Marriage Confidential by Pamela Haag is one of the most thought-provoking and insightful books I’ve read in a long time. It deserves more than a single review, and I plan to interact with Pamela’s ideas in much more depth later this year. But I couldn’t spend a whole month talking about marriage and not include this book; it’s simply done too much to shape my conversations about marriage. So for now, you’ll have to make do with this review.
Pamela identifies a particular sort of marital melancholy that contributes to as many as 60% of divorces: the low-stress, low-conflict marriage. She suggests the melancholy arises not from the institution of Marriage itself, but from our particularly modern incarnation of that institution:
To the outside observer, there is nothing “really wrong” with these low-stress, low-conflict marriages… 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.
As a trained historian (PhD from Yale), then, Pamela sets out to explore how Marriage has changed throughout history, with special attention to what Marriage has been for the past few decades and where it could go next. In her words:
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…
The Romance Script is already dying, and new, equally untenable, Post-Romantic forms are rising to replace it.
Having established what got us to where we are, she then outlines in three sections various incarnations of the Post-Romantic Marriage, highlights couples who are escaping the Marriage Melancholy.
Part I – The New Normals of Career and Marriage
Pamela first charts out how Marriage often looks more like a career than a romance. Ironically, these Life-Partner marriages owe their form to the success of feminism:
The most basic and striking thing about a “Life Partners” marriage is that we have unprecedented equality and affinity with our spouses in education, career and work, temperaments, worldviews, life experiences, and earnings potential than ever before.
Far too many of these Life-Partner marriages end up loveless. Their most fiendish incarnation Pamela names the Tom Sawyer Marriage.
In these marriages, the woman not only shoulders the lion’s share of housework and parenting responsibilities, but also earns more income than her husband. She’s literally doing everything while her husband does nothing or “pursues his dreams”. Pamela observes:
This places Tom Sawyer husbands among the biggest jackpot winners of feminism. They have achieved its ideal of liberation more fully than have their wives. They have unchained themselves from the breadwinner constraints of masculinity and embraced a feminist-inspired pursuit of their dreams without the artificial encumbrances and expectations of gender roles
The Life-Partner Marriages usually result from chasing the Jonses – both spouses work ever-longer hours to achieve a lifestyle or maintain a certain standard of living that matches their peers.
Pamela highlights an alternative she christens the “Joy of Falling”.
These are couples who intentionally maintain a lower standard of living, who prioritize time together and equal opportunities to pursue dreams (instead of one spouse sacrificing for the other).
This entire section is a refreshing and much-needed voice in the Church. We should be leading the charge against the American Dream, prioritizing Sabbath over salaries, family over finances and community over houses.
Part II – Parenting Marriage
Pamela begins by pointing out that children are both a blessing and a curse in marriage:
As recent research has concluded, while children give many of us a reason to marry, they may also make us unhappy in marriage, and even push us toward divorce. This is one of the paradoxes of the parenting-centric marriage, in which parenthood is both the inspiration for the marriage and its apparent downfall.
Our cultural understanding of children’s role in our lives has shifted massively in recent years:
Children hold a different place in the inner life of a marriage today. As we become “just parents,” children are in some ways the new spouses. They occupy the psychological and sometimes literal space previously occupied by the spouse, or the marriage itself.
Pamela argues that such a recentering of marriage on the child rather than the couple has forced spouses to seek fulfillment elsewhere: our man caves and girls’ nights out. Pamela suggests that these cultural phenomena reflect adult inabilities to be full, functional adults in their own marriages:
Adult fun, prerogatives, and privileges have been marginalized if not discredited in the parenting-centric family, so we go underground with our selfish desires… We don’t have good role models for a responsible married adult who has meaningful, complex friendships, passions for civic causes or other nonmarital, nonparental engagements, and who feels entitled to assert those prerogatives.
Again, Pamela illustrates solutions that hew closely to biblical principles.
She laments the loss of community built into the very architecture of suburbia and elevates couples raising children in communities, who are – as she says, “Raising Children in Public Again”
Some marriage pioneers are seeking ways to do marriage with children in communities again, and are rejecting the “you’re the world to me” romantic impulse toward self-containment and privacy.
Living in community, sharing all aspects of life together, has been part of the Church’s ethos since the beginning. We’ve only lost it recent years, as a reflection of our synchronicity with suburbia.
Part III – New Twists on Old Infidelities
The final two sections are easily Pamela’s most controversial, if only because her observations grate against what we want to be true. In considering marital infidelity, she observes that while it’s “not the norm, it is normal”.
In a low-conflict, low-stress marriage, the affair can be a grimly useful tactic as a transitional object, a bridge between marriage and divorce. Otherwise the trains run on time, dinner gets cooked, clothes gets washed, so why change? The catalyst must be ever more powerful and extreme to jolt the marriage out of its cozy but melancholy equilibrium.
Over and over, Pamela displays infidelities that aren’t about lust, but passion. They’re a break from the drudgery of “everyday life”.
One unexpected word that crops up with surprising frequency in my eavesdropping is bubble. They want a “bubble” in their otherwise bedraggled lives, an escape “from mortgage, children, wife, and job…” They seek a world suspended within the larger, settled atmosphere of a marriage, like a bubble that floats in that gelatinous red goop inside lava lamps… Many a marriage and job get ditched, I’d wager, for want of a sabbatical.
Pamela’s words bring the movie Hall Pass to mind, though even that film didn’t have the courage to embody its premise fully.
Though this isn’t something the Church particularly wants to discuss (who does, after all?), the price of not talking about it is too high. I asked myself over and over as I read through this section, Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we provide a more compelling picture of marriage, a holistic picture of fidelity that captivates those trapped in Marriage Melancholy?
The bar isn’t very high – we just have to be better than “bedraggled”. A Gospel-oriented marriage ought to be far superior. So what’s our problem?
Part IV – The New Monogamy
Pamela closes with a shocking yet inevitable suggestion: that we abandon fidelity as the ground of Marriage, and instead embrace a sort of radical truth-telling she calls “ethical honesty”. Such a model of Marriage would – in her description, allow for mistresses and paramours, though she’s careful to distinguish these roles from either swinging (it’s not for entertainment, but intimacy) or adultery (it’s honest). She calls it “a more ethically evolved version of an open marriage”.
Pamela shares her own journey towards her picture of marriage with a commendable, courageous candor. She readily admits it’s an experiment whose outcome is uncertain.
This is the logical end of Pamela’s exploration and certainly seems to be a more practical, workable model of Marriage than the adultery culture.
But Pamela – as she states in her introduction – isn’t writing from a confessional perspective. She’s exploring Marriage as a purely human institution. So while her vision of Marriage might seem practical (and compelling) to some, those of us who hold that Marriage is a divine as well as human institution can’t follow her. As such, this final section will be the most problematic for many of us.
Nevertheless, even as we disagree, we ought to listen carefully to Pamela’s words.
The Church’s inability to proclaim and embody a more compelling vision for marital fidelity ought to be a huge problem for us.
Pamela has seen the failures of both the Romantic and Post-Romantic scripts. She’s not afraid to cast about for something better.
In envisioning a marital fidelity that’s grounded not in the practice of monogamy but in ethical honesty, it’s a staggering leap of faith.
Though we disagree about the future of marital fidelity, Pamela and I absolutely agree that saving Marriage is going to require a lot of faith.
Where even to begin? Pamela’s most basic and helpful insight is that Marriage is not nor has it ever been a static institution. If Marriage is stagnating (and the evidence is hard to ignore), it’s our fault.
In the gloaming of the romantic age, we’ve valorized marital mediocrity, and called it realism; we’ve vilified marital ambition, and called it selfish. Consequently, at a time when marriage could be anything, we very often expect it to be less… 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.
Reject every suggestion Pamela lays forth, and this insight remains: Marriage is what we make of it. We can choose to be married on purpose, to take control of our marital destiny and do something with it.
Passivity may in fact be the most damaging and damning enemy of Marriage.
One of the peculiar characteristics of a low-conflict, low-stress melancholy marriage is that it chews up the clock. You know you should be doing something to fix your problems, but the quotidian life of the marriage works so smoothly, and is so cherished, that you don’t want to abrade it with honesty. So problems persist and accumulate in a corner and, before you know it, years have passed and you’ve been in the same pleasant but passionless status quo for that entire time.
We would do well to follow Pamela’s example. Instead of assuming Marriage is a static, unchanging institution, let’s recognize that it’s cultural. For those of us who have heard the Gospel of Jesus, let us be every bit as bold as Pamela in choosing to engage Marriage, to shape it into something life-affirming and beautiful. The way it was intended to be.