In The Secret Lives of Wives, you keep coming back to the central thesis: “the importance of sustaining a strong sense of an evolving self apart from the marriage relationship.” Some therapists believe too much time apart can lead to parallel lives and drifting away. Do you see this as a danger?
No. The happiest women I interviewed in this book have distinct and separate passions and purposes and work and engagements outside of their partnerships. The myth in marriage is that the two become one. Two people never become one person—knowing that can help two people stay married.
Is that the secret to success in marriage?
Couples who allow each other to grow separately, I believe, have a better shot at growing together over the long haul. The happiest women I interviewed don’t spend that much time with their husbands, and it’s not out of lack of love. It’s because they are engaged in their own lives.
What I attempted to do in this last book was to encourage people to rewrite the rules of their own marriage. I wanted to liberate women, particularly, to realize there’s no gold-standard marriage toward which they should aspire. Everyone has issues, everyone has problems, everyone has secrets, and most people lie about sex.
Dan Savage, who writes the Savage Love column, was the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile in which he basically said monogamy is a thing of the past. What about that?
I have seen some marriages endure someone having an affair. There’s a woman in my book who has been married 30-plus years whose husband doesn’t like sex, so she has sex with other people.
Do you think that’s a successful marriage?
It’s not the marriage I would ever want. But I present this to my readers. Only a tiny slice of The Secret Lives of Wives is about adultery. When readers say, “How can you write about affairs in a marriage book?,” I say, “It’s their life, not mine—I’m a journalist, not a judge.”
You write early in the book, “I am here to coax any woman with newlywed panic or midlife malaise, of which I’ve had both, to hang in there.” Are you still coaxing yourself?
Oh, yeah. I write books that I need. When the twins were born, all our kids were age three and under. I needed Surrendering to Motherhood to grapple with work/family solutions. When I had young children and a young marriage and wrote Surrendering to Marriage, that was me. When I was trying to figure out who the hell I was beyond the babies, Surrendering to Yourself was me. When my mother was very ill at the end of her life and I was trying to grapple with who she was, I wrote I Am My Mother’s Daughter.
This is the first time you’ve written about what’s ahead of you, right?
Yes. I’m writing about the 30- and 40-year itch. Because I spoke to so many older women for this book, this is my road map.
So what do you see for yourself? Are you going to stay married?
Nobody knows what the future will bring, but there’s no way I could imagine ever leaving Chuck. Although separation sifts through my mind—maybe more so during hockey season—I’ve found you can have a solid marriage and still pursue your own dreams. My goal for me and my readers is to have it both ways: a committed marriage and personal adventures in uncharted territory. To accomplish that goal as a wife, you need a confident and flexible husband.
In this book, there’s rarely a mention of romance, flowers, the things we associate with Valentine’s Day.
It’s not about flowers. It’s about remembering to be emotionally and physically intimate. It’s about remembering to have sex. This is what I came away with. If you’re still hot for your partner and you’re still doing it—even once a month—and you still want to do it, that’s a good marriage.
So it all comes down to sex?
It comes down to feeling the crackle for another person, in your heart and in your loins. Sex, and feeling sexually desirable, makes you feel young and strong. And feeling young and strong helps make you feel invincible. I’m married to someone I’m attracted to after nearly 24 years of marriage. So if you still are attracted to someone and you are faced with the piddly problems every marriage is faced with, you can just go to bed and make your problems go away for 11 minutes or so.
Did you find sex got better with age?
Sex with the same person can get richer with age if you had that spark to begin with. I tell young people all the time, “Don’t marry anyone you’re not sexually attracted to, because once you’re 11 years into it and you hate his in-laws and you have a mortgage, and once you’re 17 years into it and you’ve got surly teenagers, you want someone you can get carnal with and make all your woes go away.” Many women in their advanced years shared with me that you can always go back to that sweet, lusty memory, and it definitely helps keep romance alive.
Has it helped your marriage?
We’ve been in the kind of fights in which you’re just going around and around—he said, she said, he said, she said—and it’s maddening. Sometimes you just have to say, “Let’s take this into the bedroom.”
What do you think your four boys are going to take away from being raised by you and Chuck?
They may not want our exact marriage, but I can tell you they’re going to want strong, self-reliant, adoring women. They’re going to want to replicate this continuity and closeness. They know the power of a close family, and I know they’re going to have wonderful wives—because I’m going to pick all of them.
What have you learned about life?
When I turned 50, I learned to stop caring what anyone else thinks about me. What matters most is what I think about myself in remaining true to my family, to my friends, and to what I feel is my mission—to teach students to write better and to write books that inspire people to work hard on their most intimate relationships.
This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.