About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

#89: Marriage Confidential

Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, by Pamela Haag (New York: Harper, 2011)

"Pamela Haag has written the generational 'big book' on modern marriage, a mesmerizing, sometimes salacious look at the semi-happy ambivalence lurking just below the surface of many marriages today. The spouses may rarely fight -- they may maintain a sincere affection for each other -- but one or both may harbor a melancholy sense that something important is missing.

"Remarkably, this side of the marriage story hasn't been told or analyzed -- until now.

"Meticulously researched and injected with insightful firsthand accounts and welcome doses of humor, Marriage Confidential articulates for a generation that grew up believing they would 'have it all' why they have ended up disenchanted. Haag introduces us to contemporary marriages where spouses act more like life partners than lovers; children occupy an uncontested position at the center of the marital relationship; and even the romantic staples of sexual fidelity and passion are assailed from all sides -- so much so that spouses can end up having affairs online almost by accident.

"Blending tales from the front lines of matrimony with cultural history, surveys, and research covert-ops (such as joining an online affair-finding site and posting a personal ad in the New York Review of Books), Haag paints a detailed picture of the state of marriage today. And to show what's possible as well as what's melancholy in our post-romantic age, Haag seeks out marriages with a twist -- rebels who are quietly brainstorming and evolving the scripts around career, money, social life, child rearing, and sex.

"Provocative but sympathetic, forward-thinking and bold, here, at last, is a manifesto for living large in marriage."

Table of Contents:

- Marriage on the Edge
  • Chapter 1 - The Dilemmas of a Semi-Happy Marriage: Why We Settle for Ambivalence
Part I: The New Normals of Career and Marriage
  • Chapter 2 - 'Life Partners': How Too Much Intimacy Killed Intimacy
  • Chapter 3 - 'I Can Bring Home the Bacon': How Having It All Became Sort of Having Two Things Halfway
  • Chapter 4 - The Tom Sawyer Marriage: The Plight of the New Workhorse Wife
  • Chapter 5 - The Joy of Falling: Downwardly Mobile and Mutually Liberated
Part II: Parenting Marriages
  • Chapter 6 - The Have Children - Will Divorce Paradox: How Parenthood Inspires Marriage and Then Steals It
  • Chapter 7 - Children: The New Spouses: How the Strength of Family Values Became the Weakness of Family
  • Chapter 8 - Man-Cave in the Promised Land: How Spouses Reclaim Their Adulthood by Acting Like Children
  • Chapter 9 - Marital Habitats: Being Married with Children in Public Again
Part III: New Twists on Old Infidelities, or the Way We Stray Today
  • Chapter 10 - Stories of the 'AFFAIRS' Folder: The Underwhelming Crisis of Infidelity
  • Chapter 11 - 'I Call It Married Dating': The Accidental Cheater in the Age of Facebook and Google
  • Chapter 12 - ISO (In Search Of): A Bubble: The Philanderer's Defense
Part IV: The New Monogamy
  • Chapter 13 - 'The Fifty-Mile Rule': Affair Tolerators, Then and Now, or the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Marriage
  • Chapter 14 - 'We're Making It Up as We Go Along': Sexual Libertarianism and the Case Against Marital Monogamy
  • Chapter 15 - 'A Place Where a Sick Marriage Goes to Die?': The Hidden World of 'Ethical Nonmonogamy'
  • Chapter 16 - 'Free Love 2.0': The New Open Marriage
Epilogue - 'Why Can't We Have Our Cake and Eat It, Too?'

My Take:
Interesting, but a bit heavy on the anecdotes and light on actual data in some places. The author's basic premise is that a large number of Americans (I don't think she ever offers exact numbers or fractions) today are in what she calls low-conflict, low-stress marriages:
"[S]ecretly they are troubled by a feeling that there is something in their marriage that doesn't work, possibly cannot be made to work, and that it is not going to get any better. As far as their marriages are concerned, they fear that this is, indeed, it. These spouses are sad more than miserable, disappointed rather than chronically unhappy. As psychiatrists would say, their marriages are 'melancholy': They have a brooding sadness about them that often lacks an obvious, tangible cause.
"These melancholy spouses may not remember the dream they once had for marriage, but the dream remembers them. It tugs at them hauntingly. They know it's not their spouse's fault, per se, or even their own. After several years, a Marriage is more like a third character, with its own personality and life. It's not reducible to the sum of its all-too-human creators, any more than a child would be.

"... You shadowbox with yourself. In quiet moments when you ask yourself, 'Is this all it is?,' you simultaneously beat up on yourself for asking the question at all. You accuse yourself of being selfish to want more than you already have. You feel guilty thinking about lost or deferred dreams, and you wonder whether it is noble or useful to demand more from a marriage than the good things you have. You might even question your desires. Perhaps the longing for more out of marriage is just the vestige of a callow, self-defeating romantic ideal that you don't even entirely trust anymore, but can't entirely purge from your mind."
While I don't disagree, and think Haag offers some intriguing examples of marriages that seem to get around this problem by making some of their own rules, she largely ignores the explanation I believe Stephanie Coontz offered some years ago: now that we marry primarily for love and most women don't really need a husband to support them financially, our expectations of marriage and our spouse -- as best friend, lover, co-parent, etc. -- have become such a tall order that reality is bound to fall short. Haag argues that more and more people marry spouses not just with similar levels of education, but from the same or similar schools, and that this coupled with the Internet-era ability to pre-screen potential dates' hobbies, backgrounds, etc. to a degree unthinkable a generation ago means we're marrying people who are essentially just like us, rather than who complement us. At the same time, we're developing collegial, affectionate relationships at work that are increasingly indistinguishable from those we have with our spouses. I'm not sure I buy this latter point, nor do I get quite what the two trends have in common.

My biggest critique, though, is with Haag's "workhorse wife" chapter, where I think she makes far too big a leap. The hard facts are comparable to others I've encountered before: the percentage of men out of the labor force has increase from 5% in the 1960s to 13% today, and the percentage of married women who out-earn their husbands has increase from 24% in 1987 to 33% today. OK, fair enough. However, I'm not sure it automatically follows from this that the anecdote Haag offers -- a woman who's worked for years in lucrative but exhausting and soul-sucking jobs while her husband pursues a series of exciting but low-paying "big dream" careers, but still shoulders the bulk of the housework and child care -- is really a trend. I don't dispute the second shift (women do most of the housework and child care even when both partners work full time), but again, this isn't new news; Arlie Hochschild identified the issue more than 20 years ago. And I don't doubt that there are some couples in situations similar to Beth and Rich's (wife makes the big bucks, husband follows his dream) -- but I can think of plenty where the roles are reversed, and mom/ wife works an interesting/ flexible but poorly paid job while dad/ husband does the bulk of the earning. Also, thinking back to my grad school days, I believe the increased percentage of men not in the labor force is a function of a) increased availability of disability benefits and b) people living longer in retirement, and makes itself felt (especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum, which isn't very well-represented among Haag's anecdotes) less in wives supporting their selfish, underemployed husbands than in more men with lower levels of education and grimmer occupational prospects just not getting married at all.

Likewise, the section about how children impact a marriage has some interesting points (I'm all for anyone who points out that the over-the-top extremes to which some families take attachment parenting isn't good for either children or parents), but it's not exactly news that having children is stressful, and (particularly when the kids are young and demand a seemingly endless supply of parental time and energy) can weaken or even destroy a marriage.

Probably the most ground-breaking section of Marriage Confidential is its last, where Haag dares to question the assumption that marriage must equal monogamy, and anyone who thinks or practices otherwise is immoral/ a perv. Once again, she's not the first to voice the idea; sex columnist Dan Savage has been a proponent of what he calls "monogamish" relationships for years, i.e., provided you're honest with your partner and agree on parameters for what is and isn't OK (Are certain sex acts off-limits? Any not in our house/ not in our circle of friends rules? How much do you tell each other before and afterwards?), then hey -- some extra-marital recreation can be A Good Thing. However, as with the attachment parenting issue, questioning the monogamy assumption is still pretty bold, and in my book, any intimate arrangement that reduces the frequency of sordid revelations on the Spitzer/ John Edwards/ Ah-nuld continuum is a) fine by me, and b) unless it's my marriage, none of my beeswax anyway.

Overall, Haag has some interesting ideas, but the overall book reads more like a somewhat-disjointed outline or rough draft, rather than advancing a single cohesive thesis. Would make for some interesting discussions if you were to read it with friends, but definitely more of a starting point than a definitive treatment of the issues.

No comments:

Post a Comment