During the years we spent writing The 80/80 Marriage, we often wondered: what will our future critics point to as the book’s primary flaw?
We imagined there might be political critiques – some would see us as too progressive and others as too conservative in our defense of marriage.
We also imagined that critics might seize on the fact that we're not licensed marriage therapists. "Writing marriage books," they might say, "is a pastime reserved for those who dole out certified advice on marriage."
Interestingly, these critiques rarely surfaced. We never would have anticipated the primary critique that actually did. It's a critique that goes something like this:
Your book is too idealistic, too naïve. It’s a marital utopia built on radical generosity that's doomed to fail when confronted with the ugly truths of real marriage.
In Judith Newman‘s review of our book in the New York Times, for example, she writes that, “The 80/80 Marriage is extremely well intentioned… I love the idea of making generosity the focus of a book, and a relationship. Then I think about actual human beings."
Newman isn't the only marital pessimist out there. Consider Mervyn Cadwalladar’s take on marriage in The Atlantic: "Here and there, creative and courageous individuals can and do work out their own unique solutions to the problems of marriage. Most of us simply suffer without understanding and thrash around blindly in an attempt to reduce the acute pain of a romance gone sour.”
We found this criticism fascinating. So we decided to sit with it for a couple months. We wanted to explore what this pessimistic view of marriage could teach us.
Over time, we arrived at three primary insights.
It’s tempting to brush off these criticisms. It’s tempting to argue that these critics suffer from a fallacy of generalization. They're viewing the vast world of marriage through the narrow lens of their own struggles. So their inability to figure it out gets universalized into the way things are for all of us.
But this would be a mistake, because there's a deep kernel of truth in this criticism. These critics remind us that, in marriage, we truly are waging a daily battle against our worst instincts.
We think the marital pessimists wrongly conclude that these instincts are impossible to overcome. But they helpfully remind us that radical generosity requires real work. It doesn’t come easy because, in each moment, we're working against the "easy" default of blame and criticism.
Look one level beneath these criticisms, and you'll find something tragic. It’s the idea that there’s no longer hope for change in marriage, a sentiment expressed in statements like, “Marriage is impossible," "My partner is hopeless," or “There’s no such thing as a happy marriage."
In a world where nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and many of those that don't end up in a state of chronic conflict and tension, this hopelessness makes sense and has helped us deepen our understanding of the challenges many couples face.
This might just be the ultimate gift of the criticism we encountered. These marital pessimists helped us see that 80/80 requires a courageous sense of hope to get off the ground.
When you believe that you're locked into a thick web of dysfunctional of marital habits, there is no hope, no pathway to change.
But when you believe that change is possible, you open up the possibility of experiencing moments of radical generosity, connection, and kindness.
Change, in other words, requires hope. It's destroyed by excessive pessimism.
And that's why we're now proud to be labeled as idealistic and naïve when it comes to marriage. It's sign that we're promoting a mindset that's different from our ordinary habits. It's a sign that there's room to grow beyond things as they are in marriage, a sign that change is possible.