The Great American Marriage Mess


August 11, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

Let me begin this column -- which will address the declining state of marriage in America -- by getting Liz Taylor out of the way. She is not -- repeat, not -- a good example of the type of caution exhibited by many men and women nowadays when the subject of marriage is broached.

In fact, Ms. Liz is a perfect example of the Hope-Triumphs-Over-Experience School of Matrimony. Her thoughts on the subject?

May 6, 1950, on her marriage to Nicky Hilton: "There is no doubt that Nicky is the one I want to spend my life with."

May 12, 1959, on her marriage to Eddie Fisher: "We will be on our honeymoon for 30 or 40 years."

Dec. 4, 1976, on her marriage to Sen. John Warner: "I want to spend the rest of my life with him."

Now that she's about to climb on the marry-go-round for the eighth time, Liz says that this is it, her final marriage. The interesting thing is, I think she really believes what she says. Every time she says it.

But Liz Taylor aside, we've got trouble, really big trouble, in Marriage City.

According to a 1990 survey by the Census Bureau, the proportion of women in their early 30s who have never married has tripled since 1970. Men are marrying less often, too, and both sexes are marrying at an older age. Worse yet for those who, like Liz Taylor, persist in remaining optimistic about the future of marriage, a magazine survey reports that 62 percent of married couples say they have trouble getting along.

So, you're probably asking, what does all this mean? Why do more people appear to be more people throwing in the matrimonial towel?

The answer, say some social scientists, is fear. Not the old, run-of-the-mill fear that you are making a horrible mistake in your choice of spouse -- the "cold-feet" syndrome -- but a new and surprising fear: The fear of . . . intimacy.

But wait! Doesn't everyone want -- no, crave -- intimacy? Intimacy means closeness. Intimacy means familiarity. Intimacy means trust. Who wouldn't want that?

Well, it seems the terms of endearment that prove so satisfying in a before-wedlock relationship do not necessarily bear up well when exposed to the unrelenting, round-the-clock scrutiny of marriage. And many of us, the theory goes, are fearful that this kind of quantum leap in togetherness (read: no place to hide when you look lousy or just want to be alone) can lead to a decrease in love.

Who, after all, is going to love us once they know our faults?

In other words, the fear of intimacy is related to the deeper fear that intimacy may lead to rejection.

And if you listen to psychiatrist and radio talk-show host David Viscott, the fear may have some validity. That is, if you've based your intimate relationship on presenting yourself in the best possible -- but not necessarily authentic -- light. Most marriages, says Dr. Viscott, deteroriate because people enter them with a false premise:

"They pretend to be someone they're not -- dealing with someone who's also pretending to be someone they're not. Then the honeymoon is suddenly over and the fantasy partner and the fantasy self are suddenly revealed to be quite different from the real ones."

To put it in layman's terms: This kind of marriage is roughly equivalent to a really bad first date. The difference is: A bad first date lasts for one night; a bad marriage, on the other hand, lasts a lot longer.

But now that I've got you thinking you understand why some of us fear intimacy, I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into the works and confuse you with yet another view. We fear intimacy, in the opinion of social critic Christopher Lasch, because we despair of ever finding it. Which suggests that while we may be afraid of too much intimacy, we may be equally as fearful of too little. How's that for confusing?

But enough of the social critics and psychiatrists -- let's go to some real people for their thoughts on how to solve the riddle of the disappearing marriage.

"What about the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow lifestyle as a role model?" suggested one woman, pointing out that this famous couple have not just separate bedrooms but separate houses.

"Acting lessons," said a divorced, male friend. "Learn how to be charming under all situations."

Hmmmmm. It's an interesting idea which raises an interesting question: How long can one keep up the charm? Without a break, that is. A week? A month? Six months?

The answer? About three days. Trust me on this one. I've been there.

Alice Steinbach's column will appear Sundays in the People section and Thursdays in the Today section of The Sun.

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