79 of 84 people found the following review helpful
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Once upon a time and if we wanted society's approval, we needed to get married in order to have sex, children and financial security. Today, thanks to birth control, education, women's earning power and changing mores, marriage is no longer an imperative. It's a choice. However, as author Pamela Haag finds out, in spite of all the freedoms modern generations enjoy, marriage can still be as conventional and confining as it was in our parents' times.
In "Marriage Confidential," Ms. Haag argues that modern couples are increasingly susceptible to a malaise she calls "marriage melancholy." Husband and wife profess their love for each other and are committed to their children. To their families and friends, their marriage is a happy one. However, in private, both spouses are besieged by feelings of doubts, of "something not being quite right," and of sadness. Unable to pinpoint the root of their discontent, they settle into a low stress, low-conflict, semi-happy marriage.
Based on research literature on marriage, information glimpsed out of online discussions and groups, the results of two surveys, interviews, personal experiences resulting from her going "undercover" and on reflections of her own marriage, Ms. Haag uncovers the reasons of today's marital dissatisfaction in the "Have-It-All/Do-It-All" syndrome, the unrealistic expectations of parenthood perfection and online cheating. The first two factors have contributed to the spouses' disassociation with their identities as adults with intimate needs. The third one undermines (and denies) the last pillar of traditional marriage: monogamy. Curiously, Ms. Hagg seems to see monogamy as the obstacle toward marital fulfillment today. Those who are in melancholic marriages could avoid the financial and emotional costs of divorce and escape their passionless marriages if they felt they were not bound by their vows of fidelity.
The solutions explored by Ms. Haag in her book include swinging (spouse-swapping) and open marriage where both spouses agree to have lovers on the side. Wisely, Ms. Haag agrees that both alternatives are not suitable for everybody as there are complicated rules and protocols to follow as well as no guarantees that one spouse may not end up leaving the other for his/her lover eventually. Besides, according to Karen Salmanson, "some research suggests that open marriage has a 92% failure rate." But for Ms. Haag, polyamory may still be the way to the future for marriage.
Obviously, "Marriage Confidential" is not for people with strong religious beliefs or for those who see marriage as an exclusive commitment between two people. Personally, I found the book intellectually interesting but disappointed that it did not even consider other possibilities to ease dissatisfaction within the marriage or even explore the efforts to prevent it from happening in the first place (e.g. marriage preparation training). After reading Ms. Haag's book, I indulged for a moment in imagining a time when couples will have an option to check out the alternative that suits their values and lifestyles the best on the marriage license: starter, open, collaborative, co-parental, latest trend-- and still, somewhere on that list, it will still be there: traditional. Marriage is a choice and so is faithfulness.
Note: "Do Open Marriages Work?" by Karen Salmansohn. March 23, 2010. Oprah.com
88 of 105 people found the following review helpful
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Haag presents offers an analysis of contemporary marriage in the post-romantic age of workhorse wives, royal children, undersexed spouses, and rebel couples who are rewriting the rules. The fundamental problem with "Marriage Confidential" is that the writing style obscures its content.
It is very difficult to absorb the subject matter of this book due to the distraction caused by Haag's strange choice of words, confusing, unclear prose and inaccurate writing. The text is hopped up with pseudo-intellectual vocabulary, often used inappropriately, which does nothing more than confuse the reader. Sample words: jeremiad and charivari - both of which are used incorrectly. Why use "transmogrify" when you could use "transform"? If such word choices are intended to impress the reader, in actuality they undermine the book's substance by making it less accessible, annoying this reader.
Here's a sample sentence: "Emily loves to play `family,' and in this game, she ventriloquizes her parents' marriage with what sounds like chilling concision."
Emily is not "ventriloquizing," but parodying, mimicking or imitating her parents' marriage dialogue. Further, "concision" seems irrelevant in this sentence, although "accuracy" would be appropriate.
Haag describes the term "bromance" as being included in the "Oxford English Dictionary. This dictionary defines "bromance" as "a close but nonsexual relationship between two men." Webster's is consistent with Oxford, defining "bromance" as a close but nonsexual friendship between men." Haag's next sentence defines "bromances" as "crushes" among avowedly heterosexual men, directly conflicting with the use of the term as defined by Oxford.
The chapter about the marriages that tolerate affairs begins with: "For a secret demimonde of marriages, the affair is not at all impossible, or forbidden - but it is a treaty arrived at through private collusion." If Haag is to claim any objectivity in her analysis, "demimonde" certainly casts a negative connotation on this segment of alternative marriages (overlooking the redundancy of "secret" used with "demimonde").
I question Haag's scholarship when I see statements like the following: "[T]he Bible Belt has the highest divorce rate in the country today, while Massachusetts has the lowest." This statistical statement has no reference or note indicating either its date or source. The Wall Street Journal reported on August 13, 2010 that, indeed, Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate of 1.8 per 1,000 people, but Nevada has the highest at 6.6. Although Arkansas has the second highest divorce rate and would qualify a being one of the southern Bible Belt states, Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Alaska follow in the list of highest divorce rates. Wikipedia describes the Bible Belt as referring to states "in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is extremely high." Traditionally, this is the South. Although West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Oklahoma might qualify as Bible Belt, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska would not. The Wall Street Journal article was based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as of July 1, 2009, described as the latest data.
Adding to the frustration with this book, although "Marriage Confidential" has 38 pages of notes at the end of the book, the notes reference pages with no corresponding numbers to the notes on the referenced pages. Consequently, you have no idea, as you are reading the book, that there are notes at the back that discuss particular issues in more detail.
Discussing the content of "Marriage Confidential" requires another review. Since the writing makes the content so inaccessible, we needn't go there.
48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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I received this book for free through the Amazon Vine program.
This is the worst book I have read in a long time, in several senses of the word "worst." In fact, the only thing that kept me reading to the end was that I wanted to be able to write a complete review detailing everything that is wrong with it. Starting with the actual writing itself, there were two problems right off the bat. First, as other reviewers have noted, the ridiculously stilted language, which would be one problem on its own, but the fact that Haag misuses words, sometimes to the point of outright malapropisms, is another yet. Also it is clear before you are even half way through the first chapter that Haag is not certain about what kind of book she is writing. Hard nonfiction, with the research to back up her assertions? If that was the goal, the book fails miserably, as the research presented is thin indeed. Creative nonfiction, a kind of meditation on the current state of marriage? As such this book also fails, as the writing is too superficial and glib to be called "creative." She muddies the water further by dragging in her own marriage and her poor husband John, who is thanked in foreward and acknowledgements alike, but apparently is also a fine example of a disappointing, dull, passionless husband. This was a bad idea as it spoiled Haag herself as a sympathetic narrator; I spent the rest of the book feeling vaguely mortified for her husband and child, who also gets dragged in as evidence of kids-as-marriage-killers.
If you share Haag's perspective on what life ought to be, you might find this book more appealling. To give you an idea of her bias, she defines being grounded (as in rooted in a stable place) as a negative early in the book. She uses the cliche "(noun) in a grey flannel suit" at least three times in various contexts to describe the horrors of having an average, steady life. She sneers at the idea of "life partners" and marital egalitarianism, but also sneers at "Christian marriages" and their traditionalism. Haag uses the word "stability" as a negative descriptor. She repeatedly uses the term "low conflict low stress" with regard to marriage as though it were a bad thing. In general she seems to believe, not unlike the typical adolescent, that life ought to be one adventure after another, passionate and ever-changing. She believes spouses ought to entertain each other, and that others in your life are essentially dead weight unless they make you "feel alive." If you're thinking "whatever THAT means" then you and I are more alike than you and Haag. If you want to read this book anyhow, you will have to push past her air of snotty incredulity at the miserable lives we mediocre dullards tolerate.
As is typical with these "I did research! I read my journal and talked to some friends!" Eastern seaboard, upper middle class elite "lifestyle trend" books, generalizations are made over and over again that have little to no relevance to actual, average Americans. She wants to know if people tend to marry within their same ethnicity, class, etc, and instead of citing actual sociological work that has been done on this question, she spends some time surveying the wedding announcements in the New York Times. Surprisingly, she discovers that wealthy white elites tend to marry other wealthy white elites! It didn't occur to her that perhaps mums and dads wouldn't spend the fee to announce a marriage between Muffy and the local plumber, and that her sample was hilariously limited and biased. Haag assumes that parenting is always done as it is by the most neurotic of the Park Slope set, using words such as "competitive" and "narcissistic prison." She bemoans the isolation of the suburbs and its apparent toll on marriages by giving the example of some friends who have an actual English-style pub built into the basement of their McMansion. Oh yeah, she's got her fingers on the pulse of the average American household, which pulls in around $45,000 per year.
Her attitude towards children is bizarre and depressing. One is tempted to take her aside and ask if there's something she needs to talk about, she is so hopelessly down about marriages with children. She intones "have kids will divorce" again and again as though it were a given in her social circle (and thus the world). She claims that the world has become so child-centric it's strangling out marriages, all because some parents she knows don't take date nights and other friend felt like a "eunuch Barbie" while newly postpartum. She is certain that children wreck marriages, but at the same time she seems to have taken on both marriage and parenthood in an attempt to right childhood wrongs of her own, and she assumes that's why everyone else these days does it too. She quotes some Swedish person as saying that traditional family life is "a fossil" in Sweden, something they study as an artifact. What she doesn't mention is that in Sweden, traditional marriage and family is very much alive among the African immigrant community...and that their population is growing while the native population stagnates, making those progressive Swedes into *literal* fossils while the traditional Somalis flourish!
Haag's claim that children and child-centrism are taking over the world also begs the question, if so why are so many kids--yes, even in America, yes in your city--going hungry? Going to substandard schools? At risk for violence? Dying of disease and injury? Well those things don't happen in Haag's elite social circle so for the purposes of her book, they just don't happen at all!
Meanwhile, we get to hear endless, painful anecdotes of how all the good old bros don't REALLY want to be fathers, and how women can essentially only "find themselves" by divorcing and going after a "bad boy." The misery that is rampant in Haag's sample is not caused by their marriages (though in some cases the marriage may make matters worse) but she fails to notice this. Mostly, the discontent is caused by competitiveness and the belief that everything should be novel and entertaining. It is by this means that divorce becomes socially contageous, too, as man after man in a group decides his wife is an oppressive ***** and woman after woman decides she needs to "find herself" by taking off somewhere and the social glue among friends increasingly consists of griping about how terrible your spouses are.
Haag's solution to all this is...well it's not clear. She proposes polyamory, or at least turning the other cheek while your spouse cheats on you. She seems to suggest that wives have a duty to provide sexual entertainment of an ever-revolving sort, or else...the details are fuzzy, here. She considers the topic of swinging, and how it differs from polyamory. She ends with the suggestion that one "live marriage as if you're always on vacation" and to "imagine your first child is actually your second." Well alright then! Are you worried about the effects that 10% unemployment, stagnant wages, chronic overwork, diminishing retirement savings and insurance coverage, and a toxic media culture might have on marriages and families? Too bad. Let them eat cake!
This book is a terrible read, not even entertaining as a trainwreck, and the ideas it promotes are unclearly argued, not supported by evidence, and frankly a little bit dangerous. But then again, I think "stability" is a good word when we're talking about family life.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Kindle Edition
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:
Click here to visit Pamela Haag's website
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...
Pamela calls the Modern incarnation of Marriage the "Romantic Marriage" - hers is the framework I've used in my sermon and recent post on how Marriage has changed.
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
How to lovers end up as just "partners"?
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:
The Workhorse Wife: an unintended consequence of feminism
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
What happens when kids take the place of the spouse in a 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:
These can become a dangerous escape from the "real world" of a loveless, kid-centric marriage.
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
Ashley Madison is a website that sets up affairs. Thanks for that, Interwebs.
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".
Even this film wasn't brave enough to follow through on its premise; it falls back on monogamy (SPOILER!)
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 suggests taking a mistress/paramour might cure Marital Melancholy.
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.
As a Christian, I should be no less motivated by the brokenness I see in Marriage. And I should be no less courageous in rejecting those scripts in favor of something better.
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.
Bottom Line: A staggering, insightful book that challenges us to take very seriously how we approach Marriage. Marriage Confidential ought to be kick-starting some serious, vital conversations.