Pamela Haag applies a keen analytical eye (she holds a doctorate in history from Yale) to compassionately and often humorously dissect today’s affectionate, stressed-out, passion-challenged, child-centered, semi-happy, low-conflict marriages (including her own) to ponder “What’s missing and what can be done?” Academic studies, surveys, interviews and personal experiences enrich her multifaceted narrative peek, Marriage Confidential, into modern marriage. Here, Haag tells us about her foray into one of humankind's most universal—and potentially frustrating and rewarding—experiences.
Read more books on marriage.
Although this is not a self-help book, if you had to pick one best piece of advice for married people what would it be?
One of my goals in writing was to stretch the imagination about what is possible in marriages, to always be imagining options. That [process] alone is really helpful. Another good bit of advice I heard is that we should try to live our marriages as if we were on vacation. That means to get away from routine, to allow themselves to pay attention, to devote energy to our surroundings the way we do when on vacation.
Your warm, chatty writing style makes me wonder if you find humor important to marriage?
Oh, yes. I would add that if I were adding to the book. A certain quality of self-mocking—a little sense of humor—helps, even in the midst of serious things. Often conversations about marriage seem to be extremely serious. Having some capacity to laugh at yourself helps.
The book zeros in on a certain yearning that can afflict married people. Can you elaborate?
I was very drawn to that moody underside of yearning that can come in marriage. It’s a moment when we tend to review our marriage in the abstract and feel ambivalence and perhaps disappointment. In many marriages people secretly ask, “Is that all there is? Is this enough? Should it be enough?” There’s a lot of shame attached to asking that because Americans do take divorce seriously. People in a lot of marriages are extremely conscientious, fearful of admitting it wasn’t all they had hoped for. Sometimes they are accused of just being whiny.
Couples described in the book with “low-conflict marriages” are generally well off and happy in many aspects of their lives?
Marriage researchers who look at divorce see it as one in which the couple isn’t openly hostile—they don’t throw dishes or scream. The largest percentage of divorces are coming from these low-conflict marriages. Marriages are under unprecedented stress today. Scheduling, parenting, which is much less nonchalant today than in the past, no extended families to help all create stress and a feeling of being tired and burnt out. People feel, not so much bored as disconnected, as if their marriage is on a “marital screen saver.”
So there’s a new way of thinking about marriage in a “post-romantic” spirit?
I use “post-romantic” as a historical term, to describe how the conditions of marriage have changed from the 20th-century model [husband as breadwinner; mother as homemaker]. Today in many marriages the husband and wife are more similar in education and careers than in they were in the 1950s. Our expectation are somewhat different. Marriage today serves as a home base and is useful for that reason, but marriage isn’t expected to fulfill every emotion.
How will social media such as Facebook interact with marriage?
It’s another way in which monogamy is under stress in marriage. What fascinates me is that it delivers temptation right to your door. It can come and friend you. It’s uncanny the way people from past life can find you and so you keep stumbling across your romantic past. It makes it easy to be wistful.
Your marriage figures a lot in this book. Has your husband read it?
Yes, he’s read a lot of it. He’s very brave and generous to be letting me write about this topic at all. It’s important [to the book] that I shared a little bit of my story. When I started writing I felt that I needed to provide that context. Ultimately [as I continued writing] I was much more interested in the world outside and in what other people were doing.
Are you for marriage or against it? What’s the state of marriage today?
Marriage is in a brainstorming phase, especially in the United States. Surveys show that opinions run the gamut. Fifty percent of younger respondents in one poll think marriage is becoming obsolete. I don’t think so. I have a quirky optimism about marriage. Marriage has to be improvised. I was intrigued by the traditional, untraditional marriages that I saw. The assumptions are different than they were for our parents, but I have some optimism that it will continue even if in the future we don’t think of it as something for a whole lifetime.
What surprised you in doing this research?
I think it was that the marriage next door is quirkier than you think. There’s a lot of “secret improvisation” going on that is interesting and inspiring. While there are hundreds of books about marriage I think there’s a need to think about how to get the institution of marriage to conform better to what we need. To look at it from a cultural perspective, maybe the problem isn’t your spouse or you—maybe marriage is asking too much sometimes.