The Young and the Deluded

First-marriage survivors tell all.


by Pamela Paul (Villard Books, $24.95) GETTING married is a ton of fun. Being married isn't quite as appealing. Therein lies the trouble for the young divorc鳠who are the subject of this fascinating book. "Our culture portrays marriage like it's the ultimate goal worth striving for," says Helena, a 31-year-old Wisconsin woman. "On that day you will be admired by all others. You've done what everyone wants to do. You've won." Unfortunately, Helena and the 60 other people interviewed by author Pamela Paul find they're ill equipped to handle the actual demands of their victory. "I had no sense that I would have to give up anything," recalls one woman. "The idea of [my husband] influencing me or being allowed to share in my decisions had never occurred to me." Complains Bethany (identified, like the others, by pseudonym): "I felt like the whole wedding industry was such a racket because they sell you on this fantasy of the wedding day but they don't give you a clue what to do the next morning." As a result, many men and women are entering, then exiting, a childless "starter marriage" before they've reached the age of 30. Paul herself, an editor at American Demographics magazine, got divorced at 28, a few weeks shy of her one-year anniversary. Refreshingly, in this memoir age, the first-time author skips her own history and instead uses the experience as an unspoken, empathetic background to her material. Paul is not looking to assign blame (though, of course, everyone has to blame their parents a little), but to learn how starter marriages happen and what distinguishes the people who enter into this short-lived version of eternity. Unfortunately, she finds pretty much anything and everything—which limits the book's value as social science. Some of the respondents say they were naive and inexperienced with relationships; others sought escape from too many affairs-gone-bad. Some children of divorce say they never learned how to be a husband or wife; others say they took extra care not to repeat their parents' mistakes. Some people imagined that, once wed, their beloved would stop drinking, behave more responsibly, etc.; others thought their partners would remain forever the same (naturally, both parties were wrong). Many say they were too swept up in emotion; others got betrothed simply as "the next logical step." As Joel puts it: "You're young and crazy and you just sort of go for it. . . . We never really talked about long-term goals." MURKY AS THIS IS, it's only half the picture. Is there any doubt that if Paul went out and interviewed 60 happily married couples she'd hear many of the same stories? Plenty of those people were impetuous and naive, yet somehow they've turned out OK. Who the hell ever talks about "long-term goals"? Does doing so even improve your odds of lasting vows? There's no way to know from this book. Fortunately, Paul is offering something richer than just a study of starter marriages: a thorough and insightful look at our ongoing "matrimania," and the pressures and self-deceits it engenders. The Starter Marriage is a kind of Scared Straight for single people, the message being: Whatever your current problems, don't imagine that marriage is going to solve them. Unlike the targets of President Bush's latest welfare initiative, the affluent, educated classes who are Paul's subjects need no additional encouragement to marry. While numerous social changes—the rise of women's financial independence, the ideology of individual fulfillment, the end of consistent career paths, etc.—have undermined the foundations of matrimony, our cultural enthusiasm for it rages on. "Rather than romanticizing marriage," Paul writes, " . . . we need to be franker about what [it] can and cannot offer." Paul even suggests we may be bound for a future of serial marriages. Certainly many of the people in this book are: Says one optimistic fellow, on his way to the altar again: "I actually think that one of the best things to prepare oneself for marriage is to be divorced." If that's so, then the future of marriage looks bright indeed.

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