Project: Happily Ever After

Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters


By Alisa Bowman

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What do you do when your marriage is so unhappy that you begin to fantasize about your husband’s funeral? That’s how bad it got for Alisa Bowman. . . So she launched a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. Project: Happily Ever After is her fearlessly honest and humorous account of how she went from being a “divorce daydreamer” to renewing her wedding vows — and all of the steps in between.

From bikini waxes to erotica, romance instruction manuals to second honeymoons, the silent treatment to power struggles, she goes where many marriage-improvement gurus have feared to tread. Equal parts funny, poignant, and most importantly, useful, Bowman’s story will give other miserably-married folks courage and hope. And in addition to telling her own story, she packs straightforward prescriptive guidance, including a “10-Step Marital Improvement Guide.” Readers will laugh. They’ll cry. And they can start on the road toward their own happy ending!


For Kaarina

You are okay. Really, you are.
You are even if you have not one ounce of desire to ever bed down with your spouse in this lifetime or the next.
You are even if several times a week, day, or hour you fantasize about your spouse conveniently dropping dead.
You are even if you have a long mental list of the people you will definitely date (or possibly marry) once your current spouse becomes your late spouse.
You are even if you dread the moment your spouse arrives home from work.
You are even if you can't think of a single thing to say to your spouse over dinner.
You are even if you can't for the life of you remember what possessed you to marry that dolt in the first place.
You are even if you've ranted about your spouse so often that your friends, siblings, and coworkers are taking bets regarding how long your marriage will last.
You are okay. You're exceptionally normal. In fact, you and your marriage are downright typical.
You, of course, worry that you are not okay. Indeed, you are probably worried that such thoughts, feelings, and experiences are a sign that you deserve the Worst Spouse of the Year Award.
And you worry about this because you think that you are alone. You assume that none of your friends, family members, coworkers, or acquaintances has ever planned their very healthy spouse's funeral. You assume that they are all just as attracted to their spouses now—after many years of marriage—as they were when they met.
You assume that they still believe that they married their soulmates.
You assume all of these things because no one talks about being stuck in a bad marriage. People don't talk about that dread of having one's spouse move into the spoon position, and of thinking, "Oh for the love of my sanity, please don't let him want to have sex tonight, or tomorrow night, or ever, really! Why can't I be the woman whose husband is in dire need of Viagra?"
And because people don't talk about it, it makes you feel so very alone, as if you are the only screwup on the planet who accidentally married the wrong person.
But you're not.
No, you're definitely not. For one, there's me. I've thought and felt and done all of those above-mentioned things, and so have pa-lenty of others.
For instance, there are the thousands of unhappily married folks who read my blog. I can't tell you how many of them have emailed me and thanked me for outing the death fantasy. I also can't tell you how many friends and acquaintances fessed up to similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences once I finally started talking about mine.
What I can tell you is this. It doesn't matter how bad your marriage is. You can probably make it better. It doesn't matter just how strongly you believe that you married the wrong person. You probably didn't. It doesn't matter if your mother-in-law has already declared your marriage hopeless and has asked for you to return that heirloom silver service. You can probably prove her wrong.
That's why I wrote this book—because I've been where you are right now. In 2007 I planned every detail of my divorce. I planned every detail of my very healthy husband's funeral, too. But then a friend told me that I needed to try harder—that I needed to try everything before giving up.
So I did. I read 12 marital improvement books, I interviewed happily married friends (all three of them), and I studied the research.
Within just four months my marriage went from a 2 on the Happily Married Scale to an 8 and I was renewing my wedding vows.
Now, I feel closer to my husband than I ever have, and not a day goes by that I don't mentally thank the friend who told me to try everything.
That's how I know there's hope for you. Heck, if my abysmally bad marriage could be saved, there is hope for nearly everyone's marriage.
But you want more than hope, don't you? You want a 100 percent guarantee. When I embarked on my marriage project, I wanted one of those, too. I wish I could give you one, but I can't. No one—not me, not your parents, not your marriage therapist, and not your spouse—can know for sure whether your personal project will lead you to Happily Ever After.
No, you have to take a leap of faith. But I can guarantee this. If you take that leap, your life will improve. You will become stronger, happier, more assertive, and more confident. You will not regret your project. Even if, in the end, it does not save your marriage, your project will save you.
Take the leap.
Try everything.
Start your Project: Happily Ever After.

Once Upon a Time
MAY 2007
"I dreamt my lady came and found me dead"
—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
I knew something was terribly wrong with my marriage when I planned my husband's funeral. I did it in late 2006 and early 2007, between Mark's fortieth and forty-first birthdays. At least 210 times that year, I fantasized about the day Röbi, one of Mark's closest friends, arrived at my door. His voice trembled as he said, "You'd better sit down. I've got bad news. There's no good way to tell you. Mark dropped dead of a heart attack 5 minutes ago. They tried everything. He's gone. I'm sorry." Röbi drove me to the hospital morgue. After viewing the body, I phoned Mark's parents.
I made the arrangements.
Mark would be cremated. His ashes would go into an urn until our daughter, Kaarina, was old enough to choose a location to scatter them. The funeral? No, it would not be held at a church or a funeral home, but rather at The Farmhouse, his favorite restaurant and the place where we'd first met. The mourners would enjoy Magic Hat #9, Stone, and Flemish sour, a few of Mark's favorite brands and varieties of beer. Chef Michael would make my husband's favorite foods, including the butternut squash soup, crusty rolls, and braised lamb. For dessert, there would be hand-stretched strudel. He loved that.
A cinematographer would record the event, filming friends and family as they told stories about Mark. Röbi, for instance, might talk about Mark's love of his bicycle. Taylor would say something interesting about Mark and his bike shop. Maybe Wood would come up with a drinking story. Ken might talk about their many road trips to Formula One races in Montreal. Jeff might mention something about rock climbing or kayaking. Chris could tell a story about Mark and his motorcycle. This film I would store away, somewhere secure, perhaps in the very safe where I kept our life insurance documents and passports. There it would stay until Kaarina was old enough to want to know more about Daddy. Then I would pull it out and let her watch it.
I always got stuck on the eulogy. What could I say? What should I say? It was appropriate to say something positive, of course, but I could only think of the negative. Perhaps I wouldn't say anything. Some widows are too distraught to talk, right? Wouldn't the other mourners notice my dry eyes, though? Wouldn't they think something was odd about my facial expression? Wouldn't the most perceptive among them think, "She's relieved"?
Mark, in reality, was much more likely to die of old age than of a heart attack. Heart disease did not run in his family. His grandmother had lived well into her nineties. Yet staying married until old age felt unbearable, and the alternative, divorce, was terrifying.
The D word—I didn't like to say that out loud. Would I be the first to break my family's tradition of staying married regardless of marital disharmony? My paternal grandparents had been married for more than sixty years. My maternal grandparents, despite how much they'd tormented one another, would probably have reached such a milestone, too, had my grandfather not died in his fifties. My parents had been together more than forty years, and so had Mark's.
Unlike the death fantasy, my divorce scenario was not artificial. It was a plan of escape. Mark and I would amicably share custody of our daughter. He would agree to take his 401(k), and I'd take mine. We'd split the other investments down the middle. He'd keep the waterbed. I'd take the queen we used in the guest room. He'd want the La-Z-Boy. I'd take the rocker. He'd get the leather sofas. I'd take the dining room set and the artwork. He could have the grill.
I'd take the dog, but, if needed, we could work out a custody arrangement. We both loved that dog.
I told myself that I would stay in the marriage until I found myself thinking about divorce every single day. I'd stay until the thought of losing half of our retirement savings to him felt less depressing than the thought of staying married to a man who didn't seem to love me. I'd stay until the idea of our two-and-a-half-year-old growing up in a broken home seemed healthier than the idea of her being raised by two parents who never smiled when they talked to one another, if they talked to one another at all. I'd stay until the notion of telling my parents that we were splitting seemed less uncomfortable than the notion of navigating family gatherings with him by my side.
It was Mother's Day of 2007 that changed everything.
That evening I traveled to New York City to have dinner with Deb, a close friend who was in town for a conference. I'd met Deb, a tall curly-haired brunette, years ago at a book club. We earned our livings as freelance medical writers. We were both workaholics, and over the years, we'd created an informal freelance writing support group. She and I were the only members. We took turns telling work stories that, after a couple glasses of wine, took on dramatic plot twists, lots of animated arm movements, and an incredible amount of laughter. No matter how bedraggled I felt walking into a restaurant for a dinner with Deb, I always felt happier and lighter when I left.
Deb was one of those people who could look at my face and read my thoughts. She would hear me say, "Everything's great. Everything's fine," and then say, "Cut the crap. Tell me the truth." She would listen to me vent for as long as it took for me to run out of steam, and then would ask me a single question that rendered me speechless. Deb had moved from just 20 minutes away from my house in Pennsylvania to Virginia a year earlier. I missed her dearly.
True friends do not tell you what you want to hear. They are brave enough to tell you what you need to know.
As we waited for our table, we sat at the bar and sipped cabernet. Once at our table, we each ordered a flight of wine and a cheese plate. As we drained our glasses and neared the end of the cheese, we decided to get a bottle. Deb wrote a wine blog and had written a wine book. She was undecided between two wines. She reached into her purse, pulled out her cell, and dialed Keith, her husband, who knew even more about wine than she.
I listened to her talk. I watched her move her hands and smile. I thought about my marriage. I thought about my cell phone, the one that hadn't moved from my purse since my arrival hours before. I hadn't called my husband to tell him I had arrived safely. I had not checked to see how he was doing. I had not thought of him once.
Deb was telling Keith about the conference, about the hotel, and about the restaurant. They spoke as if they hadn't seen one another in weeks. They spoke as if they had so much to tell one another that they could easily talk all night, fall asleep, wake the next morning, and still find more to say.
I would not call Mark. Not now. Not later. Not the following day. I wouldn't because I feared I would hear a voice that was unhappy to hear mine. He would sound harried, as if he had one hundred and fifty more important things to do than to talk to me. I wanted what Deb and Keith had, but I wasn't at all confident that I could ever have it with Mark.
Deb closed her phone. She'd made a decision. She ordered. The wine arrived. Near the end of the bottle, she asked, "How's Mark?" and, in my drunkenness, I related the 7 million reasons why I was unhappily married. She listened.
"Our marriage is dead," I complained. "We have nothing to say to one another."
She nodded.
"Whenever I call him, he sounds unhappy to hear from me, as if I'm bothering him. I think he secretly hates me."
She nodded.
"He never helps with the parenting. He's never home. It's like I'm a single mother. I earn nearly all the money. I do all of the housework and 90 percent of the parenting. I'm exhausted. I can't go on much longer. I want to feel loved, and I don't think he loves me anymore."
"Why are you still together?" she asked.
"I'm only staying with him for Kaarina's sake," I said. "There's nothing left between us. If we didn't have her, we'd have nothing in common."
"You shouldn't stay together for your daughter," Deb said. "If you got divorced, she would be fine. My son was fine after my first husband and I split up. Lots of kids do just fine after divorce. You'll do more damage to her by staying in a loveless marriage than you will by getting out of one."
I asked, "How did you know it was time to give up?"
"I knew it was time when I suggested we try marital counseling and he wouldn't go. I'd run out of options," she said. "Have you tried everything? Have you tried marital counseling?"
There, the question that would leave me speechless. No, we hadn't tried that. Instead of marital counseling, I'd tried crying. I'd tried yelling things like, "Our marriage is in the toilet!" I'd tried saying things like, "I'm miserable in this marriage!" I had once mildly suggested that we try counseling, but I'd said it more as a threat ("We need marital counseling!") than a suggestion. He'd replied, "If you really think we should try it, I guess I can make time for it." Neither of us had made time for it. I had a business card for a counselor. Had I not made the call because I secretly wanted my marriage to fail?
"You need to try everything," she told me as we paid the bill. "Promise me you will try everything. He probably just needs you to tell him what you want. Men are clueless. Never forget that."
Try everything to save your marriage, even things that you don't think will work. If everything doesn't work or your partner refuses to try anything, consider divorce. No one deserves to be stuck in a miserable marriage—not even you.
I promised.
The next morning, I woke with a wicked headache, a dry mouth, and a heart filled with hope. I was going to fix my marriage. I could do this. I really could. Deb was right.
Later that evening, I sat next to Mark. He was in his usual spot on the La-Z-Boy. The remote was nearby. His muddy green eyes were mesmerized by the motorcycle race unfolding in front of him on the TV. I looked at his thin blond hair, the creases on his sun-baked face, and the slight downturn of his lips.
What had happened to the carefree, grinning guy who'd once found himself hopelessly besotted with me? Where had he gone? Who was this stranger who now shared my bed? What had become of us?
I turned off the TV. I held my hands in my lap. I looked at him, and I said, "We've got problems. We haven't had sex in months. I think about either divorcing or killing you several times a day, sometimes several times an hour. I'm worried that, if we don't focus on fixing things, one of us is going to have an affair, and, I'm worried that the one of us most likely to have the affair is me."
I shed no tears. I made eye contact almost the whole time. I didn't raise my voice.
His features softened. The hardness I'd gotten so used to seeing was no longer there. He looked at me tenderly.
"You're having an affair?" he asked, his voice pinched, an octave higher than usual.
"No, I'm worried that I might. I feel sexy. I notice men looking at me. I want to feel loved, and I don't feel loved by you. I worry that, given the opportunity and a moment of weakness, I might turn to someone else to feel loved."
He asked, "Are you really that disappointed? Are things that bad?"
"Yes, I am. Yes, they are," I replied. "Don't you think so?"
"Things are hard right now. We just moved. Moving to a new home is stressful, but things will get better. Kaarina's getting older. Things will get easier. You'll see."
"No, Mark, they won't, not unless we make them better," I said. "If we don't work on things now, we're going to end up getting a divorce."
"What do you want?" he asked.
What I really wanted, I did not want to say. I wanted to be married to another man. I wanted to be married to someone who came home from work by 6PM, and who came home happy to see his wife and daughter. I wanted to be married to someone who, when he got home, played with his daughter or offered to cook dinner rather than sit in front of Speed TV or get lost in cycling news sites on the Internet. I wanted a man I craved to touch, and who craved to touch me. I wanted someone who noticed that the trash was overflowing and who took it out before the dog got into it and dragged it through the house. I wanted a husband who listened to me when I cried, got angry, or told him I was disappointed with his behavior or our marriage. I didn't want one who, instead, sometimes suggested that I was hormonal and that the mood would pass. I wanted a man who looked at me with love in his eyes and who seemed happy to have me in his life. I didn't want a man who acted as if I was his greatest life complication, the weight tied to his ankles that was dragging him deeper into the ocean.
Dare to dream about the spouse you wish was yours. Dare to ask your spouse to become that person.
Could he become the man I wanted? I wasn't sure he even wanted to.
After a long silence, I said, "I want to find things to talk about over dinner. I don't want to eat in silence. I want you to look at me with love in your eyes. I want to have a sex life again. I want to hold hands. I want you to act as if you love me. I want you to make me and Kaarina your top priorities, above your store, above your bike, and above your friends."
"You are my top priorities. I do love you. I love you both," he said, bewildered.
"I need you to show it," I said.
"Maybe I need you to show me how," he said.
"I'll try," I said.
"What should we do next?" he asked.
"Are you willing to do marital counseling?"
"Yes, whatever you think we need," he said.
"You'll make time for it? You won't cancel the appointments? You won't complain about it?"
"I'll make time for it," he said.
Although our marriage felt dead, we didn't suffer from anything that would rule out resurrecting it from the grave. Neither of us was addicted to anything other than caffeine. We weren't co-dependent. He wasn't emotionally or physically abusive, and neither was I. Neither of us was an overspender or gambler. We were both intelligent, reasonable people. Perhaps most important, we both wanted to save our marriage.
That night, I started Project: Happily Ever After. Would it work? Could a marriage as bad as ours actually be saved? Would I ever feel attracted to my husband again? I didn't know for sure. What I did know was this. This project of mine? It required a gigantic leap of faith.
Can your marriage be saved? That depends on the answer to one question: Are you both willing to try to save it? If the answer is, "Yes," then start a marriage project that spans four months. If, at the end of four months, you see any improvement and you are still both committed to making it work, give it some more time and effort. If, on the other hand, there's no improvement, your future together is pretty grim.

There Lived a Fair Maiden
JUNE 1992-APRIL 1995
"The wise learn from opportunity; the foolish merely repeat it."
Our love story starts long before I put on the white dress, slipped my left hand in Dad's right elbow, and took those fated steps down a church aisle. It starts in the early 1990s, a full three years before I laid eyes on Mark. It starts during my early twenties, when I lived in a different state, worked a different job, and was falling out of love with a different young man.
Our setting is Lewes, Delaware, a small Victorian town just north of the popular beach resorts of Rehoboth and Dewey. This is where I lived, in a small apartment that was less than a mile from a beach. If it weren't for the high-pitched fire siren that wailed several times a night, the apartment's unreliable plumbing, and the somewhat strange neighbors (ranging from Mr. I'm Diagnosed With an Intractable Case of OCD to Mr. If You Don't Answer Your Door I'll Peek in Your Windows), it would have been paradise.
It was here that I worked as a general assignment reporter for the News Journal, the largest newspaper in the state. I'd wanted to be a newspaper reporter since grade school, and my entire career was already mapped out. After spending a few years at the News Journal, I'd get a job at a larger newspaper, and then a larger one until eventually, I ended up at the New York Times.
There was a big problem with my career map, though. It was this: I was miserable. As I drove the 20 minutes to the office, my stomach tied into knots, my jaw tightened, my palms became slick with sweat, and my heart lifted into my throat.
I lived in fear of making mistakes, and I made plenty of them. I spelled names wrong, forgot to ask probing questions, failed to retrieve requested information, and repeatedly felt over my head as I reported and wrote about local government, civil and criminal trials, and school board meetings.
I earned about $18,000 a year, which was barely enough to pay the $400 in rent on my apartment along with a car payment and assorted other monthly bills. I frequently bounced checks. I lived on spaghetti and cold cereal. I'd grown up in Northern Delaware, two hours away, and had no friends in the southern part of the state. I worked in a bureau with just three other reporters.
Todd, my college boyfriend, lived in Texas where he was attending graduate school. We talked on the phone many nights a week but, because neither of us earned enough money for airfare, we saw one another only once or twice a year. Many of my friends, of course, suggested I see other people. After all, who goes steady with a guy she sees just a couple times a year?
What can I say? As a fiercely loyal young woman who strongly believed in finishing everything she started, I saw our geographic distance as a challenge. It was a way to prove my unwavering loyalty and love. I could no sooner break up with Todd than I could quit my job at the paper. Both were wired into my identity.
After a few months, Todd dropped out of graduate school and showed up at my apartment with his car, a TV, a stereo, and his clothes. At first, his dark brown eyes, porcelain skin, and perfectly cuddly body were a balm for my dark moods. At night, I nuzzled my nose into his neck, inhaled the scent of Ivory soap, and ran my fingers over the curve of his ear.
That all started to change by the end of the first week, though, when he suggested I attend mass with him rather than my usual form of entertainment, which was reading magazines while my clothes got clean at the local laundromat. He knew I was half-Jewish, half-atheist, but he asked anyway. And he asked again, and again, and again. One Sunday morning while he was at mass, I drove to the bookstore. Half out of spite and half out of curiosity, I bought Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushken. I read it each evening while Todd read The Way and his Bible.
"You can stop praying for my soul," I told him one night. "I'm becoming more spiritual. See?" I pointed to my book.
"No, I can't," he said.
"Why not?"
"Because you're going to hell," he whispered.
"I am? Why?"
"You haven't been baptized. You don't believe."
Did he really think I deserved to go to hell? Did he think I was a bad person just because I did not share his faith? Was I? I was a good person, right?
Indeed, our relationship suffered from a fatal flaw. He would not marry me unless I converted to Catholicism. I would not marry him unless he stopped trying to convert me to Catholicism.
I could not break up with him, though. I still loved him and I was still blinded by my loyalty. But neither could I live with someone who thought I belonged in hell.
A few weeks more and I was ready to say what needed to be said.
"Todd, you can't stay here forever, you know."
"I know," he said.
The next day he packed and moved to New Jersey where he got a job at a pharmaceutical company. We continued to date long distance.
Now I could do my laundry without complaint, but I was lonely again, and I treated that loneliness with alcohol. One night, I accompanied someone I barely knew to a bar. I started with beer and sadness and progressed to brandy stingers and happiness. The alcohol gave me a blissful temporary amnesia, and I didn't want the amnesia to ebb, so I kept feeding it more alcohol.


  • John and Linda Friel, authors of The 7 Best Things (Happy) Couples Do, April 6, 2010
    Project: Happily Ever After will get people talking about those aspects of marriage that most couples keep deep in the vault. With honesty and humor, Bowman writes about a journey of a marriage in recovery, and wraps it all up with the rarest of outcomes--a happy ending."

    Ian Kerner, bestselling author of She Comes First and He Comes Next
    "Sometimes realizing you are not alone—along with having a good laugh—helps you relax a bit and see an answer that was there all along. In Project: Happily Ever After, Alisa is just the confidante and comedian you need in the toughest of times."

    Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., nationally syndicated columnist, radio talk show host, and author of Emotional Fitness for Couples and
    Emotional Fitness for Intimacy
    “Much more than a relationship book, Project: Happily Ever After is a true-life love story. Join other readers in the sometimes serious, sometimes silly ups-and-downs and rebuilding of a couple. The really good news here is that Alisa has given us a road map to do the same for our own relationships. It’s never too late to have a happy ending.”

    Kiri Blakeley, writer for Forbes, contributor for ForbesWoman, and author

On Sale
Dec 28, 2010
Page Count
256 pages
Running Press

Alisa Bowman

About the Author

Alisa Bowman is a veteran self-help journalist who has coauthored or ghosted more than twenty books, including six New York Times bestsellers. A former senior editor at Runner’s World magazine, she has been a guest on several radio and television news shows and has been featured in First, Redbook, and Pregnancy. Since starting her Free Marriage Advice blog, she receives more than 50,000 visitors a month and has garnered national media attention. She lives happily ever after (most of the time) with her husband, daughter, and dog in Emmaus, PA.

Learn more about this author