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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.1 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 especially evident with the women.

Still, the book has definite drawbacks. Despite the large size of its sample, it is not a statistical study. If those 3,880 forms passed through a computer, they never emerge as columns or tables. Occasional figures appear in the text, but in no discernible pattern. We are told that almost a third of the persons sampled said they had contemplated divorce, certainly an important statistic. However this finding is not clarified by age or other identifying factors. We learn the respondents used 1.7 adjectives to summarize the average spouse, a figure worth some pondering in its own right. Even so, the authors omit particulars on the possible permutations. (How many anxious and methodical, as opposed to affectionate and irresponsible?) Nor is our curiosity satisfied on the incidence of oral sex. (Among those on a biweekly schedule, who does what to whom?)

Their reliance on the written replies also produces some problems. The questions were simple, encouraging people to speak their minds. Like: “Why did you decide to marry?” Or: “Why did you happen to choose your particular spouse?” As one might expect, the answers are brief but beguiling:

He was so handsome, a big stud, and he wanted me of all the girls he could have had.

He did not drink, smoke, or swear.

I was irresistibly drawn to her.

We just sort of happened.

I got pregnant.

I was young and stupid.

These are certainly “reasons” people would give if you asked them “why” they got married. And they have a poignant ring of truth. However difficulties arise when you ask people “why” they did something, especially if you are content to settle for their answers. Yet this is just what Pietropinto and Simenauer do. They seem to accept their respondents’ self-analysis, and as authors they intervene only to set up categories. Unfortunately this method has no way of dealing with what people fail to say. Even with a sample of 3,880 much will not rise to the surface or be reported on the forms. If no one actually says, “I married her to humiliate my mother,” or “He was a weakling I could control,” or “I wanted a cocoon to escape a menacing world,” are we to suppose that such factors never were present?

Nor does the survey method entitle us to draw deductions from brief but suggestive responses. Take the husband who said he married because he was “young and stupid.” Therein obviously lies a tale we can loosely reconstruct from the other responses in Husbands and Wives. He married in his early twenties or even earlier, as most Americans do. The typical groom is twenty-four, with his bride thirty months younger. The chief reason they decide to do so is that the disadvantages of being single have begun outweighing its satisfactions. (This starts sooner with young people than we are often apt to think.) So they move toward marriage, as a permissible alternative.

For this reason, the partner they select is usually incidental. Put another way, there is not much “selection” involved. When young people reach a point where they feel ready for marriage, they find it easy enough to fall in love with one of the next people they meet—especially when many of those they encounter tend to share their general desire for a change. (Premarital pregnancies help the process along, for not all are entirely accidental. Even today, a quarter of young brides have a baby on the way.) Of course “young and stupid” didn’t say all this. And neither do Pietropinto and Simenauer. But it is the most likely reason why he married a girl he hardly knew.

More often than not, Husbands and Wives combines its men’s and women’s responses in almost a random way. Unfortunately this tends to suggest that gender is extraneous to people’s perceptions of marriage. It was Jesse Bernard who reminded us that every couple can and should be seen as two separable entities.2 “His” marriage differs from “Hers” in every major particular. Failure to heed this warning means we hear from individual wives and husbands, but we catch no glimpse of their marriages.

As it happened, among the 3,880 respondents were 869 married couples. An intriguing chapter could have compared various responses from these 1,738 people. Many of the questions seem tailor-made for such a treatment: “Do you consider your marriage successful?” “How have children affected your marriage?” “What is your spouse’s biggest sexual difficulty?” It is not often that a book forgoes so many opportunities.

Still, I hold to my view that Husbands and Wives can be an extremely useful source for understanding modern marriages, although it requires considerable effort on the part of the reader to achieve its utmost value. One project—calling for scissors and a pot of paste—would be to realign several hundred quotations according to the sex of the respondents. Once this has been done, a quite different book emerges. It could be called Husbands Versus Wives, with plenty of supporting data.

The dichotomy begins as men and women embark on marriage for radically different reasons. His is usually a desire to “settle down,” which means a more orderly domestic setting. Hers is a more romantic vision, with daily affirmations of “love.” Of course he loves her. However, a man’s love for a woman differs from hers for him. He loves her as a creature not quite his equal, and the endurance of his affection requires maintaining that disparity. Her love depends much less on status. It is a more complex emotion, because it occupies a larger part of her life. And to all this should be added that she has been preparing herself for marriage since her very earliest years. Girls fantasize about being a wife, as boys never do about becoming a husband. Thus women are ready to transform considerable portions of themselves; men anticipate going on much as before. We know a lot has changed in recent decades. Even so, the asymmetries just outlined (and exaggerated) are still very much in evidence. And they can be found in Husbands and Wives, if the reader is willing to make the effort.

Indeed, marriage means more to women, even as it gives men a greater share of its benefits. Not only that, women think more about it and what they say is much more interesting. Pietropinto and Simenauer asked their sample to comment on the rising rate of divorce. It is hard to improve on some of these women’s answers:

People expect too much.

Couples grow apart.

People are selfish and self-centered.

There is too much “I” in the relationship.

People do not have a realistic expectation of what it is to share another’s life.

Women are generally the major cause. They no longer treat their man like the head of their house.

Couples do not communicate with each other.

The view that women are “the major cause” of much marital discord can be interpreted not as assigning blame but as a coolly descriptive statement. What it suggests is that most men still expect deference from their wives, an attitude behooving those inherently inferior. Women are the ones who are changing, asking to be seen as equals—a fact they always knew, but saw fit to mask in the past. Men find it difficult, often impossible, to adapt to this new climate. They may say they want wives who are accomplished and independent. But they also want them docile. It is the women, not the men, who are vivid in our present phase of domestic history. They are the force unsettling men, a consequence that can only weaken marriage.

Or the observation that “couples do not communicate with each other.” This term was used much more by wives than husbands to express marital complaints. The term is of course very vague, with a wide range of meanings. It can include nonverbal awareness of a partner’s moods and wishes, as it does in the best of marriages. Still, “communication” also means talk and conversation, of some frequency and seriousness. At least it does for an increasing number of wives.

  1. 1

    For those interested, this has been a season for books on threesomes, foursomes, and swingers. Available, but not especially recommended, are: Ulla and Richard Anobile, Beyond Open Marriage (A & W Publishers, 1979); Marcia Seligson, Options: A Personal Expedition Through the Sexual Frontier (Random House, 1978); Brian G. Gilmartin, The Gilmartin Report (Citadel, 1978).

  2. 2

    The Future of Marriage (Bantam, 1973). The only difficulty is that Bernard will only offer an observation if she can find an academic study to support it. Within this constraint, she does an excellent job.

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