Yale scholar Pamela Haag’s controversial new book takes on modern spousedom — and asserts that many couples are secretly disenchanted. wOw editor Hilary Black finds out why
Your new book, Marriage Confidential, chronicles a relatively new cultural phenomenon: the “post romantic” era of “semi-happy” marriages that are low-conflict yet melancholy. When did you first observe this trend, and how did you hit on the idea for this book?
I observed semi-happy marriages all around me, and in late-night heart to hearts with my friends. I was trained as a historian, so I was curious as to why a generation with so many opportunities and advantages would feel so mediocre, wistful, or lethargic about their marriages — or why they’d have so many complaints. I wanted to learn more, rather than just dismiss their concerns as “selfish” or “whiny.”
Then, some of my acquaintances began to have experiences with infidelity — and this happened at the same time that we had a new crop of infidelity scandals, with Spitzer and Edwards, for example. And I noticed that while they my friends were indeed outraged and hurt, they were also more tolerant of the infidelity than I might have expected. That got me thinking: Are the romantic assumptions and ideals from the 1900s changing on us? How is marriage evolving for my generation?
How widespread is this phenomenon, according to your research? Is it a uniquely American trend? Or do “semi-happy” marriages exist around the world?
Marriage scholars have found that a majority of U.S. divorces — anywhere from 55 to 65 percent — hail from the ranks of “low-conflict,” amiable but listless and not all that satisfying marriages, so there are a fair number of existing marriages today that fit the “semi-happy” bill. Some will end up in divorce court; some won’t.
I’m sure that Americans haven’t cornered the market on semi-happiness or marital ambivalence. But it’s true that western European countries have moved more dramatically into what sociologists call a post-marriage state. They marry less, and also divorce less, than we do. The U.S. might well have more semi-happy marriages than kindred countries for this reason alone — and also because we’ve had a much more pro-marriage, pro-“family values” culture and rhetoric than, say, France, Sweden, or the Netherlands. This makes some Americans more likely to want to “stick it out” in marriage. There’s more shame attached to non-marriage, divorce, and marital failure in the U.S. than in Western Europe.
Why are people willing to stay in marriages that don’t satisfy them?
Sometimes they don’t expect much more. These are responsible, well-intentioned people, who aren’t divorce trigger happy. They might have internalized the idea that marriage is “hard work,” and that they shouldn’t expect much.
In other cases, they believe — perhaps too strongly — that divorce is a bad option and they simply refuse to do it. Some of these spouses might have grown up with parents who divorced in the bumper crop of the 1970s and early 1980s, and vowed never to do that in their own lives.
And, keep in mind that “semi-happy” is better than unhappy or “miserable.” These are not rotten marriages. They’re just shade-of-gray marriages, where the spouse is genuinely confused about what to do.
Generally, I think our marital expectations are changing, too, and many of us seek in marriage a home base or companionship. Some of these semi-happy marriages, while not all that satisfying, are made more viable because the spouses seek other things and passions that they need elsewhere, through work, friendships, other intimacies, hobbies, or what have you. And in other cases — especially since the recession — it’s simply too expensive to divorce. The divorce rate actually dropped in 2009 and 2010, because the economy made it difficult for spouses to sell a house, get value out of their house, establish two separate households, or even scrape together money to pay for divorce lawyers.
What are some of the solutions that people in “semi-happy” marriages find to offset their dissatisfaction?
Solutions to semi-happy marriage range from the monumental to the mundane. Some marriages that are stuck but that don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater through divorce have the difficult conversation: They make very large changes in their lives. Perhaps they try to practice an updated, more human version of “open marriage,” and allow each other to have outside attachments, so long as they follow certain rules and both partners agree. There are happy, secure couples today who aren’t monogamous, by design.
Other couples I describe traded in the suburban or more expensive lifestyle for a more downsized one that gives them more time and freedom. Others might change their parenting philosophies. I even learned of divorced couples who still maintain one household, to keep stability for their children. They enjoy the freedoms (discreetly) of divorced people, in that they can start dating, but they also maintain a household for their children.
How did your husband feel when you embarked on this book project? Were either of you worried that this kind of research would negatively affect your own relationship?
To be honest, I agonized over this question more than any other. It kept me up at night — even though my book’s not a memoir, and our own marriage isn’t the topic of the book (I’m more interested in the world “out there” than in here).
My husband’s a wonderful person, as I hope comes across in the book, and he’s brave to let me write on this topic at all. It does feel like a strange act of “outing,” just to write that I’ve had mixed feelings about the state of marriage generally, and my own marriage — even though a good number of husbands and wives have these feelings, and even though John and I are still married and have a functioning household. And while he’s behind me 100 percent, he’s not doing interviews!
You say that doing the research for this book changed your outlook on marriage. How so?
Talking to other spouses and closely observing other marriages occasionally sent me flying back into the arms of my own marriage with renewed gratitude and appreciation for all the things that do work in it! But in a more serious vein, my work’s made me more mindful in my marriage. Before I started this book I would torment myself that my marriage somehow wasn’t a “real marriage” because it was imperfect and incomplete. But through this work I’ve thankfully ditched that idea of the “real marriage” and what it has to look like.
This book has also made me more optimistic that in an age when 40% of Americans think marriage is “becoming obsolete,” it actually has real potential to evolve to keep up with our changing lives—it still has life in it, even for marriage skeptics. And my own marriage does, too.
Pamela Haag is the author of Marriage Confidential: The Post Romantic Age of Workhouse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules. After attending Swarthmore College and earning a Ph.D. in history from Yale, she worked as director of research for the American Association of University Women and as a speechwriter. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University.