Avoiding Divorce: One Writer's Story

Her husband's words hit Laura Munson "like a sucker punch." And yet, she says, she was able to duck. After two decades together, he came to her on a summer day and told her: "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." His plan was to leave Munson, their two young children, and the life they had built together in a farmhouse on 20 acres in rural Montana.

What happened next? The usual script calls for battling divorce lawyers, years in court, and lingering anger for the rest of their lives. Instead, Munson kept telling her husband, "I don't buy it." She saw another reason for his despair: his work wasn't going well, and he was miserable because of it. She knew he was worried that he wouldn't be able to support their family, and that was devastating to him.

So she held her anger in check and asked, "What can we do to give you the distance you need without hurting the family?" It took immense discipline and patience, as Munson recounts in her new book, "This Is Not the Story You Think It Is." But it's a story that resonates as many other couples face unexpected tensions at home in an uncertain economy.

According to a 2009 report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, divorce rates have been slowly dropping during this recession, from 17.3 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 to 16.9 in 2008. Part of the reason is the high cost of breaking up; many couples just can't afford it. A recent story in The Washington Post quoted divorce lawyers with file drawers full of unresolved cases and estranged couples who say they're separated but continue living together to save money.

But tough times also foster a kind of solidarity, says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. Marriage is not just roses and romance; it's also an economic partnership. And two potential wage earners in a family are better than one in what has been called the "mancession" (more than 75 percent of job losses have been among men). That's especially true for educated couples like the Munsons, who met at college.

Munson said she was particularly sensitive to the source of her husband's pain because shortly before his meltdown, she'd had one of her own. "This was definitely a crisis of self and soul in my husband that I recognized," she says. Her ambition was to be a published novelist, but instead of counting royalties, she was counting a stack of more than a dozen rejected manuscripts. An editor had encouraged her to revise a novel, and it seemed like this might be the one. Then, in a very short period, that revision was also rejected and her father died. She lost not only her hope of a big break, but also the support of a beloved parent.

Eventually she moved on from that rough time. And she hoped her husband could also move on from his job disappointments if she gave him time and space. But she wasn't just thinking about him. She also wanted to learn from the experience and grow herself. From the very first day, she started writing about it. What started as a journal turned into the book. Even before it was published, she knew she had struck a nerve. An excerpt published last summer in The New York Times's Modern Love column drew so many comments (most of them sympathetic to her) that the paper had to temporarily shut down the comments section. It remained the top-searched piece on the site for many weeks afterwards. "I heard from a lot of married people who said, 'This is what is going on in my marriage' and spilling their guts," she said.

Her story also impressed people who study marriage like Virginia Rutter, a sociologist at Framingham State College in Massachusetts. "What I love about her story is that she could look at her situation and say, 'He feels this way today, but that doesn't change my commitment to him and this relationship.' " Because Munson understood the root of her husband's unhappiness, she was able to continue nurturing her family while he worked on it—even though there were many nights when she didn't know where he was or when he would come home. "Munson makes a cultural intervention," Rutter says. "She's offering a model of being able to say, 'I'm going to stay committed to my relationship. Maybe not forever, but I'm going to give this time. I'm going to test it out.' She understood that this was a different type of crisis. Sometimes the issue is a personal problem and she allows him the space to do something about his personal problem."

Of course, sticking together isn't always the answer. Even Munson says she didn't know what the outcome would be when she made the decision to let her husband work things out for a while. The issue of when to call it quits is a controversial one for marriage researchers; one recent study indicated that many people who get divorced are no happier after the breakup. But sometimes it is indeed the right choice. No one questions the need to separate when there is violence involved. That's a matter of safety. And in other cases, long-troubled marriages can reach an irrevocable breaking point when economic tensions are added to the mix.

Cases like Munson and her husband's are the difficult ones to call. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says there is a big difference between marriages that have been corrosive for a long time and those where all of a sudden one of the partners announces that there is a crisis. Part of the problem, says Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History," "is that we expect so much of our happiness to come from our marriages, and if we're unhappy, we may blame our marriage even if the unhappiness is coming from a completely different source."

As for Munson, she has no regrets. They spent most of the last six months apart and struggling with how they could ever come back together. But eventually, her husband realized that they could be happy in the marriage and that he did need to rethink how much he had let his professional situation define him. She says he encouraged her to write about the experience. Last week, they both took their kids for a vacation in Mexico, a much-needed break from Montana where, she says, "we get 75 days of sunshine a year." Her husband is starting a new business that excites him and she's thrilled to finally have a book published. On the first night in Mexico, she says, "We had a nice hug on the beach and were feeling proud of ourselves for getting through a hard time." They both know that's no guarantee of happily ever after but it's a pretty good place to be for now.