Sexy Feminists Read: Pamela Haag’s ‘Marriage Confidential’


Pamela Haag‘s book Marriage Confidential shows — once again — how political the personal really is. She explores the history of marriage, an institution naturally wrought with feminist implications, and in the process reveals why so many are disillusioned with “’til death do us part” these days. We talked with the author about how to build a feminist marriage, avoid the dream-wedding trap, and stop worrying about “having it all.”

What should women, in particular, do to make their relationships the egalitarian partnerships they’ve dreamed of?

The first thing women need to do is to ask for it. We need to be willing—and brave enough—to be clear about what we expect. Sometimes, this might mean putting ourselves at odds with the men in our lives, or acting like an uppity feminist—at a time when “feminism” is a socially reviled term.

And, although this isn’t such a popular thing to say, I think we women need to hold ourselves accountable for our own dreams. It’s easy to fall for premature realism. It’s so easy just to burrow into parenthood, or standards of perfect mothering, and “give up” on the travails and the exhaustion that come with having other dreams and ambitions.

For example, in my book I describe a woman in her 40s who had debated with herself, and her husband, about having children for many years. When we went through the pros and cons, she commented that if she did have children, she felt like she could finally “just relax.” The comment puzzled me at first. But what she meant was that she could just focus entirely on being a mom, and finally give up on worrying about her career and other ambitions.

I think she was articulating a feeling that lots of us have had.  We have to fight against our own urges just to give up in the face of cultural or institutional barriers or judgment.

What specific areas cause couples the most trouble? Money? Career? Housework?

All of the above. The only major hotspot missing from your list is sex, which is another doozy. Most of the marriages I see do two or three of the four pretty well—take your pick—and then struggle (sometimes badly) with the other one. The conflict area, in fact, can become a proxy battle for other things. The fight looks like it’s about money, but it’s really about housework, or sex, and so on.

How does dream-wedding-mania (Hi, Kim Kardashian!) fit into all this?

The extravagance of the wedding is indirectly proportional to the necessity of marriage: The less necessary and imperative marriage is, the more we invest in extravagant weddings.

I’m not sure what to make of the wedding business. I’ve written about how the main style of weddings today is to display a couple’s individuality and their personalities, whereas when my mom got married in the 1950s, pretty much all the weddings were the same. Every bride wore a white veil, and gave out tulle-wrapped Jordan almonds as a favor. These days you’ll see pig roasts, sushi buffet receptions, football-themed weddings, luaus—you name it. The weddings are showcases of the couple’s personality.

As for the popularity of the bride extravaganza, it’s hard to say. Is it a lingering Princess fantasy, all grown up? Is it a desire to have a rite of passage, some moment when we can really feel like the center of attention? Is it a sign of the socially conservative times that we go overboard on the weddings to prove that we’re believers in marriage, and not too pungently feminist? Maybe. And maybe it’s that wedding merchants and vendors have been super successful at marketing wedding products and dreams, and are good at finding ways to belittle a budget, and to make us feel cheap and derelict if we opt for a modest wedding? Maybe that, too.

To you, what does today’s “ideal” marriage look like?

The ideal marriage looks like what those two spouses want it to look like.

I don’t think there’s a perfect type of marriage — for example, a dual-career marriage isn’t inherently more ideal than a stay-at-home mom marriage. However, there is a perfect state of marriage. And that state is fairness. To me, the ideal marriage is one in which the “dreariness quotient” is in balance: Both partners feel as if they’re each doing enough of the unglamorous, life maintenance work to keep the household and marriage humming, so that the marriage feels fair. In some ways, fairness is the final frontier for a feminist marriage.

Achieving fairness doesn’t mean bean counting over who spends more time doing dishes. It doesn’t mean each spouse does exactly the same kinds of tasks for exactly the same amount of time. Nor does fairness mean that husband and wife must do specific roles. A “fair” marriage might be one where the dad is a stay-at-home dad, who pulls his load by raising the children, and the mom works, or it could be a dual-career marriage, or a stay-at-home mom marriage. Any arrangement can feel and be fair to the partners in it.
But if fairness is missing—in money, in childrearing, in sex, in chores, in free time, in any important element—then the marriage isn’t really the ideal feminist marriage, in my opinion.

The biggest feminist gift to marriage was that it obliterated the old gender scripts, and it gave us the latitude to define marriage in terms that work for us as partners. We need to accept that gift, and work to live up to it.

You’ve written about how “workhorse wives”—women doing it all, or striving to do it all, to support their husbands’ dreams—are pretty much an epidemic around the world. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

I wouldn’t call them an epidemic! But it’s a growing percentage of marriages, and a more common problem–one that Betty Friedan never would have anticipated. These are marriages where the husband is the dream-chaser and the wife is the exhausted, not-all-that-happy breadwinner for the marriage. For the workhorse wife, the dream of having it all became the nightmare of doing it all. Today, over one in five wives outearns her husband, and this was a trend even before the 2008 recession. And men now gain more from marrying a college-educated woman than women do from marrying a college-educated man.

What’s to be done? First, the workhorse wife needs to have a brave, difficult conversation with her husband. Then, she might need to trade perfectionism for equity, and allocate more work to her husband, even if he doesn’t do it just right, or perfectly. She might need to start taking her own dreams of meaningful work or creativity as seriously as she takes her husband’s dreams. In some cases, if neither the workhorse wife nor the dream-chasing husband is all that thrilled with the idea of a hard-driving, high-paying career, then they need to downsize their lifestyle and simplify, so that both partners have more freedom and neither feels taken advantage of.

What was the most surprising thing you found out in your research?

A few things, actually. First, the marriage next door is stranger than you think. I was surprised by the amount of variation within outwardly “traditional” marriages. This was especially true around sexual expectations and non-monogamy. Our sexual mores are much more complex than our black-and-white rhetoric implies.

I was also surprised, and disheartened, to discover how judgmental wives can be toward other wives with ambivalent feelings about marriage. How many times did I hear the phrase, “selfish and whiny”? I disagree with that judgment. I think that talking about marriage, especially from a feminist perspective, is one way that the institution will evolve, and stay relevant to our lives.

And marriage is still a concealed institution. That surprised me, too. We’re such an “open,” privacy-loathing generation, but I was often surprised by how fragile some ostensibly happy marriages really are. Again, there’s a lot of resurgent shame attached both to divorce and to the mere confession of marital issues.

I was pleasantly interested in the non-monogamous marriages that had really managed to vanquish jealousy and find a truly post-romantic way to accommodate multiple, intimate attachments within a framework of honesty in marriage. And, by the extent to which “Free love 2.0” is defined more in the wife’s image than that of John Updike or Gay Talese.

Another concept from your book that got a lot of attention is the half-happy, not-great, but not-bad-enough-for-divorce marriage. Why is that so prevalent now? Should we be settling less?

The semi-happy marriage is not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to fulfill.

I don’t know if this kind of marriage is more prevalent than in the past, but it happens for different reasons. In the 1950s, women had few choices but to “stick it out,” so it’s not necessarily more common today.

But the semi-happy marriage is more puzzling to me today—because men and women have the freedom to ask more from marriage, or to leave, or to change marriage if it’s not working out for them. If you don’t want a monogamous marriage, then why not change it? If you’re tired of feeling guilt-tripped about being an inadequately perfect mother, and you’re getting consumed in parenting at the expense of your adult prerogatives, then why not change parenting standards, and assert other parts of your life as important, too? Sure, these types of remedies to the semi-happy marital malaise are hard, and challenging. But the rewards might be worth it: a much more genuinely satisfying marriage.

Should we be settling for less? No way! To be clear: A contented, comfortable marriage is wonderful. But a semi-happy marriage isn’t the same as a contented one, and “semi-happy” is a pretty sad mark to aim for. At a time when women really don’t need to get married—they could have fulfilling lives as unmarried people—they’re being urged to settle for good enough, or for less. Meanwhile, men seem to have caught the spirit of liberation more than women, because they seem to be getting pickier and picker about relationships and partners, even as women are urged to be less picky. They seem to be asking themselves, “now that I don’t have to get married, I want a marriage that really rocks, or that really makes my life better.”

As Grace Paley used to say to women’s groups, “the world should be gained. Nothing should be given up. I think a good hard greed is the way to approach life.”

So we should be ambitious. Realistic, yes—but ambitious.

How would you sum up the state of American marriage?

Marriage is in a brainstorming phase. Fifty percent of younger Americans, and 40 percent of Americans overall, think that marriage is “becoming obsolete,” according to 2010 Pew research. I’m not one of them–exactly. I don’t think it’s becoming obsolete, but it is changing, fitfully, to 21st-century realities.

We’re all trying to figure out how it makes sense today, when many of its old, pre-feminist imperatives have faded. So we need to figure out why we should, or do, get married on 21st-century terms. It’s not always easy. Is marriage more like a friendship? Perhaps. Is it a good way to raise children, but maybe not ideally a lifelong commitment? That could be true.

Is it necessarily a sexually monogamous relationship? Maybe not. All of these romantic assumptions are up for grabs today, and being negotiated by couples themselves. Because another major state of American marriage is that each marriage is more customized and personalized to what that couple wants it to mean.

My pre-feminist mother’s generation struggled because they had so few alternatives to marriage, Our generation has the happy challenge that feminism’s success has created for us: We need to figure out marriage in a time when we do have lots of choices and alternatives.

Partners who love each other still do believe in marriage. But on new terms.