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Melancholy Marriage: Are We in a Post-Romantic Era?

Low-conflict, low-stress melancholy marriages

I've never been married but I thought I had a good sense of what a marriage in trouble would look like. (Doesn't everyone?) Two people relentlessly sniping - or coexisting in surly stony silence. Or the two-lane marriage, in which one person is totally miserable and the other is completely clueless until the miserable one announces a desire for a divorce. Or the marriage exploded by an affair.

The version I never considered is the melancholy marriage. It is low-conflict and low-stress. The spouses do not despise one another. They may even be very amiable. These are not necessarily myth-addled couples who expected to bathe in marital bliss for as long as they both shall live. Rather, they are often people who realize that in marrying, they relinquished a piece of themselves and that "the part of themselves they gave up to be married is too vital and too big to live without."

Such is the topic of Pamela Haag's Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules. This is not a book I should like. The author is not interested in singlehood or divorce as alternatives to melancholy marriage. She wants to know what couples can do to create alternatives within marriage. It is hardly about single life at all.

And yet, I read it voraciously. I was first drawn in by the author's writing. She is thoughtful, engaging, unconventional, and amusing. She has great scholarly creds along with the narrative sensibility of a terrific fiction writer. It was Pamela Haag's ideas, though, that kept me reading.

The State of Marriage in the Post-Romantic Era

In Marriage Confidential, Haag both characterizes contemporary marriages and explores creative and adventurous ways of doing marriage differently. Here in this first post about the book, I'll share some of the author's observations about 21st century melancholy marriages.

1. One of the prevailing beliefs about marriage these days is that it is hard work. "Marriage defenders therefore talk of 'surviving' the first years, as if they were discussing cancer morbidity rates or loan amortization tables."

2. In some marriages, "too much intimacy kill[s] intimacy." Describing one such woman who looked to her spouse to be her everything, Haag says, "It seems fantastically ironic that Kristin had such suffocating closeness with her husband in every aspect of life and ended up totally lonely in the marriage."

3. In her contribution to the new Singlism book, Gina Barreca advises that "Marriage isn't a disease; it isn't catching. You don't need to pass it onto everybody you know." That attitude shows up in Marriage Confidential, too. One of the people Haag interviewed was Paula, who noted, "I was secure in my identity before I tried to get fulfillment from anyone else." Here's how Haag described what Paula told her about her hopes for her children:

"If they don't want to get married, she hopes they'll find a group of supportive friends, and she doesn't think she'll 'advocate one way or another' for marriage. Close friendships, Paula reasons in the post-romantic spirit, can fulfill many of the emotional needs of marriage."

4. Another variation of contemporary marriage that Haag described is the Tom Sawyer Marriage, in which it is the "workhorse wife" who ends up painting the fence. She labors in a high-powered, time-intensive career and he pursues his fantasies or his whims:

"Usually, however, the oddity at the core of the marriage is discreetly elided. Identities are declared, not proven: Joe is a lawyer but has no clients; Jack is a novelist but has no publications; John is an entrepreneur but has no business. The husband pretends to work; the wife pretends to believe him. The husband creates a Potemkin village, and the wife pays to decorate it."

5. There are also the marriages that are defined by children:

"We are less encumbered by the idea that marriage means having children than any earlier generation. But we may end up the most defined by parenthood, once we do make that choice."

A friend with no children told Pamela Haag that "If you have a child, that's all you need to do." The author knew what her friend meant by that:

"Children can function as a socially sanctioned Get Out of Jail Free card, or an alibi, for the other parts of your life. You can let yourself fail or slack professionally, or give up on old ambitions, or lighten up on exercise goals or your social life. You can hide behind being a displaced professional mother who pours everything into researching the best possible approach to foreign language instruction - and you'll win social approval for it."

6. Haag has a brilliant chapter on how the time that one spouse spends with friends can be held against that person. "Fun and marriage are on tense terms these days," she notes. One married man captured the dynamic particularly well:

"Not only must all tasks be shared equally, but any time spent away on an individual activity must be made up in kind to the spouse. It's like there's this mental calculation that sounds a warning whenever one partner is enjoying himself too much."

Haag adds that "we don't have good role models for a responsible married adult who has meaningful, complex friendships."

7. In one last chapter on the nature of contemporary marriages, Haag takes on the "romantic marital script" which encourages the couple to recede into their own private world. Couples who live the "Marriage as Bomb Shelter" lifestyle believe that:

"The closer you are to your spouse, the less social you 'need' to be, as if the point of seeking society is to compensate for family and personal deficiencies. Conversely, the more antisocial and emotionally reclusive the family, the stronger the love - sequestration becoming evidence not of social paucity but of romantic plentitude."

Next Up: Haag Explores Creative Ways to Enliven Your Marriage - with Sex and Monogamy Optional

Have I made Marriage Confidential sound like a wearying list of gripes about married life? It is not. In my next post, I'll describe some of Haag's "rebel couples who are rewriting the rules." Prepare to hear about asexuality and polyamory, "don't ask, don't tell" marriages, and infidelities that are greeted with shrugs. I'll also tell you why I think that this valiant effort to advocate for alternatives within marriage is actually going to advance the cause of those of us who are single at heart.

My guess is that Marriage Confidential is going to have real buzz (its publication day is today) and that Living Single readers are going to have lots of comments and queries. If there are questions you would like to address to the author, post them in the comments section and I will ask her if she would be up for a Q & A.

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