Keeping Marriage Alive with Affairs, Asexuality, Polyamory, and Living Apart

Rather than stretching marriage beyond recognition, why not live single?

Posted Jun 02, 2011

In my previous post, I introduced you to the first part of Pamela Haag's provocative new book, Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules. The 21st century, she argues, is a post-romantic age of melancholy marriages. The couples are not acutely stressed nor entangled in constant conflict - they are just melancholy. They signed up for the marriage pact and lost a vital part of themselves in the process.

In that first post, I reviewed some of the problems that Haag diagnosed as plaguing some contemporary marriages. Here, I will go through a few of them and tell you about some of the solutions Haag learned about in her research and interviews. Remember, her goal is not to generate alternatives to marriage but alternatives within marriage that have the potential to keep the marriages together. To longtime readers of Living Single, I bet you will anticipate the conclusion I am leading up to before you get to the end of this post.

1.      The problem of the insularity of many modern marriages (the "Marriage as a Bomb Shelter" issue). From Haag:

"Marriage is touted as the 'building block' of civilization. But what civilization, if all we do is tend to our own, important though that is? We'll end up with a million building blocks and no foundation."

Pamela Haag has discovered that married couples are already exploring options to living in their single-family moat-encircled private castles. They range from co-housing to living in homes with separate master bedrooms to continuing to cohabit even after divorcing to living in separate homes while staying married.

2.       "The underwhelming crisis of infidelity." Yes, that's what Pamela Haag has concluded about the supposed crisis of extramarital affairs - it is underwhelming. In theory, we abhor affairs - and in fact, some truly are extraordinarily cruel and hurtful. But more often than we might guess, Haag finds, spouses react with little more than a shrug. She offers some thoughts about what this is about:

"...perhaps infidelity is about what it appears to be able: sexual ennui if not desperation in an otherwise not-bad marriage, and/or lust....Perhaps it's about wanting to get back the complexity, depth, and richness of your character again, but within the boundaries of a marriage that otherwise 'works.'"

So how do today's couples deal with affairs without divorcing? Haag founds lots of arrangements and understandings. Some maintain that 'everyone gets at least one free pass.' Others have 'only when traveling' or 'only 50 miles away' rules. There are "don't ask, don't tell couples," tell only so much couples, and tell-all couples.  One wife told Haag that when she discovered that her husband was a philanderer, she "banished him temporarily to a nearby apartment, but had him come back every morning to get the children off to school and pack their lunches, and then return in the evening to cook their dinner."

3.      The challenge of the married asexual. Pamela Haag realizes that a sexless marriage is not the same thing as a marriage that includes an asexual. Referring to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), she describes married asexuals as those who

"reject the prioritizing of monogamous sexual love over friendship. Asexual marriage doesn't mean not being intimate, or even not having sex; it means not wanting to have sex, and coveting an ideal of platonic intimacy."

What's a married couple to do if they want to stay married but only one of the two people is asexual and the other really, really likes and wants sex? Haag describes one couple who tried compromising on sex once a week. When that didn't work, the asexual wife persuaded her husband that he should just go ahead and have his affairs, and she would help him pick out his girlfriends. He, of course, thought he was being set up. He wasn't. As the wife explained:

"Say you like Ping-Pong. I hate Ping-Pong, you love Ping-Pong, so go find someone who will play with you and have a good time doing it."

Post-romantic, indeed.

4.      The couple who wants intimacy from more than one person. Enter polyamory. There are different meanings of the term but Pamela Haag uses it to refer to the new open marriage, or 'ethical nonmonogamy.' The ethical part is the "scrupulous standard of telling the truth." Partners are honest with each other about what they are doing, and they engage only with people who are honest with their partners. This version of polyamory is not just about sex - "the intimacies are real but circumscribed."

5.      The problem of married couples begrudging one another the time they spend with friends or anything they do for fun without their spouse along for the ride. Haag offers the analogy of what she calls the desiccated American Beauty marriage:

"It offers the husband, played by Kevin Spacey, two roles: to live either as a sexless, soul-crushingly dutiful and henpecked husband, or as a pot-smoking, self-absorbed adolescent who lusts after the high school cheerleader. There is no authentic nonparental role for him in between, no option of being a multifaceted adult."

Among the possible lifelines Haag tosses to those trapped in American Beauty marriages is this one: the marriage sabbatical. Maybe the couples just need some 'growth time' apart.

I wanted to end with the notion of the marriage sabbatical because that's how I ended Singled Out. Quoting an author who had described what she loved about having time to herself and a space that was only her own, I said this:

"Jarvis was married but craved a sabbatical from her marriage. She wanted long stretches of solitude, where she could bask, uninterrupted, in her thoughts and in her work, in her own special place. What she really wanted - at least for a while - was to be single."

So have you anticipated my conclusion - why it is that I think this book, which is all about marriage, actually furthers the cause of single people?

Consider again what Pamela Haag sees as unnecessary to marriage:

a.      Children (noted in my previous post)

b.      Living together

c.      Sex

d.      Having sex only with each other

e.      Having intimacy only with each other

f.       Spending all of your time - including even stretches of time that last for months or longer - with each other. (You can instead take a 'marriage sabbatical' and spend as much time on your own or with friends or anyone else, doing whatever you want, for as long as the sabbatical lasts.)

I see all this as spelling out not (just) an alternative within marriage, but an alternative to marriage. This is single life. If you can choose a combination of these options and still call what you have a marriage, why bother? (Except, of course, to run away with all the federally-bestowed loot, and the prestige of having membership in the Married Couples Club.)

Maybe Pamela Haag would say that marriage is different because you value that lasting bond with your spouse. But many single people value and cherish deep and enduring bonds with friends, siblings, and other relatives. And since sex and living together are optional, and having very close relationships with more than one person is permissible, how is this not a description of a fulfilling single life?

To me, what Haag is describing is the best version of friendship. You can have a friend you have known for a long time and with whom you have shared everyday experiences and deep intimacies. You can have more than one such friend and (in theory) the various friends don't get to feel too possessive about that. You and your friend(s) can have different sexual preferences, including not much interest in sex at all. Your friend might have multiple sexual partners and you figure, "well, if she likes Ping Pong, she should go find some people to play with and have a good time." Even if you don't totally approve, you might try to be supportive or understanding because you care about your friend's happiness.

There are two other points from Marriage Confidential that I see as very pertinent to single life, even though Pamela Haag doesn't frame them that way.

Here's the first, in Haag's words:

"I think of Nicole's husband and other serial monogamists who divorce their wives because they're 'in love' with a mistress. What if they had an alternative to this romantic narrative? What if they had a narrative that there are varieties of attachment, passion, and love in which passion isn't certification of 'true love'? I suspect that we end up feeling, assuming, and thinking what our prevailing stories and metaphors of marriage condition us to feel, assume, and think."

The key point is about the power of the prevailing narrative. The conventional wisdom about single people and single life is the series of degrading myths that I write about so often (for example, here and here and here).  Part of the power of the myths is in their prevalence and their taken-for-grantedness. One of the preeminent goals of much of my writing is to describe a new narrative about single life - one that is more accurate, because it is grounded in research rather than singlism and guesswork.

The second and last excerpt of Haag's that I want to critique is this one:

"Betty Friedan had to expose and second-wave feminism had to remedy basic legal, economic, educational, social, and cultural inequalities that made marriage all but imperative for all women. Today we have a different, secret, and often internal struggle, to make good on the promises of our own liberation....we have unprecedented latitude to do marriage differently."

True, it is important to broaden the way we do marriage. But even more fundamental is the achievement of genuine freedom in the ways we organize our lives so that living single is a real and respected and viable life path. If our only option is to improve on marriage, then marriage is still the imperative that it was in Friedan's day.

Sometimes people ask me how my notion of single at heart differs from Sasha Cagen's quirkyalone. As I explained before, quirkyalones proclaim:

"We are people who are happily single, with friends and passions and full lives, but we are also romantics. We love those silly love songs, even as we recognize their silliness. Once we find that one perfect person, 'oooh la la.'

"The qualifier - we're happily single but we'd love to be coupled with the perfect person - made all the difference. Quirkyalones are not threatening to people who are coupled at heart."

Once Cagen had popularized quirkyalone, single-at-heart was less of a shock and a stretch. It became understandable (at least to some) in a way that it wasn't before.

Let's say that Pamela Haag can persuade a matrimanical society that, in the service of staving off divorce, it may actually be a good thing to condone couples who have separate living quarters or no sex or extra sex or extra intimacy. The path to accepting, respecting, and maybe even celebrating single life would then be shorter.

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