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"There's much that is extraordinary about a life that is predictably ordinary" (p. 37).
Even the most starry-eyed newlywed knows that marriage is a roller coaster. Yet, most women enter the institution with little idea of just how far down it can really go-and even less about how to survive when it does. In her provocative and enlightening new book, The Secret Lives of Wives, Iris Krasnow draws from interviews with more than two hundred long-married women to share their strategies for building an enduring and fulfilling marriage.
Krasnow knows where of she speaks. She's been wed to her husband, Chuck, for twenty-three years. She's the first to admit that it hasn't always been easy-especially when they had four sons, ages three and under, in diapers together. (Twins made that happen.) One of her secrets to staying married, shared by other longtime wives she interviewed, is that as her children have gotten older Krasnow spends part of the summer apart from Chuck. As she writes: "Many of the happiest wives need time alone in which to remember and celebrate who they are" (p. 42).
Of course, Krasnow recognizes that each marriage is unique and there are no universal cure-alls. In Tracey's marriage, for example, too much separation was the biggest challenge that she and her husband faced. After Glenn was made partner in an accounting firm, he worked long hours and Tracey felt lonely-until she took a job as a yacht salesperson. By turning a favorite pastime into a fulfilling career, the mother of three grown children reinvigorated their thirty-six-year marriage.
Many of Krasnow's interview subjects praise strong outside friendships as a critical component of their marriages. Krasnow puts it bluntly, "you don't get it all from one person in one place" (p. 40). A strong circle of girlfriends and even boyfriends-with limits provides an important outlet for discussing interests not shared by one's husband.
Ideally, male friendships should remain platonic, though Krasnow's research reveals that a sexual attraction to another man can actually be good for a marriage, so long as it's not acted upon-repeatedly. Forty-eight-year-old Reed indulged in one secret, extramarital kiss and stopped it there. "I am careful to avoid him now," she says, "[but] our very short encounter gives me something extra... it's like having a valuable gold coin secretly hidden deep in my pocket." (p. 175).
Despite the proven physical and psychological benefits of long-term marriage, Krasnow is not advocating for women to stick it out in abusive or loveless relationships at all costs. "Some couples obviously need to divorce," she writes. She also knows that some choices-including Mimi's embrace of the swingers' lifestyle and Liza's willingness to sacrifice an important male friendship at a jealous husband's insistence-aren't for everyone.
Instead, Krasnow shares what she calls "real stories about real wives ... [to] give all of us a break from feeling compelled to live up to a mythical model of what marriage should be" (p. 174). By turn funny, salacious, heartwarming, and tragic, The Secret Lives of Wives is a riveting read that inspires everyone to "push through the inevitable trouble by the sheer force of ... love" (p. 5).
A CONVERSATION WITH IRIS KRASNOW
Q. Almost ten years ago, your New York Times bestseller, Surrendering to Marriage, also encouraged wives to stick it out in imperfect marriages. If you were speaking to someone who read your earlier book, what would you tell her is different about The Secret Lives of Wives? How have you-and your marriage-changed since writing Surrendering to Marriage?
I wrote my first marriage book when our kids were young and our marriage was young. But I knew the score then and I know it now: Marriage can be hell. The grass is seldom greener on the other side. And no one is perfect, including you. So you may as well work your hardest to love the person you are married to. I'll tell you what is different: A decade ago I was starting to realize that the happiest wives had full lives of their own. What I know now with wholehearted certainty is that the happiest wives are those who not only have work they love and separate interests, but they have many different people in their lives, men and women. Having a variety of friends helps us stretch in new directions beyond the mother-wife roles. It takes a village to nurture a long-running marriage, as no one person can meet all of your needs. People who expect one spouse in one house to fuel them happily-ever-after are on a course toward divorce.
Q. In your prologue, you recount seeing Dennis Kucinich and his young wife, Elizabeth, making out on an airplane. Silently, you wished them "grit and the ability to surrender in paving the way toward a forever marriage" (p. xi). Your previous three books also recommend that women surrender to motherhood, marriage, and themselves-surprising advice from a woman writer in the post-feminist world. Can you define what you mean by "surrender?
My use of the word "surrendering" in my book titles and in the body of my work is very much a spiritual embrace, a yielding to a purpose larger than our own selfish desires. Surrendering in marriage means you realize that happily-ever-after doesn't mean you get to be happy all the time. Surrender means an acceptance of imperfections. Surrendering to marriage means you work constantly to keep your commitment to forge onward through health, sickness and the inevitable battles. My view of the concept of surrender when it comes to love is that this is victory, and not defeat.
Q. "The battle cry of this book for all of us graying wives with teenage hearts: My kids are leaving home, and I need more than just marriage and my job. I want passion, change, surprises. I want more fun"(p. 18). You seem to have aimed the book toward boomers in long-established marriages, but it seems like a lot of newlyweds could really profit from these wives' candid stories.
I teach journalism at American University and the young women I teach are very interested in what marriage means and how they can succeed in this institution. My students are children of the Divorce Revolution who came of age with the statistic that nearly half of American marriages end in divorce. Any young person can benefit from the wisdom of us long-married spouses who have figured out secrets and strategies to achieve "until death do us part". Although the women I interviewed are predominantly at midlife and beyond, their issues long-term relationships-the roller coaster of love and hate-are therapeutic for any woman, at any age. Let me add that I hear from a lot of men, young and old, who have also picked up marriage tips from my books!
Q. Did any of the wives profiled in The Secret Lives of Wives make an appearance in one of your earlier books? How did you conduct your search for interview subjects?
My sister Fran, a divorce lawyer in Chicago, has been quoted in other books. And of course, the evolution of my own marriage appears again. Mostly, though, this is fresh material, new people in marriages I knew nothing about until I started digging. You'd be surprised how quickly I was able to find women to interview. It seems that most veteran wives are eager to dish about the ups and downs of their marriages. Their willingness to share the edgiest of sagas is even more pronounced when they are assured their identities will be concealed. You may not know the true names of some of my sources but I promise you all these stories, even the most unbelievable, are true to the bone.
Q. Of the numerous women you interviewed, whose story made the biggest impression on you personally?
Falisha is a woman who has stuck with me. She is a Muslim wife in an arranged marriage. Her husband, a loyal and respectful man she considers her best friend, hasn't initiated sex for months. They have two young children together and she is a successful accountant. Despite this dry spell, Falisha considers her marriage to be happy: "Nothing is perfect", is the theme of her story, and she tells her girlfriends who complain about their imperfect husbands to stop whining about what they don't have, appreciate what they do have and keep striving to make things better. I liked her candor and her willingness to work through their problem with counseling and talking openly, no matter how uncomfortable the conversations become. Many people leave marriages that have gone tepid without putting in any effort on getting some of the steam back. Or they stay married, sleep apart and conduct affair after affair. Falisha is smarter than that.
Q. What was the most interesting story that ended up leaving out of the book?
I interviewed a 60-year-old woman whose husband of 30 years committed suicide after their anniversary trip to Italy. Although he was mildly depressed about the recession depleting his business, she was shocked that he took his own life. Her high school boyfriend with whom she remained close over the decades helped her heal and she ended up marrying him. I was fascinated by this story but left it out because it was so complicated I could have written an entire book about her.
Q. You make it very clear that your husband, Chuck, is "a man of few words" (p. 258) and even sometimes "stingy about sharing other parts of himself" (p. 25). How does he feel about the fact that you are revelatory in your writing of some intimate aspects of your relationship?
I do not share the most intimate aspects of our relationship. There are sacred secrets to be shared with nobody but us. What I do openly share is some of my own pain and the joy and peace and madness that are common themes in most long marriages. Over the course of a long journalism career writing about love and intimacy, I have found that when I open up and speak the truth it not only engages my readers it also makes them more honest and pro-active about their own relationships. I am a journalist, not a psychologist, yet the women I interview generously bare their hearts. If I expect them to be frank and real, I must be frank and real. How does my husband feel about my straight-shooting writing style? He says that Iris Krasnow books help him understand more fully who he is, who I am, and who we are as couple. Chuck is a keeper!
Q. What is the most critical advice that you-as a wife-would like to pass on to your four sons-as future husbands?
I have two sons in college and their 17-year-old twin brothers are seniors in high school. The two most important pieces of advice I will give these boys when they are of the age when they are seriously choosing life partners is: Pick women who have full and happy lives of their own independent of you. And I will tell them that the three primary ingredients in making a marriage last are trust, respect and friendship. If you don't have those qualities in your relationship, look elsewhere.
Q. Now that you are facing an empty nest with the twins entering college in the fall of 2012, are you making any plans to re-arrange your marriage to accommodate this next step?
Our marriage of two separate people with separate interests, and sometimes separate lives, doesn't need changing or re-arranging once our children leave our nest. I have always had work I love independent of my family, and so has my husband. We will continue to branch out in our professions, me as an author and as a professor, Chuck as a woodworker and architect. And as we continue to grow as individuals our marriage will continue to strengthen and expand. Although our children may no longer live in our home, we will always be parents together of four sons who will need us at every juncture of their lives. I'm also told by older friends that often those college graduates move back into their bedrooms! I will welcome that. I often love marriage, and sometimes I loathe marriage. But I always love the family structure we've created together over the course of going on a quarter-of-a-century. Our marriage, and those portrayed in The Secret Lives of Wives, are examples of how to ride the roller coaster of a long relationship without sacrificing your commitment to the partnership or your need for personal growth. You can have it both ways!
Q. You lecture frequently and often address large crowds of women about issues of family and intimacy. What are some of the most common questions you are asked?
Young women want to know if marriage will dramatically alter their lives. That answer, of course, is yes. Midlife women often have the 20-year-itch. Many are settled in marriages that have lost their steamy quality and they are hungry for secrets on how to go the distance. I tell them to look within for power and direction and not to count on a spouse, or any other person, to make them happy. Happiness must first come from within and of course, a solid marriage adds to that sense of well-being. Women in their 80s have more answers than questions. I'm thinking of one 87-year-old wife of sixty-two years I met at a recent event. While I was signing her book she leaned over to me and said, "Honey, you want to know the real secret to staying married? Don't get divorced."
1. Did The Secret Lives of Wives challenge any of your beliefs about marriage? Whose story resonated most with you? Was there a wife whose marriage you wished you could have? If so, what are the steps you could take to achieve it?
2. Do you agree with Krasnow's assertion that "you can shake loose legally from a vintage marriage, but you will forever be entangled in a place so deep that even the best lawyer is incapable of performing a clean extraction" (p. 37)?
3. Whether it's taking up a discarded hobby or giving more attention to your appearance or taking a separate vacation, are you considering altering some behavior or attitude after reading this book?
4. Many of the women profiled gave up their jobs and careers when they married or became mothers. For them, returning to work revived their self-confidence as well as their marriages. But Alice and Jade are working wives and mothers. For them, the necessity of work breeds feelings of resentment toward their husbands. Jade complained, "even when I was working seventy hours a week ... I still did the lion's share of the work around the house" (p. 143). Is a successful marriage a socioeconomic luxury?
5. Cynthia has never had sex with her college boyfriend, but they regularly meet for lunch and follow it up with a make out session in his car. Mimi and her husband, Gerald, are swingers who regularly engage in foursomes. Do you consider Cynthia and Mimi's marriages to be "technically" monogamous? Is Shauna's infidelity okay since her husband doesn't seem to care?
6. Do you think all of the wives profiled have an accurate sense of their husbands and marriages?
7. Were you surprised by Falisha's overwhelmingly positive experience as a wife in an arranged marriage? Krasnow writes that, "divorce rates in India, where 95 percent of marriages are arranged, are among the lowest in the world" (p. 219). What do you see as the benefits of an arranged marriage versus a "love" match?
8. How-if at all-do you think the surge in Internet dating will affect marriage and divorce statistics in the decades to come?
9. Would you recommend The Secret Lives of Wives to your husband?
8 Tips on How to Stay Married Forever
Inspired by Iris Krasnow's
THE SECRET LIVES OF WIVES
1. It's okay, even healthy, to have secrets: It's your relationship, not anyone else's, and there is no gold standard marriage. Everyone has issues, problems, and most importantly, their own secrets, so don't worry that your marriage isn't measuring up. No one knows what's really going on in a marriage except the two people in it. That gives each of us the freedom to write our own rules and keep our own secrets.
2. You don't get it all it one place. Staying married takes bold creativity, a variety of sideline adventures. If you depend on one person in one house to sustain you until death do you part that's a ticket to divorce. A marriage that runs on multiple tracks makes for a happier wife who gets to have it both ways -- a committed marriage and adventures in uncharted territory.
3. Resurrect childhood passions. Those hobbies and sports you loved to do, and excelled at, as a child bring raw primal energy and invigorated self-esteem. Take up surfing again, become a potter, get back on a horse, go back to school. Too often those hobbies of childhood get left behind as we sit on benches and watch our children race around playing fields and accrue academic kudos. Getting back out there yourself and re-engaging with the best of the old brings on a re-birth of youthful optimism and vigor.
4. Hang out with outrageous girlfriends: The wives with the highest marital satisfaction have a tight circle of wild and warm women friends with whom to drink, travel and vent. With women in their early 90s comprising the fastest growing segment of the aging population, and many marriages lasting more than 50 years, we're going to need all the laughs and support we can get! Our girlfriends, ever-forgiving and always empathetic, provide the escape hatch from the inevitable storms and challenges that come with long marriages.
5. Take Separate Vacations - or Separate Summers: You like to camp and your husband likes to golf? Spend a month in the Adirondacks while he goes with his buddies to Scottsdale or better yet, Scotland. After some weeks apart from each other, removed from the grind of ordinary life, marriage seems way hotter than the tepid state in which you left each other in. Couples who allow each other to grow separately are the ones with the best chance of growing together and staying together.
6. Indulge in boy-best-friendships: Platonic friendships are a sexy pick-me-up without the complications of adultery. Women who love the company of men shouldn't have to eliminate male friends from their lives; these extra-marital males who always think we're smart and beautiful (because they don't live with us) are actually a relief for any smart husband. Benign boyfriends that offer manly insights and advice means less work for the man you are married to.
7. Lower your expectations: It's a dangerous fantasy to think marriage really means happily-ever-after. Expecting perfection in a marriage or a mate is a fast ticket to divorce. This realization forces women in aging marriages to be urgent about creating their own purpose and passions outside of their relationships. Marital bliss is possible if each partner is blissful without the other.
8. Be grateful: In between wifely gallivants and self-exploration, remember to love the guy you're with - kiss him hello and goodbye, and make time for conversation and intimacy, no matter how crammed your schedules are. Remember to thank the confident and flexible husband that allows you to have an independent and fulfilling life beyond your marriage. Don't try to win every fight; give in, surrender and say "I'm sorry" (even if you're not sorry one bit) instead of holding onto snarly anger that forms toxic wedges over time. Demonstrating ongoing vulnerability and compassion definitely makes spouses behave better. And the ability to bounce back from strife and arguments is the real secret that makes marriages last forever.
Inspired by Iris Krasnow's THE SECRET LIVES OF WIVES (Gotham Books; On-Sale October 2011)