booknotes: the secret lives of wives

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a pre-review review of Iris Krasnow's book The Secret Lives of Wives (Gotham, 2011). From those notes, it should be clear to you that I had major issues with the book -- and to be fair, I expected to have major issues with any book by someone whose previous books were titled Surrendering to Marriage and Surrendering to Motherhood. Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Or at least, the choice of language by which it is marketed. The breathless wording of the title ("secret lives" and "what it really takes"), along with the temptation-of-Eve cover we're rocking here, signaled to me we were in for a rocky ride.

And to be honest, that's part of the reason why I requested the advance review copy of the book. Because on some level I'm fascinated by people who continue to buy into -- and actually seem satisfied with -- the heteronormative, gender essentialist assumptions about what it means to be men and women, relate sexually, and form families. I didn't grow up in a household where gender normativity was enforced, and while my parents have enjoyed a 35-year marriage -- which at times took a lot of active work to maintain -- they have never pressured us kids into partnerships, marriage, or parenthood, hetero or otherwise. So I just don't get the concern trolling over kids-these-days being somehow unfit and unable to establish intimate partnerships.

Part of me hoped that Secret Lives would offer really interesting first-person narratives about long-term partnerships. I'm an oral historian by training, after all, and even when autobiographical narratives turn on values I strongly disagree with I still find life stories an absorbing read. And a preliminary glance at Krasnow's website also suggested that at least some of the "secrets" to a successful marriage were going to be fairly benign: maintain strong relationships with male and female friends outside the marriage, don't expect your spouse to meet every emotional need, make space and time for being alone or pursuing independent projects. Who's really going to argue with those fairly basic pieces of advice for well-being? So while I went into this book with the expectation that there would be much to disagree with, I was also prepared to find something -- anything! -- redeeming in its pages.

Wow, that was hard. As my preliminary notes suggest, the "points for" list I started in the front cover was quickly overtaken by the "no points for" list. But I'm going to lay into this book fairly hard in a minute, so let me begin by observing what I felt Krasnow did -- if not "well" at least "decently." She situates herself in the introduction as a curious journalist, not a sociologist or psychologist, and (at least initially) acknowledges the anecdotal nature of her research. She later goes on to consistently generalize from that research, but we'll deal with that below. In so many words, she acknowledges this is a book about heterosexual couples, though doesn't talk about her reasons for limiting the study in this way. The fact it's all about wives rather than husbands and wives is something that is never specifically addressed, though I think it's tied to the fact Krasnow sees women as primarily responsible for securing and maintaining a marriage (more below).

She does acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for marital happiness, writing that "there is no gold standard for marriage," although I think her later arguments undermine this initial claim. As I said above, she is fairly consistent in maintaining that individual people are responsible for determining -- and seeking out -- what will help them thrive (in other words, don't expect a husband to equal instant happiness). She argues for the importance of maintaining adult friendships outside long-term partnerships, and she encourages wives to maintain independent lives through work, travel, exercise, and other activities that will take them out of domestic life. Basically, "It's okay to do things without your husband sometimes." Which I think is pretty sane advice for partners of any persuasion (and I'm not sure it really counts as a "secret" given the number of people who know and agree with it).

And I realize this is a super-low bar, but I'm going to offer her maybe half a point for at least acknowledging the existence of women in hetero marriages who don't have children with their partners, couples who aren't white, and couples who aren't upper-middle-class. With the exception of ethnic diversity (which isn't really clearly delineated, though one woman is identified as African-American and one Bengali) there's one example of non-parenting, and one example of a non-professional-class couple. Other than that, we're basically talking about white upper-middle-class wives with children, most of whom have advanced degrees and are married to individuals similarly situated. Couples with the financial resources to support multiple homes or summer-long vacations abroad, hire (and have affairs with) gardening staff, choose to be a single-income family (and not suffer financially for it), etc. Her profiles of individual women include throw-away details about fur coats, caterers, manicures, high-end spas, and other markers of incredibly privileged lives. Granted, social and economic privilege has never proven to shield individuals from emotional distress or relational impoverishment -- but I wish Krasnow has been more upfront about the demographic she was actually studying.

Okay, so those are the okay-ish things about Secret Lives. Things that limit the book's generalizability, but aren't particularly harmful if you take them for what they are. Several of the life stories Krasnow includes -- if you can grit your teeth and get passed her editorializing -- are actually really awesome. I particularly appreciated the one interview she did with a married couple, Phil and Pat, since it included both partners' voices. Phil and Pat were articulate in describing the ways in which sexism made Pat's career (in the tech industry, alongside her husband) more difficult, and how together they learned how to resist the external forces trying to push Pat out of the business world, or pit them against each other as competitors. Similarly, a couple of women -- interestingly enough the wives who used "we" most often -- described the way they re-negotiated their marriage arrangements in times of stress, to better share the tasks of child-rearing, or to open their marriage to other partners (more on the one swinger couple below). The women who used "we" were much more likely to describe equal partnerships in which they'd worked with their husbands to build a home life that supported both their individual needs and the nurturing of their relationship. Often through active re-negotiation of terms when the original assumptions or agreements had failed to serve one or both of them adequately.

So what are Krasnow's secrets for a successful (note: "successful" in Krasnow's world means long-lasting -- no marriage which ended in separation or divorce gets a place in the book, and cautionary tales of people who did divorce feature prominently) hetero marriage? And what ideas concerning gender and sexuality is she promulgating on the way by?

Secret #1: Heterosexual marriage is what every woman "needs" because it is "essential." So while I have no problem, per se with a study that focuses on one group of people (in this case wives) due to the questions being asked or simple logistics, I became increasingly suspicious of Krasnow's decision to focus exclusively on "wives" as the book went on. She begins with a chapter about "why marriage," as in why should she focus on describing successful marriage. "Who needs marriage?" She asks rhetorically, answering herself, "Women do, of this I'm convinced" (8). While Krasnow includes handful of throw-away lines to the effect that some marriages are abusive and should end, the actual message of the book is that marriage, virtually any marriage, is better than dating (and yes, if you're single you're assumed to be looking for a partner). The women who fail to keep their marriages intact in Secret Lives are seen as failures who gave up, who had unrealistic expectations, or who made a rash decision they now regret. "Better to stick with the first flawed union if you can; the second could be worse" (32) she concern-trolls over and over. 

This understanding of marriage as something women "need," and the focus specifically on "wives" also speaks to the pervasive gender essentialism Krasnow offers up, in which women pursue marriage ... with men whom she depicts as emotionally unavailable and brutish (I'm serious, she and Caitlin Flanagan should just go to housekeeping together) and frankly not all that appealing. While she insists that marriage is the essential ingredient for ultimate life-long happiness, her own descriptions belie those claims. In other words, Krasnow should be approached as an unreliable narrator.

Secret #2: The work and compromise of making a marriage successful, that is to say life-long, falls to the wife. There's a telling scene early on in the book where Krasnow describes a point in her own marriage when she was a full-time mother with four children under the age of five and her husband was the full-time wage-earner. She describes her frustration at making breakfasts and lunches for the entire family while her husband sat at the breakfast table with the paper, ignoring the chaos around him, and then disappeared to work leaving her to clean the house and care for the kids. She describes calling her mother and announcing her intention to leave her husband -- because anything would be better than the status quo. Yet in the end, she and her husband remained together and things got better. (Sort of. Frankly, the descriptions Krasnow provides of her husband and their interactions are filled with a level of animosity that belies her protestations of marital bliss. I was really uncertain what we were supposed to make of her more personal anecdotes and their place in the story, since they seemed at odds with one another.) But anyway, she fills the book with similar narratives in which women are miserable with the status quo, yet consistently turn back to themselves as the source of the problem. I agree that to focus on assigning blame rather than solving the problem can be counterproductive, but I cringed at sentences like this: "Recently, Alice has been 'working on herself' and blaming Chris less, fueling a discovery that he isn't so bad after all" (66). Relentlessly, the exhausted mother of young children is counseled to stick it out, rather than speak up and say "This isn't working, can we figure out how to make this more equitable?" These marriages all take place in a vacuum where sex and gender politics on a wider scale don't exist, and it's simply women's lot to be the full-time parent with an unresponsive husband (who will start paying attention to her again once she stops wallowing in self-pity and bothers to put on tight jeans and sexy lipstick).

Lesson #3: Adultery is okay, as long as you keep it secret from your spouse, and having an open marriage is exactly the same as being an adulterer (except people with open marriages are mysteriously happier). So she has a really depressing chapter on women in relationships where either they or their husband maintain the marriage by cheating on one another -- and not talking about it. I realize everyone feels different about adultery, but I believe trust and honesty and fidelity are really important in any relationship, and if a marriage is going to involve multiple people in any way, it should be openly negotiated and agreed upon by all parties involved. Which is why the one swinger couple Krasnow profiles, I'd argue, seem so damn pleased with the way they've chosen to conduct their sexual lives. Yet Krasnow folds this couple into the chapter on adultery, and seems at a loss to explain why their extramarital relationships aren't causing anyone angst or despair.

Lesson #4: Youthfulness should be prized while young people are denigrated. Some people might see this as two separate issues, but I'm treating them together 'cause I think it's two aspects of the pernicious ageism that permeates our culture. Krasnow uncritically accepts that youthful looks are desirable (in women) and should be maintained (by women) in order to keep the interest of their husbands, etc. At the same time, she portrays young people -- I'm assuming any cohort younger than about age 35? -- as lazy gits who are unwilling or uninterested in putting energy into maintaining relationships. We've all grown up with the "divorce epidemic," I guess, and somehow technology has also made it easier to give up on people (it's unclear why, but Facebook and iPads feature as emblematic of ... whatever the problem is). I feel bad for her kids that she basically thinks they're uninterested or incapable of connecting. While this book is ostensibly a look at marriage in the "middle years" (read: after your kids have gone away to prestigious colleges), it's shot through with a heavy, heavy dose of judgement and unsolicited advice for younger folks who might think twice before marrying, not be interested in marrying a man, or who might try to re-negotiate the work/childcare arrangement with their spouse.

The entire book could really be reduced to a banner reading "Be Grateful You Have a Man, Any Man, Girls, Because Without One Life Isn't Worth Living." Which (and here's where my own personal bias might come in a teeny-weeny bit?) is a really weird message to try and send with a shit-ton of examples of hetero marriages that sound fairly dysfunctional and unhappy to me. Even when you discount the one or two that are actually out-right abusive? It's a fairly dismal bunch. Like I said, there are maybe three or four profiles in which the women speak with confidence about having negotiated a fairly equal arrangement with their spouse, and where the couple seems to be on the same page about their domestic life. But more often than not, there seems to be a lot of despair, resignation, rage, and yes, "secrets" that involve emotional and physical infidelity.

Seriously: I got to the end of this book and I was like, "If this is the world of straight marriage, I'm so glad I'm out." I am so thankful for all of the people I know who are married to other-sex partners who aren't actually acting out this sort of misery. Who are living lives of partnership and communication. Who don't assume all women "need" marriage, and who don't denigrate their own husbands by making snarky asides about how many hours per weekend they spend watching hockey.

I started out this post by observing that part of the reason I read books like this is to try and understand what people who think like this get out of their portrayal of women and men and marriage in this fashion. This book failed insofar as I still don't understand it. One could write a perfectly sane, thoughtful, book about the compromises and negotiations one makes in a long-term relationship. One that didn't hinge on making generalizations about how men and women operate and what they want out of relationships. But this is not that book.

P.S. I originally wrote this review prior to reading Samhita Mukhopadhyay's Outdated, though the review of that book went live on Tuesday. While I was reading Outdated I kept thinking of Secret Lives and how this book -- despite the fact it's not explicitly marketed as a dating advice manual -- fits so well into the paradigm of the hetero dating advice schlock Mukhopadhyay takes to task. Basically, if you're going to read Secret, keep Outdated close at hand as an antidote!

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.


  1. Whew. What a book! You deserve a medal for wading through that.

  2. Anna J. Cook: Reading Rage-Inducing Sexist Books from Mainstream Culture So You Don't Have To!

    And thanks for that.

    Also: "Better to stick with the first flawed union if you can; the second could be worse." Holy shit.

  3. @Diana the low point was toward the end when I scrawled in the margins "fucking hell you shallow soul!!" in relation to her comment about how the secret to a good hetero marriage was lipstick and tight jeans. In all caps.

    @Molly I'll have to put that on my resume! And you're welcome. And yeah, I second the "holy shit." o_O