Are you trapped in a semi-happy marriage?
Excitement and bliss is often the price we pay for comfort and stability, writes Celine Naughton
Published 08/09/2011 | 05:00
Bill, a man in his late forties, and his wife are avowed 'best friends.' "I'm in a buddy-buddy, sexless marriage," he says. "We co-own a company and have kids, which is why we stay together. It's not too bad. We don't argue or raise voices and we have created a safe and secure environment for the kids. We share the same interests and split child-rearing and housework 50:50.
"My only complaint about the lack of sex is that she will not agree to an open marriage and she tells me that if I go to prostitutes or have an affair she will dissolve the company, kick me out of the house and take the kids. So if I actively sought out sex with someone and got caught, I would lose everything, including my job, and at my age it's too late to start over."
Bill is just one of the many people featured in Pamela Haag's new book, Marriage Confidential, a revealing exposé of relationships which lifts the net curtain on contemporary coupledom.
Following extensive research and interviews, Haag concludes that the vast majority of married couples are neither ecstatic nor downright dysfunctional. Most of us coast along in what she calls "semi-happy, low-conflict" unions that seem fine on the surface, but aren't what either partner would call really happy.
And while many trade bliss for the comforts of married life, others push the boundaries of traditional marriage in ways that don't quite untie the knot, but definitely unravel it.
Take Simone, for instance, a married woman who connected online with a man in a political chat room.
They wrote back and forth and, as Haag describes it, betrayal happened in "small, accumulating rivulets". They began spinning erotic scenarios. Simone's married sex life was stale and this gave her the opportunity to enjoy a much richer fantasy life than she shared with her husband.
Haag quotes Noel Biderman, founder of Ashley Madison, an online service which caters to married people who want to have affairs with other married people. "Why are women in their forties the fastest growing part of Facebook?" he says. "Because they're looking for old loves."
"Life is short. Have an affair," urges the home page of Ashley Madison, which boasts over 10 million members who can explore such listings as being in control, giving up control, observing, role playing, sex toys, spanking, tickling with feathers and more.
Not surprisingly, the effects on the spouse who discovers a cyber affair are as devastating as the real thing. Haag quotes a 39-year-old wife, married for 14 years, whose husband had affairs, "although not physically. He had affairs of the mind, and that to me is as much a violation as if he actually had a physical affair with someone. In one sense it's worse: My husband can, at any time, have an 'affair' without leaving the house or seeing another human being".
Then there are the partners who stray for real, like Scott, a married man in his early fifties who is a detective and has had a mistress for two years. His wife has a "European" sensibility, he says, and knows that affairs are within the boundaries of their marriage but doesn't want to hear about it. They have what Haag describes as a classic Don't Ask, Don't Tell marriage.
As does Madeline, who occasionally has flings with women and says her husband doesn't mind. "As lovers, women evidently are seen as less of a threat to the marriage," says Haag, "a tolerance that also may have something to do with the fact that the idea of women together titillates many a husbandly heterosexual imagination."
While the couples Haag interviewed were mostly from the United States, she suspects similar scenarios are happening over here.
"Western European countries have pushed the envelope on alternatives to marriage more dramatically than the US," she says. "It's not uncommon in France, the UK, Ireland and Scandinavian countries for partners to define their relationship as a committed, co-parenting relationship, even if they don't bother to get married. They maintain a committed relationship for child-rearing, so the child gets the benefits of stability, but outside of the bonds of marriage. That's very similar to Americans, who tend to define marriage more as parenting relationships these days. I call children the 'new spouses' in my book for this very reason: they become the centre of a committed relationship."
She says writing the book gave her a new appreciation of her own 13-year marriage with husband John, who once suggested putting a time-limit on the marriage contract.
"Make it a 10 or 15-year thing," he said. "Then if it's going well, renew the contract. The whole-life thing, it's too difficult."
While the pair have not formally renewed their contract, they don't take their relationship for granted. "What we have in our marriage works, for now, and for us," says Haag.
Not featured in Haag's book, Katherine Wells, co-founder of cofamilies.com, surprised many who knew her when she walked out on what appeared to be a perfectly happy marriage. "I left a good, kind, smart man who didn't cheat on me. We didn't have financial troubles; we didn't fight; neither of us had addictions; and he didn't abuse me or the children," she says, "but while it was a 'good enough' marriage, I was slowly dying inside."
The 'Good Enough Marriage' is a phrase coined by Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn University, who suggests that people think hard before walking away from one. What stands the test of time in a relationship, he says, is the ability to resolve conflict in an amicable way, general compatability and basic agreement on values and goals, like religion and raising children.
"This isn't what a lot of single people find exciting," he says, "but if they want a long-term marriage, they need to start looking for the things that are going to be important in one."
Marriage Confidential by Pamela Haag is published by HarperCollins.