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THE PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF MARRIAGE

By Dr. Laura Schlessinger

HarperCollins, $25.95, 222 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHANIE DEUTSCH

Dr. Laura Schlessinger runs true to form in delivering the deceptively simple message of her 14th book; she is her usual saucy, opinionated self, with a strong bias in favor of traditional values. "The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage," she writes here, "is to GIVE, GIVE, and GIVE some more -- of your best self." Her book is not, she asserts, "your typical marriage manual," advocating individual self-realization for partners, negotiation of solutions to problems and minimizing the intrinsic difference between the sexes.

On the contrary, Dr. Laura sees the joy and promise of marriage in the complementary natures of men and women; the enemy is "the level of selfishness that has become acceptable in our society." The ideas and the style will be familiar to many.

Dr. Laura is no stylist. Her written prose reflects her aggressive verbal style. ("Am I the only one sickened by metro-sexuality?") It's emphatic and full of slang and not at all elegant. The book's editing is sloppy ("Jeff and Wendy called in to my program because he and Wendy had gotten into a dispute . . .")

The book contains many lists taken from on-line surveys that also seem slapped together (listing responses to the question "What do you, as a woman, most admire about men in general?" Dr. Laura writes, "1. hardiness, physical strength, masculinity, mental toughness, protective, courage, self-confident . . .") The use of simple ideas, exclamation points and capital letters can be wearying ("If you want this marriage bad enough -- EARN IT!")

The book's style notwithstanding, Dr. Laura's thinking is bracing and even daring. Especially if they have children, she argues, most people are better off improving their marriages and staying in them rather than divorcing, though this may not be the case when addictions, physical abuse and chronic infidelity are involved. These are issues she takes very seriously.

She recommends against marrying outside of one's own religion, seeing no solution to the differing convictions and worldviews that can result. That said, most marriages can be greatly improved, Dr. Laura says, by rather simple changes in the attitudes of the partners.

A major stumbling block to happy marriages is, according to Dr. Laura, the "almost total lack of understanding, appreciation and respect for what is feminine and what is masculine" that she sees around her and hears in the voices of callers to her daily show on XM radio. Hers, as anyone who has listened to her show knows, is a traditional take on gender roles; the chapter that discusses the subject is called "Me Tarzan. You Jane."

Many couples, she asserts, are more like business partners than spouses, treating each other as rivaling siblings rather than complementary mates. What has been lost is the "lock-and-key nature of marriage -- neither the lock nor the key is functional by itself." Men are by nature suited to being providers, women to the creation of the home and the nurture of children.

Many will surely argue with this and Dr. Laura is quick to acknowledge the satisfaction that many women, herself included, find in careers beyond their homes. "But, but, but," she writes, "the ultimate meaning of my life comes from my position in my family, not my position on any ratings scale or bestseller list."

Further, Dr. Laura claims that it was having her son, Deryk, that "cured me from feminism." Rather than resenting domesticity, she came to see it as "the power to set the tone for the whole family experience . . . Houses become homes when women make them so." Women, she writes, should "stop denigrating their roles as homemakers."

Dr. Laura has been accused, she notes, of tending to see women as at fault in many marital problems. Her previous book, "The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands," was, in fact, a sympathetic look at men, drawing attention to the sometimes dismissive treatment many receive from their wives (and, frankly, creating an uncomfortable feeling of self-recognition in this reviewer).

"As a woman," she writes, "I am honest and embarrassed to say that over the last half century, the tide has turned seriously hostile and demeaning toward men and masculinity. As a result, women, in my opinion, behave proportionally more destructively and insensitively in relationships and marriages than have men, and men are less and less behaving like men."

But both men and women are guilty, Dr. Laura believes, of underestimating the importance in marriage of giving -- of nurturing in oneself the desire and the willingness to meet the needs of the other. Her book is full of quotes from callers to her show describing the seemingly miraculous improvements wrought by quite simple changes in behavior.

One woman noted her feeling of jealousy because of the attention her husband lavished on their young daughter. But then "it dawned on me. Sarah has been demonstrating for me what I, as a wife, needed to be doing. The moment he walks in the door after work, she runs to him yelling 'Daddy!!' and nothing else matters to her but that he is home. I, on the other hand, am too busy getting dinner ready and am irritated that he would actually expect me to drop what I am doing to give him a king's welcome."

She said she had decided to change -- to drop whatever she is doing when her husband comes home and greet him warmly. She also determined to "just love and appreciate him without nagging and criticisms for the way the baby's diaper is on, or that he picked out the wrong pajamas." It turns out he liked that.

While Dr. Laura is tough on what she sees as the selfishness behind many marital problems, she is also very encouraging. "One quick way to bring your marriage back from the brink," she writes, "is NOT to talk it to death, but to instantaneously just start BEING NICE."

In responses to her on-line surveys of attitudes towards marriage (www.drlaura.com), Dr. Laura finds that both men and women list "having someone one on my side," "someone to share with" and creating a home together as among the benefits of marriage. Men want someone who will be understanding toward them, make love and sex a priority, and respect them; women crave someone who will make them feel "loved and cherished," who will provide for the family, who will be faithful.

And a significant number of responses from both men and women describe the personal growth they experience in learning to put someone else's needs before their own as one of the good things about marriage. Responding to the question, "In what ways has marriage made you a better person?" one woman wrote: "By showing me that putting someone else's needs before my own is the true definition of happiness." Dr. Laura further asserts that people "have a moral obligation to be their best selves." Marriage gives them that opportunity and richly rewards them when they do it.

You can criticize Dr. Laura, and many do, for her abrasive manner, for her traditional biases, and for oversimplifying problems, but you cannot say she doesn't have something serious and worth considering to say.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer.

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