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Self-Help

Grout and the modern marriage

This Old Spouse: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Restoring, Renovating, and Rebuilding Your Relationship
By Sharyn Wolf
Hudson Street, 272 pp., $23.95

Over the Hill and Between the Sheets: Sex, Love, and Lust in Middle Age
Edited by Gail Belsky
Springboard, 304 pp., $23.99

Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents
By Jane Isay
Flying Dolphin, 256 pp., $23.95

Making a relationship work often seems like a full-time job. It's hard enough to please a boss, let alone a spouse, which is likely the reason that more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.

Sharyn Wolf, a therapist and "relationship expert," tries her hand at helping couples repair the rupture before it gets that far. In "This Old Spouse" Wolf, likening the heart to a house to make her point, compares dual commitments: the one you make to your mate, and the one you make to prime real estate.

There's plenty of practical advice to be had inside the cover, and Wolf sounds savvy about the pitfalls of long-term love. The same old arguments, the same old apology, the same old rut: "Think of how often you have said 'I'm sorry' to him after a bad fight and meant it," Wolf writes, "and it still didn't help either of you feel better because the hurts caused by mean words you didn't mean to say, the ones that flew out of your mouth, went too deep to be instantly healed. On the other hand, it is possible for the smallest of gestures, if they're sincere, quickly applied, and feel like authentic responses and not pat platitudes, to be amazingly effective." In other words, mouthing "I'm sorry" is easy; being genuinely sorry is hard.

Unfortunately, this book spends a great deal of time plumbing the depths of the house-as-heart metaphor. Every time Wolf comes up with a smart relationship repair tip, she can't stop herself from going on about wiring, leaky roofs, and major renovations. It makes what should have been a breezy read trying.

For many people sex is the glue that holds a relationship together. And sex is the theme of "Over the Hill and Between the Sheets." This collection of essays, edited by Gail Belsky, is about lust, love, and commitment in the over-40 generation. You can read about men deciding to have vasectomies or discussing impotence, women cheating on their loving husbands or rekindling the spark.

There are many wonderful essays, in particular "Sex After Near Death," by Caroline Leavitt, which chronicles the author's terrifying illness and her painstaking recovery, a recovery marked by fear of intimacy, in particular sexual intercourse; "The Man Upstairs," by Adair Lara, who lives with her current spouse in the same house as her ex, an ex who just happens to be both gay and the father of her child; "Woman on a Mission," by Deborah Caldwell, a chronicle of sexual encounters spawned by Internet dating; and "Like a Buncha Virgins," by Helene Stapinski. Stapinski starts off being supportive of female friends whose gripes against their erring and errant husbands seem completely justified, but when she looks more closely she begins to have some very understandable doubts. In the end she realizes that men aren't always the villains of the piece. In hers, the husband is actually the hero. "At the end of the day," she writes, "after the yelling, and the throwing things, and the ugliness and the therapy and the fantastic sex, at the end of it all, we are still old friends. Old friends who like each other, who like to talk, who like to go out to dinner and chat, and who really like to sleep together. Who love to sleep together." It sounds like a pretty fine marriage to me.

Not every intimate relationship is sexual in nature; "Walking on Eggshells" is about the one grown children have with their graying parents. In this extremely fine book Jane Isay looks at both sides of the generational divide.

As the mother of an adult son, I found myself taking heart from many of the positive parent-child interactions Isay describes, and being appalled by many of the less stellar ones. One mother was so intrusive that she threatened to call child services on her daughter-in-law because the poor woman had decided to return to the workforce. The daughter-in-law and the son ended up changing the locks on their doors (I was surprised they didn't take out a restraining order). I felt pretty darn good after reading about this mother, who made my own boundary issues seem trivial.

Isay firmly believes that "our children, no matter how distant they seem, still love us." Having divorced her husband 10 years after he divulged he was gay, Isay got to hear her sons' side of the story in painful detail. Apparently they hadn't been fooled by their parents' decision to keep the marriage together in an attempt to protect them. She listened and learned, and out of these difficult talks a book idea was born.

"Walking on Eggshells" gives ample proof that "the family is the basic unit of humankind. It's like an atom -- add different ones together and you get a new element. You can smash a family, just as you can smash an atom, but the basic energy will pull it back together, in some form or another. What keeps an atom together, and allows it to form a molecule with other atoms, is energy. What makes a family keep spinning is love."

Naomi Rand is the author of "It's Raining Men."

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