Interview With 'You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married)' Author Dana Adam Shapiro

Why do some marriages last and others fizzle?
10/08/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012
Young couple having a fight in the kitchen
Young couple having a fight in the kitchen

Why do some marriages last and others fizzle? That's the question Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Dana Adam Shapiro sets out to answer in his book You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married). While researching for the book, Shapiro conducted interviews with hundreds of separated and divorced individuals to find out why their marriages ended. Divorced and non-divorced readers will find these conversations both fascinating and thought provoking.

The marvelously written foray into marital anguish may be seen as a guide for those currently in relationships. In reading Shapiro's interviews, it becomes clear what pitfalls couples should work to avoid. A lack of communication, dishonesty and adultery are just some of the issues that Shapiro's subjects say destroyed their marriages.

Shapiro spoke to me about his reason for writing the book, cheating and the most common mistakes married couples make.

You're an accomplished documentarian. When you set out to explore marriage, why did you decide to do so in a book rather than a film?

I realized early on that people would be much more open and honest if it was anonymous.

So your interview subjects were more open to answering you questions honestly because they were able to remain anonymous?

Yes. It wasn't about money, or fame, or revenge. Everybody spoke simply because they wanted to help others learn from their mistakes. It was like "Scared Straight" for love.

How did you go about collecting interview subjects? What criteria did they have to meet?

I travel a lot for work: Monogamy was doing the film festival circuit, and I drove cross country when I moved from NY to LA. Every time I met someone and they weren't wearing a wedding ring, I'd ask: "Are you divorced?" If they weren't, they always knew someone who was. I'd explain what I was doing, and more often than not, people were willing to talk. The only criteria was that they were officially separated and that they lived in the U.S.

Many of the subjects that you interviewed were married after dating their spouse for a short period of time. Do you think that was a major reason why their marriages ultimately fell apart?

The people who got divorced, I think they would have broken up anyway -- it wasn't because of the marriage.

Sloan, one of the women that you interviewed, says that "All men cheat." After working on the book and speaking with the people that you did -- would you say that's true?

No. Women cheat just as much as men. However, I do think that men are more likely to have a one night stand, whereas women are more likely to carry on an emotional affair. I'm still not sure which is worse.

She also says that women are oppressed by cultural parameters. How do you think that can negatively affect a relationship?

Repression leads to rebellion. But all that's changing, as she says, for the better. It's not about "the end of men," but rather the rise of women.

One of the men that you interviewed, Steve, talks about a "fight" vs. a "productive fight." in your opinion, what is the difference between the two?

Fighting to win or to be right is very divisive. That type of score-keeping can really turn a partnership into a competition. "Fighting" has this negative connotation, but when it's raw and respectful, I think it can be the best thing for a relationship. Someone told me, "Don't paint the red flags white." And I think that's excellent advice. That whole "don't rock the boat" mentality -- weeping things under the rug -- that only works if you're willing to live in delusion, walking on egg shells.

There are a few individuals in the book that say they knew that getting married wasn't a good idea but they still went through with it. Why do you think that people get married even though they aren't sure it's the right thing to do?

Faith. And all faith requires a leap, right? I think that everyone who gets married does it for love -- and they really want it to work out.

After compiling all of your findings, what would you say are the most common mistakes that couples make?

Compromise is essential, of course, but many people talked about compromising too much. They woke up five years later and thought, "Where did I go?"

One woman told me, "It's not a question of winning love from people. It's either there or it isn't -- there's nothing you can do other than be yourself."

In your opinion, what does it take to make a relationship safe and comfortable but -- at the same time -- exciting?

Realism. I think this quote sums it up best: "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. 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."