Thursday, June 9, 2011

Who wants to live semi-happily ever after?

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview historian Pamela Haag, author of "Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules," for a story about the decline of marriage in the United States. The story, "Are you stuck in a semi-happy marriage?" is up on the main homepage right now, and is generating an interesting discussion (1,140 comments so far).

Click on the picture to read "Are you stuck in a semi-happy marriage?" at

You can read the entire article on but, as always, there was a lot more to the interview than what ended up in the finished piece. Here's the rest of the story:

Historian and author Pamela Haag
You mention at one point that you sometimes can't tell if your own 13-year-long marriage is "woeful or sublime." What did you do to make yourself feel happier in your own marriage? What are the signs of a "semi-happy" marriage?

That phrase captures the ambivalence of the semi-happy marriage as I see it, and as I experienced it. One minute, you love the stability and contentment. The next minute, you think it’s not the right marriage, and there are flaws in the marriage that are serious, even though there are also great things about the marriage. It’s these kinds of marriages that are “low-conflict” but not all that satisfying that contribute the lion’s share to divorce court each year. My husband’s an amazing sport, and brave, to let me write about this topic of mixed feelings at all, even though a good number of husbands and wives have mixed feelings. The book writing probably helped our marriage.

In your book, you say that it's possible that the way we "do" marriage may be the real problem. What do you mean? Do you think there is an "ideal" marriage and, if so, what is it?

No, I don’t think there’s any one ideal for marriage—at all. In fact, I firmly believe the opposite. I think that in the 21st century, marriages will be more customized to the things that each couple would like for their marriage. My parents basically had one script for marriage, but today, we’re inventing the scripts more than we’re performing them. That trend toward each couple defining its own ideal for marriage will continue—you see glimmers of it already in the rise of pre-nuptial agreements over the last three decades.

How do you know if you're in a semi-happy marriage?

Great question! You know you’re in a semi-happy marriage if...
  • You wake up at 3 a.m., worried about divorce
  • One minute you can’t imagine staying, the next you can’t imagine leaving
  • You spend an inordinate amount of time rationalizing or arguing or worrying with yourself about your feelings about marriage

Most people would describe contentment as a form of happiness, but your book suggests otherwise. What do you think people are really looking for in a marriage, if stability and contentment are seen by some as negatives rather than positives?

I don’t think contentment is a negative at all. And, for some marriages, it’s genuinely all that the spouse requires, or aspires to have. What’s troubling isn’t contentment, but situations in which spouses feel that the marriage isn’t enough, or isn’t what they’d like, but they feel stuck or they’ve convinced themselves that they can’t reasonably expect or get any more. That, to me, seems like a less than ideal outcome—kind of depressing, in fact!

But as I write in my book, I think that our marital expectations are “trending” in the direction of contentment, and valuing marriage in a perhaps more pragmatic, post-romantic way as a means to create a home base, or a good arrangement for childrearing years. Still, my generation (people in their 30s, and 40s, and early 50s) are perhaps caught betwixt and between the old romantic ideals and the new post-romantic expectations!

One of the more controversial aspects of your book has to do with your take on monogamy. In your article on, you suggest a "marriage sabbatical," separate bedrooms, and "ethical non-monogamy" as possible solutions for a semi-happy marriage. Does it all just come down to sex?

My purpose, as I say in my book, isn't to endorse a particular marital style. But it is my goal to look at the whole range of extramarital sex. I wanted to look at the entire, often hidden range, of actual marriages that exist today, and that do things differently.

The semi-happy marriage definitely doesn’t just come down to sex at all. So many factors contribute—childrearing habits, marital expectations, the demise of married social life, the pressures for marriage to be “everything” in our lives, work pressures, and money and consumption pressures.

As for sex, in my book, I wanted to represent the entire gamut—and I do mean “the entire”—of extramarital sex, because sex is a place where a lot of marriages might slide into infidelity, or semi-happiness. I look at everything from the “conventional” forms of infidelity, where one spouse has lied and cheated on the other, to marriages that are slightly more agnostic or forgiving about an affair, after the fact, to some marriages that continue a rather long tradition of “affair tolerance,” or looking the other way, to other marriages that engage in recreational non-monogamy, or who practice a new, updated form of open marriage. And I also look at spouses who identify themselves as uninterested in sex altogether—but who still cherish their marriages, and their children, and consider themselves contentedly married.

You have one child, who is in elementary school. How do semi-happy marriages affect kids?

There’s an interesting body of scholarly research on this question: In situations where the marriage is low-conflict and amiable, some researchers have found that children are better off if the semi-happy parents can stay together, and find a way to avoid divorce (which might inspire untraditional arrangements!). In situations of high-conflict and anger in a marriage, however, the children are better off if they divorce. Other researchers doubt that a “lifeless” marriage of any kind is good for kids. In my own survey, 1 in 3 respondents thought that parents should indeed “stick it out” for the children, even if they’re unhappy and sad.

Does your research show whether more women feel they are in semi-happy marriages than men? Is one gender more likely to do something about improving a semi-happy marriage than the other?

I don’t review this research in my book, but some studies have found that marriage now benefits men more than women, in terms of their health and their financial well-being. I observed that men have their struggles as well, although I think women discuss relationships more. If I could sum up the most prevalent complaint, it would be that while women said they felt “lonely” in a foundering marriage, men said they felt “trapped,” or “penned in.” But I spoke with more women than men, and this isn’t a quantitative study.

Do you that semi-happy marriages are a side-effect of people delaying marriage (so they miss their independence), or are they more likely to happen if the couple got married (and didn't know what they were getting into)?

It could cut both ways. When you marry young, you risk forming a bond that won’t be able to change and adapt as you grow. On the other hand, ideally, a couple that marries young can forge an adult life together. We marry later today, in mid-plot of our lives. That’s a good thing—we’ve got our careers, our own friends, and our own homes. But it also makes marriage more challenging because we do have tangible options to marriage, and must be more mindful about keeping that marriage alive.

Some studies say that focusing too much on parenting can undermine a marriage. What do you think?

I agree with the gist of that research. Parenthood is a huge transition point for any marriage. But I don’t think that my generation is as nonchalant or easygoing about children and children’s “outcomes” as my own parents were. And the more we think we must, or can, control our children’s outcomes in life—beyond just providing the basics of a nonviolent, nurturing, secure, and stable home—the more challenging it is to combine parenthood with marriage, or with a career, or with community activities, or friendships. Our anxious, hyper-involved parenting styles may be hurting our marriages more than they’re helping our children’s outcomes.

Do you think too many people get married when they'd be better off staying single?

Apparently, many Americans believe this. Pew research from late 2010 found that 40 percent of Americans overall feel that marriage is “becoming obsolete,” and a whopping half of younger Americans believe thus.  It’s sometimes said that marriage is on the decline because our expectations are too high. I think it’s that our expectations for marriage may be too low—such that single people feel, perhaps rightly, that there isn’t much that marriage would add to their lives. At a time when we don’t have to get married, then marriage needs to add things to our lives for us to want to get married. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how sad it is that marriage isn’t the bedrock assumption in life anymore, but that toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. When they have viable choices, people will marry when they feel it benefits their lives—for example, if they’re ready to have children, and would like to do that with a partner, and within a marriage.

Single people tell me that they still feel pressure to get married—especially in their 20s and 30s, when their friends are first getting married—but at least marriage doesn’t amount to an imperative today. And some of the single people who feel marriage pressure in their 30s find that they’re happier being single when they hit their 40s, so happiness and contentment are moving targets.

Read the article, "Are you stuck in a semi-happy marriage?" at

1 comment:

The Family that Laughs Together said...

I agree that having a child changes a lot of things about a marriage... even when you try your best to still be fun and "you" for your husband, you have changed. I find that nights out help and I can live off of those highs for awhile to boost me from the so so of the day to day.