The Secret of Staying Together


Boston. -- Halfway through the movie, I started to wonder what Mickey and Ellen would say about their cinematic marriage if they were ever interviewed by Judith Wallerstein. Talk about romance and rockiness. "Forget Paris" is the quintessential '90s tale for those who take love with a bit of ruefulness.

The storybook, romantic week in Paris? The Eiffel Tower? The refrain of "Our Love is Here to Stay"? These aren't the happy '50s endings for the couple played by Billy Crystal and Debra Winger, they're the opening scenes of a marriage.

The story of Mickey and Ellen's first four years is a comic and real roller coaster ride through a modern marital theme park. It goes up and down the terrain, revealing all the pressures working against a marriage. Two troubled pasts, two demanding careers, two sets of expectations, even a couple of weird therapists. Two "me's" in search of a "we."

"Forget Paris" is framed as a tale told by married folk to a modern Everycouple looking for some hope on their way to the altar. And it asks the question that runs through the heads of every couple: How do you stay together in the middle of a social centrifuge? How does marriage hold today when anyone can walk out the door, when it has to hold from within?

These are the questions that Ms. Wallerstein set out to answer in her book, "The Good Marriage." After studying divorce and its troubled aftermath for 25 years, the psychologist decided to tell the other story.

An engaging woman who's been married nearly half a century, she says, "It's astonishing how little we know about what goes into building a marriage under the pressures of life today."

But her research isn't part of the conservative backlash against divorce, nor is it about spouses who grin and bear it. "I wasn't interested in people who stay together because they are martyrs or think it's sinful to divorce. I was interested in people who stay together because that's their choice, that's their life." Because they are, in short, happily married.

She chose 50 relatively well-off and well-educated couples married for at least nine years with at least one child. The question that she is most often asked by people as eager for a happy ending as any movie audience is: What's their secret?

The idea that there is "the secret," she says, "is a fantasy. The only secret of a happy marriage is to build the kind of marriage you can agree on."

That isn't quite as circular a definition as it appears. "The Good Marriage" does categorize four types of marriage -- romantic, rescue, companionate and traditional -- and nine psychological tasks, including the task of balancing togetherness and autonomy. But it remains happily free of pop jargon and tips on Ten Ways to Save Your Marriage.

By choosing to tell stories of good marriages, this narrator lets us eavesdrop on couples as they describe the building of something as private and individual as a life together. Indeed, says Ms. Wallerstein, only five of the 100 people in her study wanted to have marriages like their parents'. The rest of them -- like most of us -- started with no road maps, but made it.

These are couples who can talk, listen, read each other's body language, nurture and fight -- fairly. And we learn again what we already knew at some level: "For everyone, happiness in marriage meant feeling respected and cherished. . . . The happy couples regarded their marriage as a work in progress that needed continued attention lest it go dry."

For the most part, social researchers tend to look at problems, at dysfunction, at divorce. We are just now beginning to look at "wellness" rather than illness in medicine. So too, Ms. Wallerstein wants to enlarge the conversation -- in policy-making and in private -- from what makes marriage break to what makes it work. What makes it good.

Today, people approach the altar and the very subject of marriage with romantic feelings and grim statistics, with great hopes and awful doubts. It's colored even our romantic comedies with skepticism.

At the end of "Forget Paris," turning another corner on the marital road, Ellen asks Mickey, "Do you think we're going to make it?" He puts aside superstition long enough to respond with both love and irony: "Piece of cake."

Judith Wallerstein has written a book for the people who are rooting for them.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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