Author and film director Dana Adam Shapiro (his movies include the wheelchair-rugby documentary Murderball), 38, interviewed men and women of all ages around the country about the breakups of their marriages for his new book You Can Be Right (Or You Can Be Married).
After writing this book, are you more or less likely to get married?
I think 17% of marriages are happy. Fifty percent of marriages end, and of marriages that stay together, I think a third are happy, a third are happy enough, and a third are unhappy. If I could be in the 17% that’s happy, I’d like to get married. Otherwise I’m really happy living alone and being an uncle. But I really do think the book has given me the tools to have the important conversations — losing the fear of rejection and saying, “this is who I am, and if you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, it just means we’re not right for each other.”
It’s more common to see books like yours — an exploration of relationships from a personal point of view — written by women. What was it like to be a male writer tackling subjects like divorce and your own past breakups?
From a personal point of view, I was trying to figure out what my own issues were. I haven’t been able to have a relationship that lasts more than three years, and I was trying to learn more about women, and about what men do wrong. But there might be a few more interviews with women than men in the book — ultimately I think it’s really a book about couples.
A lot of the books I see written about marriage are first-person accounts written by women, or therapy books, how-to manuals. This is more of a documentary book, not to see what experts were saying and what therapists were saying, but what’s going on behind closed doors. I approached it more as a voyeur.
What did you find out?
I went in pessimistic about marriage and came out more optimistic. I came out with a more realistic expectation of what marriage should be — not a lowering of expectations, but a more grounded view of what love is and the work it takes to make something last. At the same time I do think we over-prioritize eternity when it comes to love. I don’t think a marriage that ends in divorce is a failure. It could be good, loving, you raise kids together, and maybe 20 years down the line it’s not working, and that’s okay.
Some of the people you talked to in the book did terrible things — cheating, lying, putting their spouses at risk of STDs. Did you find it hard not to judge them?
Where judgment did come in was when people couldn’t recognize their own complicity, when they were just slinging bile and not owning their part in the problem. The best interviews were the ones where people were able to critique themselves, realize why they were horrible and would try to be better in the future. There’s also a rubbernecking quality. Some of these people’s marriages were just train wrecks, and they were seemingly normal people. That’s one of the most incredible things about human beings, they can be good and still do terrible things.
Did anything people said in the interviews really surprise you?
I was always surprised at the duplicity and the ease with which we are able to lie. But also the hope — the woman who had sex with the homeless man, and the cross-dresser [both of whom are interviewed in the book], both came out of it thinking they could actually find happiness. They used that experience to say, “I’m going to be better.” For me a lot of the book is about regret. For my movie, Murderball, I would always ask guys if they regretted getting in that car, doing whatever led to them becoming quadriplegic, and so many of them said, “I don’t regret it.” So I started reading about regret, and I found out that when you interview old people, very rarely do they regret the things they did. It’s more often about things they didn’t do. Likewise with these people who went through horrible tragedies, I’d ask if they regretted getting married. Very rarely did they say yes. Everybody felt stronger, wiser, smarter.
Did anything scare you?
I haven’t been in a long-term relationship since I wrote the book, but it would make me more suspicious, knowing how easy it is for people to sort of carry these lies. You’d think no one would be that good of a liar, but people were literally leading these double lives, where you’re a perfectly sane, empathetic, nice, smart person, and you did the most monstrous thing. It’s like, how did you compartmentalize? That’s something that scared me.
How have people been responding to the book?
Something weird is happening: friends are calling me up and saying they’re breaking up because of the book. A female friend of mine said she was going to move in with her boyfriend but now they’re breaking up. She said it was because of the first chapter, about “accelerating the inevitable.” Like, if a breakup has to happen, better it happen now. I guess maybe it just forced a lot of thoughts in her, like, “maybe I was burying a lot of things, idealizing this relationship, hoping he or I could change.”
Does it make you feel weird that people are breaking up because of your book?
No, I don’t feel weird. That assumes breaking up is bad, but getting to no is just as good as getting to yes. Any clarity is good, if it forces someone to say, “we’re not right for each other, I’m going to find someone who’s going to make me happier.” I had three hopes for the book: I was hoping it would spark conversations for married people and give them the tools to fix a marriage that was worth fixing, and I was hoping it would give people in really bad marriages the courage to leave. And for unmarried people, I thought of it as a guidebook — like, “let’s sees if this love is true, let’s really get to know each other.” At the beginning of a relationship there’s this instinct to try to be the other person’s ideal, and that can cause problems.
The people you interviewed gave a lot of contradicting advice. Some of them said sex is the most important thing in a marriage; others said it wasn’t that important. And a lot of relationship advice is like that — everyone has their own opinion, and they often conflict. How can we make sense of all this?
I think the problem with a general book that gives advice is that it presents it as a panacea. In this book, people’s advice is contradictory, and hopefully different people will see different aspects of themselves in different interviews. Maybe they’ll be repelled, and that’s fine too. I don’t think there is a magic bullet you can tell everyone and it’s going to be okay. These are conversation starters. My goal is that couples would read this together. Maybe if you’re disgusted with someone in the book you bring it up with your spouse and share. I think of the book as more of a tapestry — hopefully there’s something for everyone.