By Susan Josephs
Seventeen years ago, as an exhausted wife and mother of four small children, Iris Krasnow made a desperate phone call to her mother and vowed she would leave her husband. Since then, she’s written several books, spent multiple summers alone, including as a camp counselor in her 40s, and revisited her childhood passion for horseback riding after her kids grew up.
Now 57, Krasnow has stayed married and, after some 23 years of marriage, keeps pictures in her wallet of her husband and of her sons at young ages. “I recommend to everyone who wants marriage and children to keep the sweetest pictures you can of your family in your wallet,” she says. “When I open my wallet, there’s Chuck, my husband, and my kids, and it reminds me to remember what I have and not dwell on what I don’t have.”
Krasnow, a journalism professor at American University and best-selling author of Surrendering to Marriage and Surrendering to Motherhood, decided to write a new book about the coping mechanisms she and other women have used to weather the ups and downs of married life. Blending extensive reporting with personal narrative, The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married has already attracted lots of media attention and thousands of responses from readers. “People write to me with heartfelt thank-yous,” she says. “This book is hitting a nerve for people because it’s saying, ‘Let go of judgment, let go of perfection’ and that there’s no gold standard of marriage that we all need to aspire to.”
Although she definitely believes that “some marriages need to end, especially if there’s abuse or adultery,” says Krasnow, she hopes her book will “shatter the myth of happily ever after” and remind the married “that the honeymoon is over quickly. I speak to a lot of Jewish groups, and I always talk about valuing what you have instead of disposing of your marriage because you’re bored. Boredom is a terrible reason for destroying your marriage,” she says.
The buzz around Krasnow’s book coincides with a declining divorce rate. According to a study last year by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the U.S. divorce rate has decreased since peaking in the early 1980s; the average couple now has a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of divorce. There also appears to be a trend among young, educated couples to work on their marriages and resist divorce, according to a recent New York Times article called “How Divorce Lost Its Groove.” The article reported that “from the 1970s to the 2000s, the percentage of highly educated Americans who believe that divorce should be made more difficult rose from 36 to 48 percent.”
And Krasnow’s not the only one with a book out about how to stay married. Psychologist Harriet Lerner’s Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, for example, which comes out this January, offers simple, practical advice in the form of 106 rules, beginning with respecting individual differences and ending with a warning on using email to communicate important matters. Married for more than 40 years, Lerner advises her readers, “If your relationship is going swimmingly now, don’t get lazy, because your life together will take unexpected twists and turns. If your relationship is difficult and disappointing, don’t lose hope. Taking the long view—which is what marriage is about—should give us both pause and patience.”
The current pop cultural push to stay married and stick it out during the tough times also echoes centuries of Jewish tradition. “Historically, Jews have stayed together,” says Rabbi Karen Fox, a spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and a marriage and family psychotherapist. “Though divorce rates among Jews are very close to the general population today, there’s been a demand and an expectation among Jews that marriage was for life.”
But don’t expect to find role models of picture-perfect marriages in biblical and rabbinic literature. The stories in the Bible “focus on the difficult issues. Sarah and Abraham had a convoluted marriage; they had Hagar to deal with,” says Fox about Abraham’s concubine. She also points out Rebecca’s deceptive behavior toward Isaac, and Jacob, juggling the demands of four wives. “What these stories provide is a sense of comfort that our tradition doesn’t demand perfection; that it’s about, ‘How do we live with our flaws and still create a meaningful family life?’”
Throughout Jewish history, “the most stable institution for the preservation of Jewish tradition was the family,” says Michael Berger, an associate professor of religion at Emory University. “People stayed married, and not because they went to a counselor once a week. It’s also important to keep in mind that in the traditional Jewish mind, marriage was seen as the first step toward having children.”
Berger cites scholarly sources that illuminate the marital challenges Jewish families have faced throughout history. The Jewish historian Jacob Katz, for example, wrote about the late Middle Ages, when both men and women worked as peddlers and traveled outside the home most of the week. “Chasidism also made things tough,” says Berger, who observes that for all these husbands “to be in the orbit of their rebbe” happened at the cost of neglecting their wives. “We tend to think that everything was so solid,” he adds, referring to the history of Jewish families before the era of European Enlightenment in the 18th century, which allowed Jews greater freedom in society. “But by the time emancipation came, you were really blowing over this house of cards…so many things were fracturing the family.”
Still, the perpetuation of marriage as a central Jewish value remained a constant and “overall, marriage is still venerated today by Jews,” says Berger, who also notes how much times have changed since the rabbis of the Talmudic period hammered out the laws of marriage and divorce. For example, “it’s OK today to marry at 30 or later.”
Modern Jewish couples also have no problem seeking marriage counseling, be it from therapists or rabbis. Fox, in fact, decided to become a psychotherapist after working at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 10 years and feeling “I had inadequate counseling skills for the situations that came my way.” Some 20 years later, she continues to blend her skills as a rabbi and therapist. “I might bring up a Jewish text, but to tell you the truth, it’s enough of a Jewish moment for many people when they walk into a rabbi’s office asking for help,” she says. “Our tradition doesn’t have to be textual; it can be sociological.”
Ultimately, Fox believes a couple “has to have the hope that things can work out. If people want to work it out, they work it out. I’ve known people who’ve been married for many years with lots of difficult stuff, but they found comfort in staying together,” she says.
Fox might as well be talking about many of the marriages described in Krasnow’s book. Krasnow conducted more than 200 interviews with women married between 15 and 70 years and, in the process, discovered numerous poignant stories about persevering in marriage despite significant challenges. Alice, for example, struggles to care for her 10-year-old autistic and epileptic daughter and never imagined “marriage could be this hard.” Karen had to start taking care of the husband who had always nurtured her after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. And then there’s Flo, married for 64 years and aware of how much she and her husband “love each other and how much we are going to miss each other. You get to this wonderful place at the end of a marriage,” she says.
“I think it’s been emancipating for me and my readers to realize, ‘Oh, I’m not alone struggling through this journey of marriage.’ Because the truth is that most people struggle with marriage,” says Krasnow. “But there’s also a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Though Krasnow wrote her book for a general audience, she believes her advocacy for long-term marriage stems from core Jewish values. “I don’t write books that are specifically for Jewish people, but I definitely consider myself a Jewish author,” she says. “The bedrock of Judaism is faith, family and mission, and these things are the backbone of all my books.”
Raised in Oak Park, Ill., Krasnow grew up hearing stories from her mother, a Holocaust survivor, and “I understood early on the fragility of life, that there’s this eggshell-thin line between life and death, and therefore we need to value and cherish the people we love,” she says. “My understanding of this fragility is at the core of my writing.”
In her chapter titled “Separate Summers,” which makes a case for the importance of wives and husbands taking time apart, Krasnow writes about her own husband, a “lapsed Methodist” who agreed to raise their children Jewish but chose not to convert when he married Krasnow. But after almost 20 years of marriage, he secretly studied with a rabbi and traveled independently to Israel before surprising his family with the news that he converted to Judaism. “He didn’t want to become Jewish for anyone but himself,” recalls Krasnow. “This was very powerful and an exciting transition for us in our own marriage.”
For Krasnow, the story of her husband’s conversion “has a healing lesson,” as do all the tales told in her book. “One thing I really hoped to do was to liberate women into knowing that the real ticket to happiness and longevity in marriage is to have your own sense of purpose and self-fulfillment outside your partnership,” she says.
Practicing what she preaches, Krasnow intends to keep pursuing her own interests and grow old with her husband. As she writes in the last chapter of her book: “We love and we loathe and we carry on, two people, one couple, four sons and a rusting red tricycle on our porch waiting to be ridden again by the next generation.”
Susan Josephs is a freelance writer who lives in Venice, Calif.
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