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Books -- September 1995

The Moral State of Marriage

by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

THE BEST IS YET TO COME:
Coping With Divorce and Enjoying Life Again

by Ivana Trump.
Pocket Books, 269 pages,
$23.00.

THE GOOD MARRIAGE:
How and Why Love Lasts

by Judith S. Wallerstein and
Sandra Blakeslee.

Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages,
$24.95.

FABULOUS divorce used to be the prerogative of the rich and famous, but not anymore. Over the past three decades, as divorce has become fully democratized, there has been a growing demand by the "little people" (in Leona Helmsley's memorable phrase) for the secrets of fabulous divorce. And who better to instruct the masses than America's most celebrated ex-wife, Ivana Trump? Since her high-profile split from Donald, Ivana's life and fortunes have improved. She has ventured into fiction with two novels, For Love Alone and Free to Love, and has moved into a successful sales career with her signature line of clothing, cosmetics, and jewelry, now available on the Home Shopping Network. Better still, since her divorce she has lost weight, gained a new beau, and made the best-dressed list. Now Ivana seeks to reach other women going through divorce with the inspirational message in the title of her book: The Best Is Yet to Come.

ivana picture Her book breaks new ground in one important way. Scores of advice books on divorce have appeared over the past two decades, but in popular advice literature, as in so many other domains of life, there is a gender gap. Divorce books for women emphasize personal growth and liberation, while those for men emphasize "winning" at the game of divorce (typical examples are Divorced Women, New Lives for women, and Winning Your Divorce:A Man's Survival Guide). In The Best Is Yet to Come, Ivana bridges the gender gap with the ultimate divorce fantasy. She shows women how to boost their savings accounts and their self-esteem, not to mention their faces and fannies. As she puts it, divorce is the ultimate makeover.

On the financial-makeover side Ivana's advice is straightforward: "get yourself a great settlement--and before you do, take his wallet to the cleaners." Of course, some women don't know the first thing about their husbands' financial status, so it may be necessary to do some snooping and spying: "In this game we call divorce, whoever has the most information wins." Ivana recommends a kind of grown-up version of a treasure hunt, in which wives search for clues to their husbands' net worth by following a paper trail of credit-card bills, bank statements--indeed, anything "that comes to the house with a dollar sign on it." Somewhere, she predicts, is the prize--that little piece of paper on which men write down what they're worth: stocks, cash, property, the whole caboodle. "I don't know exactly why men do this," her financial guru shrugs. "I just know they do." You can almost hear the Czech-born Ivana heave a weary Old World sigh of assent.

On the self-esteem and personal-growth side, divorce requires a complete overhaul. Throwing out a spouse is like cleaning out a messy closet. You get rid of the stuff from last year and the mistakes from the year before, the detritus and junk of the past. The emotional airing-out gives women a chance to take stock, to look at themselves critically. "Have you been living in the fashion past?" Ivana gently chides, before delivering the hardball truth: Marriage puts too many women in a rut. Married women lose their sense of self, their competitive edge, their initiative and independence. Their sex lives become boring and predictable. However upsetting and unexpected, therefore, the breakup of a marriage brings a bracing shock of recognition: "I've been letting myself go."

Next Ivana suggests a good, cleansing shopping spree: "Get rid of your grungy married-woman's underwear and go for the colors and the silks and the lace." The shopping spree is fun, a chance to take last revenge on your soon-to-be-ex's American Express card. But the hard work of the divorce makeover lies ahead. Divorce is a chance to shed old skin: Ivana strongly advises the use of alphahydroxy acid, a key ingredient in her new Ivana line of cosmetics, to exfoliate the skin. If you're still feeling saggy, she concedes, you may have to consult a plastic surgeon. "Explore. Experiment. See? There are very nice words that start with `ex.'"

The Best Is Yet to Come is a cross between Lifestyles of the Rich and Divorced and a Home Shopping Network infomercial. Ivana has the innocence of the very rich ("Who knew cars had to be inspected once a year? Perhaps till now you had a driver who took care of such things"). But she also has the instincts of a natural-born seller: "By the time this book is in your hands," she writes on page five, "Ivana perfume will be available for you to enjoy."

In sharing the secrets of successful divorce, Ivana tries her darndest to be democratic. Her own revenge shopping spree focused on fancy bed linens ("Pratesi and Frette--very expensive, but they'll last forever"), but she expresses sensitivity to women from all economic walks of life: "You can do plenty of damage in Caldor's." Still, as the ex-Mrs. Trump confesses, she's "more a Le Cirque person than a Taco Bell person," and her Le Cirque side takes over as she shares her secrets of how to dismiss household staff and how to shop for a good plastic surgeon and a personal trainer. It is hard to be mad at Ivana, though, because every page or two you have to put down the book and laugh. In fact, The Best Is Yet to Come is the funniest book on divorce I've ever read.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the book as a joke. Like all great marketers, Ivana is culturally adept as well as commercially astute. She has a great feel for the mainstream values she seeks to exploit, and her book, properly read and appreciated, tells us much about what is distinctive about the American way of divorce.

For one thing, Ivana's commercial exploitation of divorce is thoroughly in the American grain. A century ago western state legislators and entrepreneurs made divorce a staple of their economic-development strategy by setting the residency requirement for divorce at a mere few months, attracting easterners to their hotels and resorts. Today the commerce in divorce has gone far beyond the schemes of nineteenth-century entrepreneurs. Over the past three decades a huge divorce industry, with a booming professional service sector of lawyers, therapists, financial experts, and child psychiatrists, has sprung up to harvest the fruits of family discord. The commercial tradition may help to explain why polls show that Republicans are more tolerant of divorce than Democrats and why Republican leaders, for all their high-minded talk of family values, are skittish about criticizing divorce.

If marketplace values are part of an established divorce tradition, divorce has only recently been harnessed to the great American tradition of self-improvement. Nonetheless, the idea that marital breakup can contribute to personal growth and fulfillment--a new and better you--has enormous appeal in the nation with the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world. Although most divorce-advice books cast self-improvement in psychological terms, as part of emotional growth, Ivana's approach harks back to a much older tradition: Ivana is the self-made woman, getting on in the world through pluck and luck (and a multimillion-dollar divorce settlement). Her view of the "game" of divorce is equally quaint, recalling the bad old days of fault-based divorce, when private detectives skulked around seedy motels, and wives looked for lipstick on collars. Nonetheless, her larger themes are central to the contemporary divorce culture. The association of divorce with a new life, a renewed spirit, an awakening from a slumberous and zombie-like marital existence, pervades popular American thinking on marital breakup. Too, Ivana's persona as a woman "made over" through her divorce reflects broader cultural ideas about divorce as the means for women to take initiative and express their independence. Men may also use divorce to escape into a new identity, but men's propensity to divorce is associated with classic forms of bad behavior--infidelity, alcoholism, violence --rather than with "growthful" change. IF divorce provides opportunities for self-invention, marriage makes no competing cultural claims. In recent years marriage has been identified with stasis, stagnation, or, worse, oppression and depression. Of course, Americans haven't given up on marriage entirely, but there is evidence of growing disenchantment. Both marriage and remarriage rates are declining, while less formal, more easily dissoluble unions are on the rise. This disenchantment may explain why marriage attracts so little attention from family researchers. In fact, if you wander through college bookstores looking for scholarly studies on the subject, you might easily conclude from the meager offerings that marriage is a cultic practice, remote from everyday life and concerns. Now Judith Wallerstein, a clinical psychologist who has spent many years studying divorcing couples and their children, turns her eye on marriage. I know Wallerstein, and therefore I can say with some confidence that she is not a booster of marriage at all costs. However, in The Good Marriage, a study of fifty happily married couples, including some in second marriages, she and the writer Sandra Blakeslee offer a remarkably sunny and affecting portrait of marriage and its satisfactions. What we learn is that a good marriage falls into the art of the possible.

Contrary to the view that marriage stunts personal growth, Wallerstein treats marriage as psychologically dynamic, requiring spouses to change over time in response to each other and also to develop the capacity to adjust to external change. This dynamic potential is the source of her cautious optimism about the possibility of a good marriage. Marriages that work offer strong evidence that "adults have an enormous capacity to continue to grow," just as happy second marriages, with their potential to rekindle trust and love, offer the strongest argument for divorce, according to Wallerstein. Perhaps the most touching stories in the book deal with "rescue marriages," in which people who have grown up in less than perfect families--even some who have experienced traumatic emotional or physical abuse--create marriages that "undo earlier suffering" and repair psychic damage.

Unlike Tolstoy's happy families, however, happy marriages are not all alike. These partnerships range from the traditional, with sharp gender divisions in family roles and responsibilities, to the egalitarian, where bread-winning and child-rearing tasks are shared. Wallerstein takes no ideological position on which type of marriage is best, but one of the book's most fascinating insights is that the egalitarian marriage, the model most highly prized and increasingly pursued by many younger Americans, is "frighteningly fragile." Married couples with demanding careers can be pulled apart by jealousy, competitiveness, loneliness, worries about children, or sheer sleep deprivation. Worse, their taut working lives leave little room for midcourse adjustments, let alone unscheduled crises with a child who doesn't play by the developmental rule book. Of all marriage types, therefore, this one requires the most constant vigilance and the most heroic effort.

More broadly, however, this study suggests that the challenges of marriage are essentially moral. That, I suspect, is why it is called The Good Marriage rather than The Happy Marriage. The book implicitly presents marriage as a school of virtue, a domain that requires tact and restraint along with open and honest communication, kindness and gratitude along with assertiveness and autonomy. Take the matter of fighting. Good marriages are not free of conflict. However, the conflict is governed by a respect for the partner's deepest vulnerabilities. No matter how fierce the anger, it stops short of the cruelest cut. Spouses learn what the relationship can tolerate without breaking.

At the same time, marriage requires the exercise of moral imagination. One thing the couples in these good marriages have in common is a vision of the marriage as a "superordinate" entity--something that is separate from and larger than its two parts. The men and women in this study speak of protecting "the marriage" almost as if it were their child; it is a creation they cherish and share. In another sense, too, good marriages are expressions of the imagination. These happily married people see their spouses as essentially admirable and good--as morally worthy. Many express admiration for their partners' conscience or honesty, or praise their courage in overcoming earlier obstacles in life. (Drawing on her research on divorce, Wallerstein observes that many people whose marriages eventually fail never had an idealized image of their partners to begin with.)

Much of what I have described is never made explicit. In fact, one of the nice things about The Good Marriage is its modesty. It doesn't pretend to offer a philosophy or even a lecture on marriage. It takes no position on the ideologically charged issues of women's marital roles and status. Equally important, it ignores the two most common ways of talking about marriage--as a contract negotiated between two equal parties and as the pathway to individual fulfillment. For this reason it is refreshingly free of "rights" talk and therapy talk. Indeed, Wallerstein places much more emphasis on the development of good judgment and a moral sense than on the acquisition of effective communication or negotiation skills.

The Good Marriage offers powerful evidence in support of a model for relationships that are based not on theories of exchange or self-interest but on notions of sacrifice and altruism. "I suddenly got it about ensemble work," an actor told Wallerstein. "Ensemble is when you work as hard for the other guy's moment as you do for your own." The Good Marriage is an argument for an ensemble theory of marriage.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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