How to Save Your Marriage

Russell Crescimanno and his wife Jennie
Russell Crescimanno and his wife Jennie

Sociologist Russell Crescimanno has taught a course in Marriage and Family at Piedmont Virginia Community College for 40 years. So long that he’s now a professor emeritus there—and he’s still teaching the course. His academic specialty is the sociology of knowledge and how society shapes consciousness. He wrote a book about what he learned about making marriage work, issued recently by Dog Ear Publishing, and he put his main message as simply as he could in its title: A Relationship is a Living Thing: It Must be Nurtured to Stay Alive and Grow. You’ve got to become conscious of your marriage—the relationship itself is an entity—and give it honest love.

Crescimanno is in his third marriage and got the idea a few years ago that he might be looking at strike three. His first, which lasted 17 years, produced two now-grown children. His second was just two years long. “They both had significant dysfunctions,” Crescimanno said. In the first, “because of the way we acted out, we couldn’t trust the marriage.” As for the second, “I put more of the blame on myself. I got bored with the relationship and wasn’t able to invest myself in working through that phase. I wasn’t willing to do the work.” In both cases, he left. This time the bond has held together for 11 years and he and his wife Jennie have one son, nine-year-old Sebastian. This time Crescimanno’s doing things differently.

“I didn’t start to write a book,” he explained. “I was using different texts [for the course] and I noticed they had a lot in common. That was the first epiphany: Holy cow, there’s a science to intimacy! I should have realized there were principles to it.

“I began collecting core ideas. There are laws in relationships like the law of gravity. If you step off the ledge, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to fall.”

For an example he cited an observation by a fellow academic researcher and author, John Gottman at the University of Washington. Gottman looks for a behavior he calls “harsh start-up,” Crescimanno said. If a conversation between spouses is launched with a critical or accusatory statement or tone, it’s likely to provoke a harsh or defensive response. If somebody doesn’t opt out of that dynamic promptly, the conversation will go into a dive. Harsh start-ups are corrosive, and if they become habitual, the marriage is headed for a crash. Crescimanno said Gottman can accurately predict the fate of a marriage after a few minutes of talking with a couple by looking at how they open communication with each other. You can save your marriage if you can remember always to start off nice when talking to your partner.

“I have a tendency to notice when things around the house don’t get done and not to notice the things that do get done,” Crescimanno said. “It’s my style to sort of march through the things I have to do. I still have tendency to do that, but now I work hard not to do it. I remind myself not to do it.”

When he detects that thought rising—annoyance that something should have been taken care of, a sort of thought harsh start-up—he reminds himself to appreciate all that Jennie, a special education teacher at Brownsville Elementary School, does get done. Accentuate the positive, as the old standard tune advises.

“I’ve had a lot of growth over the years from doing this work. I’ve walked that part of the talk. I still have a long way to go.” Crescimanno said his upbringing in a family of Sicilian descent tutored him in a confrontational style of being male. “I carried that style into marriages and it didn’t work.”

“It easy for emotion to take over and rule the mind,” Crescimanno said. “You’ve got to find a way to reverse that. Remember to think first. If frustration takes over, it clouds my mind.

“In our society we operate mostly from ego.” People identify uncritically with the stream of thoughts tumbling out of their minds, which are mostly about how important what they think is and how important what they want is. “Unless you know there is another ground of being and you can have a taste of it if you make an effort,” Crescimanno said, you are unlikely to perceive your ego for what it really is—a big source of unhappiness and disgruntlement—and get past reflexive emotional responses to situations.

“You have to listen to what your partner says about you that is not working for them. You have to open up to it rather than get defensive.

“The ego is biologically rooted. It comes out of the neocortex. The terrible twos are when a person becomes aware of the ‘I’ and the will. It’s good and bad news. We’ve gotten to the point where we realize there is another level of self.”

So if you think you are having a problem with your marriage, you probably also have a problem with you that is actually the root problem. You are probably not aware of your deeper self, the part of your mind that can look at your ego for what it is rather than being led around on a leash by it, as if you are just your ego’s pet monkey. In other words, in cases where a marriage is in trouble there are often what amount to underlying spiritual issues present in one or both spouses. “Reluctance to look in the mirror is at the heart of what ruins so many relationships. You can’t change what you will not allow yourself to see,” Crescimanno said.

A Relationship is a Living Thing stresses this personal level of marriage trouble, which is mainly addressed abstractly, though Crescimanno makes practical points as often as he can. Each of the 10 chapters also wraps up with a checklist of pertinent questions to ask yourself about your relationship.

To some extent Crescimanno blames cultural expectations we bring to marriage for later disappointments and frictions. We simply expect marriage to bring us happiness. “Ours is a profoundly materialistic society,” Crescimanno said. “We invest most of our time, energy and money in the pursuit of power, prestige and things. These we understand we have to work for. But love and a meaningful relationship we think will eventually just come to us once we manage to find the right person.”

But, for any number of reasons, we make mistakes in who we choose to marry. These days nearly 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, he said. Almost 60 percent of second marriages fail and nearly 80 percent those who roll on a third chance break up. To Crescimanno, these figures can only mean that ignorance—ignorance about personal identity and the principles of relationships—fundamentally an unawareness of the self, is at work.

Crescimanno has his students read the Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness for an introduction to the idea of the Self.

Whatever you want to call the source of reality, he said, the “ultimate ground of being” or God, the common short form, it had only itself to create from and what’s created is not separate from it. He likens the self and ego to the ocean and its waves. Waves arise individually, each unique, but are in their essence still part of the ocean. This essence of a person that remains in contact with the source of reality is the Self. It is alive, present in consciousness, and a person can become aware of it.

The tendency to identify ourselves with our ego, the wave, rather than the ocean, the Self, results in dangerous illusions about how we are different and disconnected. “This mistake is huge and very costly for us,” said Crescimanno. For many people, saving their marriage is really about raising their awareness of the Self. “As we learn to do this we heal our lives and our relationships,” he asserted. “I have resisted accepting this realization for most of my life, but the truth is that we can change only ourselves.”

For Crescimanno, meditation has been the technique that works. He has set aside a room in his house for it and he usually meditates for about 20 minutes at a time. That’s also the place he goes when he feels emotions starting to control him and he wants to cool off and think about what he should do and say to help bring about the outcome he really wants. The key, he said, is to think about a phrase, a mantra, such as “hanging in” or “keeping kindness” that positively directs one’s thoughts.

“I’m just in kindergarten with this,” said Jennie. “We’re better off [because Russ meditates]. We’re different and we’re very much the same. Everybody needs to find a practice that works for them. Some are manageable. Some are not. I’ve tried meditation. My mind just goes all over the place.”

“Everybody’s does,” interjected Russ.

“I can’t follow in his footsteps, but we can meet in places,” she continued.

Ignorance is also a term that encompasses all the emotional baggage that spouses carry into the relationship from their earlier life—misinformation, unrealistic expectations, childhood wounds, bad habits and insecurities. This bundle of personal frailties Crescimanno labels as a person’s “pits” and it is easy for partners to set off an eruption from their spouse’s pits. Once those buttons are pushed, a spouse typically will respond with dysfunctional behavior. The way out of pits living is through contemplation or meditation, he said, which educates a person about the cause-and-effect nature of the universe. An action will produce a reaction. Are you getting the reaction you want? Well, what action did you take?

The technique for staying out of the pits involves what Crescimanno calls “witnessing.”

“The mind of the Self tends to see without judgment and defensiveness, without attachment to an agenda. This quality is referred to as ‘the witness,’ or observer. It enables us to see more of the truth of a situation,” Crescimanno said. “Seeing that you’re acting out makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue. It’s very hard to persist in being foolish when you know are being foolish.”

Two other factors, seemingly contradictory, are urgency and patience. One must realize that there is no time to waste and start trying to grow. But growing will require daily practice in witnessing. The ultimate goal, Crescimanno said, is to reach a state of genuine friendship in the marriage.

“Our thoughts are the seeds that give rise to the ways we treat each other. Whether we grow satisfaction or emptiness depends on what it is we sow in our everyday lives together.”

Early chapters of the book explain the process of connecting to the Self. Crescimanno does not address common sources of trouble in marriages—disputes over money, how to discipline kids, infidelity, alcohol or drug addiction—in the sense of a how-to book.

Instead he deals with the problem of how to handle anger over such factors. “You have to find a way to do constructive conflict.” He forbids “spur of the moment, shoot-from-the-hip fighting” and says spouses have to resist the temptation to get in the last word in a dispute, acknowledging that that can take tremendous will power.

He is skeptical of success in cases where one spouse is not interested in working at the relationship. “You can’t learn to dance by yourself,” he said.

“But if one person works to change themselves, it is going to get a response,” added Jennie more hopefully.

“Most people aren’t grown up enough to invest on their own. They need to see effort from their partner,” Crescimanno said. “Research says marriage is very difficult because we’ve romanticized it so much. You have to make your marriage a priority. You have to nurture it. You have to want your marriage with the same intensity as whatever it is that is your greatest desire. People abandon it because it is so hard to do. For the most part, divorce is not a ‘have to,’ it’s instead a ‘choose to.’”

He advises couples to schedule conference times, “talk times,” when they agree to discuss a limited agenda of specific problems. No interrupting is allowed, each spouse must listen attentively and should ask him or herself, “How have I contributed to creating this problem?” Witnessing (observing your thoughts before you are carried away by them) and “bracketing,” putting aside your own agenda for a moment, are required skills. He also warns against “ruminating,” repeating negative thoughts to ourselves, which he said is one of the ego’s ways of defending itself. He compared it to letting weeds grow in a garden. Negative thoughts, typically about blame or grounds for bitterness, have to be rooted out. A good “tool box” for relationship success would include the ability to listen, empathize, delay gratification and be honest, he said.

He advises people generally to “mind their own business,” meaning you should pay attention to what you can change about yourself. Look at contradictions between how you see yourself and how you actually behave. “Standing before the mirror, I become aware of what needs straightening,” Crescimanno said.

He also advises spiritual reading to help yourself become conscious of your marriage and mentioned The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and The Art of Happiness as personally valuable to him.

Crescimanno’s book is available locally at the Quest Book Shop in Charlottesville, Stone Soup in Waynesboro, as well as Barnes and Noble and He would prefer that you buy it from his website, He will teach a five-week evening course on the book at the Ananda Community Center for Conscious Living in Charlottesville, just off the Downtown Mall, from Sept. 14 to Oct. 14 (from 7 to 9 p.m.). The cost is $80.

“One question I encountered that got my attention was, ‘What does your marriage stand for?’ said Crescimanno. “I realized I had no answer. It never came up in my first two marriages. Now, for me, what I would like it to stand for is growing together in spirit and love.

“My philosophy is that we are here on earth to clean up our acts,” said.


  1. Pretty interesting. Here is a guy who has been married three times and is teaching a class on relationships in college. A good read.

Comments are closed.