Sex—and Other Secrets
Iris Krasnow, the author of bestselling books on relationships, talks about what makes love last.
Writer Iris Krasnow in the home where she and her husband of 24 years have raised four sons. “The myth in marriage is that two people become one,” she says. “Couples who allow each other to grow separately, I believe, have a better shot at growing together over the long haul.” Photograph by Erik Uecke.
The secret is out: Women are craving and enjoying sex way into their seventies. This is just one revelation in Iris Krasnow’s latest book, The Secret Lives of Wives: Couples who stay married for decades are still doing it.
“If you ask what surprised me the most,” she says, “number one would be how many seniors are very sexual, very alive.”
Krasnow, 57, has been talking and writing about women and their relationships since she began her journalism career with the Chicago Tribune in the late 1970s. She was a fashion reporter for the Dallas Times Herald before coming to Washington in 1984 as a national feature writer for United Press International. Her first book on personal growth, 1997’s Surrendering to Motherhood, explored her odyssey from journalist to mother of four sons. She went on to write Surrendering to Marriage (2002), Surrendering to Yourself (2003), and I Am My Mother’s Daughter (2007).
For The Secret Lives of Wives, Krasnow interviewed hundreds of women to “excavate” why marriages succeed or fail, how women accommodate themselves to marriage, what wives tell their husbands, what they keep in secret. She’s negotiating with cable channels to turn the book into a TV series.
A native of Oak Park, Illinois, Krasnow earned an undergraduate degree in photojournalism from Stanford and a master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown. She is a professor of journalism at American University.
Krasnow and her husband of 24 years, architect Charles Anthony, have raised four sons in their Annapolis home. At a downtown DC restaurant, she talked about what she’s learned.
Your books are very self-exploratory. Take us back to your childhood—what prepared you for this?
I’m the daughter of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who lost everybody in Hitler’s death camps. I learned early on the eggshell-thin line that separates life from death and that the people you love most could be snatched from you in a finger snap. The way my mother tightly held onto her family and preserved her marriage inspired me. I was always aware that the people you love the most are the backbone of your life.
What about your father?
My father grew up dirt-poor in the Depression and started a furniture company, called Marvel Metal, that’s still thriving, though he died many years ago. My dad was probably my favorite person on the planet. He was so proud and encouraging of my sister, my brother, and me. He made it important to have a passion. His favorite saying was “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
How did that affect you?
We were motivated to know that you didn’t get anything unless you worked really hard. People say to me, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you’ve been on Oprah twice,” but it does not have a whole lot to do with luck.
Did your mother talk about surviving World War II?
After her parents and siblings perished during the war, she lived as a Jew in France and pretended she was Catholic. Her favorite saying was “If Hitler didn’t get me, nothing will.” Later it became “If Hitler didn’t get me, nothing can get you.”
So we grew up feeling you could do anything—the barometer against which I measured despair or impossibility was Hitler. There was a steeliness to my mother, although she was very warm.
Did you have a different relationship with your dad?
There was nothing I couldn’t do. My whole life he told me, “You are such a good writer.” I used to write him letters from summer camp when I was eight. He kept every letter, and he’d have me write to his friends and to our neighborhood paper. When you have a purpose and a passion and you get support from the people closest to you, passion plus support equals power, and that can equal a long-running career. I feel like he really nailed that into me.
How would you describe your parents’ relationship?
They were a really good team.
Were they affectionate?
They would kiss and hug, but they weren’t glommed onto each other. Did they have make-out sessions? Not that I saw, but they loved each other a lot. They fought, they made up, and they carried on. It was definitely an imperfect marriage.
Any other influences that led you to be so fascinated with relationships?
We lived in the same house my whole life. When I went back recently to Oak Park High School to get an alumni award, my best friend from second grade was in the audience. I have very deep roots, and it made me seek that and try to reproduce it with my own children. Our four boys have grown up in the same Annapolis house for the past 18 years.
Next: Krasnow’s first boyfriend, first real love.
It made you seek what?
Stability, family, continuity, predictability—all those elements that have come together in the 57-year-old woman you’re looking at right now.
Did you have an awakening that led you to write about relationships?
I started my journalism career writing about food for the Chicago Tribune, but when I began writing profiles for Chicago magazine, I knew I had hit my true love. I became the fashion writer for the Dallas Times Herald, but I always cared about people and their relationships, their families, their roots.
How did you make it into feature writing in Washington?
I was sitting at my desk at the Dallas Times Herald in the early ’80s, and there was this lilting Australian accent on the telephone. It was Max McCrohon, who had been an editor at the Chicago Tribune before he was dispatched to Washington to be editor of United Press International. He said, “How would you like to come to Washington? We’re starting a features section.” I said, “Oh, my God, Max—that’d be so wonderful. What would I be writing about?” He said, “You can interview anyone you want in the world.”
I ended up writing 5,000-word profiles for a series called Life-Size—profiling people like Queen Noor, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Bush, Yoko Ono, Elie Wiesel, Billy Graham. I loved the shift from having to focus on what people were wearing to finding out the essence of who they are.
How did you get into writing about relationships?
In my mid-twenties, I had been in four weddings and I was dating people I thought I could marry, so I started writing a series about relationships. AIDS had just made its debut, so I would write pieces like “monogamy is in, swinging is out,” how to hunt for Mr. Right, what not to look for in a husband, sort of based on my own observations and dating life.
In your observations about love and relationships, you rarely mention spirituality. Do you believe in God?
I still say the prayers every night that I’ve said since I was six: “Thank you, God, for a good day. Bless my mom and dad, sister, brother, Ann, Mary, Grandma, all my friends, babysitters, teachers, and God and my country.” Most of the people in those prayers are dead, but I still say their names every night. So I do believe in God. I do believe that prayers are answered, and Judaism is a rock of who I am, as it was for my mother.
How did she impart that to you?
In her later life, she lost half a leg. She lost my father when she was only 65. She lost her immediate family to Hitler’s death camps. I used to ask, “Mom, how can you get up in the morning?” And she would say in this really thick Polish accent, “So your friends come and go. Your father, he came and went. My leg, it came and went, but Iya”—that’s what she used to call me—“nobody can ever take my Judaism away, nobody.”
To leap forward to The Secret Lives of Wives, the real secret to staying married forever is to have a sense of purpose and passion and spirituality beyond your partnership, because in the end, we’re all alone. I never feel alone because there is that fire and that center—call it God—that I am connected to.
From the sacred to the profane: Who was your first boyfriend?
My first big crush was Woody Peterson in fourth grade. He was very funny, and he wore really adorable glasses. He was tall and thin, and he’s actually my type. My husband is a Woody Peterson type.
Who was your first real love?
Probably Ray, my high-school boyfriend, an Italian guy who played tight end on the football team and also played the guitar. I went steady with him for two years. He was very quiet and very smart. His father owned a restaurant. I loved him and his family, and I’m still in touch with his sister. But he was wrong for me in the long run.
Was that a good relationship?
It was good. He listened and I talked. Kind of sums up my marriage.
What are your limits for delving into your personal life?
If you read my five books, there’s so much unspoken. I am 25 percent self-revelatory in order to get my subjects to open up 100 percent. If I’m going to excavate hundreds of people’s lives and really expose them in books, I have to share some of my own story. But I am not going to write about really personal things like how many times I have sex a week.
How’s your marriage?
I am in a very traditional marriage in terms of loyalty, fidelity, and trust. In this and other books, I’ve talked about couples who swing, couples who sleep around. I’m a flirt, but I’m married and I’m true to the vows.
You’ve written about Chuck, your husband, as a loving partner but rather silent. What does he think about excavations into his life? Do you show him the books first?
Sometimes. Honestly, he’d rather watch hockey than read drafts of my books. He’s just happy that I’ve written five books and that I’m making a good living. He knows that my passion is writing and that a writer needs to write, and he’s just happy I’m getting paid to do what I love.
Did he read The Secret Lives of Wives before it was published?
No. I gave it to him the week it was published, and he read the whole thing. He had one comment: In the last chapter I say he was cutting our hedges with a chain saw. The only thing he said was “It wasn’t a chain saw.”
Is he as quiet as you portray him?
He is silent often, and he does watch hockey. When Chuck is watching hockey, he will not look at me, even if the house is burning down. If you were to ask, “What makes you the maddest about your marriage?” it would be this: If I’m speaking to you, you need to look at me in the eyes. I will stand in front of the TV, and when the vein throbs in my neck and I’m my most angry, he still won’t look at me because he is fixated on—who’s the guy with the missing tooth?—Ovechkin scooting around the ice.
Can you see how mad I am getting? I want to be listened to. So why’d I marry him?
Chuck has the sexiest quality you could ever want in a person.
Reliability. At least I know where to find him. A lot of women don’t know where to find their husbands.
Was he always that way?
On one of our first dates, I remember asking him: “If you could characterize me in one word, what would it be?” It was the first time he ever ate sushi—I took him to Sushiko. And he said, “Provocative.” He put his head back, and he’s so handsome and he’s six-foot-three and he had, you know, a brown beard and incandescent blue eyes, and he sort of looked at me and he goes, “How would you characterize me?” And I said, “Reliable.” And he goes, “That is not sexy.” I said, “You have no idea how sexy that is after the stable of Mr. Wrongs that I’ve been subjected to.”
Next: “Is that the secret to success in marraige?”
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.