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Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor's Divorce

Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor's Divorce

by Sharyn Wolf

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For twenty years, Sharyn Wolf, a practicing psychotherapist and "relationship expert," has helped revitalize the marriages of countless couples. But while she was being interviewed on Oprah and 48 hours to talk about her nationally bestselling books that instructed millions on how to flirt, find mates, and "stay lovers for life," she was going home


For twenty years, Sharyn Wolf, a practicing psychotherapist and "relationship expert," has helped revitalize the marriages of countless couples. But while she was being interviewed on Oprah and 48 hours to talk about her nationally bestselling books that instructed millions on how to flirt, find mates, and "stay lovers for life," she was going home every night to a dark secret: a totally failed marriage of her own to a good man she just couldn't leave.

In Love Shrinks, Sharyn tells the mindbending—and yet deeply relatable—story of her (third!) marriage. In anecdotes that range from poignant to horrifying to side-splittingly funny to heart-rending, she explains how it is possible for two good people to make each other totally miserable and yet still be unable to leave. In fifteen years of marriage, she and her husband had sex twice. Despite the fact that Sharyn was a national bestselling self-help author, her husband couldn't bring himself to read a single one of her books. Communication between them had failed so utterly that the simple domestic activity of buying a couch together escalated to disastrous proportions. Yet through it all, they stay together—even though neither one knows why. Sharyn ends each chapter with a touching story of why she could never bear to leave this man who made her so unhappy.

Painted against the backdrop of her psycotherapy practice, real-life illustrative cases of her patients, and the wacky story of career trajectory, Sharyn turns her analytical eye on herself and her husband and deftly depicts a marriage on its long last legs. The result is this beautiful and sad tapestry of a hidden and omnipresent human condition. You will not be able to put her book down.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Riveting…”—Maclean's (Canada)

“Blending a conversational tone with tight, fast-paced prose, the author doesn't shy away from her flaws, resulting in a book that is touching, humorous and familiar.”—Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Oprah-sanctioned relationship expert dishes on the decline of her own marriage.

Wolf (This Old Spouse: Tips and Tools for Keeping that Honeymoon Glow, 2007, etc.) may be a bestselling self-help author, frequent talk-show guest and marriage counselor to the stars. However, she's also a woman who's been married and divorced four times, but is still grappling to stay in the ring. The author offers a disclaimer right from off the bat—the first line reads, "This is the story of a marriage counselor who couldn't keep her own marriage together." Wolf goes on to detail the ironies of being a woman well-known for her whiz-bang relationship tips simultaneously wiling away her time in a sexless, dead-end marriage. So begins an investigation of not only her own background, but those of her husbands and her parents as well. The author uncovers a number of painfully repressed childhood memories which afford the wisdom that most of her marriages were doomed to hurtle straight off a cliff from the get-go. Wolf turns to her patients for answers, mining their individual situations for comparisons to her own, and seeks solace while counseling them through their shared dysfunctions.

Blending a conversational tone with tight, fast-paced prose, the author doesn't shy away from her flaws, resulting in a book that is touching, humorous and familiar.

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Soho Press, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I Have a 999-Crane Marriage

My patient Danny has taken up origami. Lately, when I step into my waiting room
to invite him into my office, he is bent over like Pinocchio’s father, manipulating small, colorful pieces of paper into his expressionistic menagerie. Last week he offered me an exquisitely articulated turtle. Today, he lifted his head to reveal a psychedelic crane.

Danny visits me because he is sad. His girlfriend of eight years lives seven thousand miles away in another country. She lives with her mother, who never wants her to leave. The girlfriend keeps telling him she’s coming here to marry him and make babies, yet she keeps postponing the date and failing to fill out her fiancée visa. Once, it was because her mother got too nervous. Another time, it was because of a job transfer. And yet another time, it was because the last solar eclipse of the century made the sky so dark that no crane could find its way.

I interpret Danny’s animals. If she will not fly to him, will he fly to her? Which one of them is the real turtle?

He tells me the Japanese say that if you make a thousand origami cranes, your wish will come true. In Japan, a young girl named Sadako Sasaki was very sick, so she began to make cranes. Day after day, she folded and folded because her life depended on it. When the story came out in the newspapers about a young girl on her deathbed who had completed 644 cranes, Japanese schoolchildren took up her project for her, furiously racing to save her life. She died before the thousandth crane was completed.

Danny will not reveal his wish, he tells me, until he can clarify one sticky detail. I imagine that the detail is whether the telling annihilates the wish. Like a birthday wish that doesn’t come true because you say it out loud. Danny says he cannot recall whether he has to make his wish before or after completing the cranes. If his wish comes after, then he says he can take all the time he needs before committing to a wish. However, if he is to make his wish before, then he will make 999 cranes . . . and stop.

“You know me,” he says, folding his arms.

Anyway, it seems he’ll never have to worry about his wish because he has decided that any crane he gives away doesn’t count. Any crane that he doesn’t keep in his home
doesn’t count. Perhaps, he will decide that blue cranes don’t count, and neither do cranes made before 11:00 a.m. or after 11:00 p.m. Or, that any crane that anyone else has touched or seen doesn’t count. It is a cliff-hanger. Will there ever be a thousandth crane—or a single stork—in his life?

I have a 999-crane marriage. Me, a marriage counselor who has spent the best of my years believing that any marriage can work if the couple wants it to work. No matter how much psychotherapy I studied, how many hours I spent in the library, how many other marriages I witnessed and commented on, it seemed I did not know enough yet to fix my own marriage. So after graduation I continued my studies for two years at an institute for family therapy. I was the one taking copious notes in the first row. I was
the one sending away for sixty-two audiotapes of marriage counselors doing live demonstrations. When I attended a conference, I never went to the hotel pool instead of the lectures. I even went to the 7:00 a.m. breakfast meetings where we spent hours watching videotapes of famous psychotherapists’ cases.

What a joke! I save marriages, but I can’t save mine.

The condor is no longer on the endangered species list, but my marriage is. In all these years we’d never discussed nesting habits—the small and mighty things I would insist my own flock discuss before getting married. I never asked him: Do you want children? Do you pay your credit card bills on time? Can we divvy up the housework? I never asked him: Would you ever move out of New York City? Can we go to my parents for Thanksgiving? Will you tell me how much debt you have? I never asked him: Can we decorate our apartment? Can we throw a big party? Can we get a dog?

It must have taken incredible thought for me not to think of asking. Although it’s true that if people discussed all the major marriage issues in advance, no one would ever get married.

Why is Danny’s girl so far away? And for so long? Why isn’t she in his arms? Why am I married? Should Danny and I trade seats? Can he help me at this point more than I can help him?

Once, during another one of our therapeutic incarnations, many years ago, Danny and I did change seats. He visited me back then because, as a child, he was bullied. He
could not forget the bullies, and he seemed to find them again and again. A much younger therapist then, I asked too many questions because silence scared me. Slyly, he suggested we change seats. He had a few questions of his own. I took his seat and found terror there. A sea turtle stepped on my lungs, and I knew what it felt like to be Danny. He was being bullied, and I was bullying. Did he turn me into the bully? Or did he find me because I was a bully? Was I accommodating his character or was he accommodating mine? What about the seven-thousand-mile distance I experienced
with a husband who was sitting ten feet away from me? Was I accommodating his character or was he accommodating mine?

Maybe I never asked the right questions because I was too busy writing books about relationships to have one of my own. I was too busy shopping for something to wear on Oprah, too busy going on Oprah, too busy calling everyone to tell them I was going on Oprah, and too busy calling everyone to ask them how I did on Oprah. I went off to
Houston, to Seattle, to Minneapolis, to Orlando, to Boston, to teach seminars about relationships and sell books. At one point I was teaching sixty seminars a year. The rest of the time I spent getting interviewed by Cosmopolitan and CNN, giving the media hour-long interviews about how to keep your lover for life. Where was my husband while I spent all this time helping others? What was it like for him to have me for a wife?

On my first visit to the Today show, I was beside myself with excitement when they told me that Bryant Gumbel was going to interview me. Two minutes later I was beside
myself with anxiety when they went on to explain that he wasn’t nice to women who talked about relationships. He felt such segments were beneath him. Nervous and sleep-deprived, I had gotten up at 4:30 that morning. I was in the studio at 5:30 a.m., in full makeup at 6:00 a.m., sitting with Bryant Gumbel at 7:00 a.m., standing up to him at 7:03 when he tried to get my goat, shrinking from him at 7:04 when he had a better comeback, smiling at him at 7:05 when he softened the tiniest bit, and off the show at 7:06. At 7:30 a.m. I was standing at my apartment door again, my workday over. I wanted to scream to the world, “I survived being Gumbeled!”

When I entered our apartment, flushed and excited, heavily made up, my husband was standing there with a toilet brush and a can of Comet that he promptly handed
to me. I laughed and laughed and laughed. My husband was a riot. At 7:05 a.m. I had been with Bryant Gumbel in front of millions. At 8:05 a.m. I would be cleaning the toilet.

Was that funny?

Do I have a habit of making everything funny in order to survive? Am I too scared to stop laughing? When I make my patients laugh, am I offering a perceptual shift or am I diverting them from painful feelings—feelings I don’t want to have?

Eventually, Danny stopped folding animals and started writing Italian sonnets on his old blue jeans. He went on to writing precise haiku, pages and pages of it. Meanwhile, I decided to write another book so I could save my marriage. How could I save Danny if I couldn’t save myself? But how could I save my marriage if my husband wouldn’t read my books? Maybe my books were too long. Maybe Danny understood that thought—maybe that’s why he went from Italian sonnets to haiku.

So many times I begged my husband to read a chapter because he was so smart that the smallest thing he said was usually brilliant. I would hand him five pages and go sit in the other room so as not to annoy him. For five minutes, twenty minutes, ninety minutes, I’d sit and watch the clock. When he never came to get me, I would walk out to find him sleeping with the first page still in his hand. Why did my books put him to sleep? Why could he never, ever, ever read a page I wrote? Why did I so desperately believe that he was the only one who could help me? Why did I so desperately require him to disappoint me that I’d make him do it over and over again?

When I asked him, or more to the point, pleaded with him—when I wept and nagged—he’d tell me, “I don’t know anything about books. Do you want me to check your punctuation and spelling? That I can do.”

“But you know if you like something,” I’d counter. “You know me,” I’d tack on.

Following the advice from my marriage counseling book, I’d try asking him at different times of the day, different days of the week, in different tones of voice—even in different outfits. I wanted him to show some enthusiasm for my life. Maybe it was just that my timing was off.

If he would not read my books, I decided to see if he would listen to my music. I bought a heartbreak CD—Bill Frisell playing the music of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. “Now I have nothing so God give me strength”—I played that song over and over, until my husband passed by me. I waved my hand and called out, “This is my heartbreak record.” He waved back. So I took off my wedding ring in front of him and said, “Maybe I have arthritis. This hurts my finger.” He said, “Oh.” My husband did not see me fading. He did not know he could put his hand right through me
and touch the wall.

Danny and I are waiting. How long should we wait?

I remember, years ago, when I returned home from my first book tour, my husband had strung streamers covered with stickers of adorable cartoon ducks and hearts all across the same entrance where he handed me the toilet brush after the Today show.

“These are love ducks,” he told me with a grand gesture toward the yellow, furry ones. “When I was a kid, I had a friend named Hugh Churchill. He died a few years ago,” he said sadly. “Hugh had two baby ducklings in his backyard. They sat all day with their heads leaning on each other, snuggling, totally at peace, totally happy. But when you moved them away from each other, even a few inches away, they would quack desperately and spin in aimless circles. Even from a few inches, they couldn’t find each other. It was a pitiful sound they made. Then, we’d put them back together and the very second they found each other, they leaned their heads on each other, and they stopped quacking. They were the love ducks, and now we’re the love ducks. We’re lost without each other.”

We happily quacked and turned in circles.

I decided to keep trying.

One day Danny told me he had met a new woman at work who wrote haiku, too. She swam, she had long fingers, she listened to the Cowboy Junkies and Coltrane, and she said that her best first date would be spent in Home Depot.

The following week he came back flushed and folding. He said that his desk at work was a crane asylum. His kitchen was a crane lodge. His bedroom was a crane sanctuary. His sink was a birdbath. He was at 849 and counting. He dreamed he was flying over the ocean, only to land in his office cafeteria with a pint of fried rice and two pairs of chopsticks and a girl who could hammer a nail and whistle a tune.

His wish was to make love to her. He said with certainty that if he made love to her once, she would be his forever. Then he left my office.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and wished: I wish . . . I wish my . . . I wish my husband . . . I-wish-my-husband-wouldmove-out-and-take-ALL-of-his-stuff-with-him. I wish to live alone in my house with my two dogs, my Brazilian Portuguese CDs, my goldfish placemats, my big bathtub, my shriveling estrogen count, my white sage and sweetgrass. I wish that my husband’s family would forget my phone number and never ask me what happened. I wish for someone else to tell my patients, and I wish to receive only empathy and kindness from them. I wish I were an ex-wife by tomorrow morning.

Suddenly, I began to whoop and holler and dance on one leg. My eyes turned red, and my head shrank. My arms flattened against my sides and I let out a wild and startling hoot. My feathers were flying everywhere.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Sharyn Wolf is a New York State–licensed psychotherapist who has worked with couples for twenty years.  She has been a frequent media commentator on celebrity marriage and divorce and has written five self-help books including This Old Spouse: Tips and Tools for Keeping that Honeymoon Glow, How to Stay Lovers for Life, Guerrilla Dating Tactics, 50 Ways to Find a Lover and So You Want to Get Married.  She has been a guest on Oprah eight times.  A jazz, big band and R&B vocalist for seventeen years, she has opened for B.B. King, David Brenner and Victor Borge.

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