06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So Let it Be Lipstick

I'll always remember the words and phrases that sent me thumbing through the big, beige dictionary as a kid. "Urban plight" from the fold-in at the back of Mad magazine. Holden Caulfield finding the humor in being "ostracized" by the fencing team in The Catcher in the Rye. The little girl scolding Alvy Singer for skipping his "latency period" in Annie Hall. Bender from The Breakfast Club gesturing to Johnson's underwear and asking for his "doobage."

The first time I saw "monogamy" it was being written in red lipstick on the back of a beautiful naked woman. The word seemed to be part of a commandment -- or at least a heartfelt suggestion. The writer, a scruffy pop star wearing nothing but a wedding band and a crucifix in his left ear, was urging his acolytes to "explore" the concept -- not by etching the verb in stone, but by scrawling it across the naked woman's thigh.

This was 1987, back when Ken Starr was a federal appellate judge on the D.C. circuit and everyone still enjoyed a little high fructose corn syrup and female pubic hair. Me, I was 14-years-old, watching a lot of MTV, and hoping to spend the night inside Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls" (not in my dictionary). I had no idea what George Michael's chart-topping ode to fidelity was all about, but I remember thinking that if it had anything to do with the red blindfolds, black garters, and Flashdance-style waterotica featured in the controversial "I Want Your Sex" video, I was more than ready to follow his lead and explore the hell out of it.

Fast-forward to 2008. I'm 34, home for Thanksgiving, and my childhood friend tells me he's leaving his wife of three years. He discovered that she had been having an affair while popping fistfuls of prescription painkillers (he was unknowingly subsidizing both hobbies). That night, I made a list of all the people I know that had gotten divorced. I came up with 14. It was a little early for the seven-year itch -- what was going wrong? It's hard to get straight answers, of course -- people tend to put a Facebook face on their relationships. So in an attempt to better understand the roulette-level odds of having a successful modern marriage, I started interviewing dozens of my peers who had failed to make it work. The key to their candor: no real names. Not surprisingly, the elephant in most of their bedrooms had something to do with...

"Sex is the ultimate form of communication, and when that communication breaks down it becomes very hard to want the other person in any serious way," said "Ruby," 34. "I suppose in some weird, judgmental way, I always thought that affairs were symptoms of moral character. But now I see them for what they are. It is a crying out of feeling totally alone within your own marriage--sexual isolation or emotional isolation--which is the scariest feeling because there's no recourse. When you're single, there's a possibility that you're going to fall in love. You might be lonely, but you dwell in that type of possibility. When you're married and things are shitty there's nowhere to go. So you really start to resent the person. I remember my husband and me looking at each other and both probably thinking: 'You are the place that my hope has gone to die.'"

"Peter," 34: "Yes, I saw her daily email because I was able to get her passwords through key-logging software I added to the computer. I couldn't find anything on her cell phone--she must have had Dipshit on auto-delete or something. But I intercepted an email with 60 some-odd bullet points as to why Mr. Wonderful would like to grow old with my wife. I did in fact vomit when I read it for the first time. I had been lied to just a couple hours earlier, and to read it in detail was more than I could handle."

"Nicole," 28: "I felt lonely, but couldn't identify it as loneliness. How could I be lonely married to the love of my life? We had settled into a routine where we only had sex once a week or so, maybe even less. There was no variety, and no real mental or emotional rewards--just physical pleasure. There was none of the urgency or tension that makes sex so great--that sense of wanting to impress or entice someone. Plus, he had really bad breath, which never really bothered me when we were dating, but gradually it made it so that I never wanted to kiss him."

This immersion into marital discord inspired two projects: a Studs Terkel-style book about divorce, and a relationship thriller called Monogamy, starring Chris Messina and Rashida Jones (it will premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival). Both projects are about people under 40 who are struggling with commitment in the time of Tiki, Tiger, Spitzer, and Grindr . But ultimately they're cautionary tales of hope, perhaps best summed up by my friend "Jim," who got divorced twice by the time he was 40, but has been happily married to a wonderful, take-no-crap woman since 1998.

"Jim," 58: "There is something absolutely divine--I mean, literally, the breath of God--in the ability to put someone else in your heart, to think of them first. But from the time of the greatest pornographer who ever lived, Shakespeare, we've demanded that 'love' be something more. No, fuck Shakespeare--since the Song of Songs! And what happens is, the utter grandeur and magnificence of what love actually is gets overshadowed by this disappointment that it's not the way we fantasized it should be. So half of us are out the door as soon as it starts to fall apart. And we go to marriage counselors, whose job it is to make the decision for us and then make us think we made it ourselves. So we never really get to the point, as a culture, where we have to ask that question: Should this marriage be saved or should it be discarded? Because our predilection is just to discard it."

So what's the key to making it work?

"You have to find somebody who is willing to accept you for who you are and then tell you that that's not good enough. And with their help, you figure out how to be better. And you need to do the same thing for them. But if you're not willing to turn around and say, 'I accept, I demand, and I work,' then you're not willing to be married."