Marriage in the “Post-Romantic” Age

Author Pamela Haag

Yale scholar Pamela Haag’s controversial new book takes on modern spousedom — and asserts that many couples are secretly disenchanted. wOw editor Hilary Black finds out why

Your new book, Marriage Confidential, chronicles a relatively new cultural phenomenon: the “post romantic” era of “semi-happy” marriages that are low-conflict yet melancholy. When did you first observe this trend, and how did you hit on the idea for this book?

I observed semi-happy marriages all around me, and in late-night heart to hearts with my friends. I was trained as a historian, so I was curious as to why a generation with so many opportunities and advantages would feel so mediocre, wistful, or lethargic about their marriages — or why they’d have so many complaints. I wanted to learn more, rather than just dismiss their concerns as “selfish” or “whiny.”

Then, some of my acquaintances began to have experiences with infidelity — and this happened at the same time that we had a new crop of infidelity scandals, with Spitzer and Edwards, for example. And I noticed that while they my friends were indeed outraged and hurt, they were also more tolerant of the infidelity than I might have expected. That got me thinking: Are the romantic assumptions and ideals from the 1900s changing on us? How is marriage evolving for my generation?

How widespread is this phenomenon, according to your research? Is it a uniquely American trend? Or do “semi-happy” marriages exist around the world?

Marriage scholars have found that a majority of U.S. divorces — anywhere from 55 to 65 percent — hail from the ranks of “low-conflict,” amiable but listless and not all that satisfying marriages, so there are a fair number of existing marriages today that fit the “semi-happy” bill. Some will end up in divorce court; some won’t.

I’m sure that Americans haven’t cornered the market on semi-happiness or marital ambivalence. But it’s true that western European countries have moved more dramatically into what sociologists call a post-marriage state. They marry less, and also divorce less, than we do. The U.S. might well have more semi-happy marriages than kindred countries for this reason alone — and also because we’ve had a much more pro-marriage, pro-“family values” culture and rhetoric than, say, France, Sweden, or the Netherlands. This makes some Americans more likely to want to “stick it out” in marriage. There’s more shame attached to non-marriage, divorce, and marital failure in the U.S. than in Western Europe.

Why are people willing to stay in marriages that don’t satisfy them?

Sometimes they don’t expect much more. These are responsible, well-intentioned people, who aren’t divorce trigger happy. They might have internalized the idea that marriage is “hard work,” and that they shouldn’t expect much.

In other cases, they believe — perhaps too strongly — that divorce is a bad option and they simply refuse to do it. Some of these spouses might have grown up with parents who divorced in the bumper crop of the 1970s and early 1980s, and vowed never to do that in their own lives.

And, keep in mind that “semi-happy” is better than unhappy or “miserable.” These are not rotten marriages. They’re just shade-of-gray marriages, where the spouse is genuinely confused about what to do.

Generally, I think our marital expectations are changing, too, and many of us seek in marriage a home base or companionship. Some of these semi-happy marriages, while not all that satisfying, are made more viable because the spouses seek other things and passions that they need elsewhere, through work, friendships, other intimacies, hobbies, or what have you. And in other cases — especially since the recession — it’s simply too expensive to divorce. The divorce rate actually dropped in 2009 and 2010, because the economy made it difficult for spouses to sell a house, get value out of their house, establish two separate households, or even scrape together money to pay for divorce lawyers.

What are some of the solutions that people in “semi-happy” marriages find to offset their dissatisfaction?

Solutions to semi-happy marriage range from the monumental to the mundane. Some marriages that are stuck but that don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater through divorce have the difficult conversation:  They make very large changes in their lives. Perhaps they try to practice an updated, more human version of “open marriage,” and allow each other to have outside attachments, so long as they follow certain rules and both partners agree. There are happy, secure couples today who aren’t monogamous, by design.

Other couples I describe traded in the suburban or more expensive lifestyle for a more downsized one that gives them more time and freedom. Others might change their parenting philosophies. I even learned of divorced couples who still maintain one household, to keep stability for their children. They enjoy the freedoms (discreetly) of divorced people, in that they can start dating, but they also maintain a household for their children.

How did your husband feel when you embarked on this book project? Were either of you worried that this kind of research would negatively affect your own relationship?

To be honest, I agonized over this question more than any other. It kept me up at night — even though my book’s not a memoir, and our own marriage isn’t the topic of the book (I’m more interested in the world “out there” than in here).

My husband’s a wonderful person, as I hope comes across in the book, and he’s brave to let me write on this topic at all. It does feel like a strange act of “outing,” just to write that I’ve had mixed feelings about the state of marriage generally, and my own marriage — even though a good number of husbands and wives have these feelings, and even though John and I are still married and have a functioning household. And while he’s behind me 100 percent, he’s not doing interviews!

You say that doing the research for this book changed your outlook on marriage. How so?

Talking to other spouses and closely observing other marriages occasionally sent me flying back into the arms of my own marriage with renewed gratitude and appreciation for all the things that do work in it! But in a more serious vein, my work’s made me more mindful in my marriage. Before I started this book I would torment myself that my marriage somehow wasn’t a “real marriage” because it was imperfect and incomplete. But through this work I’ve thankfully ditched that idea of the “real marriage” and what it has to look like.

This book has also made me more optimistic that in an age when 40% of Americans think marriage is “becoming obsolete,” it actually has real potential to evolve to keep up with our changing lives—it still has life in it, even for marriage skeptics. And my own marriage does, too.

Pamela Haag is the author of Marriage Confidential: The Post Romantic Age of Workhouse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules. After attending Swarthmore College and earning a Ph.D. in history from Yale, she worked as director of research for the American Association of University Women and as a speechwriter. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University.


14 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Let’s first talk about long-term marriages of the far distant past —  marriages that have lasted 40 years, 50 years or more.  There is not a single woman I know from that far back that did not wait until she graduated from college and married the next week.  Heaven forbid if you became an “old maid” – and believe me, there was a stigma about that.  Children followed – almost immediately for most.  We were told and/or learned by example that you “married for life” – just like your parents.  The edicts of church figured in a larger way. Divorce would harm the children.

    Marriage was stability.

    What wasn’t mentioned by the author was that “doing what was right” kept many of the marriages together after the kids were gone.  A division of the assets often would not leave the separate spouses with enough.  And so we have very long-term marriages that should have had closure long long ago.  Waiting a few years too long and issues such as health and security and money make a choice of separating at a later stage too scary.  Are they happy — or are some version of that?  Most are not (but they put on a good act in public!!!)

    I have watched, talked, gotten people to open up on their lives.  By the time we are close to 50 we are at an entirely new stage of life than before.  We have been around, we have watched others, and we have become more capable and so much smarter than we were before.  The person we married may not have kept up with us — our new wants and desires — and he never will.  Should we “sacrifice” and stay with him or her, stuck in quicksand, when we see 30 or 40 years ahead when we KNOW that we can be the person we want to be?? 

    I call this time “a new chapter” in life that comes to almost all of us.  IF we stick together, then we should be able to explore our own directions, no longer glued at the hip.  If both partners are high on life and applaud the others’ new accomplishment, this can work well.  But if one has no hopes or dreams still to be accomplished and is what I call a “dud” in any number of ways, I now believe in a parting of the ways.  And in most cases after divorce over the age of 50 particularly, if you find “the one” who is perfect (easier said than done), I now think that living together is just fine unless your personal beliefs make marriage again your choice. 

    The world we live in now is – and will never be – the world that many of us had in our youth.  Sometimes I cannot believe I am saying it but:  I think we change with the times.  I wouldn’t call it “post romantic” as it can be plenty romantic, but the world of now has given us more opportunities and doors have opened that weren’t long ago.  Do we sit looking at them, wishing?  Or perhaps, do we take baby steps out our door and test those waters?  It is up to us.  We make our choices and live with them.  And many of those with the supposedly commendable marriages of 50 years or more are sitting in very unhappy marriages and some have missed out in being all they could be in life on top of it.  We just don’t talk about it much.

    I continue to say that if we have enduring love in our lives, we have it all.  It is hard to come by, but certainly worth holding out for.  “Matters of the heart” are the glue that holds us together in the best of times, the worst of times – and if you have it, you are truly blessed.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Ah, Joan. I’ve told this story before but it bears repeating here.

      My three great-aunts, daughters of a WWI General, did as was expected and each married a promising West Point graduate. Alas, one great-aunt found she had married a philanderer who made her miserable. She wanted to leave the marriage but the family would not hear of it, as a divorce would ruin her husband’s career. Faced with the reality that she couldn’t go back to her family, she stuck it out for decades, and, like her two sisters, helped to make her husband into a General (the military social life was crucial in those days and the wife could make or break an officer’s career… these three knew how the game was played, and played it well).

      Fast-forward to her 70s, and my great-aunt was a widow living on her own for the first time in her life, and loving it. She had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, and the family kept begging her to get married and “let him make an honest woman out of you.” Pfft. She dearly loved him, but told me she wanted him to GO HOME at night. She liked her life as it was. I think she earned that.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Lila .  .  . Great story and one that is understandable to me – as generally, at least in the circles I lived in – certain things were “expected” and you stuck with the game plan for any number of reasons.  Interestingly enough, without exception, my friends now widows ( and they are multiplying as I write) are truly enjoying their “single” lives.  Several have found what I consider “catches” in the male line, but time together followed by time apart keeps life fresh for them both.

        But speaking of wives of the military, my own mother-in-law, a small town girl whose role was to be “housewife” and seemed to have accepted it, had a husband who became an Admiral.  All always seemed well and good.  She never said or showed sadness while he was working.

        But it seems clear NOW that at work he was the BIG boss and THE LEADER who told those under him what to do – immediately.  When he retired, he evidently looked around and no one was there to boss — but his shy wife of forever.  So in private, he must have run the show at home in strong ways.  We didn’t see it, couldn’t imagine this lovely lady would be getting such treatment.  On their 60th year of marriage, she called us for the first time ever.  She wanted to leave him right then and never come back.  She needed our help to leave.  This had to be very very bad; the particulars were never told but she was done for.

        We flew up and took her away.  She never returned.  Ever.  The remainder of her life she considered the best she had ever had – in another part of the country, a great social climate, and later – the best care in her last years.  She glowed as we had never seen her.
        But when we visited at their home, we were unaware of this happening. . . though later, we could understand this transference in the effect of his Navy “power” landing on her.

        Truly mind-blowing, shaking us up as we had never been, and one of the most difficult times we had to work out and deal with. 

        • avatar Lila says:

          Joan, your MIL sounds like she got the same raw deal as another of my three great-aunts. Her hubby was not a philanderer, but could be very controlling and she was sometimes miserable. Of the three sisters, only one had a truly wonderful husband (oddly… or perhaps deservedly!… he attained the highest rank of the three husbands, too!).

          Wow, when I think the whole family saga over, it sounds like some Victorian novel. To think I actually knew these people… or, it’s like a time machine.

          Good for your MIL for saying enough is enough and seizing control of her life.

          • avatar Kriss says:

            “Wow, when I think the whole family saga over, it sounds like some Victorian novel.”

            LOL, I said something similiar to my grandfather when we were discussing his side of the family’s history….Wow, Pop, the details are like something out of William Faulkner.

          • avatar Lila says:

            Exactly, I was thinking The Sound and the Fury!

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    We make a mistake to think that anything can be happily ever after. Nothing in life, including marriage, guarantees happiness or bliss long term. Life is always a series of compromises as life happens or the unexpected occurs. It doesn’t mean that people in those marriages don’t share a deep love not expressed to the outside world. Mature love is not all about making us happy it is about sharing and working through the twists and turns of events happening to us. I was advised to divorce my husband when he was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease over twenty years ago because life would change. It did – for the better as we learned to appreciate the time left together and watched milestones we didn’t think we would see roll by. We share a deep contentment that we have this life. I wouldn’t want someone on the outside to judge or label it according to what they thought it ought it be.

  3. avatar Barbara says:

    Wow – you made me go and give my husband (of 35 years) a hug. You came across to me as having a fairly dreary view of other people’s marriages. Just about all of our circle of friends have been married for 25+ years. Is everyone waking up every morning absolutely thrilled? No, this is the real world. People bicker. People look at the grass on the other side of the fence. Things happen. But for the most part, many people know that underneath it all they have a long and lasting bond with that one special person they married many years ago who have loved them through thick and thin and who they have cared for and supported through joy and sorrow.
    I feel as if marriage now is viewed as something very temporary and made for external consumption. The showcase wedding where the couple or their parents go into debt throwing an over the top party with huge embellished dresses and cakes and party favors and, and and… And discussions of “starter” marriages, as if marriage is something you cast off when you get bored, like last year’s (still perfectly serviceable if you chose right) clothes.
    Marriage doesn’t have to be something you “work at.” But it does need to be something you respect, cherish and nurture.

  4. avatar D C says:

    There are only a couple of secrets to a happy marriage:  1 – be a happy person, and 2 – marry your best friend.  And if your best friend happens to be a happy person, you’re golden.

    Those who expect the preson they marry to make them happy, usually are not happy long.  And if you aren’t great friends with the person you marry, then what’s to carry you through the hard times? 

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Love your thinking, DC!  And if I could, I might add that hearing those magical words:  I LOVE YOU and saying them in return, never ever grows old.  Hugs, hugs of appreciation, of caring create the closeness that matters so much.  And then there is the expression of thanks for going that extra mile.  But all of us go through bad times too — and we care for each other so this is the time to reassure, to be at your partner’s side when things are too much to bear.

      These things should be done naturally — as why wouldn’t they be?  But each brings the couple closer and the heart warm – and the marriage even warmer!!!

  5. avatar Lila says:

    Well, the notion of marrying for love is relatively recent. Marriages used to be economic or political alliances, and in some parts of the world, they still are. Then you have “arranged” marriages or those in which the couple has only a minimal chance to get acquainted before tying the knot.

    Maybe the reason so many Americans are unhappy with their marriages has to do with a big difference between expectations and reality? Or just plain old selfishness getting in the way of a good relationship? Same thing with parenting… run a search on unhappy moms and see how disappointed so many are.

    • avatar Chris Glass` says:

      It is time that we defined our own marriages without the help of experts to tell us if it is good enough or semi-happy. No part of life is worry or problem free it is build on the expectations that each partner brings to the table. As a couple it is up to those people to define what makes or breaks the marriage expectation. Life isn’t a sitcom or reality show where problems can be defined and solved in a segment. In my experience most long married couples do experience issues from time to time but they learn to work out compromises. They are content with the outcome.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      My mother’s parents (my Nona would be 105 today if she were still among the living) married for love in the 1920’s. My father’s parents ( who would be somewhat older…my dad was born in 1928, and he was 20 years younger than his oldest sibling) had an arranged marriage. My maternal grandparents’ marriage lasted for over 50 years, until the sudden death of my grandfather. My paternal grandparents’ marriage may have lasted close to 75 years…I am not sure of the span…and was also ended by death.

      But were either couple happy? My Italian grandpa was a soft-spoken, hard-working, gentle man who insisted that all of his children be educated. My grandma…I don’t know. My understanding is that she was fine until menopause, and then a creeping dementia set in that never left her. There were hysterical fits, accusations, suicide attempts, growing hypochondria and stays in psychiatric wards. My grandfather stayed by her side through everything.

      My maternal grandparents marriage was, I think, a private hell. My grandmother had been regularly sexually molested by her own father, an alcoholic. My grandfather was an alcoholic…and after years of listening to my mother talk about her childhood and youth, her sisters, and her mother, I have come to a conclusion that is impossible to escape…my grandfather molested his oldest daughter, my aunt, possibly his middle daughter, my other aunt, who also acted as protector for her much more fragile older sister…and treated my mother more as a wife than a daughter, doting on her and spoiling her. I don’t know if he ever touched her. She denies even the possibility that her Sainted Father could have done such an awful thing…but every sign, in every one of his daughters…and his wife, are crystal clear and absolutely classic. I also know that he abused my grandmother badly.

      Curiously, no child from either set of grandparents’ marriage was content or stable, much less happy. Nor were those of many of the grandchildren. I have one of the longest running marriages of the grandchildren that isn’t based in, mmm, economics, religious decrees against divorce or lifestyle requirements (17 years), and it took two bad marriages (I had my hand in the failures too…I tried way too hard, and stayed far too long) to get here. I have one cousin who has been with her husband longer, and she has two very fine sons, and is an odd woman like me. I think both of us had very different expectations than most, though.

      We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We had our struggles, and our defeats. But we aren’t the sort to give up when we know that something is worth the effort, and we tend to see much more clearly the things that are meaningful. We’re both rather the outsiders in our respective families, too. On a peculiar note, neither of us were treated with even an iota of kindness, love or compassion by our mothers, and both of us have made our peace, and are more ready to cope with their aging, and treat them with more kindness, and care, than the rest of our siblings. Curious, isn’t it?

  6. avatar crystalclear says:

    I agree with everyone’s comments above especially the one about taking responsibility for our own happiness.   What a burden to place upon someone’s shoulder…the responsibility to make another person happy!   

    I believe people get married for different reasons and it isn’t always about love.   Biological clocks ticking louder and louder in our mid to late thirties can produce a rush to the alter.   Long term broken relationships can lead to a rush to the alter.   What we know today is that more than half of these marriages will not last.

    Some of us were raised in families where divorce was never an option even when it was evident that it should’ve be the number one priority.  Others were raised by loving parents where the father was the dominant one with the final say.   Because our home environments were varied, I believe our experiences dictate the type of marriage we would have later in life.   Some would mirror the relationship of their parents.   Others would quickly break a cycle and do just the opposite of their parent’s relationship with each other.

    If one is lucky to take the time to marry their best friend I believe everything else falls in place…the love, respect, devotion and loyalty and, yes, the passion of wanting to please each other.

    I also believe “birth order” plays a significant role in marriage.