Marriage Confidential — Provocative but Unsatisfying

Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential is a promising and provocative but ultimately disappointing exploration of modern marriage. In what she calls the “post-romantic” era of marriage the author introduces the concept of the “semi-happy” or “low-conflict” marriage – a partnership that remains intact not because it satisfies the spouses’ romantic yearnings but rather because it makes pragmatic sense. Declaring herself to be semi-happily married, Haag suggests that the prevalence (within her social circle, at least) of this marital phenomenon, along with the high divorce rate, indicates that some sort of reinvention or at least re-imagination of marriage might be called for. As she notes, if any home appliance or automobile failed at the rate of marriage, it would not still be on the market but would have been re-designed or discarded long ago.

In the post-romantic era, romance and sex are available outside of marriage. Thus, people often get married and stay married for purely practical reasons (procreation and property — much the same reasons that people got married for centuries before the romantic era). Yet, despite the many changes in the social and economic environment, traditional marital expectations of lifelong monogamy haven’t changed. This disconnect between romantic expectations and pragmatic reality gives rise to the semi-happy marriage. Or, if you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, semi-unhappy marriage.

Haag suggests that the environment and choices we make compound this marital dissatisfaction:

  • Our upward mobility (defining a rising standard of living according to wealth) drives both spouses to work long hours and pursue separate paths so that they don’t connect to one another and their relationship suffers.
  • Modern living environments (isolated/suburban) prevent us from forming social bonds with other adults and leave us entirely emotionally dependent on our spouse to meet all our needs, which is simply unrealistic for most couples.
  • Current trends in child-rearing which place historically unprecedented emphasis on the centrality of children and the primacy of their needs may lead spouses to neglect one another and their relationship.
  • The expectation of sexual monogamy all too frequently leads to a marriage that is either monogamous and sexually unsatisfactory to one or both partners or a marriage in which one or both partners cheat.

All of the above might lead to a semi-happy or downright unhappy marriage, but how might a re-imagination of marriage lead to more happiness? Haag anecdotally explores some possible alternatives: (1) embrace downward mobility and choose to work less and spend more time together having fun, (2) choose a less isolated, urban, or communal living environment, (3) make the kids less primary and focus more on each other, or (4) re-write the marital sexual contract. The first three options merit some consideration, though they hardly represent a re-invention of marriage, but Haag gives them pretty short shrift. Instead, she devotes the entire second half of the book to discussing monogamy, infidelity, and non-monogamous alternatives to traditional marriage, including swinging and “open marriage.” Here is where the book really goes south for me. The author, clearly titillated by the topic, conducts her own first-person research (with her husband’s permission). As she chronicles her own experience placing personal ads and searching for swingers parties, the book takes on all-too-personal overtones but fails to deliver real intimacy. (She hints that she is unexcited by her husband but is too chicken to cheat. Throughout, I kept wondering how her hubby felt about all this.) Ultimately, Marriage Confidential can’t decide whether it is a research-based exploration of marriage or a personal memoir, and it falls between the chairs. It is neither thoroughly enough researched to provided grounded answers to the provocative questions it raises, nor is it personal enough to enlighten or satisfy the reader that we really know the author or learn anything of consequence about her marriage.  I applaud Haag for having identified a disconnect between the romantic marital ideal and frequent post-romantic reality. But she fails to provide a more than superficial and anecdotal treatment of the subject,  and offers little in the way of insight, imagination, or guidance for the path forward.