Torch singer Peggy Lee's 1969 hit record, "Is That All There Is?," was a mature woman's lament about her disillusionment in life and love, a destiny she passively endures. For many married women today, the question still resonates, but far fewer wives will accept their fate as stoically as the woman in the song.
As many as 70 percent of women feel dissatisfaction with their marriage at some point, says Susan Shapiro Barash, who teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and is the author of 13 books on women's issues. For some women, it comes early in the marriage, after the excitement of being a newlywed wears off. Some become disillusioned during the child-rearing years, when they are overwhelmed by a feeling that working at their marriage has become a dead-end job. And others, as they hit their 50s, have grown so much as women they feel they have outgrown their marriage.
"The opportunities and options that have become available to women can create friction in a marriage," Barash says. "It really has to do with the independence of the wife."
Barash's latest book, "The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make It, Break It, Keep It" (St. Martin's Griffin, $15), examines how wives perceive their marriages from newlyweds through their winter years, and offers advice on how to cope with and overcome obstacles.
In researching her book, Barash spoke with about 200 women. About 80 percent said they believed their marriage was originally based on romantic love. "We all start on a high note," Barash says. "There's tremendous optimism about the romance of being a wife." But as the women got older, dissatisfaction crept in, typically after raising children, when many women said they and their husbands were drifting apart. And a husband's habits that might have been a mild annoyance earlier become more pronounced and aggravating, putting more strain on the marriage.
This can become especially nettlesome when the husband retires and expects the wife to be a constant companion. "The women are absolutely apoplectic because they've had tremendous energy and control over their days," Barash says. Her advice to wives: Tell your husband you each need to establish times to pursue your own activities. "You don't have to share every interest," Barash says. "You can be individuals and still come together and have a very happy marriage."