Listen to the Marriage


A riveting drama of marital therapy

Gretchen and Steve have been married for a long time. Living in San Francisco, recently separated, with two children and demanding jobs, they’ve started going to a marriage counselor. Unfolding over the course of ten months and taking place entirely in the marriage counselor’s office, John Jay Osborn’s Listen to the Marriage is the story of a fractured couple in a moment of crisis, and of the person who tries to get them to see each other again. A searing look at the obstacles we put in our own way,

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A riveting drama of marital therapy

Gretchen and Steve have been married for a long time. Living in San Francisco, recently separated, with two children and demanding jobs, they’ve started going to a marriage counselor. Unfolding over the course of ten months and taking place entirely in the marriage counselor’s office, John Jay Osborn’s Listen to the Marriage is the story of a fractured couple in a moment of crisis, and of the person who tries to get them to see each other again. A searing look at the obstacles we put in our own way, as well as the forces that drive us apart (and those that bring us together), Listen to the Marriage is a poignant exploration of marriage—heartbreaking and tender.

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  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • October 2018
  • 256 Pages
  • 9780374192020

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About John Jay Osborn

John Jay OsburnJohn Jay Osborn graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970. He wrote The Paper Chase while he was a full-time law student. Osborn has clerked for the United States Court of Appeals, practiced law in New York City, taught at the University of Miami School of Law, and practiced in the estate-planning field, as well as giving advice and representation to artists and writers. He is the author of several novels and has written episodes for a variety of television shows. Since 1991 he has been a professor at the law school of the University of San Francisco.


“A writer of wit and style.”The New Yorker

Discussion Questions

1. What are the problems in Steve and Gretchen’s marriage that bring them into therapy? What has been going on in their lives—work, family, and so forth—that caused them to separate? Do they agree on what their problems are? Who is more at fault? Who is more upset? What are their goals at the beginning of therapy?

2. The narrative shifts between what Sandy, the marriage therapist, is thinking about Gretchen and Steve and what she actually says to them. What do her thoughts reveal about her opinion of the couple and their marriage? About how she approaches therapy? Which thoughts does she share, and which does she hold back?

3. Gretchen’s interactions with Sandy are often confrontational. She challenges Sandy’s counseling methods and accuses her of siding with Steve. Why does Gretchen behave like this? How does Sandy respond? At the end of the book, Sandy “realized what Gretchen wanted. A burst of love swept through her. What marriage counselor can remain impartial?” What has happened? Is Sandy’s “burst of love” for Gretchen or the marriage?

4. As Steve and Gretchen are negotiating childcare so Gretchen can travel to New York with Bill, Sandy’s thoughts drift to how little she cares about her clients’ outside lives. “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.” What is Steve and Gretchen’s story outside the office, and how do they each tell it differently in therapy? What is the story unfolding inside the office that Sandy wants them to focus on?

5. When Steve tells Gretchen he is thinking of taking the kids to visit the Snyders on their farm in Mendocino, Gretchen responds with anger. She says Tina Snyder is “an airhead trust-fund baby,” and that their organic farm is “chaotic.” But how does she really feel and why? Are there other instances when Gretchen says the opposite of what she means?

6. How do their extramarital relationships help Gretchen and Steve better understand each other and what they want from their marriage? What does Gretchen initially see in Bill that reminds her of what attracted her to Steve? What does Gretchen learn from being with Bill that helps her understand what she needs from Steve?

7. The story is set almost entirely in Sandy’s office, with each chapter comprising a therapy session. In which sessions do Steve and Gretchen have breakthroughs? In which do they seem to be stuck or moving backward? For example, does the session that happens right after Gretchen’s trip to New York seem like progress?

8. What kind of person is Gretchen, according to Steve? According to Sandy? How does Gretchen see herself? What are the rules she has made for herself?

9. What happens in the sessions that Sandy has alone with Steve and with Gretchen? What do they learn? How does Sandy use these sessions to inform her work with them when they meet together?

10. What do we know of Sandy’s personal life? Is she married? Does her relationship with Heidi, her mother, influence her approach to Steve and Gretchen’s therapy? Why are we given so much detail about what has happened between Sandy and Heidi?

11. Chapter 15 begins: “The next session, they were all over each other, as if they hadn’t made any progress the session before. Sandy wasn’t surprised.” What progress did Gretchen and Stevemake in the previous session? Why isn’t Sandy surprised that the next session is both especially difficult and especially critical? What has happened by the end of the chapter?

12. Whom are you rooting for as the book progresses—Gretchen, Steve, or the marriage? Do Gretchen and Steve change or grow in ways that cause your sympathies to shift? Are Gretchen and Steve likable as individuals? As a couple? Do you think they belong together? Are they people you would like to know?

13. After Valentine’s Day, Gretchen meets with Sandy alone. What has happened in the meantime to alter her feelings about both Bill and Steve? What is she beginning to understand about the differences between the two men as well as the differences between romantic love and marriage?

14. In the last chapter the couple is reunited. Why does Gretchen allow Steve to move in with her? What has changed about each of them that will give them a chance to have a better marriage? What do they commit to going forward?

15. It could be said that the book has four main characters: Sandy, Gretchen, Steve, and the marriage, represented by Sandy’s green chair. Steve and Gretchen’s task is to learn to listen to their marriage. When they are finally able to do that, they are able to reconcile. What is it that the marriage has to say to them?




“Is there anything practical that needs to be addressed right now?” Sandy asked.

Like a student, Gretchen raised her hand.

It had been a long time since one of the couples who came to Sandy had raised a hand before speaking.

“Okay, Gretchen,” Sandy said. “What’s going on?”

“I’m worried about money,” Gretchen said. “Since I moved out, I’ve had to rent an apartment, furnish it, pay for new childcare.”

“How much money do you have?” Sandy asked.

“I don’t know,” Gretchen said. “In my checking account right now, I have three thousand dollars. The rest of our money? Steve handles it.”

Sandy turned to Steve, Gretchen’s husband. He was slumped in the chair across from Gretchen.

“So, Steve, what is the money situation?” Sandy asked.

“I just became a full partner at Simpson Weaver,” Steve said. “I had a chance to buy into the partnership fund. It took all of our uncommitted resources.”

“Are you saying that you and Gretchen have no money?” Sandy asked.

“Of course we have money,” Steve said. “I think there is about twenty thousand dollars in our Vanguard money market fund. It’s all going to work out. Now that I’m a partner, I can borrow as much money as I need.”

You had to buy into the partnership fund, but then you can borrow as much as you want? Sandy thought.

“As I understand it, you guys just sold a house in Ross,” Sandy said. “Where’s the money from that?”

“We closed escrow this morning,” Steve said. “I have a check for two hundred thousand dollars.”

Sandy’s mother had been a legendary real estate maven. In fact, this office was in one of her mother’s buildings. Sandy knew something about real estate.

“You sold a house in Ross, and the total cash you got was only two hundred thousand dollars?” Sandy said.

“I had to mortgage the house,” Steve said. “I took out every penny I could.”

“To buy into the partnership fund?” Sandy said evenly.

“It sounds crazy,” Steve said. “But that’s the way it works.”

He leaned forward in his chair.

“You think this is nuts, don’t you? You think I’ve been scamming Gretchen or something,” Steve said.

“I’ve known you for about half an hour,” Sandy said. “I have no idea what you’re doing to Gretchen. All I know is that Gretchen is worried about money.”

“So we can split the money from the house,” Steve said.

“Are you worried about money?” Sandy asked Steve.

“Not really,” he said. “Soon I’ll have my first partnership draw.”

“And you can borrow as much as you want until then?” Sandy asked.

“Yes, sure,” Steve said.

“I think you should give the two hundred thousand dollars from the house to Gretchen,” Sandy said.

Sandy saw it hit him. He almost lashed out. Somehow he got control of himself.

“That’s interesting,” Steve said deliberately, cautiously. Sandy waited for more.

“The whole two hundred thousand dollars?” Steve said.

“Yes,” Sandy said. “All of it. Gretchen has taken a huge step, moving out on her own with the kids. On top of everything else, do you want her worried about money?”

That’s right, Steve, Sandy was saying. She left you, but I want you to give her the whole two hundred thousand dollars. Can you see why?

“But half of it belongs to Steve,” Gretchen said. She looked so earnest, and so blond, blue-eyed, so all-American. It was like, What am I doing here? This isn’t my movie.

“What do you mean, half of it belongs to Steve?” Sandy asked.

“If we got divorced, half would be his,” Gretchen said.

“Do you want to get divorced?” Sandy asked.

“I don’t know,” Gretchen said slowly. “Probably, but we have two children.”

“I’m a marriage therapist,” Sandy said. “Frankly, I don’t care what the law says. You can find a lawyer to explain that to you. What I see is that you’re worried about money. I think two hundred thousand dollars would take your worry about money off the table, at least for the time being. You told me that you’re primarily responsible for the kids plus you’re working full-time. I think you’re going to need all kinds of help. Do you want to be worried about money on top of everything else?”

Gretchen lit up. “You really think I should have the whole two hundred thousand?” she said.

“Yes,” Sandy said.

She turned to look at Steve. His shirt was pressed, his shoes were shined, his pants had a neat crease. But his brown eyes had deep circles under them, and his hands shook. He was trying to hold himself together.

“What do you think, Steve?” Sandy asked.

“I think most guys would say: My wife is about to divorce me, and the marriage counselor wants me to give my wife all of the cash from the house? When legally one-half belongs to me? Why would I do that?” Steve said. “That’s what most guys would say.”

“That is what most guys would say,” Sandy said. “What about you?”

Amazingly, he smiled.

“When you said the whole two hundred thousand should go to Gretchen, I was like, Wow.” Steve paused. “I was like: What is going on here? I felt ambushed. I thought, While we’re trying to decide whether to get a divorce or not, shouldn’t everything be frozen in place?”

The last thing Sandy believed was that everything should be frozen in place.

“Do you want a divorce?” Sandy asked.

Steve didn’t answer. What was he feeling? Sandy wondered if he could talk about it. She asked: “How are you feeling, Steve?”

“How I’m feeling?” It was as if this were a question he had not allowed himself to consider.

“My wife has moved out with the kids. I just made partner at a private equity firm but I feel worse than I’ve ever felt in my life. I haven’t slept for weeks.”

He stopped talking, looked at Gretchen sitting across from him. It was as if he wanted to take stock. Who was she? He didn’t know anymore.

She’s a beautiful, smart ice princess and you really fucked this up, Sandy thought.

Would Sandy take them on? She wasn’t sure. Where were the brooding, melancholy artists? She never saw them. Was Steve brooding? Brooding, introspective, willing to change? Was it possible that he could change? Did he write poetry late at night? Did he paint watercolors? Did he realize how beautiful it was here, in this city, at this time of year?

She looked over at Gretchen. And could you change? It might actually be harder for you, princess.

Steve was looking around the office, the desk in the corner, the Scandinavian armchairs, and behind them, the big green Victorian armchair. Was he thinking it was out of place in the office? The two windows showing the top of the pepper tree outside. Sandy realized that Steve hadn’t noticed his surroundings, where he was, as he stumbled in, having trouble just getting to his chair. Now he was centering himself.

“Steve?” Sandy said.

“Sorry,” he said. “So why would I give Gretchen the half of the money that belongs to me? Why should I do that?”

“Because she’s worried about money,” Sandy said.

“I don’t want to get divorced,” Steve said quietly, finally answering Sandy’s question.

“But you are teetering on the edge of it,” Sandy said. “What you’ve been doing hasn’t worked. You should try something new. Something you would never do. Something that seems counterintuitive. Why not? What do you have to lose?”

“Money,” Steve said.

Wrong answer, Steve. Sandy just looked at him: Steve, it is all on the line right now. Do you get that?

“Try something counterintuitive?” Steve said after a moment.

“Why not?” Sandy said.

He was still clinging by his fingertips to what most guys thought. Let go, Steve, Sandy thought. He looked away, into the middle distance.

“I’m tired,” Steve said.

“I know,” Sandy said. Let go, you’ve been holding on too long, she thought.

He did. Sandy sensed him let go of the guys and the advice that never works and fall into the unknown.

“Okay,” Steve said. “Let’s try counterintuitive.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope.

“I happen to have the check with me.”

He opened the envelope, took out a check. He took the Montblanc pen from his shirt pocket and endorsed the check. He handed it to Gretchen. She took it. Two hundred thousand dollars.

“Thank you,” she said.

Sandy thought these were probably the first kind words Steve had heard from Gretchen in a long time. Thank you. See, Steve, Sandy thought, you tried something counterintuitive and already it’s working.

Yes, she would take them on.


Copyright © 2018 by John Jay Osborn