wrote in the next to the last paragraph here, as well – it’s so very true. What is so much more interesting than the wedding – which does seem like such a big deal at the time – are the complex, rich, and yes, messy years of marriage that follow.

  • I got an advanced copy but also bought one on Amazon, that I was thinking of giving away but now I want to keep. It’s a page turner. A fascinating read. Sorry the fantasy offended you Ellen. She never really wanted her husband to die. But if it helps make sense of things, some of his behavior was so cruel and self-centered that *I* kept thinking maybe she should leave his undeserving bikerly self.

  • Ruth, I like your description of the work that’s marriage. I didn’t have a fairy tale wedding, didn’t want one–the marriage was what was important to me. I’m going to have to check out the NYT vows–I had read about that story that Chris mentioned, so strange.

  • I admire Alisa for trying everything to save her marriage. Of course it helped that her husband wanted to save the marriage too. And, that they were both willing to change. That is not always the case. I’m glad that Alisa has shared her story in Happily Ever After. Hopefully it will help other couples who are unwilling to give up.

  • Being married is never easy and authors like your friend inspires couples to hold on to their marriages and do everything to make it work. I also believe that a couple should feel inspired to love. I found out that surrounding ones’ self with inspiring and spiritual art could really help.

    Thank you for this post!

  • I can relate on the topic. I’m an artist who juggles creating inspiring artworks, tending to my children, my husband’s needs (who is also an artist), tending our home, garden, studio and so much more!

    I write about them on my blog to keep me sane and to unclutter my mind.

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