Divorce à la Mode

Husbands and Wives: A Nation-wide Survey of Marriage

by Anthony Pietropinto, by Jacqueline Simenauer
Times Books, 408 pp., $12.50

The Extra-Sex Factor: Why Over Half of America’s Married Men Play Around

by Lewis Yablonsky
Times Books, 239 pp., $9.95

Current Population Reports: Series P-20 Bureau of the Census United States

No.297: Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces in the
USGPO, 34 pp., $.95

Current Population Reports: Series P-20 Bureau of the Census Characteristics

No.312: Marriage, Divorce, Widowhood and Remarriage by Family
USGPO, 39 pp., $1.05

Current Population Reports: Series P-20 Bureau of the Census

No.323: Marital Status and Living Arrangements
USGPO, 60 pp., $2.30

Marriage is one way to house and rear a population. It also works as an effective constraint: turning people into husbands and wives makes them more dependable, largely by limiting their choices. For these reasons alone, marriages are supposed to endure.

And in the past, they generally did. Two people could grow accustomed to each other, if only by building routines. Romance, conversation, and mutually satisfying sex were seldom expected or experienced. At the same time, many couples counted themselves happy. Still, it was a subdued affection compared with what we ask for now. We also know that many marriages were miserable. There was a high incidence of brutality, and desertions were far from uncommon. (The West was won by men who had run out on their wives.) Yet for all that, marriage was not considered a “problem.” Most couples stayed together. And that was all society asked.

What has changed, as everyone knows, is that marriages no longer last. This is one current development hardly anyone is ready to applaud. We may agree that some people are better off parting. And there are cases where divorce will widen a person’s horizons. Still, these are second-best solutions. Most of us would prefer that marriages succeed. Yet we realize the odds against this happening.

Because my focus here will be on marriage, much about family life will have to be bypassed. Nor will I go into “living together,” if only because such arrangements tend to be tentative, a fact both parties realize. Becoming married is still a ceremony involving a lifelong promise. As we know, many living-together couples eventually end up marrying. They usually expect to have children and seem to need that pledge of permanency. Finally, I will omit supra-marital arrangements. We are told that increasing numbers of Americans have liberated life-styles, ranging from ménages à trois and spouse-swapping to omnisexual orgies. At this point no one really knows whether most experiences of this sort can persist with any depth or duration.

Husbands and Wives is an extremely useful book, despite its very frustrating format. It is less than it purports to be, but much of its material is very impressive. Anthony Pietropinto, a Brooklyn psychiatrist, and Jacqueline Simenauer, a syndicated columnist, persuaded 3,880 married people to fill in a form with 50 questions coded for 384 possible answers. Thus respondents were given 14 adjectives to describe their spouses (dominant, anxious, methodical), ten choices to indicate the frequency with which they had oral sex (more than once a day, less than once a month), and nine choices for their “worst crisis.” In addition, they were invited to expand their answers in writing. This they did with a will. So much so that throughout most of the book the authors stand aside and let their respondents do the talking. What they say is thoughtful and frequently touching. If nothing else, it shows people engaging in some serious thinking about their own and other people’s marriages. This is …

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