In a semi-happy marriage? You’re not alone

Pamela Haag’s work spans from academic scholarship to memoir, often on women’s issues, feminism and American culture. In “Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules,” Haag uses firsthand accounts and a splash of humor to look at the modern marriage — specifically semi-happy, “low-stress and low-conflict” unions. Read an excerpt:

Introduction: Marriage on the edge

Andy is an acquaintance of my husband, John. He is in his early forties, very smart, inquisitive, and witty, and has a wonderful stay-at-home wife who looks after their two children. With my husband, however, Andy often drifts into frank comment about his marriage. When he does, he says things like this: “What I need is an afternoon in a hotel room with a strange woman!” But, of course, he doesn’t take the steps to do that. Or he’ll say, “Sometimes I ask myself, how am I going to get through the day without running over this woman?” He looks at John intently before adding, “And I mean it.”

But of course he doesn’t mean it, not really.

Despite his melodramatic outbursts, Andy is anything but a wife abuser or a nasty, hostile spouse. More accurately, he’s dutiful and attentive, if a bit henpecked. His marriage is, by all accounts, functional, settled, and content. But at the same time, it is wistfully deficient in other ways, and glazed over with ennui. If pressed, he would say that it works well enough for him. But there are moments when Andy pensively, almost philosophically, wonders out loud: “Is this as good as it gets?”

My friend Laura, who has been married for over ten years, is similarly ambivalent. On one evening, she will ruefully ponder if she stays in her marriage only because she lacks “the courage to divorce.” On another, she will affirm her love and affection for her husband and speculate on the marriage as a “gift” of “the constant” in life; on another occasion she will reconstitute her sense of realism and duty, and say of marriage, “For some of us, marriage is for better or worse. And if it’s worse, then it’s worse. That’s what you get.”

Millions of wives and husbands have these feelings each day. They privately ask themselves a variation of the question Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to put to his future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, when Palmer was struggling in a game: “Are you going to get any better, or is this it?” They don’t have an answer, but secretly they are troubled by a feeling that there is something in their marriage that doesn’t work, possibly cannot be made to work, and that it is not going to get any better. As far as their marriages are concerned, they fear that this is, indeed, it. These spouses are sad more than miserable, disappointed more than chronically unhappy. As psychiatrists would say, their marriages are “melancholy”: They have a brooding sadness about them that often lacks an obvious, tangible cause.

These melancholy spouses may not remember the dream they once had for marriage, but the dream remembers them. It tugs at them hauntingly. They know it’s not their spouse’s fault, per se, or even their own. After several years, a Marriage is more like a third character, with its own personality and life. It’s not reducible to the sum of its all-too-human creators, any more than a child would be.

I know these people well, as their thoughts are mine. If you too happen to be someone who has come to this uncomfortable realization about your marriage, you also know the drill that follows. You shadowbox with yourself. In quiet moments when you ask yourself, “Is this all it is?,” you simultaneously beat up on yourself for asking the question at all. You accuse yourself of being selfish to want more than you already have. You feel guilty thinking about lost or deferred dreams, and you wonder whether it is noble or useful to demand more from a marriage than the good things you have. You might even question your desires. Perhaps the longing for more out of marriage is just the vestige of a callow, self-defeating romantic ideal that you don’t even entirely trust anymore, but can’t entirely purge from your mind.

A few years ago I started casually asking women and men about their marriages, all the time. A common reaction was for a wife or husband to say, “I’m pretty satisfied with my marriage, but … ,” or “I’m happy, but … .” The gently inventoried deficits and suspended dreams that came after the “but” often sounded fairly serious and meaningful. It wasn’t a matter of the toilet seat being left up, or of easily remedied flaws, but a collusive, ineffable shortcoming such as withered passion, boredom, lack of connection, lost affinities, or a world-weariness that beset their married life. Even so, they also felt, and I believed them, that they were more or less satisfied. They weren’t contemplating separation, despite the absences and the longings in their marriages. Those missing elements weren’t enough, apparently, to count as a source of legitimate unhappiness — although they seemed serious enough that, after a while, I began to wonder why they didn’t.

Mostly you live with genuine ambivalence and indeterminacy: One minute, you feel that your marriage is a good, solid thing; the next, you resent it and you think, how can I live with this person anymore? One minute you can’t imagine staying; the next, you can’t imagine leaving.

I’m married to the prototype Great Guy and Wonderful Father to ourchild. And he really is. You’d like John. Everybody does. He’s an aggressivelyinoffensive man, with the soul of a mother hen in the bodyof a jock. On winter mornings, before dawn, he wakes up, jumps onhis fancy German-designed stationary bike with electromagnetic resistance,and rides for hours. I can hear the bike roaring and hummingso loudly from the floor below that you’d think he intended to heat our house on the exertions of his famously sculpted legs. “I was talking about your calf muscles with the mechanic at Joe’s garage the other day,” a neighbor tells him. Remarkably, things like this are said to him by other married men.


Perhaps because he is a triathlete, a distance runner, and a long-distance cyclist, John understands endurance, and carries the slow metabolizing, long view in his head. His life is paced to withstand discomfort and suffering over protracted stretches. Doubtless, this skill has come in handy in marriage.

John fixes things, mechanical and human. He does this even in his sleep. His dreams lean toward intricate capers in which he helps political prisoners escape from behind enemy lines or deploys technical ingenuity to outfox villains. His eyes light up when I present him with a loose cabinet hinge or a computer glitch he can solve for me. Sometimes he inquires after problems that I’ve complained of ephemerally in the past. “Did you ever get that keyboard drawer installed?” he’ll ask hopefully. By disposition and profession he is an engineer, now a financial engineer who devises mathematical models for a commodities trading firm.

If the term wasn’t so conceptually threadbare from successive self-help regimes, I would tell you that John is an “enabler” in the meritorious sense of that term. He helps you be better at whatever it is you want to be. At a cocktail party you would be charmed by his unpretentious Midwestern amiability, a happy ideal of the politician, and he is reliably the tallest, broadest, and often the most handsome man in the room. You’d intuit that you were in the presence of an actual grown-up, probably the most grown-up person there. As I often do, you would feel momentarily quelled by his company, and safe. Now the problem will be solved, action will be taken, something will get done, you might think.

Being a rules-following and driven person, John takes more generic satisfaction out of the idea of marriage than I do, although he has ambivalent feelings about it, too. It’s a state of being that suits him, because it orders unruly elements and imposes a routine on life. John likes order. At a cookout, he will arrange four hot dogs geometrically on the grill, into a perfect square.

We love each other, but love expands to contain so many tender and modified meanings over years that it stops really meaning or containing anything. Unlike our vivid love for our son, which has such crisp, precise angles and ultimatums (we’d both of us lay down our lives for him), marital love means everything and therefore nothing. It’s just the atmosphere. We entrusted the care of our lives to each other, and John is one of my favorite people in the world. I have a nice marriage, a lovely husband. He likes me, too.

But you never know. On other days, and in other moments, I think that this could very well be the last year of our marriage.

Of the more than one million divorces that happen in the United States each year, the majority come from a population that we know little about, can rarely spot, and whose problems are invisible and inscrutable to acquaintances, friends, and even family. Not long ago, I discovered that the semi-happy marriage constitutes its own distinct species in the annals of scholarly research. I learned this while browsing the pages of the august Journal of Marriage and Family. There, in 2001, the prominent marriage researcher Paul Amato published an article on the “low-conflict,” low-stress unhappy marriage. Amato estimates that up to 60 percent of divorces come from its ranks.

In contrast to the “high-distress,” high-conflict marriage, which might involve abuse, violence, addictions, fistfights, chronic arguments, projectile shoes and dishes, or other conspicuously dysfunctional habits that lead to divorce, the low-stress, low-conflict marriage is not, according to scholars, anywhere near “that bad.”

However, that elastic phrase “not that bad” slyly and unavoidably ratchets down our expectations to prepare us for what comes next. “They are just not ecstatic marriages.” As Amato explains it, in these “good enough” marriages, “the choice is not between … being miserable or bailing out. The choice is … between being moderately happy … or getting a divorce.” And yet, such marriages lead to divorce more often than any other kind.

The Utah Commission on Marriage concluded in 2003 that 70 to 80 percent in the state “get divorced, perhaps unnecessarily,” from “low-conflict marriages” and for “soft reasons” — presumably, for reasons such as boredom, ennui, soullessness, or other non-high conflict sources of unhappiness. Researchers find this — us — puzzling, from the outside looking in. As scholar Alan Booth muses, “There are no studies of parents who seldom disagree or fight, yet end their marriages in divorce, a seemingly incongruous marital outcome,” he notes, “but one that appears to be fairly common.” Indeed.

It’s not just scholars who scratch their heads and wonder why such marriages are unsatisfying enough to cause the parties to separate. So do friends and family. To the outside observer, there is nothing “really wrong” with these low-stress, low-conflict marriages — as if we were married not only by a piece of paper, but on a piece of paper, and by résumé; as if marriage were something well cast, rather than well lived. But honorably intentioned, mutually agreeable people who find themselves mired in the scholar’s confection of the low-conflict, low-stress unhappy marriage struggle — often privately — with this dilemma: is this yearning “enough” of a reason to get divorced, or separated?

My first goal in this book is to give voice to this yearning, and to the low-conflict, melancholy marriage, and to show the millions of us who are in these ambivalent marriages that we’re not alone. I want to provide consoling moments of self-recognition, and to satisfy curiosity about the secret life of these marriages by taking you inside them. The noncelebrity marriage is a concealed institution, even in our privacy-loathing age. Its failures, as well as its quirky, improvised revisions, are too often hidden from view. My aim is to lift the curtain and create a collective portrait of these marriages — how we get there, what decisions propel us into ennui. This book quibbles, tacitly, with Leo Tolstoy’s adage: Maybe all unhappy marriages aren’t all unhappy in their own unique ways; maybe in a lot of cases they’re unhappy owing to choices, attitudes, and sensibilities of our time that we share. I’m after the souls of these marriages, usually, more than their quantitative indicia, or the facts about how these couples arrange chores or work.

If you are in one of these marriages — if you’re a spouse with vague feelings of discontent; if you’re a spouse married to someone who feels this way, and you’re confused, if not heartbroken, as to why you’re not “enough” for them; if you have a spouse like this in your family, or your circle of friends; if you’re close to a marriage that seems cranky and frazzled, or lethargic and droopy, and, each time you leave its company, you wonder to yourself why aren’t they happier when it seems they should be — then, for you, I aim to put a face on the melancholy.

At first glance, it surprises me that the flock of low-conflict unhappy marriages, mostly drawn here from the cohort of people in their late thirties, forties, and early fifties, is as large as it is. This suggests a paradox that interests me throughout this book: We have more marriage freedom, choice, and latitude than ever before — the old marriage imperatives and consensus views don’t weigh on us — yet many of us, even with relative privilege and latitude, end up as melancholy, and as orthodox in our views of marriage, as were generations of married men and women before us. Often we feel more comfortable breaking the marriage rules than condoning a revision of them. Even though we have both the means (the freedom) and the incentive (the melancholy) to bring about change, we don’t really use that freedom to figure out how marriage might evolve — substantively, not superficially — into something better and more satisfying.

To that end, my second goal in this book is to equip you with a new way of thinking about the plight of a stable but melancholy marriage. It may not be you, it may not be your spouse. It may be the institution of marriage itself. It’s not my sense, or proposition, that marriage is obsolete, as others have suggested, but I do feel that it sometimes needs to evolve to new forms.

From reading much of the vast research literature on marriage it’s obvious to me that not only can the estate of marriage change, it will change. It’s a question of how, not if. In her groundbreaking book Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz describes how in transition from the 19th to the 20th century, marriage changed from a sturdy social institution, a duty and an obligation, to a more unstable, spindly bond based on romantic great expectations of love, affection, emotion, and intimacy. If, as Coontz suggests, the 19th century belonged more to “traditional” marriage, defined as a social institution and obligation, and the 20th century belonged to the romantic, I’m interested in the next paradigm of marriage, the 21st century’s, which is gradually replacing the romantic one.

I call it a post-romantic spirit. It doesn’t abide by either the romantic or the traditional scripts for marriage that came before it; it dismantles romantic premises and ideals around career, work, lifestyle, child rearing, or sex in marriage, to different effects and with different degrees of mindfulness. Sometimes we’re drifting into a post-romantic age without thinking about it. In other cases, and marriages, we’re deliberately dismantling and subverting both the traditional and the romantic scripts.

You may not find yourself in sympathy with all of the marriages described here, but my ambition isn’t to recommend or endorse any particular path or marital lifestyle (this is by no means an advice book), only to jog our thinking out of the familiar rut of Divorce or Sticking It Out, and to propose that we enlarge our sympathies, reduce our judgments, and think in a spirit of open-minded adventure, curiosity, fun, and imagination, about where marriage might go, either our own marriages, or the estate of marriage. Sometimes, in a quest for common denominators of our discontent, I take the stance of the empathetic contrarian and question some of the ways that we, and I, think about and “do” marriage today. Sometimes I ask if this is all we should want, or expect. At other times, I take the stance of a marital agent provocateur and search for the queer traditional marriage and new patterns of thought about marriage to replace the familiar, perhaps obsolete, ones.

These new ways of thinking, by definition, aren’t the norm or the mainstream, yet. I hope you’ll get a sense of where marriage might be headed, not according to the broad-brush census statistics that capture the most tectonic shifts, after the fact, but intimately, according to marriage pioneers on the front lines who stretch the limits of the possible in marriage. These pioneers have Oreo marriages — traditional on the outside, untraditional on the inside . Often they faced the same dilemma and yearnings, but they opted for a third way. They changed the rules in one form or another, or they challenged an element of marriage orthodoxy. Some would call these marriages eccentric and weird, and I can understand that. But it can be hard to tell where “eccentric” ends and “vanguard” begins.

Just sixty years ago, Americans didn’t really imagine procreation and marriage as separate, or even sex and procreation as separate; they probably didn’t imagine an age of widespread tolerance for premarital sex, “living together,” or interracial marriage, to say nothing of same-sex marriage; they couldn’t have imagined marriages with stay at-home dads and female breadwinners. After Title VII passed in 1964, outlawing sex discrimination in the workforce, an airline personnel executive fretted in the Wall Street Journal, “what are we going to do when a gal walks into our office, demands a job as an airline pilot and has the credentials to qualify? Or what will we do when some guy comes in and wants to be a stewardess?” Things just as inconceivable today could be tolerated, even a norm, in the next half century.

Eccentric, vanguard marriages risk being judged for their improvisations, and sometimes they do them in secret, for that reason. There’s a social reward attached to sticking it out and reconstituting the traditional marriage; there’s shame attached to changing the rules, leaving a marriage, refusing to marry, or going for your ambitions — even if it may make for a happier marriage, or life, to do just that.

A word on organization and method: After a first chapter that sets the stage and context, this book moves straightforwardly into three thematic parts that tackle the main elements of any marriage: work, career, and money; children; and sex.

To try to understand the melancholy, Marriage CSI style, I’ve done a variety of things and used eclectic techniques. Sometimes to figure out the secret life of marriage, you need to go to secret places, so I’ve eavesdropped, both in person and in cyberspace; I’ve interviewed; I’ve joined online discussion groups and social networks where people share in that bewitching chimera of anonymity and intimacy. I’ve conducted two surveys, reviewed the popular commentary, and I’ve taken undercover field trips to places both online and in the real world. I’m most grateful to the more than fifty people that I’ve interviewed, either in person, by phone, or by correspondence, to get a feel for real marriage today. In some cases, I let these wives and husbands talk at length; in other cases, it seemed better to aggregate or synthesize voices from across sources to demonstrate one sentiment.

An important disclaimer: I don’t profess to describe or analyze all of the factors, character traits, and decisions that contribute to any of the marriages described here, including my own. As I’ve said, my premise is that each marriage is entirely unique and that each is, also, in one or many ways, a product of our times. Readers will hear and discern in the material any number of themes. My intention isn’t to analyze each marriage’s multifaceted complexity, but to present stories that illustrate one or two major traits, moods, or broader trends of interest in a particular chapter.

Although this isn’t an academic book, I’ve made use of my scholarly background. I was trained as an historian, so I share the occasional perspective on what’s changed over time. I also reviewed some, but by no means all, of the research on United States marriage trends. That research is a foundation upon which I build here, and on which I arrived at some of my insights and conclusions. Usually it’s just summarized or, more often, nested within a story, in the main body of this book. But I found much of it so fascinating, and a solid basis from which I could speculate, range around, and explore, that I’ve cited and described it more thoroughly in the Notes section.

On a few occasions, I also reflect on my own marriage or share a conversation from it, because my marriage was the incandescent spirit behind this project in the first place. I also do this because, obviously, there is no marriage that I can hope to know more about, or more intimately, than my own. Candor about marriage has been received from others as a gift — and is offered, by me, in the same spirit. For his consent and bravery in the matter I’m most grateful to John who doubtless has come to rue that he ever married a nonfiction writer.

From “Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules” by Pamela Haag. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins.