Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who are Rewriting the Rules, by Pamela Haag

Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples
by Pamela Haag
Harper Collins
327 pages

This is the type of book that The Husband would see me reading (probably in bed, no less) and his response would be to promptly roll his eyes while making some wisecrack about why a book about the state of marriage today needed to be written in the first place.

(Actually, there's no guessing about it; he really did all of the above.)

Me, I love this sort of thing. Maybe it's the former psychology minor in me, I don't know.  Doesn't matter. That's why we're still (at least in my opinion) a good match after a mere 22 years together (almost 19 of 'em in holy matrimony).

The premise of Marriage Confidential is that most of us married folk are in lackluster, ho-hum relationships. Not exactly much of a surprise there, I suppose. (When The Husband caved and asked what the book was about, and I answered with that, his response was, "No shit.") I tend to agree. Haag refers to such marriages as "low-conflict, low-stress," with the majority of us looking at our spouses at the end of our boring same-old day and wondering if this is as good as it gets. (Um ...yeah. Hate to break it to ya, but it kind of is.)  As the author's best friend says, "It's just unrealistic to think that the person you talk to about hiring a plumber is going to be your big love affair." (pg. 9).   I love that quote.  

According to the book jacket,"Marriage Confidential articulates for a generation that grew up believing they would "have it all" why they have ended up disenchanted." 

So, how did we get this way?  Haag offers several theories and ideas that make a great deal of sense.  And I admit, I expected the usual platitudes of "we're working longer hours than ever, we're spending more time on Facebook talking to people we daydreamed about in high school instead of connecting with the real-life people right next to us, raising kids is a bit stressful and it's hard to maintain a marriage while texting from the carpool lane," etc. etc.

All true. According to Haag, a few other interesting - and thought-provoking - factors are at play:
1. We're marrying clones of ourselves.  Opposites no longer attract.  We're marrying people who are, generally, from the same social class and in the same tax bracket as we are.  If we didn't meet our spouse at college (as The Husband and I did), then most likely he or she attended a comparable school (i.e., one of the Ivy League institutions, a state school, whatever).
2. Compared to couples just a few decades ago, people are waiting longer to get married.  In that time, they've completed their education, traveled, launched careers and businesses, had other significant love interests, bought homes. The notion of "building a life together" is very, very different today than it was for generations past. There's less that ties a couple together today in that aspect than there was in the past. 
3. Women are increasingly in much more high-powered careers than men, which can rock the marital dynamic.  (This is the "workhorse wives" part of the title.)  
4. Approaching parenthood as profession.  "I didn't absorb motherhood tricks by osmosis....What did come easily to me, almost naturally, were my good student, type A professional skills.  The decline in marital happiness linked to new parenthood is probably exacerbated by the metastasized professional temperament many of us bring to it." (pg. 94) 
5. Attachment parenting. If we're velcroed to our kids 24/7, that doesn't leave much space for one's spouse now, does it?  
Taken all together, that's a pretty depressing and almost insurmountable list ... so perhaps, yes, this might be as good as it gets.  And for most of us in "low-stress, low-conflict" marriages, they're not BAD marriages. They're just a bit ... boring.  Lackluster.  

So what are the options?  

You can accept it, work on what you can, but ultimately realize that this is what it is. You can get divorced, which isn't exactly cheap, especially given the economy these days, and is particularly disruptive if one has kids.  

But what if there was a new model, a different way of approaching the institution of marriage?  Haag offers some ideas from "rebel couples who are rewriting the rules" as well as her own.  

She discusses the concept of term limits for marriage.  A couple would agree to be married for, say, 7 years. If things are still working out when the warranty on one's nuptials expires, great!  Pass go, and continue to stay married.  If this isn't what you'd expected, then fine ... move on, no harm done.  Kind of like buying a new car when the old one has too many miles on the odometer, I suppose.  

Think that's radical? Keep reading into the second half of the book. That's when Haag introduces her reader to more than a few couples who are engaging in "ethical nonmonogamy." These are folks who have lost that lovin' feeling for their spouses but who, for a variety of reasons (financial, children, professional, social) don't want to get divorced, as they might have in years past. They care deeply about their spouse, but things in the bedroom have gone stale. What to do?

Fortunately, there are numerous options. We're talking alternative arrangements like open marriages, swinging (in all its permutations, and apparently, there are more than a few) and "marriage sabbaticals."  Websites abound for people interested in meeting similarly bored and like-minded folk. Happily-married Haag, using the alias of "Miranda" and with her husband's knowledge, signs up to take a walk through what is definitely a wilder side of many people's lives. Husbands and wives recruit potential "girlfriends" and "boyfriends" for spouses who aren't getting what they want from the marital relationship, just as if one went to a headhunter (um ... guess that's probably not the best term here) for a potential new job.

And these activities are part of more people's lives than one might imagine.

Marriage Confidential has been criticized by some on Goodreads as being a tad light on the research, and I tend to agree. (To reach the conclusion in #1, that we're marrying clones of ourselves from similar demographic classes, etc., Haag's primary research methodology seems to have been perusing the wedding pages of The New York Times and tabulating demographic information contained within.)  Haag also talked with therapists and other professionals, as well as her own network of friends.  She also brings her own experience as a wife and mother into the pages of the book, and even her friends' infidelities aren't off-limits for dissection here.

So, whereas I can understand how some might feel cheated (pun intended) at a book that isn't weighty enough insofar as the research, I'm not sure that's how Marriage Confidential is supposed to be viewed. I wasn't looking at this as a scholarly tome that I would have studied in my Work and Love class in college (and yes, I really did take a college class called Work and Love. One of my favorite and best classes ever.)

Rather, I looked and read Marriage Confidential as a book that is more along the lines of a casual conversation and exploration about why marriage is in the state it is.  Marriage Confidential is like sitting down for coffee with Pamela Haag, being told that a friend's cousin's brother's stepsister is a) having an affair with the spouse's permission, b) taking a marriage sabbatical, and/or c) some combination of the above and aforementioned alternatives, and then going back to one's life and bedroom and saying, "Huh.  Who knew?"

Or, maybe, the total opposite: going back to one's bedroom and saying, "Damn, there are way more people like us [regardless of how you define 'like us'] than I ever thought possible."

Happy Valentines Day, you crazy kids.

(I'm very excited to share that I have recently applied to be an Amazon Affiliate, which means that if you purchase any product (not just books) through my blog, I will receive a small commission. I'm testing out the link with this post.)

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Cavalier92 said...

Well - though I do agree with the Dean's eye rolling, the points make some sense.

As for divorce, sometimes I have to wonder if humans were meant to mate for life ...

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I'm gonna take a peek at this one...I posted a sweet sentimental Valentine to my Husband yesterday on Facebook (something I never do). He never saw it all day long...I had to show it to him last night b4 we went to bed..."I never even heard of this singer," was his only response. Oy. But, it didn't hurt my feelings bc that's just the way it is. Honestly, I don't know if I'd want it any other way though...I'd rather have my dishwasher fixed than dozens of roses.