American women are clueless when it comes to knowing what it takes to get married and overcome divorce -- that's the bottom line in Suzanne Venker's new book How to Choose a Husband And Make Peace With Marriage. As John Gottman has pointed out, Americans have a divorce epidemic on our hands. Grey divorce is on the rise and divorce rates for second and third marriages are high as well. We're obviously doing something wrong when it comes to our relationships.
In my opinion, unless there's abuse, turning in your current spouse is not the answer. I'm a firm believer in trying to work things out the first time around, especially if you have children. But if you're already divorced like me (not by choice, in my case), what should you know in order to enhance your odds of success before you remarry?
Venker has been studying women and families for over a decade. She's been around the block herself, too. Her first marriage -- with no children -- failed, but she's been happily remarried now for about 15 years with two children.
In a recent post that went viral, Venker writes about why women aren't having success in marriage. According to Venker, men feel that their female counterparts just "aren't women" anymore. I talked to Suzanne over phone and e-mail to find out more about what that means and what Suzanne thinks women -- in particular divorced women of a certain age -- should do about it.
Q. What's key to choosing wisely the next time around?
A. The majority of second marriages that end in divorce do so because of issues regarding stepchildren. Getting divorced and marrying someone else isn't the easy answer it appears to be.
I also think what keeps many women from making the right choice the second time is the inability to look in the mirror to see what they did wrong or could have done better. I've read the divorce literature, almost always written by women, and noticed a common theme: blame. The same thing happens in the press whenever there's a Hollywood divorce, too, with the heroine wife hailed as finally free of the loser husband. Blaming one's ex may feel good, at least temporarily, but it's ultimately counterproductive if the goal is to be successful the second time around.
Q. That's a sweeping statement. What about victims of infidelity or domestic violence, or women whose husbands were addicts or walked out for no good reason?
A. While most of the divorce literature is blame-oriented, that's not to say there aren't women who get divorced with good reason. But we have to look, unflinchingly, at what's going on with modern women. To suggest all or even most of the women who initiate divorce (about two-thirds) were married to "bad guys" and had no choice but to get out is to bury our head in the sand.
Women have been taught to view men and marriage in a negative light and often end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you enter a marriage thinking it's going to ruin your identity or whatever, that's a very negative attitude you're taking with you. Chances are, you'll get what you expect to get: not much.
Q. Why do you think baby boomer women initiate so many divorces?
A. Largely because they can. Since women are living longer than ever and their children are no longer at home, women view this phase of life as a new beginning. Of course, if two people have been miserable for decades and stayed together all those years for the sake of the kids, that's one thing. But if they're just bored or want to see what else is "out there," that's something else.
I have an entire chapter in my new book called "The Green Grass Syndrome." I think it's human nature to wonder if there's something better "out there" than what we have. But the truth is, you'll never get everything you want all wrapped up in one man.
There's no reason married people can't be free to live as they wish once their children are gone with one exception: sex. So if sex is the reason baby boomer wives are leaving their marriages, they're going to be disappointed. They'll most certainly find sex with a new person exciting, but in time that will fade and they may very well be left with less of a relationship than they had to begin with.
Q. What do you mean by "free to live as they wish?"
A. I'm just saying it's children, not husbands, that curtail a woman's freedom because of their enormous needs. Parents can't come and go as they please, but married people whose children are gone can live according to their own needs and desires. That's liberation!
Q. Let's go back to sex. How do grey divorcees, or any divorcees for that matter, handle sex and dating the second time around?
A. In my book, I drive home the point that young women have been sold a bill of goods. Being so aggressive and available to men -- as though the sexes are "equal" or "friends" -- is not going to get women the love they want. Men like to chase, or "catch," women. If women raise their standards en masse by demanding traditional dating and postponing sexual intercourse until the relationship is established, men would have no choice but to rise to the occasion. I do think the "rules" should be somewhat different for, shall we say, more seasoned men and women. But the same general idea still applies.
I was talking with a group of women a few weeks ago, and I asked them to imagine eating chicken every night for seven days and then being offered a filet mignon. Yum! When men come across a filet mignon -- a woman they'd like to spend time with and get to know, as opposed to just have sex with -- they know it instantly. The problem today is that there are too many chickens and not enough filet mignons!
Q. Your book advises women to leave their office persona at the office once they come home. Is being strong and outspoken a problem for women and are we supposed to just put our core beliefs to the side?
A. I would never suggest anyone, male or female, put his or her core beliefs to the side. I'm referring to attitude, tone and style. If you're used to being in charge at work, that doesn't mean your husband wants to be bossed around at home. You have to switch from work mode to married mode.
I don't believe men are put off by strong, outspoken women. I wouldn't have found two men willing to marry me if that were the case! But most men are turned off by women who use their power and strength to undermine their guy's masculinity. As clinical psychiatrist Paul Dobransky, M.D., wrote in Psychology Today (in response to my war on men piece at FoxNews.com), "Men know women are powerful, and we don't mind that one bit. It empowers us that you are empowered. Unless, that is, when you disempower us in order to feel empowered."
Q. So what would I look for in my next husband?
A. Someone who values marriage as much as you do, for one. And whose interests are very similar to yours since you're entering a phase of life where marriage is not going to revolve around children. Without the stress of children, a marriage becomes more about the partnership itself, as opposed to being a partnership with parenting thrown into the mix. That's an huge stressor.
Q. I have two daughters, approximately college-aged. Would your advice to them be different than your advice to me?
A. My book definitely speaks to your daughters' generation more than yours. They are facing issues you and I didn't, particularly with respect to dating. Dating is defunct. That wasn't the case for you and me.
In a broader sense, however, the issues are similar. It was the "grey divorce" generation that taught their daughters to "never depend on a man" and "find yourself first" before getting married. These are modern concepts that became extremely chic. But that doesn't mean they're true. Baby boomers, as a whole, did not provide good role modeling for marriage. Many members of Generations X and Y were also raised in broken homes and thus have no idea what a good marriage looks like.
I happen to think divorced people make great mentors for what works and doesn't work in a marriage if they were self-reflective about their own divorce.
Q. Any last words?
A. I think women need to understand that, more often than not, the power is in their hands. All women, but especially the modern generation, have been groomed for power and independence, not for how to be a wife or how to be married. Thus, woman lack the tools they need to get the marriage they want. I believe my book can help them.
But a word of caution: How to Choose a Husband is not your personal overnight guide to getting a ring, nor will it help you find the perfect husband or marriage. I have neither. No one does. It merely offers a whole new way to approach men, marriage and frankly, life.