Can You Perfect a Marriage?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 6 2012 12:47 PM

A More Perfect Union

An interview with Elizabeth Weil, the author of the marriage improvement memoir No Cheating, No Dying.

Elizabeth Weil.
Elizabeth Weil.

Stephanie Pool Photography.

In 2009, Elizabeth Weil published a long piece in the New York Times Magazine called “Married (Happily) With Issues.” It was about the marriage improvement project that she and her husband, the writer Daniel Duane, were then undertaking. “My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire,” Weil wrote back then. “Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why.”

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Like so many insightful pieces about women’s marital choices, the intense and varied reactions to Weil’s piece were something of a Rorschach test. People who are into the idea of companionate marriage were fascinated by the peek into someone else’s mostly functional relationship. People who don’t believe in life-long unions saw the work that Weil was putting into a relationship as stultifying. Everyone had feelings about Weil’s disclosure that she doesn’t like French kissing.

Weil’s new book, No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage and I Tried To Make It Better, expands on that controversial Times Magazine essay. Each chapter discusses a different element of marriage—including sex, religion, and money—and describes the ways Weil and Duane attempted to parse their feelings on said topic. The result is a deeply intimate, thoroughly engaging portrait of a very particular marriage (How many couples can say they swam to Alcatraz together?). But in being honest about the specifics, Weil allows the reader to reflect on his or her own union.

Slate spoke with Weil about what she learned during her period of marriage improvement, what it’s like being in a relationship with another memoirist, and deciding how much to write about sex.

Slate: You and your husband, Daniel Duane, are both memoirists. How do you decide who gets to write about which shared experiences? Do you ever write about the same events from different perspectives?

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Elizabeth Weil: He has a book coming out that’s also a memoir. It’s about cooking [How To Cook Like a Man]. So there was a lot of writing about our life, and there was only one story we both told. We both told a story about our wedding cake. It’s funny that—here we are, we live the same life, we work in the same house, and there aren’t that many stories that we both want to tell.

Slate: Do you run things by him before you publish them if they’re about him?

Weil: Of course. We read pretty much everything of each other’s anyway. He read so many drafts of my book. The idea that I would publish this without his consent is so beyond conceivable to me. I actually want Dan to read everything all the time, and he’s more on the side of saying “Oh, come on, don’t make me read this again.”

Slate: At what point in the process of writing the memoir did that New York Times Magazine essay (“Married (Happily) With Issues”) come out?

Weil: It was early in the writing process but maybe midway through the big effort that we were making in our marriage. And it was a big eye-opener in terms of how strongly people responded. It made me really aware how much my being really open and honest about marriage pushed people’s buttons. The reason anyone might be interested in my book is not because my marriage is so fascinating and they’re so interested in me. [They’re interested because] writing can be a foil for people to think about their own lives, and of course we’re all intensely interested in our own relationships.

Slate: You write about your husband’s skepticism about the project in the book, but I’m curious as to what were the first words out of his mouth, when you proposed the marriage-improvement project?

Weil: He literally said, “I can’t think of anything worse.” I knew a lot about a lot of things, and I didn’t really know very much about marriage. The intellectual part of my brain had never engaged with it. And so I started reading and I was fascinated and I was like, oh my gosh, people really know things about love and relationships that I don’t know, and they’re powerful things to know. Then I thought, maybe I should write about it. So then it was sort of time to tell Dan and I walked into the kitchen one day when he was making lunch, and somehow it came out, and I said, “What do you think about doing therapy, you know, couples’ counseling together?” and he’s like, “I cannot think of anything worse.” But it turns out that Dan actually kind of loves therapy; for him, it’s like getting like a massage. But initially, [that experience] was not positive.

Slate: Did you tell the kids that you were doing this?

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