Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein described a marriage done in by badly buttered English muffins. But do most unions really suffer the death of a thousand forksplits?
The experts-marriage counselors and researchers who study why some marriages last while others crumble-can tell you that most unions that fail do so not because of big setbacks, such as a job loss or a sickness in the family. "When couples experience these big challenges, they actually come together and support one another," says Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan [...] "Instead, it's the seemingly small things that pull them apart."
Small things like English muffins — Bernstein quotes the ex-wife of Jim Caudill, who told him, "You never butter them to the edges, you just pat it in the middle." When I repeated this conversation, a married friend of mine speculated that the Caudills may have had underlying issues. And indeed, Bernstein notes the former Mrs. Caudill's other, more legitimate quibbles with her husband: "He didn't help enough with the kids. He didn't do his share of the housework. They were more devoted to work than to each other." All of which sound like pretty big things to me.
It's a little hard to believe that English muffins could destroy a union not already riven with cracks. After all, recent high-profile marriages have been compromised or outright shattered by such trifles as serial infidelity, neo-Nazi leanings, and sleeping with one's wife's sister. The alleged perpetrator of that last, Larry King, is the subject of a tongue-in-cheek little piece in Time, suggesting that people should only get a certain number of tries at marriage. Such a restriction is unlikely to garner broad-based support, but it seems like King — who has been to the altar eight times — may have bigger issues than muffin-intolerance.
Or maybe he doesn't. Our current obsession with marriage usually focuses on the beginning of it — cf. (the surprisingly addictive) Millionaire Matchmaker, or Hannah Seligson's recent Journal article on proposals. But the ends of marriages, though less uplifting, are just as fascinating, and perhaps more instructive. Why do some unions self-destruct at the breakfast table, while others survive "near-fatal overdoses," a blackout on a freeway median, and attempted strangulation (just some of the travails Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne somehow made it through, according to an earlier Bernstein piece)? And what separates an annoying but tolerable quirk from a dealbreaker? Bernstein offers some advice for settling minor disputes before they become major, but it ranges from pat ("focus on the positive") to questionable (discuss things over email). Essentially, while the volume of how-to-get-married information has never been greater, the amount of real wisdom about how to keep marriages alive remains pretty small — maybe because nobody really has the answers.