What divorce can teach about marriage

Couples should fight more and not compromise

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Dana Adam Shapiro would like to meet his true love, his muse, his collaborator. Shapiro is the Oscar-nominated director of the documentary Murderball and author of the acclaimed novel The Every Boy. He’s 39, handsome, single, and has never been married, though he’s been in love with plenty of women and had five three-year relationships.

He wonders if there is something wrong with him. Is he too cynical about marriage to make a long-term commitment? A buddy once told him that “getting married is like breaking into prison to serve a life sentence.”

For answers, Shapiro began interviewing divorced men and women until he’d spoken to 300 people. “I set out to vicariously live through the tragedies of others, hoping to glean some wisdom from the wreckage and to ultimately become so fluent in such failure that I would be able to avoid it in my own love life,” he explains in his new book, You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married.

The more unconventional the lessons he heard, the more impressed he was. “Somebody said to me, ‘Don’t paint the red flags white,’ and that’s something I’ll keep in mind a lot now,” he said on the phone from Berkeley, Calif. Shapiro believes most couples tend to avoid conflict. “But I think the idea of positive conflict, and how to fight fairly, is the key to a good relationship. Don’t surrender. Don’t pick fights but don’t avoid them. Admit if something bothers you.”

He cites the case of a 40-year-old divorced woman who regrets bottling up her jealousy. Her post-divorce behaviour is akin to having “truth Tourette’s,” she told Shapiro. “Now, when I feel jealous, I just say it right away. I’ll just announce it to the person I’m with. I’m through with being a ‘cool’ girl. I’m going to show it all, and I want to be with someone who’s going to be that real with me.”

“Accelerating the inevitable” is Shapiro’s term for it. “So much of the dating process is, let’s face it, faking it, because you really are putting your best foot forward. You want so badly to be liked. You might feign interest in something you’re not interested in. Why don’t we be ourselves as quickly as possible and then we can really see if we have the stuff to make a life together?”

One divorced 30-year-old whose ex-husband was violent suggests that couples seek out “uncomfortable experiences” before their wedding day. She told Shapiro, “Go camping. It might rain and you might get grumpy. Or, you’re on a plane and there’s a baby next to you screaming the entire time. How’s that guy going to handle it? Is he going to be like, ‘Shut that f–king baby up?’ If so, there you go. That’s not the guy you want to marry.”

Stating your needs at the beginning of the next relationship is another good idea, says Shapiro. “I think that people feel that having a need is synonymous with being needy, so they really hold that back.”

In the book, a 42-year-old divorced mom tells Shapiro about arguing with friends over the difference between a need and a want. “My closest girlfriend was there and she’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and she said, ‘I’m not ashamed to say that I need my husband. And I will call him and say, ‘I need you now.’ And I know that he’s gonna come and sit there like a nodding dog and listen to me.’ And all the men around the table went pale at the word ‘need.’ We said, ‘What’s wrong with need?’ And they said, ‘We don’t like the word need.’ We like the word want.’ ”

Shapiro says he plans to inform his next girlfriend that he needs to travel a lot and needs to talk about work at home.

He also believes too much compromise is dangerous. “A lot of people said they’d compromised themselves into oblivion. They became a shadow of who they really were. This isn’t the most traditional advice,” he laughs. “ ‘You should fight more, don’t compromise.’ But those are some of the take-aways for me.”

If he does get married, he won’t pledge his love forever. “It’s a silly promise to say, ‘I will love you forever.’ No one can say that. It’s just not true. I don’t care. No one can say it and no one should be loved unconditionally.”

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