Journalist Iris Krasnow has written many articles and books about family and love, so it isn't unusual that her female students at American University, where she's the Washington Semester Program professor, ask her how to know if they've met "The One."
A self-described "veteran wife" -- she and her husband, Chuck, have been married 23 years and raised four sons together -- Krasnow certainly has her suggestions. But meeting "The One" and living with him for 15 or more years are extremely different realities. Krasnow knows because she's been listening to disillusioned long-married wives complain for years. So she wondered how some women are not only able to maintain their marriages, but their happiness and sanity, too.
The stories of 200 "veteran wives" are revealed in her fifth and just-released book, "The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married" (Gotham, $26). Some of those secrets include full-blown affairs, makeout sessions with former boyfriends and frequent thoughts of divorce. To say the book has created a stir would be an understatement.
But the happiest wives, she notes, aren't necessarily the ones doing the gardener but the ones who have "a sense of purpose and passion in work and causes outside of the home," freedom to go off by themselves, and girlfriends to dish and party with.
Krasnow is definitely pro-marriage in an age of increasing cohabiting
couples, studies indicating fewer people want to say "I do" and headlines declaring, "Who needs marriage?" Women do, she believes.
"Marriage does not give you a guarantee of happily-ever-after, but it gives you the foundation of family from which to shape a life that is interestingly-ever-after," she writes. "Marry the right husband and you get an improved life."
The IJ chatted with Krasnow as she prepared to come to Marin for a book reading and signing at Book Passage on Oct. 20.
Q: You talk about the acceptance of mediocrity in marriage. Why are we so willing to do that, and isn't it in our power to change it?
A: What does mediocre mean? Life is imperfect and marriage is imperfect. This book releases us all from looking for happily-ever-after. If we all left our marriages because we're bored ... none of us would be married. Many marriages don't need to end.
Q: You say you can count on one hand the women who've been married a long time who haven't thought of divorce. But, don't we all have moments where we're unhappy or frustrated and fantasize about leaving but don't actually want to do it?
A: You can think about leaving, but it's a hell of a lot different than calling a divorce lawyer. It's not abnormal to fantasize that the grass is greener on the other side ... or to reconnect with an old boyfriend on Facebook. We all want to escape.
Q: Do you think these feelings are unique to wives, or would husbands have similar thoughts?
A: No, but we've heard about the secret lives of men. Here's what women go through.
Q: Many of the women interviewed admitted they were slightly jealous of Tipper Gore because she now has a "fresh start." Did the wives hope to find new love, were they looking for freedom or both?
A: If women in their early 90s are the fastest growing segment of the aging, many of us are going to be married 40, 50, 60 years and so we're going to go through many stages in the long, gray corridors of marriage. You can have something different and something new, but you can't have it both ways.
Q: Do we have too many expectations of what our spouse can be and do for us?
A: Yes! Lowering your expectations goes a long way to making a marriage go the distance. Expecting one person in one house to entertain you and sustain you for the rest of your life is a ticket to divorce.
Q: What about sex and intimacy? Wouldn't those make a wife happy?
A: Some wives had a lot of sex, some had no sex, some had no sex at home but sex on the side. There's no gold standard in marriage that we should aspire to. But, if you're not having sex for six months, that's a problem.
Q: You say you don't condone infidelity, but it seems as if you're not actually disapproving of it. How can affairs help a marriage when infidelity is still one of the major reasons people divorce?
A: It's not the major reason people divorce. The major reason for divorce is one person has stopped growing. Infidelity might be a symptom. As a journalist, I don't condemn or condone it. It's not the life I would have, but I don't think we can judge other people's marriages.
Q: What's the No. 1 piece of advice you'd give a bride-to-be?
A: I ask, "Are you happy without him? Do you feel peace, passion and contentment without him?" If they say yes, they're already a whole, happy person. I ask, "Are you sexually attracted to him?" If they say, "Well, he's my best friend," I say, "You already have a lot of best friends." You have to have something more. In 10 or 20 years, after in-laws and raising teenagers, you'll want that intimacy to go back to. And, third, "Do you feel at home in your heart?" You want someone you can feel comfortable with. That's really the core of my marriage.
Vicki Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter at @OMGchronicles, fan her at on Facebook at Vicki-Larson-OMG-Chronicles