Between the realms of marital bliss and plate-throwing scream-fests lies the densely populated state of “semi-happy” marriages. They aren’t miserable, merely lackluster.
In her new book “Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, & Rebel Couples," historian Pamela Haag investigates the implications of these "so-so" couplings, which account for as many as 65 percent of divorces in the United States, according to research.
After polling almost 2,000 people, reading studies, and conducting her own investigative research -- which included sitting down with her husband to create fake identities for affair-finding websites -- Haag identifies many non-traditional ways modern couples are able to maintain their marriages in the 21st century.
Just as Betty Friedan introduced the “mad housewife” in “The Feminine Mystique,” Haag establishes a new lexicon for millennial marriages: "Workhorse wives" who provide financial support for "Tom Sawyer" husbands following their unpaid creative whims, children who have migrated "from chair to throne," online "avatar lovers" and "new monogamists" who embrace an honest and open marital culture of infidelity.
Haag shared her thoughts about the future of marriage with the Huffington Post.
You say we now live in a “post-romantic” era; what does that mean?
“Post-romantic” refers to all of the ways that marriage has changed since the romantic heyday of the last 50 years. Our expectations have changed. There are marriages now that seek the stable over the sublime, for whom “semi-happy” is good enough. These low-conflict but semi-happy marriages, rather than high-conflict ones, account for the majority of divorces each year. On the other hand, I found that since we don't have to be married anymore, some people are ambitious for marriage and are less likely to stick it through a semi-happy marriage.
You claim that children are placed on a pedestal as “the new spouse.” Do you think that people should put their martial happiness above staying together “for the kids?”
Paradoxically, children are less central to marriage in some ways than ever before in that there are more marriages without children, but once spouses decide to have children, they can easily become the entire focal point of the marriage.
How do you think parenting behavior should shift?
I’m a big fan of a relic of my childhood: the children's table. Children used to sit at their own table when company was over and the adults had their own world. Parenting styles today are very different -- they tend to be more helicopter, very hyper, very attached. This might be hurting our marriages more than this is helping our children. It’s not clear from the research that these styles affect a child’s outcomes that much. So part of reconciling parenthood and marriage is maintaining nonchalance about parenthood some times.
A large portion of your book deals with cheating, exploring a new kind of monogamy that allows for more open relationships. While you said that cheating wasn't for you, certain passages implied that perhaps it would have been if you had more guts. Can adultery actually help marriages, and how do people find out if it is for them?
Lying and cheating and being dishonest with a spouse can't ever work -- period. I was trying to understand, however, why it happens. I was trying to empathize with but not condone cheating.
Many marriages are practicing “Free Love Version 2.0,” in which spouses are actually trying to be honest and have decided that their marriage can tolerate some other attachments. That certainly is not for everybody. Some think that it never works, but the fact is that there are marriages for whom that arrangement does work. I wanted to learn more about all of these variations in the book without pre-judging them.
How has the Internet era changed how people cheat?
The social media and cyber world can impact every step of a marriage’s lifecycle. We are more likely to find mates through online dating, which means we can use screening instruments to pinpoint the exact characteristics we want. You’re less likely to have that quirky encounter with someone who doesn’t quite fit the bill on paper. Then when we do get married, social media puts new stresses on monogamy -– it’s easy to sign on to an online flirtation on Facebook or through email, and you can even use an online affair-finding site to find people to cheat with. Finally, if we do slip into infidelity, we could have what I call an “Avatar affair” where the “lovers” communicate online, but might never meet. It’s all smoke, no mirrors.
While researching the book, you were creating online dating identities and writing personal ads with your husband. How was that for your marriage?
Well, I was window shopping not shopping shopping, so I think it really didn’t affect my marriage that much.
So are you now one of the 40 percent of Americans who are marriage non-believers?
No, I actually have a quirky optimism about marriage. I don't think it's becoming obsolete, nor do I think that it will survive its traditional form. I do think that it is in a brainstorming phase, so I think that things are being tried out in marriage to see what works in the 21st century.