When a writer endeavors to find out what makes marriage go wrong, straight from the mouths of people who have gotten divorced, the result is the new book You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in an Age of Divorce, a compendium of stories about the breakdown of real people’s marriages that’s juicer than a fresh issue of Us Weekly.
From the man who ended up divorcing his wife when she couldn’t understand his need to cross-dress and have sex with other men to the clinical social worker who cheated on her husband with a convicted felon she was counseling, these somewhat haunting anonymous tales won’t reinforce ideals for hopeless romantics out there — but they will make you appreciate your own non-dysfunctional relationship (if you’re lucky enough to have one).
We chatted with Dana Adam Shapiro, author of the book and Oscar-nominated director of the documentary Murderball, to find out a little bit more about what wisdom — and positive inspiration — about marriage that he thinks readers can expect to glean.
Sexcerpts: Your book is more of a documentary than it is an advice book, but after talking to all of these couples and seeing why their marriages broke up, what would do you think your top piece of advice would be to people who want to stay happily married?
Dana Adam Shapiro: This is going to sound silly and simplistic, but I think you need to marry the right person. And we very often don’t. Fifty percent of marriages end, and the question is “Why?” I think that people reveal themselves after they get married. And the dating process is a very theatrical process, we really are taught — and our instincts are — to put our best foot forward, and then a lot of times we end up marrying someone we don’t know all that well.
How do you marry the right person? Really get to know them. You really do need to see each other at your worst, I think.
So, in other words, treat dating a little more seriously, and less like a “fairy tale,” which is what we all want dating to be, just no problems at all.
One woman said this to me, and I think this is true: She said, “A man marries a woman hoping that she won’t change, and she does, and a woman marries a man hoping that he will change, and he doesn’t.” That’s pretty true, and I think that there’s definitely a lot of that “living in the future” when you’re with someone, saying, Oh, it’ll get better, ignoring some of the warning signs.
Another woman said to me, “Don’t paint the red flags white,” which I think is really good advice. A lot of people that I interviewed, when I asked, “Well, did you really believe this was going to work?” a lot of them said, I had this nagging in my head, but I just didn’t listen to it; I lived in the future and thought, Oh, it’ll get better, it’ll get better. That optimism, that type of hope, can be very destructive, because you’re just pushing these things under the carpet, refusing to engage the elephants in the room, and ultimately you can’t run away from those things. They come to a head.
You were talking about some of the advice that you got or mottos that people had. Were there any old adages about marriage that actually do not hold true? Are there any myths or maxims — like “Don’t go to bed angry” — that people follow that you don’t think are correct at all?
Somebody brought up, “Happy wife, happy life.” I think that is emblematic of the defeatism, where he says, “Well, if she’s happy, then I’ll be happy.” That neglects your own need. You can reverse it — “Happy husband, happy life — and it’s the same thing.
So many of the people I talked to said they compromised themselves into oblivion. They tried to be their spouse’s perfect person at their own expense. While that might be a noble instinct, that even may be on some level the definition of putting another person before yourself, it has a shelf life. I don’t think you can change to please somebody else, and I don’t think anybody can do that for you.
Your needs are eventually going to come out. That’s this whole idea of “accelerating the inevitable.” The inevitable is you’re gonna be yourself, so the faster we can become that, the better it is for everybody.
What shocked you the most in reporting this book?
Very sane and nice and smart people’s ability to be incredibly duplicitous. I mean, it was shocking — these are things you see in the movies: the level of deceit and the web of lies. But also equally as shocking was the ability to forgive those things and also the ability to move on after some of those things were done to you. You’d think, Oh, my God, if that ever happened to me, I’d just become a puddle, I’d never be able to date again, or trust again.
The most shocking thing was people’s optimism about love. Everybody I spoke to, had found love and failed at it, and most of them were still optimistic about finding it again. So that was inspiring to me.
Do you think that that’s the fault of our culture at all? Do you think we idealize what marriage is supposed to be?
Oh, absolutely. I think people get a lot of their information from entertainment. So they’re getting their cues and role models from fictional portrayals of women and men, dating and love, and we’re forgetting these aren’t documentaries; these are movies. There aren’t Martians. And there aren’t marriages like that either.
You’d think that we wouldn’t buy into the propaganda. It’s telling you that’s what you want. Even the term “commitmentphobe,” sort of implies that if you don’t want commitment that you’re a freak. And I think that’s just another choice. Some people choose to not be married. That doesn’t mean that they’re afraid of it, that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them, it doesn’t mean that they’re not an adult. Some of the most infantile people I know are married, because they’re incredibly codependent on their spouse — they can’t even do laundry for themselves, you know?
But I think in this culture there is this idea that if you want to grow up, you have to do this thing. People think, Oh, if you don’t do it, you must be stupid.
Do you think now with the rise of cohabitation and different kinds of partnerships, do you think that marriage is actually antiquated?
No, I don’t think it’s antiquated. People are marrying later and later in life. There’s more people living alone today than ever before, and that number is really on the rise. People are choosing to live by themselves, or even same-sex cohabitation, like roommates. But the divorce rate has been pretty much the same really for over 30 years, since the ‘70s. It’s black or red on a roulette table. Right? I mean, it’s 50 percent. This thing doesn’t work. Again, that’s not an opinion. That’s not a screed against marriage; anything that has a 50 percent hit rate just does not work at all.
That’s not to say that it can’t work. I still believe in it. I want to get married. But there’s something broken. But there’s something wrong with it. There’s something wrong with the way people have been doing it, that 50 percent of them fail.
Why do you think you have this interest in divorce? To write an entire book about a subject, you’ve got to be pretty into it, so where do you think that seed came from?
So many of my seemingly happily married friends started getting divorced. And I just did not know why. I asked them, and you don’t really get straight answers from your friends, because they’re going to be a little bit coy when it comes to their own shortcomings, and maybe they’re going to be a bit protective about their spouse. It was like living next door to a serial killer, and saying, You seemed so happy! Or, You seemed seemed so quiet.
I realized the only way I was going to figure out what goes on behind closed doors is to start writing a book and make sure all the interviews are honest. They weren’t naming names, and they weren’t getting revenge, and they weren’t being paid. It was just a very pure, professional process. They were speaking to me, a stranger, who was very interested in what they had to say. A lot of them I never saw again. It was just, meet a stranger and literally sit down for six hours and tell me everything about their relationship. A lot of times it ended with a big hug, like, Thank you, I feel purged now.
And I’ve had five three-year relationships, I wanted to know what’s wrong with me. Am I too idealistic? Am I a bad boyfriend? Why are my relationships ending after three years? I wanted to be a better husband someday. This journey was all about, selfishly speaking, wanting to learn from these other people’s mistakes so that I wouldn’t repeat them in my own life if I ever do get married.
At the end of the book, you spoke very optimistically about a woman you had started seeing. Are you still seeing this woman? Can I ask?
We see each other, but she lives in Costa Rica. She came for three weeks; we had a wonderful time. Someone in the book says, “We shouldn’t overprioritize the eternal.” That’s something that we do when we meet someone. We think immediately, “Is she the one? Will she be my bride? Is he my husband? Is this forever?” I think sometimes you meet someone, and it’s not about the eternal. For Ashley and I, we love each other, but I don’t think it’s going to work out, because she’s not moving here, I’m not moving there, but, like, that’s good too. I think in our culture it might be seen as a failure because it wasn’t forever. That’s a silly way to think. It was just an amazing experience.
And, you know who knows? Maybe I’ll go down there. Maybe she’ll come up here again, and we’ll see what happens.
What is it that you hope that readers take away from this book?
I really genuinely hope that people who are in a marriage that’s worth fixing will find the inspiration and the tools to fix it. And I really hope that people who are in a marriage that’s damaging, maybe violent or emotionally violent, I hope they have the courage to leave. And for people who aren’t married, to figure out if they want to get married at all and if they do, how to be better at it, and most importantly how to figure out if that love is true, before saying I do.
Buy You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married) here.
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