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Questions & Answers

Michele Weiner-Davis answers a series of questions put to her as an expert on The Love Council of iVillage and Redbook

Finding a Soul Mate: Realistic Goal or Lofty Expectation?

iVillage asks: A recent Gallup poll shows that 94 percent of people who've never been married agreed that they want their spouse to be their "soul mate" first and foremost. We can't help but wonder: Have women's standards for a mate - a soul mate - become impossibly high? Do soul mates even exist?

Michele answers: Give me a break. The more women dream about soul mates, the less I'll have to worry about job security. (For the record, I'm a couples' therapist and unabashed marriage saver.)

Here's an interesting statistic: Of the marriages that end in divorce, 50 percent of those divorces will occur within the first four years of marriage. Why is that? The answer's simple. Early in love, you are ruled by your hormones. Physical attraction muddies your brain. Your selective perception has you focusing on and rejoicing in your similarities to another person. But at the same time, that attraction conveniently causes you to overlook any blaring differences between the two of you. You're happily surprised to discover that your partner loves the same kind of music you do, shares your passion for Thai food and adores beach vacations as opposed to skiing jaunts (just like you!).

"Could it be," you ask yourself, "that I have truly found my one and only soul mate?" "Mais, oui!" you conclude. "This must be the real thing. We're meant to be together."

But soon after, reality sets in and you start to notice that you and your significant other are not, after all, each other's clones. Not even close. Your relationship is suddenly marred by conflict. You're overwhelmed with the nagging sense that your gut instincts have failed you miserably - that your mate is not your soul mate at all and that you may have made the biggest mistake of your life. The solution? Divorce, of course. At least that's what it seems like. At this point, it's the only legitimate way to start all over in the search for Mr. Right, right? Look, here's the deal: Research has proven that people in long-term, happy marriages are no more similar (or thought to be better "soul mate" material) than those who divorce. The only difference is that veteran marrieds have learned how to deal with their differences. And take it from me, as a veteran married and a marriage educator, I know that important relationship skills can be learned. Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is another matter. I say quit looking for a soul mate. Instead, start looking for a partner who is willing to do the hard work of staying in love once the thrill of believing you found your "one and only" is nothing but a long-lost memory.

The Two Year Itch: Threatening 'Till Death Do Us Part'?

iVillage asks: We've all heard about the seven-year itch, but the recent breakups of some two-year marriages in Hollywood are making us wonder if couples should be on their guard much earlier. Sure, celebrities often make hasty marital decisions, but research shows that this two-year itch is, in fact, a real phenomenon - even for the rest of us outside Tinseltown. An article from News Australia states that one in 12 couples is headed for divorce after two years, which is double the odds for couples who've been together for seven years. What's more, a study done in Denmark reveals that the risk of a split rises rapidly during the first 18 months of marriage and then slows just before a couple reaches the two-year mark.

So what is it about the first two years of marriage that threatens "till death do us part"?

Michele answers: With couples feeling the "itch" after just two years, you've got to wonder if people are thinking seriously enough about what it really means to get married. After all, that's barely enough time for them to return the duplicate Crock-Pot they received from Aunt Helen at the wedding. In our culture of instant gratification, our if-it-feels-good-do-it mentality tends to throw us off course when the going gets rough.

It's no real surprise to me that marriages end prematurely, because many couples in my practice are focused on throwing the expensive party, getting dressed to the hilt and memorializing it all on DVD. But there's much more to marriage than the good times. There are ups, and there are most certainly downs. If you're going to make it past marriage's fledgling stage, you've got to know what to expect.

By the end of the first year, once the dizzying excitement about the newness of it all has worn off, reality sets in. Yes, folks, marriage is hard work. There are differences and disagreements that divide you. Your spouse has the nerve to see things his way. Then, contrary to what you thought during your more starry-eyed moments, love doesn't always carry you through the tough times. That's because, when things get really heated, you develop an instant, incurable case of amnesia regarding any of your spouse's good qualities. So, what's a newlywed to do?

Start by resisting your fight or flight instinct, and wait it out. Research reveals that 86 percent of unhappy couples who weathered the storm for five years were very glad they did, and their marriages greatly improved as a result. Next, take a class. Marriage seminars that teach couples the skills they need to handle the inevitable once-the-honeymoon-is-over conflicts can be found in every community. Read books on building relationship skills, hire a therapist who believes in marriage, interview couples who beat the odds. But most importantly, stay the course. Anything worth having is worth working for.

What Really Makes Guys Cheat?

iVillage asks: These days, we can't seem to escape the notion that men in Hollywood just can't stay faithful to one woman. Jude Law's recent infidelity and the speculation that Brad Pitt cheated on Jennifer Aniston are the focus of the media's fascination. Whether these actors live in such a different reality that this kind of thing might be part of the job description, we can't say. But when Jude and Brad can't keep from straying from seemingly ideal women like Sienna Miller and Aniston, we're left to wonder what that means for the rest of us. A poll done by the New York Times in 2000 found that 44 percent of the male respondents admitted to having had an extramarital affair (and that percentage doesn't include those unfaithful guys who weren't willing to own up to their transgressions). Are men inherently unfaithful? What really makes guys cheat?

Michele answers: Having worked with many Hollywood couples, there is no question that the lifestyles of the rich and famous make commitment and fidelity a daunting task. But for those of us who live outside of Tinseltown, life is filled with its own share of monumental relationship challenges. And although there are no truly reliable statistics on the percentage of married people who philander, one thing is for sure: They're doing it in droves. Contrary to popular belief, men have no corner on the market of infidelity. Women give their husbands a serious run for their money. And it may surprise you to learn that the reasons men and women stray are changing over time. Based on her extensive study, the late Shirley Glass wrote in her book, Not "Just Friends," that the stereotype of men having affairs for sex and women for emotional connection just doesn't cut it anymore. More and more women are seeking sexual satisfaction from their illicit liaisons while men are increasingly looking for that close emotional bond. So much for stereotypes.

So, before we go perpetuating the myth that those testosterone-laden men just can't contain themselves even when they're married to the sexiest of divas, let's get real. When marriage becomes boring, stressful, lonely or sexless, rather than work it out with their spouses, people cheat. Sometimes, even happily married spouses cheat.

Perfectionist Motherhood: Is It Hurting Marriages?

iVillage asks: There is a nationwide epidemic of "mommy madness. Described as a quest to be a perfect mother, mommy madness exhibits itself in the hectic, everyday lives of mothers who shuttle their kids to and from activities, classes and play dates. They are so depleted by the affection they lavish upon their small children that they have no energy left, not just for sex but for emotional intimacy as well.

We wanted to take a look at how couples are affected by this phenomenon of perfectionism. So we asked our panel of experts, the Love Council, to weigh in: How does "mommy madness" affect marriage, and what can women do to bring the focus back to that other important relationship - the one between husband and wife?

Michele answers: When mothers devote themselves entirely to the well-being of their children, it places the marriage in the danger zone. I have worked for over two decades with couples teetering on the brink of divorce, and the vast majority of these couples suffer from "mommy madness" and its inevitable by-product, "daddy deadness."

When marriages are child focused, the men feel left out and begin to bail out emotionally. They immerse themselves in work. They find all-encompassing hobbies. They philander. And because they don't always handle rejection maturely or directly, they tend to stop participating as partners, and instead act out. They become passive-aggressive about housework, they come home late for dinner without notice. And, unfortunately and ironically, the more the men withdraw the more the mommies mommy. They begin to grow apart until one spouse announces, "I love him/her, but I'm not in love anymore." Surprise, surprise.

The best way to avoid the "mommy madness" mistake is to remember that the single best thing you can do for your children is to put your marriage first. Regardless of your kids' demands, scheduling time together for dates and nightly conversations is one surefire way to keep the marriage strong. Keeping passion alive - flirting, making love, touching - is another important ingredient to maintaining a strong bond. Children are sponges watching their parents' every move. Teach the importance of love by creating a loving marriage. This - and not ballet, painting or guitar lessons - is the most important lesson children will ever learn.

Pre-Marriage Therapy: Can You Divorce-Proof Your Relationship?

iVillage asks: Forget marriage therapy. A recent article in the New York Times calls attention to the fact that more and more couples are seeking professional help for their issues before they walk down the aisle - and oftentimes before they're even engaged. The author, Zoë Wolff, states: "For unwed couples encountering problems and who have decided, at least for the moment, not to break up, therapy serves as a sort of vetting system for the relationship." But what really motivates young couples to seek this level of assistance for their problems? One theory is that the people in their 20s and 30s who grew up in the age of divorce are all too familiar with the cost of a broken home and are looking to work through their angst before the stakes get too high.

But at this stage in the game, if couples are already seeing signs of a failed relationship, can pre-marriage therapy be truly effective as a preventative measure? Can a marriage be divorce-proofed before it begins?

Michele answers: Couples definitely can and should do everything within their power to stack the deck in favor of successful marriages before they tie the knot - and it's my belief that going to therapy helps them do just that. It's preposterous to think that those who want professional guidance prior to making a lifelong commitment must have flawed relationships that are doomed to fail. Au contraire! Young folks these days have been exposed to divorce and they know that relationships are hard work. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can't recite in her sleep the unsettling statistic that close to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. No wonder marrieds-to-be get nervous!

Instead of naively assuming that love will carry them through the tough times, these unwed couples are looking their uncertainties squarely in the face - and many are making the smart decision to examine their problems with a professional. They are asking themselves all the right questions: "Do we want to have children, and if so, how many?" "Why don't you ever stand up for me in front of your parents?" "What if I need more alone time than you?" and so on. They're going to therapy, and by doing so, they're signing up for relationship-skill-building classes. They're demanding marital road maps so that they don't make the same mistakes their parents and friends have made. They know that working through tough issues early in the game, while by no means a long-term marital panacea, can nonetheless point the relationship in a positive direction and offer an important foundation upon which they can build. Young couples don't want starter marriages, they want marriages that are off to a good start. And I, for one, will be standing by the sidelines cheering them on!

iVillage asks: What Do Men Look for in a Wife?

Michele answers: "Men need to get real" Do men still prefer the A- woman? Heck, no. Now a man prefers an A+ woman who does it all: She burns the world down professionally; she's his personal siren; she's Martha Stewart on the home front; she's the perfect mother to his children and the primary homemaker. And never mind that she has her plate full with several full-time jobs, he still wants to be the center of her universe. Now, it's not that men won't pitch in. Millions of men are reasonable and dedicated husbands. They're loving and thoughtful. But for some reason, they still consider themselves to be "helping" with the dishes or "babysitting" the kids. Why don't women "help" with dishes or "babysit" their kids? Because those are "women's jobs" that are, it seems, beneath husbands at face value.

This is why so many women feel as if they're burning the candle at both ends. They truly want to be an A+, but they've learned a physics lesson the hard way: You simply can't be in two places at once. Men need to get real. If they want an A+ woman, they need to make the grade themselves.

iVillage asks: "What is The Most Important Trait to Find in a Spouse"

Michele answers: "Fasten your seat belts; it isn't pretty." Okay, you romantics out there. Fasten your seat belts, 'cause it isn't pretty. Want to know what to look for in a man who'll be around for the long haul? It's his ability to deal constructively with the conflicts that will inevitably arise in your relationship. "Too mundane," you say? Well, here are the facts.

Research tells us that spouses in long-term, happy marriages are not soul mates; they have no more in common than those who divorce. However, veteran marrieds know how to effectively deal with their differences. Managing conflict over parenting styles, sex, money or household chores isn't easy. But the good news is it's a skill that can be learned. That's why couples are now taking relationship-skill-building classes in droves. So, if your hubby prospect is willing to learn what it takes to lovingly work through the hard times? Take heart. He's a keeper.

The New Monogamy: Cheating by the Rules?

iVillage asks: about "Managed Monogamy"

Michele answers: "Managed Monogamy? Oxymoron" You have got to be kidding. I've been a marriage therapist for nearly 30 years and I've yet to witness even one open marriage work. Setting morality or the dangers of STDs aside, this idea of managed monogamy - talk about an oxymoron - is a disaster waiting to happen. Even if spouses have good intentions and believe they've agreed upon fair rules for fooling around, all bets are off once they open Pandora's box. The promise of pleasurable, kinky, extraordinary sex has a funny way of enticing people to behave in ways - especially toward their spouses - that they might not ordinarily. And when they do, jealousy sets in. One spouse wants to call the deal off and the other is too busy getting turned on to care. So, although old-fashioned monogamy may be a far-from-perfect solution for more adventurous couples, it's still, by far, the best one we've got.

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