When marital advice trumps whale vomit

A simple list of questions to ask before marrying currently tops the Times' "most e-mailed" list. Why?

Published December 19, 2006 4:53PM (EST)

Sometimes, when I should be working, I like to read through the New York Times' list of "most e-mailed" articles and try to figure out what it says about American society (or, at least, about Times readers). For example, why, when the front page of the paper has headlines like "Attacks in Iraq at Record High" and "Inquiry Falters on Civilians Accused of Detainee Abuse," is the No. 3 spot currently being held by a story called "Please Let It Be Whale Vomit, Not Just Sea Junk"? (Editor's note: If you think that's strange, check out the picture.)

The whale vomit story is edging out other previous hits, like the magazine's feature on billionaire philanthropy -- but it's topped by the No. 1 story of the moment: "Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying."

The article is simple: an introduction followed by a list of questions. No commentary, no conclusion. But it's what's on the list that has me wondering what the hell is going on with modern relationships. It includes queries like "Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?"; "Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect?"; "Can we openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?"; and "Do we listen to each other and fairly consider one another's ideas and complaints?"

It's not that I think the questions on the list are dumb; rather, if marriage came with a rulebook, they seem like they should be mandatory. They're the sort of conversation starters that, if left untouched till after your wedding day, could easily speed up the whole "'till death do us part" thing. "Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?" Really? The idea that this question might come after an engagement ring horrifies me (though it might help explain our divorce rate).

So here's my question -- and I mean this sincerely -- why is this the No. 1 most e-mailed article? Is this story being sent to lovebirds by concerned friends? Are people e-mailing it around because they're as confused about it as I am? Is it just one of those articles everyone can relate to, so they reflexively hit "e-mail to a friend"? And perhaps most important, why is it edging out the whale vomit?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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