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.”

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?

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?

Weil: No, they’re too young. They’ve seen the book around the house. They’re 6 and 9, so they’ve read the cover and they know this is mommy’s book and they know it’s about marriage, but, no, we didn’t get them involved in this.

Slate: How did you choose the methods by which you were going to try to improve the marriage? Couples’ counseling is an intuitive way to improve a marriage, but exploring religion isn’t.

Weil: [I chose the methods] both from reading around and talking to friends and other experts about what were people doing and what was effective for people. Then there were the things that were issues in our lives. With the religion oddly it wasn’t actually an issue, it was something everybody thought should be an issue, which is very different. I felt like, OK, well, if we’re gonna really think about our marriage and we’re in an interfaith marriage, we should really think about religion. So that’s how we wound up going down that road.

I feel like [exploring religion] was an important lesson. We were fine, me and Dan, with religion. Neither of us is particularly religious; we care about it a little, not a lot. But it was something other people thought might be a problem, and so we went out seeking other people’s advice, which turned out to not really be particular to us at all. It was more like other people’s views of how they thought we should do it. And that wound up being really negative for us.

And I think the money stuff can be a little like that in some ways. So much of financial advice is based on this platonic ideal of what your family should be like, where you’re going to be able to save this much, you know, have this kind of college fund, and it’s just impossible for us. It’s not going to happen. The only way it would happen for us is if we left the Bay Area, where literally every member of our family lives. And the only way we can get our life much cheaper is to leave here, and it’s not the right thing for us. It felt slightly like religion. Like, OK, that might be nice in your shoes, but it’s not happening for us.

Slate: Was there anything that you felt nervous about revealing?

Weil: The stuff that was hard and embarrassing was, how much was I going write about sex? You can’t write about marriage without writing about sex in some way. I thought, “Oh god, am I going write about also these trust issues where I had this fling before I got married?” But then I wound up feeling like this is what we fight about, and this is what our marriage is really like. And I had felt from the beginning if people were going connect with the book they’re going connect with it because somewhere in that honesty they’re going see something in their own lives. And [sex] felt like too big a thing to back away from.

Slate: Were there any potential marriage improvement ideas that got rejected as too difficult?

Weil: There were some retreats. [Marriage researcher] John Gottman, his retreat on Orcas Island. It just seemed so indulgent and crazy. You spend like, $4,000 to spend the weekend with him and his wife, and it was like, wow, OK, there’s stuff out there people are doing about marriage that to me was sort of culturally fascinating, but that was just too expensive.

Slate: What was the most useful thing you learned from the marriage improvement project?

Weil: Our marriage is our marriage, and we need to have the best marriage for us. With a wedding, you sort of start down this road, from this more collective fantasy. But then ultimately there you are with the person you love in your little house, and you need to build the life that’s right for you.

This interview has been condensed and edited.