Twenty-five years ago, Patty Newbold was so frustrated with her husband that she made a list of all the things she wasn’t getting from her marriage and all the things he wasn’t doing that she wanted him to do. She told him she wanted out of the relationship. “I want a divorce,” she said. It was the last meaningful conversation they had. The following day, while she was at work, he dropped dead from a freak side effect of his illness and his medications.
At 34 years old, she was a widow with a nine-year-old son. Some would say she was fortunate, as compared with a hostile divorce, to receive 100 percent of the marital assets and full custody of their son. But losing her husband did not make anything better; it only worsened her situation. “The morning after he died, I woke up and relived the shock, realizing it hadn’t been a dream,” says Patty. She thought of the list. “I still had to do all the things on the list. It occurred to me that my perspective on marriage was warped.”
If she had wanted more help with the chores, she now had to do 100% of them. If she wanted more companionship, she now had none. She realized that expecting certain actions had sabotaged her relationship. “It was not what I wanted. We think we want a divorce, but what we really want is the person back that we fell in love with and to solve more of our life problems.”
Patty says that marriage with her first husband should have been very easy, and it was at the beginning. “I married a great guy,” she says. They had so much in common, including similar families, similar personalities, and both being middle children. Relocating to a new city, demanding job schedules and a long commute, the stress of building a new home, and health problems for each of them caused a steep nosedive in their marriage. While Patty wanted to connect with dance lessons or camping trips, her husband wasn’t eager. Patty also believed he should do more chores and errands, since he worked closer to home.
“I sat there thinking about the list and realized all the reasons I had wanted out were invalid. I could suddenly see all the things he did for me and all the ways he had loved me. I saw all the reasons I wanted to have him in my life,” says Patty. But it was too late. Grief took hold of her life. She thought, “There’s no do-over. You got your shot, and you blew it.”
If that wasn’t a tough enough lesson to learn overnight, Patty found that living as a single mother taught her many other reasons why having her husband with her would have been the better choice, for instance providing physical touch. She said it’s easy for single women to get caught up in dating people they would really not want to spend their life with or have children with—simply because of the need for physical touch. Patty took up country western dancing so that she could be held by men “without getting sucked into a lousy situation.”
She learned to look for a third alternative when she had a conflict. For example, she and her husband had argued about the things she was unable to do because of her long job commute. (Side note: research shows a long job commute increases your odds of a breakup.) After his death, Patty realized she couldn’t be an hour and 45 minutes away from her son’s school. She told her boss that she would either have to relocate the office she managed closer to home or find new employment. The boss allowed the move, which also helped the other employees. As a result Patty had much more time at home to get her needed chores and errands done. Ironically, the new office was within walking distance of her husband’s old office. Patty and her husband could have met for lunch and enjoyed time together during the day—if she had only considered alternatives like this earlier.
Similarly, when a client needed to send her to Washington, D.C., for six weeks, she knew she couldn’t leave her son for that length of time. She came up with a third alternative. She insisted on her son and au pair accompanying her. While her son visited national monuments and completed school assignments with the au pair, she handled her work. Then they enjoyed family time in the evenings and weekends. She says if more people searched for the third alternative, they would be much happier in their marriages.
Patty says many people learn from her story and see that if they look at their marriage differently, they won’t have to end up where she did. “We often have expectations that are out of line. The only expectation you should bring to the marriage is the expectation that you will be loved,” says Patty. “Any way that you choose to define what love looks like limits your opportunities.” For example, if a wife says, “If you loved me, you would do this,” she is robbing herself of marital happiness, explains Patty.
She also learned how to seek ideas from unlikely places. She hosted idea parties, an approach she learned from author Barbara Sher, and hung invitations at local coffee houses and pizza joints. Everyone who attends brings a wish and an obstacle. The group brainstorms solutions to help everyone get past the obstacle to achieve their wish, whether it’s a new job or a personal goal. She said bringing diverse groups together enhances the creative ideas. I’d love to try this out and encourage you all to do the same, even if it’s just with a group of friends.
A Brighter Future
Eleven years after losing her first husband, she met her current husband at a Mensa gathering in Alabama. They had many friends in common, and didn’t live far apart but had never been introduced. “If we had met in our 20s, we would have had the world’s worst marriage, because we had so little in common,” says Patty. But they had each sorted things out in life and had matured. She says their actions are unpredictable to each other because of their differences, which is why it’s always important to assume the other person is not out to hurt them. “Husbands do some weird things,” jokes Patty. For example, a husband she knows took his two young boys to get buzz haircuts without their mother’s knowledge, knowing she loved their hairstyles. The wife was so inflamed she considered leaving him. (Patty says when we are angry, our brains get flooded with chemicals that make us unable to focus on anything except the perceived threat. Then we think of all the reasons he is a jerk.) Patty talked to the wife about possible reasons he might have done this—other than because he wanted to hurt her. Suddenly, she had an aha-moment when she understood the relationship between his childhood experiences and his current actions.
Patty has taken on the role of encouraging many of her friends’ and family’s marriages, but it wasn’t until 20 years after her husband died that she started developing professional resources for marriages. She now writes the blog Assume Love, and she is preparing to release web-based marriage tools with a multimedia approach.
Patty also encourages individuals and couples to find their character strengths and then participate in activities that use one of your top strengths. (To evaluate your character strengths, you can take the free VIA Survey of Character Strengths at AuthenticHappiness.com.) For example, if one of you has love of learning as a top strength, and the other has social intelligence, then take a trip to visit a museum with a group or learn a language together.
One of Patty’s greatest strengths is perspective, one that has given her great pleasure since childhood, but one she never had a name for until recently. She hopes to convey that perspective to others so they can enjoy the happiness that can come with marriage, as long as we check our expectations at the door. She also reminds people that marriages have high and low cycles, but if you stick with it during the low cycle, chances are you will be much happier than if you separate. As evidence, she cites a 16-year national study where almost 80 percent of people who rate their marriages in the bottom two categories on a seven-point scale and remain married rate them in the top three categories five years later.
We can help bring our marriages higher in the satisfaction cycle by appreciating how our spouse chooses to love us. For instance, Patty loves getting gifts, but her husband has a terrible time understanding and finding gifts that she would enjoy. One year, he brought her a package of toilet paper with a bow on her birthday, saying, “I finally found something I know you can use!” Instead of getting upset, she recognized the sense of humor and joy that he always brings to their marriage and enjoyed the gift.
What expectations do you have for your spouse? Do you think any of your expectations could be sabotaging your happiness? How is your spouse showing love for you that you perhaps don’t notice or acknowledge? If today were your last day with your spouse, what would you do or say differently? Treat each day as if it could be your last together.