Stable, low-conflict marriage, but just not happy? Find out the cure.
Pamela Haag's description of the discontent in her marriage will elicit nods of understanding among many married couples.
She describes hers as a low-conflict, high-functioning yet melancholy marriage. They are efficiently raising children. They are not fighting huge battles, and he's a "great guy," by all counts. But, it still feels like something important is missing.
She says the majority of divorces in America each year are among unions like these: low-stress partnerships filled with a vague discontent.
It's a semi-happy and stable marriage, but is that all there is?
At some point or another, that will resonate with anyone married several years and raising young children, largely because in the well-documented bell curve of happiness within married life, we are in the trough. But do we hide in the hecticness of our schedules, orbit around our children, because we are essentially alone in our marriages? Third Age: How To Keep Turning Him On
Haag's book "Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhouse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who are Rewriting the Rules" sets out to put a face on the melancholy marriage and give examples of couples who are redefining marriage so it works better for them. About half the book challenges the notion of the importance of monogamy and rethinking its rules. Actually, it's not exactly a rewriting of rules but a revising of the time-honored hallmarks of ennui in marriage known as taking a mistress or lover.
Haag describes the changing cultural backdrop for today's marriages. Technology makes it easier and more tempting than ever to find excitement or sexual gratification outside of marriage. A number of couples she interviews are able to create an "ethical mistress-lover scenario," in which they have difficult conversations with their spouse and there is no deception and nearly nonexistent jealousy.
She admits in an interview that the "new" open, or polyamorous, marriage is not going to work for some couples, most certainly those who view marriage as a religious institution or covenant. But many Americans don't, she says. They should be able to write their own rules. The institution of marriage needs to evolve, she argues, in order to remain relevant and for people to be able to live more fully within it.
Rarely can the reality of marriage, the compromises, disappointments and underrated warmth of stability, compete with the adrenaline and endorphin hits of fantasy. I'm sure there are couples who make nontraditional arrangements work and are happier for it, but it's an unlikely viable alternative for most couples. Many people lack the sort of ability to emotionally compartmentalize enough to accept such a change. And most lack the courage to suggest it in the first place.
The central observation in her work — that too many marriages get by without much passion, energy, excitement, that which makes us feel alive and connected—is sound. We should expect more from our marriages, she says, and I tend to agree with her.
But there are competing notions of how to resolve the malaise in modern marriages.
Edward and Sue George Hallowell, the married co-authors of "Married to Distraction: How to Restore Intimacy and Strengthen Your Partnership in an Age of Interruption," agree that there's a crisis of sorts in marriage, but they point the finger at our myriad distractions. The culprit is not the institution itself, rather the intrusions upon it and our, perhaps unwitting, aid in letting our sacred spaces and intimate relationship become infected.
Their book describes distraction as a root cause of what ails so many modern marriages. It offers much of the same advice found in so many self-help or advice books aimed at improving communication and increasing time really spent present with each other. In an interesting twist, they offer a straightforward 30-day "workbook" at the end of the book that gives detailed lesson plans as a guide map for couples interested in rediscovering what's lost in their marriage.
Of course, it's easier to give in to digital distractions than work on a real-life relationship with baggage and resentments and vulnerabilities.
Addiction specialist Brad Lamm says finding sexual distraction online offers a false sense of satisfaction, an instant feeling of validation without the snares and complications of actual sexual contact or relationship. Even without physical contact, such interactions rob the primary relationship of time, deflect sexual energy from it and sow the seeds of dishonesty, he says.
When I asked Haag how she worked to improve her own marriage, she said the process of researching and writing the book helped her appreciate what she had.
"I developed more mindfulness of my marriage, paid more attention to it, listened to my husband more about what he was saying ... working to make things happier rather than just walking through it," she said.
For someone who has written so admiringly about the nontraditional paths couples are forging in today's marriages, it's interesting that Haag has chosen a most conventional tinkering when it comes to her own marriage.
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- Embracing Marriage, The Long And The Short Of It