Marriage Confidential: "Options for your mediocre marriage" opens new thinking
More and more people are saying that traditional marriage is a poor fit to today's realities and has dwindling relevance to modern life. Piles of statistics back this up — from the trend toward ever later first marriages, to the fact that 40% of American children are now born out of wedlock, to the continuing 40%–50% divorce rate, to the shockingly low number of surviving marriages that people describe as more than minimally okay (though surveys vary). I'm sure this is partly the reason for the strange credibility of polyamory in the mainstream media, compared to how the media treat (or ignore) other forms of alt/radical life.
Riding this wave of marriage discontent is a new book just out June 1st: Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples who are Rewriting the Rules. Author Pamela Haag is a Yale PhD historian who says she "wanted to take stock of how marriage had changed over the last 50 years."
A review in the Huffington Post has a TL;DR title: Don't Want to Divorce? Indulge Your Polyamory or Asexuality, Have Your Affairs, Live Apart.
From the Washington Post's review:
Pamela Haag’s ‘Marriage Confidential’: Pearls of wisdom about matrimony
By Carolyn See
Don’t be put off by the dorky title. Somehow or other, a flock of well-meaning marketers must have thought this sterling book wouldn’t sell on its own merits, so they’ve tricked it out with cheesy bells and whistles. “Marriage Confidential” is so rare, such a pleasantly charming pearl of great price, that they probably couldn’t see what they had before them. [Ed. note: maybe that's because it's published by HarperCollins, a Rupert Murdoch company.]
Imagine — if you’re old enough — that David Riesman had finished working on his monumental “The Lonely Crowd,” kicked off his expensive loafers, poured himself a double martini and spent a few hours telling you — and only you — how America had somehow divided itself into inner-directed and other-directed members of society, how for some reason, they often felt dead-to-the-bone and often fell in love just so they could prove to themselves that they were still alive. That’s essentially what Pamela Haag has done with her subject. You learn something, but you hardly notice because you’re having such a good time....
...One of her virtues (not as easy to practice as it sounds) is to focus on stuff that’s been simmering along right under our noses for at least a couple of decades....
...Maybe because adultery is more fun than anything else, Haag develops an inordinate interest in the vagaries of that subject....
Read the whole article (May 26, 2011).
Here's an interview with Haag in the Detroit Free Press. Links to more coverage are at the book's site. Or google up more.
CNN presents an article by Haag herself, where she dwells on different forms of non-monogamy:
Options for your mediocre marriage
By Pamela Haag
You've tried marriage therapy. You've tried date night. You've tried attitude adjustment, and tricking yourself into ignoring the discontent ("Just suck it up.... Everyone feels mediocre about their marriages.... Stop being selfish and whiny").
...There's a part of your soul that isn't nourished in marriage, and it's too big a part to live without. You've tried, but you fear that you're in the wrong marriage, however wonderful your spouse may be.
You're in the group of "low-conflict," amiable but less than fulfilling marriages. Marriage researchers estimate that they contribute the lion's share to divorce court each year -- anywhere from 55% to 65%.
...If you're in an unhappy but low-conflict marriage, is there any alternative to divorce or glumly sticking it out?
Yes. Change the marriage instead. Take a fresh look. Maybe the problem is not you. Maybe it's not your spouse. Maybe it's marriage, and how we "do" marriage that's the issue.
There are thousands of books to tell you how to fit yourself, the square peg of a discontented spouse, into the round hole of the institution of marriage. But there are few if any that flip the question, and consider how to change marriage so that it fits us.
Here are some ways, modest and monumental, that 21st century marriages have carved out a third path between a semi-happy marriage and divorce:
...Update and rewrite your vows to reflect reality. What if you rewrote your marriage vows, and contract, every few years to reflect concrete, tangible stages in your marriage?...
...Could you practice "the new monogamy"? What about the perhaps most audacious idea, but one that is working right now for some marriages: Would you have a conversation with your spouse about the possibility of other attachments, of open, "ethical nonmonogamy" as an alternative to divorce?
Most say it "never works," but the fact is that there are happy, secure couples right now who do it in some form or another. If you're at a gathering with 20 married couples, chances are at least one or two fit the bill, or 5%, but estimates vary.
A sex educator for adults told me this was "free love, version 2.0." Most likely, these new monogamists are in the closet with their improvised arrangement. Sometimes, a happy marriage "opens up" because they want to do something more, or different. But in other cases, they do it because they want to maintain a functioning but emotionally inert marriage from the grips of divorce.
Still others reconcile the semi-happy marriage with a happy-happy life by having a more agnostic view of the romantic deal breaker of infidelity. They let extramarital affairs nick the consciousness of marriage, but don't discuss anything. They just decide to let the monogamy imperative drift.
These alternatives aren't for everyone, certainly. But it's worth trying to be imaginative if you want an alternative to divorce, and these are all arrangements that you'll find among couples today, however traditional they may appear....
Read the whole article (June 2, 2011), and add your comments. (Late comments are important, because they stay in view longer.)
A discussion broke out among members of the Polyamory Leadership Network. Randy R. in Ireland wrote,
Eew, I don't know.
Being viewed in terms of 'alternative to divorce' is not terribly flattering. Makes [polyamory] sound like putting one of those silly looking and underperforming space-saver spare tires on your car when you get a blowout from a 'real' one.
While it's not a negative [treatment], I think it has a long way to go in terms of positivity.
And yeah, hello, it's NOT monogamy in any way! Please stop using that word to describe polyamory, media people!
To which Michael Rios responds,
Actually, I think the article is great. This is exactly how to get a new idea across to a resistant mainstream population. You simply tell them that it is really the same thing as what they already know, but with an extra accessory that they hadn't known about before.
If we can get the mainstream society to think of monogamy as inclusive of multiple sexualoving relationships, we're there. I could care less what they call it, as long as it incorporates all the elements I care about.
The mainstream society already accepts multiple sexual partners for singles — they call it "dating around". If they can accept multiple sexual partners for marrieds, then there's not much ground left uncovered. :-)
And once their definitions are expanded that way, other variations will hardly raise a ripple.
...This kind of cultural gradualism has consistently been the most powerful social change mechanism throughout history. Even the Civil Rights movement in the US, which may have seemed cataclysmic, was actually a process that evolved continuously over more than 100 years.
At last month's discussion group of Family Tree, my local poly group, a particular benefit of polyamory to married couples came up. From the discussion notes:
A man who attended early Loving More conferences remembers couples extolling the good effects of the mere knowledge of their freedom, even if they never used it. "They also said this kept them on their toes about taking each other seriously, making an extra effort in their marriage," rather than letting the marriage go flat like so many. A woman chimed in: "That in itself is worth the price of admission."
P. S.: Anyone who's interested in alternatives to marriage should check out the Alternatives to Marriage Project.
Updates: Pamela Haag writes in her blog about Marriage Confidential's one or two chapters dealing with polyamory, and she describes her (not very well informed, I think) understanding of what it is.
Here's a long interview with Haag on the website of The Atlantic: The Role Non-Monogamy Will Play in the Future of Marriage (Oct. 3, 2011).