In the Sunday Times this weekend Pamela Haag explains the premise of her new book “Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules” (Harper Collins). Haag identifies the “low-conflict” or “melancholy” marriage as a contemporary phenomenon borne from the death of traditional marriage imperatives. “We (for ‘we’ read women) don’t need to marry for a meal ticket, for a legitimate and fun sex life (the opposite is true, perhaps), to secure social standing, to convince people we’re not gay, to certify paternity or even to raise children.”
Haag disects modern marriage and comes up with script-ready classifications: Are you a Workhorse Wife? A subway parent? Are you in a ‘Tom Sawyer ‘Marriage? An Oreo marriage?” Or, heaven forbid, a “McMarriage? And she applies the same sassy straplines to her diagnoses of couples in crises: couples suffering from ‘Marriage in a Coma’ syndrome have perfected the 50 yard stare with each other, ‘Chip Bickerman’ spouses use public spaces to air private grievances or ‘The Show Must Go On couples’ who indulge in public displays of physical affection even thought they hate each other.
Her main focus is, what she calls the growing trend of “semi-happy” married life. She proposes that we’re entering a ‘post-romantic’ age where new ideas and ideals about marriage are beginning to coalesce into a larger cultural mood. Because we don’t necessarily ‘need’ to marry, we get to be more picky. We marry later in life and can choose partners who are like us, who share our interests and attitudes, but the downside is that the relationship we have with our sexual partner is not a million miles away from the relationships we have with our friends or work colleagues and that doesn’t make for passion in the long term.
Obviously Haag seems to have missed out the teensy fact that married women should not be shagging their friends or work colleagues and they should of course be shagging their husbands, but the underlying assumption is that ‘semi-happy’ equals sexless. Haag suggests that marriage can provide “stability, companionship, friendship and a good environment for child-rearing.” and adds “ Perhaps that’s enough, so long as spouses can get their other needs met in secondary relationships and friendships.” Really?
She writes, tellingly, of her own marriage: “Often, in my own case, I really can’t tell if my marriage is woeful or sublime. Maybe I’m just so profoundly content that it feels like unhappiness, because nirvana is dull in this way, it lacks frisson.” Haag certainly seems to have little faith in monogamy. She even suggests that Bill and Hillary Clinton may be the archetype post-romantics. She also cites a 2008 study from the now defunct ‘She magazine’ where nearly half of wives surveyed thought they would be forgiven for having an affair, and more than half would forgive their husbands after the fact, if they did. However, in an earlier article she wrote for Big Think she also acknowledged that 94 percent of Americans believe extramarital sex to be “always or almost always wrong,” and just 6 percent “only sometimes wrong or not wrong at all.”
Interestingly, statistics from the enormous US General Social Survey confirm that Americans are indeed, a rather moral bunch. Only 20% of men and 15% of women under 35 have ‘ever’ been unfaithful, and lifetime rates of infidelity for men and women over sixty, are 28 % and 15% respectively. Those figures rarely see the light of day because they are just so, well, boring, but they do go to show that lots of married couples manage to avoid the pitfalls of extra marital relationships, which is why Haag’s propensity for grandiose statements such as “Does marriage have to be “for ever” to be successful? It might reach the time to retire the “happily ever after” idea for a more realistic “contentedly married until our kids are in college” standard” are just plain annoying.
Marriage, family and the emotional bond it creates just isn’t that simple to define, or that easy to dismiss. What Haag consistently fails to acknowledge that when people get married, and have kids, and invest in building a life together, they generally have pretty strong feelings for each other, and for their shared history. Sure, long-term relationships can be a bit of a slog but that’s not exactly revelatory. Marriage has been in crisis ever since it was invented, but we persevere with it because humans are designed to pair bond. We are happier with a mate, which is why so many divorcees take the plunge a second time.
Haag is right when she says that marriage is rarely black and white and for a marriage to survive you have to learn to embrace the greys, but her view that the “post-romantic age is going to be more friendship, less sizzle; more pragmatism, less idealism” is not a vision that appeals to me. The idea of coasting along in an ‘efficient vehicle for child rearing’ which meets my needs for companionship while I source sex elsewhere is such a depressing prospect. Call me old fashioned but I believe in love. I believe in a love that adapts and grows. I believe in a love that is sometimes as comfy as an old sweater and sometimes as daft as a brush, a love that is always there to hold your hand or egg you on. Couples who don’t allow the ‘rites of marriage’ to gather dust at the alter, who continually revisit those ‘rites’, and renegotiate their ‘rights’ have higher expectations of marriage. I think what Haag fails to point out is that if you half invest in your marriage you can expect to be semi-happy, but if you give a good marriage your all, you will get it all back, and then some.
You can order Marriage Confidential here