From my own experiences, and from the dozens of sagas unloaded into my tape recorder, I am constantly reminded of the eggshell-thin line that separates loving from loathing. I know that staying married can mean plates flying across kitchens, tears soaking pillows and emailing old boyfriends at 3 a.m.
I thought nothing could shock me about what really goes on behind closed doors between two people working hard to make it “til death do us part” — without killing someone first. After all, I have heard every brand of twisted love story — swinging, adultery, spouses coming out as gay after 30 years together, threesomes, fist fights in restaurants, even the tale of a husband discovered to be having sex with a sheep, documented in a photograph discovered by his wife in his nightstand drawer.
My biggest shock is how many outwardly cheerful women who have been married forever think about divorce if not weekly, at least once a month.
The biggest shocker is the number of wives in stable unions who frequently contemplate fleeing their marriages. These are not abused wives; they are women with nice husbands who give them orgasms and jewelry and stability. Yet many of these settled midlife women admitted they were slightly jealous of Tipper Gore who gets to have a fresh start after 40 years of matrimony with the same guy.
Who stays married and who doesn’t is a question not always about commitment or deep abiding love — it’s about endurance.
There are three strategies that have worked the best with the women I interviewed. The happiest wives have a sense of purpose and passion in work and causes outside of the home. Wives who counted on a spouse for fulfillment and sustenance were often angry and lonely. And the happiest wives don’t spend a whole lot of time with their husbands. My chapter called Separate Summers is filled with women who take their own vacations, take their own summers, take charge of their own lives. Couples who allow each other to grow separately are the ones with the best chance of growing together and staying together.
Finally, the wives with the highest marital satisfaction have a tight circle of wild women friends with whom to drink, travel and vent about their husbands.
Yes, my work on this book has been quite surprising and enlightening. I now know that acceptance of mediocrity in a marriage relationship is more prevalent than you would imagine. I know that sometimes the only reason women stay with a spouse is because they have divorced friends who may have more sex than them with new husbands but they also have cranky step-kids who hate them. Other women stay in lackluster marriages because they don’t want to give up their swanky lifestyles, and divorce is expensive, really expensive. We know from our friends who are pushed to the edge and do call it quits that the grass isn’t always greener, there are parched patches on both sides of the fence.
But most women told me they stay married simply because they like their marriages more than they dislike them, even if much of the time it’s 51 percent “like” to 49 percent “dislike.”
Life is full of tricky choices: love and loathing is just an eggshell line away. Unlike financial choices, where the only uncertainties come from future and cross borderlines, non-financial choices are full of ambiguities and uncertainties.