Why Peanut Butter and Jelly is the Best Marital Therapy

This post is an excerpt from my upcoming eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down. For more information about the book, go to the end of the post. (But, um, read the post first, okay?)

Love that's all that matters

Photo Credit: ImadCode (Creative Commons)

Last autumn, for our tenth wedding anniversary, my wife and I returned to our epicenter—the place we met and fell in love and got married and had our first child—State College, Pennsylvania. I suppose we could have taken a cruise in the Bahamas or tasted wine for a week in Napa. But we chose to return to a little university town buried in the hills of Appalachia.

Why?

Because I think we all need to be reminded where we began. In fact, I think our marriages depend upon it.

A World Consumed by Progress

Our world does not value the place we began. Our world is aching for deliverance and scrambling to find it in progress. We are willing to sacrifice almost anything—our ideals, the environment, the well-being of future generations—on the altar of the next great technological advance or the most expedient way to make a dollar.

The world spins on its axis and it spins us with all sorts of frenetic questions: What’s your plan? What are your long-term goals? How much did you get done? How can we work faster, be more efficient, and get to the next level? And these questions define our worth. Everything is headed somewhere, and if you aren’t headed there with your hair on fire, you’ll be left behind.

And our marriages and families are not spared this obsession with progress. Never satisfied with where we are, we seek better jobs, bigger homes, more prestigious schools, and earlier retirement. Yet, if we live our marriages in this way, we are moving at the speed of light away from the most satisfied moment in our married lives—the wedding day.

If our marriages are to endure, they must be a sanctuary from compulsive progress. We must find a way to anchor our souls in the things we knew on our honeymoon.

The Way We Remember

Dr. John Gottman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. He and his wife have dedicated their personal and professional lives to explaining why some marriages survive while other marriages fail. When they invite married couples into their laboratory, they administer a “Marital Oral History Interview.” During the interview, the couple narrates the story of their relationship. Unbeknownst to the couple, how they respond to the first questions in the interview is a strong predictor of whether or not they will stay together.

Not what they say. But how they say it.

The couples who recall the early days of their relationship—the good and the bad times—with smiles and laughter and softness are more likely to stay married.

When I meet with a couple for the first time in my office, I administer this interview, and I look for the signs. I want to see if this couple can remember. Do they recall those early years with fondness? Have they protected that place in their hearts? Have they clung to a sense of gratitude for the dawn of their relationship?

Grateful Realism

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this some kind of Pollyanna-rose-colored-glasses view of marriage? Isn’t it exactly this kind of idealism that sinks marriages?

But I’m not talking about idealism. I’m talking about realism.

Realism saturated with gratitude.

Because the early years of a relationship are, circumstantially, often the most difficult. Early careers, job transitions, lean finances. Rented apartments and creepy landlords. Drafty windows and thin walls. Clothes from resale shops and wine from the bottom rack. Leftovers and cheap fast food. Tiny televisions and rabbit-ear antennae. Toilet seats always up and clothes never in the hamper.

Broken pasts and uncertain futures.

The early years of our romance and marriage are often a mess. And yet we find ourselves, in the midst of it all, deeply grateful for the other—this person who wants to be with us in the mess and who somehow transforms it into the deepest of satisfactions.

We cherish our partners in those years: When their fuse is short, our patience is long. When they screw up, we take them out to dinner. When they are fractured, we remain solid.

And we are able to do all of this because it is enough. The compulsion to progress and get better and have more has not yet overtaken us. We are lost in a sense of thanksgiving for all of it. The truth is, the couples who can hold on to this  place of thanksgiving in their hearts are the couples who heave a deep and contented sigh during their 50th anniversary dance.

Keeping It All In Perspective

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he tells the story of being hit and nearly killed by a reckless driver in 1999. When the paramedics arrived, they began to prep him for transport and treatment, including cutting off his wedding rings.

Wedding rings. Plural.

He was wearing the expensive wedding band his wife had recently purchased along with their two vacation homes. But he was also still wearing the wedding band from their wedding day, when they were starving artists with hardly a penny to their name.

That ring had cost $8.50.

We might make progress in our lives. We may find success in life, and that success may come with money and prestige and accolades. But we must be certain that, in our hearts, we are still wearing the $8.50 wedding band.

Grateful for the Whole Journey

We must remember.

And we must remember with gratitude.

We must forsake our thirst for progress and allow ourselves to be quenched by love. We must be determined to find that place of thanksgiving and satisfaction in our hearts.

If our marriages can be this kind of redemptive event—nurturing our sense of gratitude, regardless of circumstance and situation and status—we may yet be transformed into a resilient and courageous people. If we can remember that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and crappy wine and blooming love was enough to see us through anything, the fear of uncertainty and messiness may finally recede. The undulating sea of life will lose its power to sicken us, as we float on the calm waters of gratitude.

And next to us in the boat of life? A life-long shipmate, the same one who set sail with us, and the very one who will disembark with us on the other shore.

QUESTIONS: How do you remain grateful for the early years of marriage? Is there something about your partner you enjoyed then and need to be grateful for again? Share your experience in the comments section.

DEAR READER, As I mentioned above, this post is an excerpt from my upcoming eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down. The book will be around 12,000 words, or about 60 traditional paperback pages. Approximately two-thirds of the content will consist of your favorite marriage posts from the blog—revised, expanded, and integrated. For instance, one of the more common questions in the wake of “Marriage is for Losers” was: “What do I do if I’m in a ‘Type 2’ marriage?” I will address that question in the eBook. The remaining third of the eBook will be exclusive content not available anywhere else. For more about the book, you can visit its dedicated page by clicking here.

Second, I will be offering the eBook for a low price on Amazon and at other retailers. But I don’t write to make money. I write because all this stuff is swirling around inside of me and I’ll explode if I don’t get it out! And since it’s not about money, and because I wouldn’t be writing this eBook without your on-going encouragement and support, I will be offering the book free to email subscribers. I always end my posts by saying, “Thanks for reading; it’s a gift.” This is my way of doing more than just saying it. It’s my way of living it. Sincerely, Kelly

P.S. Just a heads-up: there will not be a Tuesday Tip this week. I’ll be finishing edits on the eBook instead.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Scott

    Thank you for your blog Dr. Kelly.
    It’s like having therapy, free of charge.
    Thank you once again.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Scott!

  • Jonathan C Dickinson

    Early marriage sounds **messy**!

  • Jennifer Newell

    I often find it funny how you seem to somehow have a view into my life and provide me a perspective on things I would not ordinarily come up with myself. This week I have spent alot of time think about those early days in my marriage. Tomorrow is my Anniversary and Kevin and I will mark 22 yrs on the calendar. The early years were hard, and yet when I remember them I can only see them as some of the best times. There is something to be said when you really dont have any money to speak of and you have a young family and you have the career challenges and yet I think back and I have to laugh about the little things that brought so much joy.
    This has been a difficult year for me, and I would like to think that things will get better. But this week I found out I was going to be Laid off. My husband is a remarkable man because I was upset and he told me not to worry about it we would get through this. And then he started to bring up the Tuna noodle casserola, Pasta and Sauce and MacNCheese casserola dishes we ate when we were a one income family and I was a stay at home mom with our then two little kids. We talked about Christmas coming and he said we can do what we did many years ago for Christmas and write each other Love letters for gifts. By the time we were done I was laughing too. Then he said we would just have to sit down and have a Cut spending party on the budget this weekend. I had to laugh as he reminded me that we might need to talk about the definition of Wants verses Needs. That was from a conversation years ago, when i was much younger and pretty determined to have my way.
    I am truly blessed to have a partner to help me with the struggles this life seems to keep dropping on my door step. I have Kevin to lean on and faith that God has a plan for me and for my life.
    I am so looking forward to the book. I am sure it will be thought provoking and I will discover some insights into my own life.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jennifer, I’m sorry to hear about your job. It seems like you and your husband have the kind of relationship in which adversity always draws you closer. What a blessing! May the two of you weather this storm well together.

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  • Susabella

    I think humor is just a huge benefit for a marriage. We have so many things we remember with fondness, and the continued sharing of those memories I think are part of what keep us strong. When we had been married for five years, we discovered a book called “The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Age 37 3/4.” We have read that book at least twenty times out loud to each other, and it has become a part of our lexicon, not only of our marriage, but also our family. In fact, my husband made a reference to it the other night when he asked me to go see Skyfall.

    Our toughest years were the ones when he was “self-unemployed” and we had big money stress. Thankfully, we had some of our children by then so we have special memories of funny things they said, and family memories we made together.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for the book recommendation! My Masters thesis was about the role of humor in getting through tough times/interactions as a couple. Looking forward to this read.