Happy marriage is made by two reasonably happy people

May 20, 2001|By Susan Reimer

My husband will be relieved to hear that I am not itching to toss my best underwear in an overnight bag and blow town with a lover.

At least I hope he will be relieved.

But I am sure he recognizes in me a vague discontent with the imperfections of the institution of marriage, because he probably has those feelings, too.

When we get a chance to talk, however, we avoid cataloging our grievances with each other. That never helps. But sometimes we compare gossip about other people's divorces because it helps us feel better about being married.

That is the lesson of Iris Krasnow's new book, "Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and Other Imperfections:" The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. It just looks like it is.

"I know it sounds glib to say, 'Marriage is Hell. Get over it,' " says Krasnow, a journalism professor who lives in Annapolis with her architect husband and four young sons. "But your marriage is what it is. Get it, and get on with things."

Krasnow's first book, "Surrendering to Motherhood," was a chronicle of how she gave up her glamorous life traveling the globe and interviewing celebrities and made her peace with the fact that she now had four children under the age of 4 and was reduced to picking scrambled eggs out of the carpet.

This second book is not so autobiographical, though Krasnow is almost uncomfortably candid about her own marriage. This time, she interviewed hundreds of married -- and divorcing -- couples in a search for the definition of marital happiness.

She found that the secret is resignation, an end to the striving for bliss and contentment. She found that you do not find happiness in another person, you cultivate it in yourself.

"I have found that if I wait the squalls of marriage out, they always pass, and a softer wind blows through that makes me feel as if I'm the luckiest woman alive," she writes.

Her revelation is not to be confused with the prescription for happiness in "The Surrendered Wife." This isn't about giving your husband the checkbook and sex on demand, or responding with "whatever you think" to any question he asks.

This is about loving the one you're with. Because you made a commitment to each other -- and to any children -- to give it your best effort.

"This constant striving, I think, is a generational thing," says Krasnow during a conversation on her screened porch. Her house on the Chesapeake Bay is a dream, but because she has four boys, it is imperfect, too.

"This sense of achieving, growing, changing, going higher and higher. This itching to be somewhere else is something our generation brought to the table. You get married and immediately you start thinking, 'What's next?' Not just, 'Is this all there is?' But 'What's next?'

"Well, it doesn't have to be divorce."

Krasnow does not advocate staying in an abusive marriage, or one in which you have been emotionally abandoned. She does not even recommend that you remain married if you are more sad than happy. She just wants couples to ratchet down the level of happiness they require.

This book is breezy and a fun read. Her anecdotes from other marriages are as engaging as any gossip could be. But this book does a serious service, too.

It allows us to admit, to ourselves if not to others, that marriage, our marriage, is not a state of sustained happiness, it is not a seamless union of two people. Marriage is not perfect, but it can be perfectly adequate, and if you stop striving for more, you can settle quite happily for that.

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