John Jay Osborn is a screenwriter and novelist who often mines his own life for material.
In 1970, he based the book The Paper Chase on his time in law school — he is also a law professor. His new novel is based on an experience he and his wife had together over 30 years ago: They went to marriage counseling.
“And it was a life-changing experience,” Osborn says in an interview. “It made our life together so much better. And we went to her for four years. And at the end of four years, she said, ‘You know, guys, I’m sorry, but this is it, you know. This isn’t designed to go on for your whole marriage. You know, now you’re going to have to go out on your own.’ And we were like, ‘Oh God, no,’ you know? But she said, ‘No, this is it, got to go.'”
In his new book Listen to the Marriage, the reader only meets three people: a couple and their marriage counselor. It’s told from the marriage counselor’s point of view, and it takes place entirely in her office.
In an author’s note, Osborn writes that he hopes the book “may change some marriages for the better.” He says the book is absolutely “pro-marriage,” or at least “pro-an important relationship.”
“Because it makes your life so much better, you know?” he says. “I mean, there’s a reason everybody wants to have a relationship. It’s like — the two of you individually are one thing, but if you can get it together, you literally become more than the two of you, if you can create an important fulfilling relationship together.”
On the similarities between his real and his fictional marriage counselors
So the marriage counselor in the book is different. But the themes of the marriage counselor, the techniques of the marriage counselor, are very much the same. …
So for example, the marriage counselor says: There are no deals. You know, you can’t make any deals with each other. We’re not going to do exchanges of promises. We’re not going to say, “OK, I’ll do this, and you’ll do that, and therefore our marriage is all going to work out.” There’s none of that. You know, to go to a marriage counselor who says that to you is really an interesting experience.
And then, the second thing is: If you want something from your partner, you’ve got to make them want to give it to you. So in the simplest situation, if you want your partner to love you, then you’ve got to become the kind of person that your partner’s going to want to love. You know? Those are the kinds of insights — simple but, I think, critically important insights — that my real marriage counselor and my fictional marriage counselor share.
On a key passage
Usually, Sandy didn’t pay much attention to the world beyond her small office. The illicit meeting in New York. Where Gretchen was going for the weekend. What Bill’s wife knew. Everything that happened outside the office? She didn’t care.
To Sandy, the important story was what happened inside her office.
It was what she had to focus on, it was the story, it was what was really happening. Of course, all the time, it was tempting to get caught up in the outside story. The affairs, the sex, the betrayals! The soap opera. But the real work was here, inside her office.
Osborn: I put that in because I didn’t quite trust the reader to get it. Those two paragraphs are a marker for the reader, saying: “Look, guys, this is the real story. This is where the real story is.”
Shapiro: I know that’s true of the novel. Is that really true in life? It’s hard to imagine that betrayals and affairs cannot actually be what’s important to whether a marriage lives or dies.
Osborn: I have to say that in the long run, they don’t matter. The stuff that happens outside the office doesn’t matter. And I can tell you that by analogy. So, what happens in really good marriage counseling — the marriage counseling illustrated in this book — is that by the end of the process, when you really begin to get it, when you can actually understand for the first time in your life what your partner is really saying to you, you feel like a new person. It’s as if you’ve shed everything that happened before, right? I mean, so if you’ve had an affair before, it’s as if it happened to a different person. It doesn’t count anymore. You’re new. Does that make any sense?
Shapiro: It does, and it makes it sound like the marriage counseling is about much more than marriage — it’s about real transformation of each individual.
Osborn: It has to be. It absolutely has to be. And that’s why it takes time. Because it’s — it is not some kind of blinding insight that you’re going to have. “Oh God, this happened to me when I was 14, now I understand it, I’ll be different”: It’s not about that at all. It’s about learning lessons that you should have learned when you were growing up — maybe by watching your parents, but your parents didn’t have it together. They weren’t — didn’t have a great marriage. It’s about learning these lessons of how you can relate to the other person, how you can understand what they’re thinking.
And you have to practice. You have to practice it again and again. And that’s what the couple does in this book. There are certain things, certain little things that the marriage counselor leads them through. For example, throughout the book, she’ll stop and she’ll say: I want you to look at each other and tell me what you see. And as you read the book, you’ll see that they see more as they learn more, until they really can see the other person in a deep and meaningful way.
On the novel’s ‘fourth character’
It’s the marriage itself. And the marriage counselor actually sees the marriage as a distinct and real character. She’s actually listening to the marriage as the marriage changes in the office. And she’s trying to get the couple to be able to do that as well, to see their marriage as something that they built over time that’s very important, and that’s alive in a way that’s different from each of them.
On recommending marriage counseling to all
I think that every marriage could benefit from a good marriage counselor, you know. You may not have to go for four years. But I think that you can really learn a lot. I don’t think you should settle for a marriage that just, you know, is OK. I mean, it’s the critical thing in your life. You want a marriage that’s wonderful. You want a marriage that you can feel and talk to and that gives it back to you.
BY ARI SHAPIRO