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Researching Marriage

Photo credit: Sandy Millar on Unsplash

A couple weeks ago, I made this comment to a writer friend about my struggles with my current novel-in-progress: “The last one was easy, because it was about lawyers and trials. I can write that stuff standing on my head. This time, it’s about marriage, and I don’t know anything about that!”

“Omigod! I know exactly how you feel!” she exclaimed. “Imposter syndrome!”

Most writers are familiar with imposter syndrome. In its simplest terms, imposter syndrome is exactly what it sounds like: the feeling that you’re an imposter, a fraud, someone who’s faking competence and is constantly worried about being found out.

My problem wasn’t imposter syndrome per se. After all, no one who knows me believes that I know anything about marriage. My problem was that it’s hard to write authentically about something you know nothing about.

I know a lot about divorce, because I’ve had dozens upon dozens of those cases come across my desk over the years, and I’ve read the transcripts and the motions and the briefs. As a result, even though I’ve never been divorced (you have to get married to get divorced), I understand what kinds of issues come up and how people react. In fact, one of my first published stories, “Logistics,” was rejected by a magazine which apparently believed that the story wasn’t fiction, but one of those divorce-catharsis stories so many people write after their marriages end. (I decided to take it as a compliment that they felt the story was so realistic.)

I also know from personal experience about deciding not to get married. I’ve only said “yes” once, but it wasn’t an official proposal because I was seventeen and he was eighteen and we were more or less testing the waters. We broke up several months later, but he ended up getting married right after graduation, just as we’d planned except that he married someone else, which was definitely the best thing for both of us.

In the years to come, I learned how to pay attention to what I wanted. In one relationship when I felt a proposal was imminent, I tried to suss out whether I was just scared or whether I really didn’t want to marry him. While he was out of town, I went to a jewelry store and tried on engagement rings. Every time I looked at my hand, all I could hear was FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE ringing like a gong in my mind. A week later, he came back, I ended the relationship, and my primary feeling was relief.

Not being married when you’ve been raised in a traditional grow-up-and-get-married world takes some learning, but I’ve learned how to do it. What I’ve never learned is how to actually go through with saying “yes” and getting married, and then being married. I’ve included married characters in my stories, but the marital relationship itself was always tangential. So now, when this newly-married couple was sorting out how they were going to be with each other, I found myself in a foreign land without a map.

Luckily, I have resources—namely, married friends who are kind and generous and willing to answer questions. So I asked them: “Do married people tell each other everything?” I laid out the context for the question, i.e., one of my characters having withheld information the other felt should have been disclosed because in the latter’s view, married people tell each other everything. And then we talked.

The answers were fascinating. They literally ran the gamut from “absolutely” to “absolutely not.” My friends were free to answer based on their own relationships or those of other people they knew. One friend who is now divorced but shares a duplex with her ex said she’d tell him anything now because she doesn’t care what he thinks. Another who responded with an email that began, “NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES DO COUPLES SHARE EVERYTHING.” (The capitals were hers.) She then went on to explain why she would have shared with her husband the information my character hadn’t disclosed to hers.

These discussions included issues such as whether they would tell the spouse if the person confiding in them asked them not to. Again, the answers ran the gamut, from “I’d definitely keep the confidence” to “when you confide in a married person, you know they’ll tell their spouse” to “it’s hard, because we tell each other everything.”

I even ran the question past my parents, who have been married for sixty-six years. (I should note that, except for the divorced person, everyone I consulted has been married at least forty years.) It took some careful guiding of the conversation to keep it from devolving into one simply complaining about the other, but what was most intriguing was hearing from both spouses at the same time. All my other conversations had been with female friends; I never interviewed their husbands. If I were writing an scholarly article about marital relationships, I’d go back and talk to the husbands, but for my purposes, hearing the wives’ views sufficed because I got my answer.

What I needed to know was how married couples interact. What I learned is that there’s no one way married couples behave. Everybody’s marriage is different. There are as many ways to answer my question as there are married couples in the world.

When I was researching State v. Claus, I interviewed a reindeer expert, a corrections officer, a criminal lawyer, and an inmate. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that this time, I’d need to interview people about marriage since it’s a central part of the story.

Obviously, not all topics lend themselves to picking up the phone and asking questions. If you want to know what it feels like to murder someone, odds are you’ll need to use your imagination. On the other hand, some writers do intense in-person research. I recall reading that when Roxana Robinson was writing Cost, a compelling novel about a family dealing with addiction, she arranged to accompany someone to a shooting gallery to see precisely what her character would have experienced. I’m not at all certain I’d have the nerve to do this, but her book is powerful, and I expect this kind of research is one of the reasons.

Researching marriage was the most freeing experience I’ve had in a long time, at least in terms of writing. Thanks to my friends’ generosity, I discovered that I can write this relationship any way I like, and nobody can say, “Oh, you’re wrong, married people don’t behave that way.” Because if there’s one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that somewhere out there, a married couple is behaving in exactly the way I’ve written.

Photo credit: Ellie Cooper on Unsplash

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