Out of the blue, Montana writer Laura Munson's husband told her he wanted to leave, that he didn't love her. She calmly replied that she didn't buy it, sat back and let him figure it out. Four months later, following all the signs of a midlife crisis, he changed his mind and returned home. After Munson wrote about her story in the New York Times, she was inundated with requests for her secrets, which she reveals in her new book This Is Not the Story You Think It Is. Munson spoke to TIME about how she saved her marriage and her sanity by refusing to be her husband's problem.
Your spouse comes to you and says he doesn't love you anymore and thinks he never did. This is many people's nightmare. But your book is about happiness. Explain.
One of the things we fear the most is being told we're unloved by the person we love. But I knew this man. I really saw this as a crisis of his own self and soul, and I felt like, regardless of the outcome, it was important to me to step out of his way and give him some room to work through this crisis. Marriage is about ebb and flow, and it felt important to practice some patience at that time.
So is it accurate to say that your strategy for handling this situation was to do nothing?
It was not a strategy to stay married. It was a philosophy to preserve my well-being. For 20 years, I've been in a lot of pain, because I love to write but I now have 14 unpublished novels. That's a lot of rejection. With the death of my father and a big publishing deal falling apart simultaneously at the last minute, that's when it really peaked. I was faced with a choice: I was going to let this take me down, or I was going to learn to base my happiness on something that was within my control. I'd been working with this philosophy for several years before my husband had his own crisis.
But wait the guy doesn't come home. He doesn't call. You have no idea where he is. And you're fine with that?
I wasn't fine. In the book you see all sorts of inner tantrums I'm having. It wasn't that I was fine with it. It was just that I realized that if I engaged in the drama, there would be more pain. And we live in such a reactionary society that we think, in order to be powerful, we need to fight. I think that's a shame.
You wrote a column about this time in the New York Times, and the reaction to it was nuts. Were you surprised?
Oh, yes. Twenty years in total obscurity as a writer, then I write the short version of a memoir and suddenly I heard from people all over the globe. I had three clicks on my blogs the morning the story came out. By the end of the day, I had 3,000. I heard from soldiers deployed in Iraq, a woman in Lebanon whose therapist gave her the essay, and lots of people from Australia. Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, lots of Buddhists. I heard from a lot of married people, but surprisingly enough, I heard a lot of unmarried people old, young, gay, straight saying, "You know, I have this relationship with my boss."
Did anyone suggest you were just letting your husband walk all over you?
Some. But my response to that is, What's more powerful than going by instinct? Being in denial is having your head in the sand. Having your head in the moment is freedom.
Neither of you were having much success in your careers when this all blew up. Is your story about the toll that is taken when our dreams die?
I think it's a lethal equation when you base your happiness on career success, which is what we did. Neither of us ever signed up for the happily-ever-after myth or the you-complete-me idea. We were always independent people coming together. But both us really were driven in our careers. That's another reason I think so many people responded to that essay. In our current economy, so many people's relationships are taking hits because of career failure. Isn't it interesting that the minute I let go of my career and of my marriage, that that's when all this abundance started? Our marriage is working. I've got a book, and he's got this great new job he's just starting in the green-building industry.
What have you said to your kids about all this?
We're not selling myths to our children. Parents are people too. Just like in any relationship, you go through a crisis, and you don't let it take you down. I'm proud that they get to go into their relationships with themselves and anyone else knowing that when a crisis happens, you don't have to panic. You don't have to take it personally, even if it's meant personally.
So that's another key not taking things personally.
There's two things. One, people say all kinds of things in crisis. And the other thing is that when you know someone and you've been with them a long time, you know what to take at face value and what not to, even when you hear the worst.
But seriously, sometimes didn't you think you should just go drinking and staying out late as payback?
It wasn't like I was poor, pitiful Pearl that summer. I took a lot of care of myself. It's amazing how much beauty can be found in pain.