Pamela Haag’s ‘Marriage Confidential’: Pearls of wisdom about matrimony

May 26, 2011

Don’t be put off by the dorky title. Somehow or other, a flock of well-meaning marketers must have thought this sterling book wouldn’t sell on its own merits, so they’ve tricked it out with cheesy bells and whistles. “Marriage Confidential” is so rare, such a pleasantly charming pearl of great price, that they probably couldn’t see what they had before them.

Unfortunately, however, “Marriage Confidential” is written to a primarily female audience. (What self-respecting man would while away three hours considering the primary relationship of his adult life?) But the book treats men and women as fully invested human beings. And it’s about what marriage these days is apt to entail. This is neither an advice book nor a polemic, just an extremely interesting conversation.

Imagine — if you’re old enough — that David Riesman had finished working on his monumental “The Lonely Crowd,” kicked off his expensive loafers, poured himself a double martini and spent a few hours telling you — and only you — how America had somehow divided itself into inner-directed and other-directed members of society, how for some reason, they often felt dead-to-the-bone and often fell in love just so they could prove to themselves that they were still alive. That’s essentially what Pamela Haag has done with her subject. You learn something, but you hardly notice because you’re having such a good time.

Haag has a PhD from Yale. She’s married, she tells us, to an extremely amiable and fiercely intelligent scientist, and she has a son she dotes on. She’s also consumed by endless curiosity about American marriage — particularly during the years since the early ’60s when Betty Friedan blew the lid off the traditional narrative of a romantic, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman that lasts for better or worse, or until one of the lucky or unlucky partners dies. All that has changed, or changed a lot, and Haag examines how.

One of her virtues (not as easy to practice as it sounds) is to focus on stuff that’s been simmering along right under our noses for at least a couple of decades. Some of these ideas are elusive and subtle. In a flat-out brilliant chapter, Haag examines the new “Workhorse Wife” and the “Tom Sawyer Husband”: A woman fights like a demon to liberate herself, get an advanced degree and begin working 18-hour days. She’d been kept from the marketplace, the courtroom, the operating room forever; now she finally has her turn to participate! And how can her loving, liberated husband best support her? By doing some of the things that she might ordinarily do around the house, he decides: make gourmet meals, learn to play bridge, devise innovative lunches for the kids, buy darling clothes, read to improve his mind so that he might be an entertainment to her and an ornament around the house. Pretty soon, feminism on her part has morphed into moocherism on his: “The husband pretends to work; the wife pretends to believe him.”

Norman Mailer had a slightly different take on it: “Men’s lives as breadwinners are so dreary. Why would women want that?” Maybe women weren’t thinking too clearly, but it’s too late now. We have developed an institution of “low conflict, melancholy marriages,” where couples accept their lot but are too polite to say very much about it.

But why should life be that way? When we were little, didn’t we daydream about being grownups, dressing up, staying out as late as we wanted and having our own way? In that dream, marriage was “a stylish locale that had passion and kick and a larky energy to it.”

Then suddenly, it seems, we got sad. Could it be the arrival of children and the inevitable sorrows that they bring? The thoughtless buying of stuff that stifles us in our homes — what Haag refers to as the four horsemen of debt? And then, of course, there are the disappointments of sex, or its lack.

Maybe because adultery is more fun than anything else, Haag develops an inordinate interest in the vagaries of that subject — both the “real” kind in which the Other Woman knocks on the door one day with a bottle of hard liquor in her hands and revenge in her eyes, and the new “cyber” kind, which Haag elects to participate in (with the consent of her husband). She invents for herself an avatar called Miranda, a breezy married woman who joins an Internet chatroom for married people and collects 250 “boyfriends.” She’s pretty tough on some of these poor guys, one of whom bills himself as “BORD in Baltimore” (the misspelling amuses her),another who announces to her “my touch brings women to tears” and one poor guy who confesses “I do like to eat out in nice places.”

But Haag is quick to point out that we’re all in the same boat — all God’s children, one way or another. We yearn for the larkyness we thought was waiting for us and long to escape the dreariness we ended up with. In order for that to happen, marriage itself, and the narratives we’ve told ourselves about it, will have to change. In her last pages, Haag offers some valuable and innovative suggestions. You might owe it to your marriage to read them.

See reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.

MARRIAGE CONFIDENTIAL

The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules

By Pamela Haag

Harper. 327 pp. $25.99

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