IT'S THE ECONOMY, stupid.
At a recent convening of marriage and family therapists in Baltimore, the men and women who talk us through our family troubles said that the downsizing of the American economy is having just the opposite effect on the size of their client lists.
The stresses of relocation, joblessness, pay cuts, mom scrambling into the work force, arguments about who is picking up the kids, let alone who is raising them, are dividing couples. The kids, ignored while mom and dad battle and weep, act up at school. Grades drop, fights start, they cop attitudes. The kids look for comfort in all the wrong places: drugs, alcohol, sex. So do the parents.
Members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists said they can chart the economy simply by glancing into their waiting rooms.
But there is another reason why American families seem so unhappy. And while the economy spikes and dips, this line on the chart of marital health keeps climbing.
It's romance, stupid.
"Our notions of romance are still at the core of our discontent," says Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist and marriage therapist nationally known for her work.
"In traditional marriages, the husband was expected to be a good provider and not drink or gamble or be abusive. The women were expected to stay home, take care of the children and cook meals and be available for sex. If each did that, the contract had been met. We got what we bargained for."
But the popular culture has generated these gauzy images of romance and a set of expectations that might be briefly met but can never be maintained over the life of a marriage. "That Stage 1 adrenalin rush," Dr. Glass calls it.
The result is unhappiness in marriage, and because we have let go of our aversion to divorce, these unhappy people are more likely to end up divorced.
"I regard popular romantic fiction and movies as destructive to marriages," Dr. Glass says. "It creates a false hope and a false sense of what love is."
We want it all. Egalitarian relationships. Intellectual stimulation. Sexual thrills. An independent partner, but one who is still caring and sensitive to our moods. We want a paycheck, a soul-mate and a marriage bed covered with rose pedals.
"And we are usually disappointed," says Dr. Glass. "We can not get all these needs met in one relationship."
Author Joyce Maynard, in her new book, "Where Love Goes," decribes the end of a marriage any one of us might recognize and the wife's doomed search for this combination of passion and enduring love. Ms. Maynard, divorced herself, writes:
"Still, it didn't seem like too much to ask that the man with whom you shared your bed might look up now and then when you pulled your dress over your head, even if you had been married 12 years.
"She knows he must have kissed her sometimes, but she has no memory of his lips.
"Claire read a novel once whose author had dedicated her book to her husband. 'Essential as air,' the woman had written about him. She was 35 when she realized she'd rather be alone with at least the possibility that someday she might feel that way about some man who might feel that way about her, than stay one more winter in that chilly bed. So she moved out."
Maynard opens her book by reprinting the lyrics of Lucinda Williams' country-music song "Passionate Kisses." In it, the singer lists her simple wants and then asks: "Shouldn't I have all this? Shouldn't I have all this and passionate kisses, passionate kisses, passionate kisses from you?"
My husband talks often of feeling like an ox sharing a yoke with me as we pull our uncooperative children through the day. Where are the passionate kisses in that scene?
"First the handsome stranger, then the dirty dishes," Dr. Glass says, laughing. That is how she describes the transition between romantic love and real love.
"It is easy for us to idealize somebody we don't really know. We can project everything onto them that we need and desire. We love how we see ourselves reflected in their eyes.
"But to be able to really love somebody and care about them when they have irritating habits and they don't always agree with you is a mature, realistic love."
It is hard to see into your lover's eyes when you are both harnessed to the same yoke and trudging toward sunset. We fail to notice the ways they make us feel cherished when their demonstrations of love no longer arrive in a florist's truck or in a small velvet box.
These yearnings for love as it is on the big screen will bring us to no good end, so we must find some way to feel the love that comes to us above the din of daily life; we must find some way to send it back.
Because we live in a culture where marriage is in decline and disrepute. And everywhere there is permission for us to pack up and leave, to go searching for those passionate kisses.