Cynthia is a 68-year-old woman in a 45-year “committed marriage” who has figured out how to keep it that way. Every other month or so she goes out to lunch with her college boyfriend Thomas, who is also married and has no intention of leaving his wife. Usually their outings end in a hot and heavy “petting session” in his Mercedes. Sometimes, he rubs Jean Naté lotion, the scent Cynthia wore in college, onto her legs and compliments her beautiful feet. They’ve never consummated their relationship, nor do they intend to. Being with Thomas is “like a balloon liftoff,” Cynthia reports, one that eases some of the tensions between her and her 74-year-old physics professor husband. “I’m a nicer, more tolerant person because of this affair,” she says.
Cynthia’s story is one of more than 60 confessionals from long-time wives that punctuate Iris Krasnow’s new book The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married. And what their stories reveal is that marital longevity requires wives to establish strong, separate identities from their husbands through creative coping mechanisms, some of them covert. Krasnow spoke with more than 200 women, married between 15 and 70 years, who report taking separate holidays, embarking on new careers, establishing a tight circle of female friends, dabbling in Same Time, Next Year-style liaisons and adulterous affairs, and having “boyfriends with boundaries.” Yoga and white wine also feature predominately.
The 58-year-old Krasnow, an author and journalism professor at American University, writes she was “stunned by the secrets and shenanigans” in her journalistic journey through American marriages. She comes to the subject from the vantage point of her own 23-year marriage to an architect she loves but admits to “loathing” occasionally. She credits summers spent apart, separate hobbies and her close relationships with male buddies for some of their marital stability.
It’s a theory that builds on her previous books, Surrendering to Motherhood and Surrendering to Marriage, which extol the virtues of sublimating the self to a higher ideal.
Krasnow embraces the modern expectation that individuals experience perpetual personal growth and reinvention but dismisses the notion that partners must share each of these stages: “The reality is that for many wives, attaining longevity requires getting growth spurts elsewhere and experimenting with alternative routes,” she writes.
First, however, women must lower their expectations of what marriage can provide, she advises: “Wives who don’t rely on their husbands for happiness end up having the happiest marriages.” Speaking on her phone from her home in Maryland, she echoes the sentiment: “You have to be partners on the level of the soul,” she says of marriage. “But you are your own soulmate. Everybody needs a source of passion and purpose within. When you have that you can make any relationship work. You’re not depending on anyone else to make you happy.”
Krasnow paints a rosy picture of what a long-lasting marriage can provide women—better health, a rich shared history, the comfort of having someone who has your back, and personal and economic stability amid global uncertainty. Many of her testimonials suggest marriages can be regenerated over time, like a liver, with longer-married couples reporting the greatest happiness of all. There’s also practical considerations, writes Krasnow, who admits online dating or disrobing in front of someone new horrifies her.
The book is destined to strike a nerve at a time when expectations of marriage and divorce are under scrutiny. Both the marriage rate and the divorce rate are dropping, with the exception of “grey divorce” among people over 50, embodied by Al and Tipper Gore who split after 40 years of marriage. We’re in the midst of a divorce backlash, fuelled by the conservative-marriage movement and books like Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, which raised consciousness about how divorce fractures families. Krasnow rejects the popular notion that divorce offers an opportunity for reinvention, as propagated by the booming divorce memoir genre. We should call it what it is: “a failure,” she writes.
Yet it’s clear the old script doesn’t fit at a time women are increasingly out-earning their husbands and people are living into their 80s. “Women want to redefine how they navigate marriage,” Krasnow says.
And the happily-ever-after prescription she offers will resonate. Many of the women Krasnow interviewed are like her—educated, smart, with enough disposable income to spend summers painting in Italy or travelling to ashrams. Most have financial autonomy: even a woman in a traditional arranged marriage has a thriving career and a helpful husband who gives her her own “space.”
The directive that couples should give each other “space” for marriages to thrive is far from new, of course. Krasnow quotes from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, “Let there be space in your togetherness,” published in 1923. In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously wrote of the need for women to have “money and a room of one’s own” to create art. In 1954, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, wrote Gift From the Sea on a summer retreat from her husband and children, which espoused the importance of solitude and self-reflection for women. It was an instant bestseller. And Johnny Cash attributed part of the success of his 32-year union with June Carter Cash to separate bathrooms: “The lady needs her space,’’ he said.
Yet that sentiment runs counter to a popular culture in thrall to a “happily ever after” fairy-tale narrative and the “you complete me” message espoused in the movie Jerry Maguire. It’s precisely the disconnect between the expectation that husband and wife be everything to one another and the reality of marriage that causes women to keep secrets, says Susan Shapiro Barash, a professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College whose books include Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie.
As time goes on, she says a lot of women feel trapped and that they’ve grown apart. “But because the culture so endorses marriage as a means and an end—children, a family, a partner for life (at least 60 per cent of the time). When it doesn’t, “it’s sometimes such a rude awakening for women they cover it up. Longevity does not lend itself to living happily as a wife.”
That’s a problem in a society in which women over 80 are the fastest-growing demographic.
Krasnow’s examples indicate the wives most likely to live happily ever after into old age are those who can carve happily ever after out for themselves. It’s the next iteration of the wife script that has traditionally called for a wifely sacrifice.
“We are the caregivers, the softies, the gender programmed to take care of the needs of everybody else before we care for ourselves,” writes Krasnow. As a respite, she describes going out with her female friends for freewheeling bimonthly dinners where she can let loose as the “unmom” and “unwife.”
Krasnow quotes 77-year-old sex and relationship therapist Marilyn Charwat, who says the American standard of sexual morality—that you marry one person and stay sexually and emotionally true and connected to that person—is “inhumane and impossible.”
Yet the book reflects a broad view that sexual secrecy in marriage is rampant, from a woman buoyed by the memory of a furtive kiss with a neighbour to long-term sexual liaisons.
Not that Krasnow is advocating infidelity, though flirting is fine: “I say ride that hormonal surge straight to your own bedroom and initiate great sex with your spouse,” she writes. Charwat’s advice is more practical. She recommends women use vibrators, which releases them from relationship “tyranny.”
The infidelity chapter, in which Krasnow spoke to 14 women conducting affairs, is coyly titled “Naughty Girls,” a sensibility reflected in the cautionary references to 19th-century fictional heroines Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. In one cautionary story, which reinforces Krasnow’s theory that women should stick with their marriages, Lucy leaves her husband for a man she met on a plane and regrets her mistake.
Unlike husbands, wives are driven to extramarital affairs not as a way of exiting their marriage but remaining in them. One woman says her husband’s sexual unresponsiveness justified her cheating. Mimi, a Lilly Pulitzer-wearing, 57-year-old conservative who’s a secret swinger with her husband, practises an odd form of monogamy by saying he is the only man able to bring her to orgasm.
Shapiro Barash, who explored adultery in A Passion for More: Wives Reveal the Affairs That Make or Break Their Marriages, agrees unrealistic expectations usually fuel adultery. “The affair is always about what’s missing from a marriage. I have rarely heard a woman speak of her lover being similar to her husband.”
Krasnow’s husband isn’t a talker, so she craves extramarital conversation, not sex, a need sated by her various “boyfriends with boundaries.” But seeking male friendship can be more fraught with peril than sexual affairs, the book reveals. One woman interviewed felt compelled to lie about her intense Platonic relationship with a man; when her husband found out, he created a scene and demanded she never see him again. Krasnow admits there can be “danger zones”: such as when participants text each other every 20 minutes. “Any man in my life, I immediately make sure my husband meets him.”
What Krasnow is providing is a much-needed middle-aged fairy tale that begins years after the prince grows a paunch. Her prescriptions are both surprisingly banal and brilliant sound bites.
“The real secret to staying married is not getting divorced,” Krasnow writes, in a tautology. Save abuse or serial adultery, every marriage is salvageable with a big caveat that there’s “trust, respect and intimacy, both emotional and physical.”
As long as there’s “a spittle of love,” there’s hope, she writes. Shelley, a woman whose marriage survived her husband’s affair with her best friend, blames the woman more than her husband in a telling statement: “There’s something sacred with the bond of women.”
Then there’s 48-year-old Julia, locked in a marriage “bound by the endless need” of her seriously ill daughter, who craves an “equal partner” but feels her husband is giving up. Her solution is to take up painting.
The focus on personal happiness would seem at odds with the notion espoused in Krasnow’s other books. It’s a perspective voiced by Phil and Pat Denniston, a happily married California couple even though they live and work together 24-7. They speak about the risks of separate directions and observe that marriages in which participants speak in terms of “me” not “us” are doomed.
In order to get to the happy “us,” it’s up to the wife to make the right choices from the get-go, Krasnow writes.
She recalls she once asked Barbara Bush senior the secret to a happy marriage: “Pick the right husband in the first place.”
The author agrees. “You should marry someone who’s flexible, confident and trusts you: if you can’t count on your husband or wife in a crazy unstable world then you’re marrying the wrong person. But if you do marry the wrong person, you can always fall back on your secret life.”