In my large family, we're the marrying kind. We're just not the staying-married kind. My father has been married so many times that the word umpteenth accompanied his most recent wedding announcement. This constant journey by members of my clan in and out of marriages--including my own failed union--has made me study the institution the way a lepidopterist studies butterflies pinned under glass. It has also made me wary of people who claim to have the answers to what makes a marriage work.
No matter that the divorce rate seems to be hanging steady at just under 50%; when it comes to marriage, faith continues to triumph over statistical probability. The marriage rate is down slightly, but remains an impressive 85%. People want to be married, and happily so. Just in time for the wedding season, two books coming out next month add to the already crowded self-help shelves for couples trying to figure out what makes a good marriage. One book, The Rules for Marriage, will get a lot of attention. But the other, Surrendering to Marriage, is the one to read.
The Rules for Marriage comes across like an Archie comic book, and the Rules girlfriends--authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider--are the Betty and Veronica of relationship advice. After their successful first book on dating, The Rules, a whole industry has sprung up around their method for "meeting and marrying Mr. Right." Their accumulated wisdom on the topic of marriage involves urging wom- en to be "cheerleaders" for their husbands and "when it comes to sex, husbands rule the roost," meaning they should control its frequency. In real life, Fein is getting divorced from her husband of 16 years. Despite evidence in her own life to the contrary, "I still 100% believe in 'the rules,'" Fein e-mailed me.
According to a Gallup poll being released by the National Marriage Project in June, 94% of single people in their 20s say that, first and foremost, they want their future spouse to be their "soul mate." But this concept of soul mates and the quest for perfection are what gets couples in trouble, says Iris Krasnow, author of Surrendering to Marriage. Krasnow taped hundreds of hours of interviews with married or formerly married couples. "You don't get sustained happiness from marriage, so if you expect this fantasy happiness, you're always going to be disappointed," she says. The couples in her book who seem to do best are those who have given themselves over to the messiness of matrimony and child rearing: the cellulite and sinks-full-of-dishes part of family life where there are no "rules" and where couples decide, sometimes daily, to "stick it out." Krasnow believes, and I agree, that a conscious commitment to marriage can help couples transcend the grind of everyday life and create a marriage that is happily imperfect. Especially poignant are her accounts of people who have fled marriages to be with that elusive soul mate of their middle-aged fantasy. Not surprisingly, the soul mates turn into ordinary spouses sooner or later.