Y’all know how I feel about books, so when TLC Book Tours contacted me and asked if I wanted to be a part of one of their online book tours, I had pretty much said yes before I even finished reading the email. And then when I found out the book was Marriage Confidential: Love in the Post-Romantic I was even MORE excited. I’d read Pamela Haag’s work on Huffington Post and had planned to pick up a copy of Marriage Confidential once I slogged through the giant pile of books I keep adding to. (So, around 2014, thereabouts…) Plus, I’d spied it on a couple of y’all lists in GoodReads, so I knew I wasn’t the only one who was interested. (Also, things with words like, “Post-Romantic” in the title get me a little swoony. What? I enjoy academia.)
From Haag’s own site, here’s the summary.
Through story, personal reflection, research, survey, and interview, Marriage Confidential takes us inside a world where marriage is more like “friendship;” where the husbands of “workhorse wives” pursue the having it all dream that wives have long ago been told to abandon; where children have migrated from the children’s table to the emotional center of marriage, defined as a co-parenting arrangement; and where technology, demography, and economy place new stresses on marital monogamy. Exploring the entire gamut of extramarital sex today, Haag even presents a case for how ethical non-monogamy, the revival of mistresses and lovers, might be an option of the future. Haag argues that marriage is neither going obsolete, nor will it survive by a revival of its traditional forms. Marriage will endure in the 21st century through evolution, innovation, imagination and a certain adventuresome, pioneering spirit. The old “marriage imperatives” that forced men and women to march down the aisle are gone, Haag states, and that can’t be undone. Now, marriage needs to find new imperatives, and a new soul. She asserts that we’re moving out of the romantic and into a “post-romantic” age, where couples who get and stay married define marriage more as a friendship, or a co-parenting arrangement, even more than a a lifelong bond of monogamy, emotional fulfillment, or romantic intimacy.
Part cultural commentary, part memoir, part history, and part research, Marriage Confidential takes us on a journey deep inside marriage to consider if the institution has a future, or what kind of future. Haag is a Virgil in the world of post-millennial marriage.
Bad-a**, right?!? However, as is the case with a lot of books, this didn’t live up to its hype for me. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.
Marriage Confidential is set up into three parts examining the major parts of marriage—work, career and money; children; and everybody’s favorite, sex. Within these Haag uses her own viewpoint, as well as research and anecdotes from friends and interviewees, to weave a treatise on phenomenon of the “semi-happy marriage,” how people got there and how they might break out of the traditional marriage roles and forage a new path of matrimony. Haag assigns fun names to the types of marriage, such as the Life Partner (where you are more of a business partnership than a married couple) or the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn marriage; the former in which the woman is the Workhorse Wife who slaves away for her husband, the latter a type of marriage where the couple embraces a simplicity where happiness isn’t found in material wealth. Eventually, however, Haag’s jargon starts to wear as the myriad of people who’s lives are held up as examples of each type start to blend together; I felt like I needed a flowchart with symbols and a legend. (Which, actually, I mention as snark, but that would have been rather helpful…) The sections work nicely, but there are problems I found in each.
The work section was one of the more interesting to me, but I think that is because it came early and I wasn’t hit with literary fatigue. (More on that later.) It was here that an overall theme set in for me; the fact that the example couples didn’t really fit the mold of “semi-happy,” a low-conflict, melancholy marriage where one or both partners are neither happy nor miserable in the relationship; they just exist.
One example used in the Work section is Kristin and Ted; a divorced couple who Haag says could be called “The Case of the Good Friendship Spoiled.” Married best friends for years, they eventually built their own business together and had two children but ended up divorcing after 17 years. It seems on the surface that Kristin fits the “semi-happy” mold, but it isn’t until you hear part of her marriage—how they clashed in parenting heavily, how Ted’s approach was a lot of yelling, how they lost friends due to their fighting and (the kicker) how Ted apparently was not managing their business very well, spent maybe a few hours a day working and hooked up with two married women shortly after their divorce.
Really? That’s not “semi-happy” or “low conflict,” that’s “Lady, you’re kinda married to a dick.”
This issue continues in the section on children with the example of Alice, a woman in a Have Children—Will Divorce marriage, who refers to herself as Eunuch Barbie. (Giving allusions to Germaine Greer‘s “The Female Eunuch”…I see what you did there, Alice….)
Now, Haag describes the Have Children—Will Divorce paradox is that marriage inspires children, who then in turn destroy the marriage. Alice is one of her first examples, but a poor one at that. A med student with a desperately ticking clock, she forgoes a surgical specialty and a passionate affair with a “bad boy” in order to lead to a path that would lead her to children. This would make Feminist Ryan Gosling clutch his cardigan in horror, but I say to each their own; we are not the judge of what equals happiness to another.
Oh no, save that judginess for when you find out that Alice (who couldn’t bring the bad boy home to her parents because he was “rough-hewn and a Latino” and they wouldn’t have let him in the house) goes on to marry Peter, a parentally acceptable man whom she thinks is very nice but isn’t sexually compatible with. But, BUT, she obtained a sperm sample one night after fooling around and found his swimmers to be strong! Yay! SO she goes on to marry Captain Good Sperm, have a perfectly fine but boring marriage and then have the nerve to get irritated when, after the birth, she feels lonely and sexually androgynous.
I mean, are you KIDDING ME? You use your husband as a sperm donor and then wonder where your marriage went once you poop the baby out?
Alice, darlin’, you are not Eunuch Barbie, you are That’s What You Get Skipper.
I’m not even going to get into the implications on how children ruin marriage and how its inevitable; I have a visceral reaction to such statements and it involves words relating to equine feces.
It’s issues like Kristin and Alice that made parts of Marriage Confidential ring untrue for me. In the third part of the book, Haag goes on to describe marriages that are outside the norm, such as open marriages, swinging or condoned affairs, holding these up as possible examples of the new marital type. What I was hoping to see, and was sorely disappointed when I do not, were more mainstream options that don’t require drastic changes in moral inclinations of more traditional couples. If someone reading Marriage Confidential is doing so in order help their own “semi-happy” marriage, I’m afraid their not going to find much help here.
And that, I think, is the problem that makes Marriage Confidential fall flat for me. Overall, I really love Haag’s premise. The idea of finding a “new soul” for marriage in order to lead to true happiness and not just “semi-happy.” There are times when mediocrity is okay (cold pizza, comfy but ugly pants, American Idol contestants) but when it comes to love you don’t want fair to middlin’.
And Haag’s voice seems fresh and exciting at first; she brings up some really salient points, such as when she talks about how Gabriele Pauli, a German politician, proposed that marriage should come with a expiration date. Seven years and then, if you’re still happy, you can re-up for another seven. People freaked the f*ck out, including a politician who’d had long-term extramarital affairs and a child out of wedlock. When Haag stated, “We’ll break the marriage rules that don’t work so well anymore before we’ll condone revising them,” I was like, “HELL YEAH!!” and wanted to give her a high five. But that was early in the book and moments like that were fewer and far between. (Also? Despite the appearance of gay couples, it’s super heteronormative. For a book on reexamining marriage at its basics, you’d think that viewpoint would be the first to go.)
There is also the problem I mentioned before of my literary fatigue. Haag is very smart, with a Ph.D in history from Yale. I get the feeling that she loves to show it because while attempting to be high brow, yet arch, in her language, she just comes off as a fussy-pants. I mean, I love me some big words but only when they are the most appropriate for the job. Don’t refer to couples who choose not to live beyond their means or strive to meet a cultural ideal as “voluntarily embrac[ing] the embourgeoisement of of austerity,” and expect me not to roll my eyes. Your britches are plenty big and I’m already impressed, let’s not try to make me feel stupid.
I think Marriage Confidential would have been a much better book with a heavy editor. Someone to tone down the language, throw in some summaries or diagrams to help you keep the terms and ideas straight, to encourage Haag to consider the “semi-happy” marriages of those who are not of the upper middle class. (I’d throw in something about privilege in this book, but ask Liz how much I love it when people throw that term around without the proper context, so we’ll just leave it at this—pretty much every example couple in this book is very highly educated and has little to no money problems. It’s easy to worry about your semi-happiness when you don’t have to worry about making the light bill.)
Haag is earnest, but I just feel this book is in the middle of a lot of categories of genre and doesn’t fit any of them comfortably. There isn’t enough research to be considered academia, but the commentary falls too flat to be fun creative fiction. There is quite a bit of Haag’s own life in here, but not enough to have it be about her own semi-happy marriage and how she tries to conquer it. Not enough advice to be self-help, but too much personal opinion and anecdotes to be a cultural study. Jack of all trades, but master of none. (Except using a thesaurus so ridiculously that twice I threw the book on the couch in disgust and startled the dog.)
If I were to give this a star rating, I’d say three stars, maybe two and a half. It’s worth a read if you’re terribly interested, but if you’re looking for a deep cultural study or engaging creative non-fiction, try elsewhere. And if you’re looking to solve the problem of your own semi-happy marriage, or prevent one, definitely look elsewhere; I can’t see someone finding relief in this book.
Speaking of needing a good editor, this post also needed one…geez. I have more to say, but it’s less review and more societal commentary in general so I’ll have to save it for another post.
A big, massive, HUGE thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. I was already a fan of TLC and the general concept of a blog book tour when Jordan (a reader of Kind of a Mess and a writer of Eyeballing it…, hi Jordan!) suggested I be a part of it and I am so grateful. As you can tell, from my LONG post, it is was too much fun and I hope to someday do it again. (Reading books and then sharing my opinion like I’m important or something? Um, YES PLEASE.)
Alright moppets, who’s read Marriage Confidential? Let’s dish! What’d you think? Still want to read it? And if you’re curious about the other reviews, here are the ones that have been posted so far; others will come as they are posted.