“This is the story of a marriage counselor who couldn’t keep her own marriage together.” So writes Oprah’s go-to relationship expert and practicing psychotherapist Sharyn Wolf in Love Shrinks. The book chronicles the author’s failed marriages—four in total to three men (she married her second husband twice)—and offers advice she’s pulled from her own experiences and those of her patients. Wolf spoke with us about the paradox of being a “marriage expert with a failed marriage," with a special focus on her relationship with her third husband in the book.
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At what point did you decide you were going to write Love Shrinks?
I didn’t set out to write this book. I started out writing essays about my patients, and my marriage just kept popping through and showing up and being compared to my patients somehow. After sharing a few of the essays with my agent and some friends, I realized I had set out to write the wrong book. So, although I was reluctant at first, I redid the book to focus on my marriage.
The "Reasons Why I Stayed" portions of the book are very touching—do you get asked why you stayed a lot?
I do get asked that question, and I thought a lot about that during my marriage and those vignettes are my answers to that question. I think a good vacation can carry you through a whole year that’s not going too well. We took great vacations. We had lovely, lovely moments. We cared a lot about each other and I would say that we loved each other. We just were a terrible couple. We were very, very attached to each other in a thousand ways—attached in our misery.
Are you surprised at the negative aim the media has taken at you as a “marriage expert with a failed marriage?”
I’m very surprised—because they haven’t read the book. And they don’t know the complexities of this marriage, and I think of so many marriages that are really floundering. I’ve been saying lately that you can be a heart surgeon and have a heart attack; I can be a marriage counselor and have a divorce—they’re not mutually exclusive. I’ve also received tremendous support from people who really understand how much of marriage happens in the gray area.
Not to mention when the people in the marriage are coping with childhood trauma—or not coping with it.
I had these essays about my patients, and I would put in a little bit about my marriage, and then I would discover that it just didn’t feel right until I put in a little more. I was very cheap with the portions of my marriage that went into the book in the beginning, and then I just realized that the story didn’t make any sense unless I told the whole story; telling part of it wasn’t working. So I put in some things about my childhood and I put in some things about my husband’s childhood, and it makes it easier to understand why, when we were together, we were sort of still trying to have a happy childhood, not anywhere having an adult union. I think in some ways, in the beginning and for a good part of our marriage, we did give each other that happy childhood that we never had.
I read recently that the seven-year itch has shrunk down to the three-year glitch.
I think three years is about right, I think seven years was for another time. So maybe the fact that my husband and I were together for 15 years means we beat the odds in some sick way.
How have your patients reacted?
I got an e-mail from a patient who congratulated me for the Huffington Post piece and made an appointment a couple of days later. I don’t know what’s going to happen when the book comes out—whether I will or will not lose patients. I think it could go either way. I hope they don’t read the book but if they do, I hope I don’t lose them.