In "You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married)," Oscar-nominated documentarian Dana Adam Shapiro explores the failed relationships of hundreds of people in his search for romantic wisdom on how to avoid splitting up. Prompted by his own series of breakups, Shapiro's interviews offer an intimate and hopeful look inside the modern-day romantic tragedies of others. Here's an excerpt.
The “lightbulb moment” to write a book on this topic occurred the night before Thanksgiving in 2008. I was back home in Boston, newly single, having just separated from the last of my long-term girlfriends. An old buddy and I met up at a bar and we started talking about women and breakups. I went first: We were perfect on paper, but we didn’t have that X factor. She was gorgeous, smart, and talented, but we weren’t telepathic — at all. You need to be at least a little telepathic, don’t you think?
He offered a sly smile, ordered a round of tequila, and then let it slide that he was separating from his wife of three years. Apparently she’d been having an affair while popping fistfuls of prescription painkillers, both on his dime. His face was brave but there was no hiding the truth. He was devastated.
“You can’t change a person’s character — yours or theirs,” he said with the clarity of a burn victim. “Behavior, sure, you can change behavior. But character, never. So whatever it is you don’t like about the person, magnify it by a million ’cus it only gets worse. If you still love them after that — marry them. If not . . .” He shook his head, disappointed, more at himself than at her. “What the f--k was I thinking?”
It was the fourth divorce I’d heard about that month. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty but instead we toasted to better days and glossed over the real issues. Later that night, as if living in a cautionary metaphor, I lay awake in my childhood room, too big for my bed. I stared at the blank ceiling that used to be stickered with hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars. I kept picturing my exes, magnified by a million. They looked pretty good. Why did I push them away? Had I made the mistake of a lifetime — five times in a row? Or had I dodged five bullets?
Unable to answer, I went downstairs to the breakfast table and made a list of all the people I knew under forty who had gotten divorced. I came up with fourteen names. It was a little early for the seven-year itch: What the f--k were all these people thinking? I wanted to peek through keyholes, rummage through medicine cabinets, read through deleted e-mails — anything to find out what really goes on behind closed doors. The word “autopsy” comes from autopsia, ancient Greek for “to see for oneself.” To that end, I set out in search of corpses. I was looking for evidence, for proof. I needed to see for myself: Why does love die?
Of course, it’s tricky to go around prying into people’s private lives without seeming like some kind of pervert. Couples tend to put a Facebook face on their relationships, and you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to drop the pose and start sharing their deepest secrets.
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Unless you’re writing a book. Then you can pry all you want.
As is often the case, I knew very little about this subject going in. I’ve been a journalist, a novelist, and a filmmaker, but never a husband or a therapist. I’ve never even been to therapy. And I’m not a child of divorce. My parents are still very much together and they very much want a grandchild to bear their name. In fact, there isn’t a single divorce in my family (which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t have been). For better or worse, my only sister, both sets of grandparents, both sets of great-grandparents — everybody got married and stayed that way. If that makes it sound like a predicament I suppose that’s because I’ve often viewed it as such. A friend of mine, forty-four and single, says that getting married is like “breaking into prison to serve a life sentence.” As pessimistic as that may sound, it betrays a sunny assumption: that they’ll beat the roulette-level odds of actually staying together.
No, it doesn’t take a cynic to be down on traditional matrimony these days. We all know the odds — roughly 50 percent of all American marriages will end in divorce and it’s pretty much been that way since the second wave of feminism started leveling the sexual playing field in the 1970s. Of the 50 percent who stay together, you have to figure that at least some of them should get divorced, which effectively tips the scales in favor of marriage being an empiricallybad idea. This isn’t my opinion, it’s math.
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And yet while marriage rates have been dropping for the past forty years, and we’re marrying later and later in life, the vast majority of Americans will choose to tie the knot by the time they’re thirty-five. That’s not a new trend at all: Marriage has been around for about four thousand years and it’s always been very popular (if more volatile) among the young. What is a relatively new trend, however, is that almost all of these brides and grooms will marry for one reason, and one reason only:
We should indeed look back with pride at how far we’ve come as a culture since the days when marriage was a largely loveless, coercive institution, rooted in social, economic, and political practicality — and wifely subordination. But here we are at the dawn of a new millennium, enlightened, evolved, and yet the men look more like women, nobody has any pubic hair, and everybody’s texting someone else as soon as you get up to go to the bathroom. It’s like we’re living in an Age of Ish — wireless, metro, and wishy-washy. We make soft plans to meet at tenish; sex columnist Dan Savage says the ideal modern marriage is “monogamish;” and that open-ended suffix has even become a word in itself.
“Are you a vegetarian?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
It’s dizzying. We’re connected 24/7 but eternally noncommittal, ever present and therefore never present, spending real time following fake friends whom we never, ever speak to and who wouldn’t come to our funerals if they lived next to the cemetery. Meanwhile, we speak in euphemisms (“benefits”), emote with emoticons (blush), and we insist on making “’til death” decisions based on something as oxymoronic as true love.
What’s the matter with us?
We all know the words to the songs: Love is blind, we fall in it — madly — head over heels. It’s bewitching. A battlefield. An infatuation. It stinks. Cupid is stupid, we go crazy under his spell, getting swept off our feet — weak in the knees — going gaga like a baby. So what keeps us sitting on a bar stool with eternal optimism and wearing hookup underwear on blind dates? If we can’t even walk and talk straight during the courtship phase, then how are we supposed to bring out the best in each other over a lifetime? How are we supposed to deal with meddling in-laws, underachieving toddlers, and months — maybe even years — without making out?
The most important question of all, then: How can we make sure our love is actually true before saying “I do?”
Reprinted from "You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married)" by Dana Adam Shapiro © 2012 by Dana Adam Shapiro. Used with permission of Scribner.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive