If I were Dear Abby

Eighteen years of family law practice has caused me to develop a persona of a frustrated advice columnist.  Today’s Dear Abby column demonstrates why family law attorneys will never run out of business.  A man writes:

DEAR ABBY: My fiancee, “Vanessa,” and I have been engaged almost a year. We’re to be married in three months. When I popped the question, I took her to one of her favorite spots in the Smoky Mountains. When I proposed, she was overcome with emotion– but not the kind I would have thought. She said yes, but she wasn’t at all happy about being surprised. She doesn’t like surprises.

At the time, I was sure she had an inkling about my intentions. We had discussed becoming engaged several times. Now, as the wedding draws near, she wants me to “re-propose.” It makes me feel like my first wasn’t good enough, and it is really upsetting me. I only intended to do it once in my life. What would you recommend? – QUESTIONED-OUT IN OHIO

Before we get to Dear Abby’s response, I will give you my wife’s response when I asked her to read this question: “Run. Run Away.”  My thought before I showed her this column was that “Questioned-Out” should “Run for the Hills.”  Evidently my wife and I are well matched in the way we think.  But we don’t think like Dear Abby.  Her response was:

DEAR QUESTIONED-OUT: I recommend you clear the air with Vanessa ASAP. Tell her you intended to propose only once in your life, and that her request has hurt your feelings. If she still insists on a second proposal, ask for a script so you won’t disappoint her again. Then be prepared to have her provide you with them regularly, because unless you’re a mind reader, it’s the only way you’ll live up to her fantasies.

I think Dear Abby’s response is typical of the way we think lovers should react to their lovers’ foibles.  Our culture believes that love conquers all and with understanding and empathy two people in love can remain happily in love for life.

And that’s Poppycock.  For two reasonable people it is true that mutual understanding and empathy can help a marriage sustain during life’s inevitable difficulties.  But not every human is able to demonstrate such empathy.  Many adults have gone through life without the opportunity to observe closely a healthy romantic relationship be sustained over a period of years.  Others suffer from obsessive or neurotic behaviors that they fail or refuse to treat (or often even acknowledge).  One can be a willing victim of such behaviors for the duration of a marriage-for-life but it is hard to conceive how such a marriage can be psychologically healthy.  “Questioned-Out” is about to be married to someone whose neurotic/obsessive vision of how her life is supposed to proceed will rarely match her reality.  He is about to marry an unhappy person.

Anyone who expresses perpetual disappointment over the manner of a proposal is elevating an offer over a contract.  A marriage proposal is merely an offer to enter a contract for marriage.  It’s not nearly as important as the execution of the contract itself (i.e., a wedding), which again pales in importance to the performance of that contract (i.e., the marriage).  If my betrothed had fixated on the manner of my proposal rather than the importance of developing a happy marriage I would have had second thoughts about the proposal.  This doesn’t mean that Vanessa cannot, with counseling, develop some insights into her behavior and become less obsessive and more open to joy.  But such change should be a precondition of the wedding, not something to be hoped for after the wedding.

Should “Questioned-Out” marry Vanessa without first requiring her to confront her obsessive behavior, he is destined for an unhappy (and, I would predict, brief) marriage.  Vanessa will cause arguments every time his behavior fails to meet her expectations.  He will rarely be thanked for making her life more joyous but will instead be perpetually reminded of his failure to make her life perfect.  Now it could be that “Questioned-Out” is exaggerating his story but if he’s publicly making his intended look worse than she is before they marry, his perceptions of her are likely to become even worse after they marry.  It could also be that this is the one issue which has been very important to Vanessa and that, rather than indulge her this one foible, he is passively-aggressively denying her this indulgence.  Again, this would bode ill for a happy marriage.

A small percentage of folks who come to my office seeking counsel with a family law problem should never marry.  Other of my clients are (or were) married to persons who themselves never should have married.  Extricating a client from such a never-had-a-chance marriage is as satisfying for me as the marriage was excruciating for my client.  However when such marriages produced children–thus keeping an impossible-to-please person tied to another, or keeping two impossible-to-please persons tied together–divorce can only reduce, rather than eliminate, my client’s distress.

Almost always my clients observed the behavior that destroyed their marriage before they married but chose to marry anyway.  Why folks would marry the reckless, the abusers, the addicted, philanderers, man-children, harpies, or those with serious untreated mental illness or unrealistic expectations for life and expect the marriage to succeed is beyond my comprehension.  That they continue to do so means I shall never lack for business.

I understand why Dear Abby gave the advice she gave.  In today’s culture of  marriage-is-for-everybody and love-conquers-all, this advice reinforces our illusions.  But when one is betrothed to someone who obsesses over trivialities and chooses to fixate on small disappointments rather than celebrate major joys, “run for the hills” is more practical and honest advice.

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