What if marriages came with best-before dates?
Or term limits, as Pamela Haag's husband John put it.
"Make a marriage a 10- or 15-year thing," he told his wife. "Then if it's going well, you renew the contract. The whole-life thing is too difficult.'"
The concept is elucidated in Ms. Haag's controversial new book, Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples.
Here, the author takes a scan of matrimonial history, conducts online surveys, talks to women and men and joins Ashley Madison.com to pick apart the modern marriage.
What she found is a generation of half-hearted, semi-happy marriages, couples who have traded in passion for low-stress arrangements that pivot around children - "the new spouses." The result is a vague, itching dissatisfaction and partners who are easily ensnared in dalliances online, with Rep. Anthony Weiner being the latest wretched illustration.
But it doesn't have to be this way: Ms. Haag is pleading for a reinvention of marriage for our era, "something more than chore reallocation, but less than polygamy." She writes of "free love 2.0," "ethical non-monogamy" where partners discuss each other's affairs in mind-numbing detail, as well as the 50-mile rule, where spouses are free to graze beyond a given tract of land.
And then there is Bavarian politician Gabriele Pauli, who agitated for expiry date marriages that would amortize automatically after seven years - the magic conjugal number.
Still, even as she writes that her own 13-year-old marriage lacks "frisson," Ms. Haag doesn't seem keen on sampling any of the alternatives herself. She spoke to The Globe and Mail from Baltimore.
Tell me about the melancholy in these low-conflict marriages.
The semi-happy marriage is by no means miserable, nor is it all that successful for the people in it. The marriages are often very friendly and high-functioning but have one or two or more major flaws. Marriage researchers find that low-conflict, amiable but listless marriages contribute the majority to divorce courts each year, anywhere from 55 to 65 per cent, at least in the United States.
You're not encouraging couples in semi-happy unions to divorce. Why not?
Mine is not an advice book, so I'm not really encouraging or discouraging anyone from doing anything. I was curious as to why a generation that has so many options in marriage would end up feeling so mediocre about marriage, when it seems like we would have the capacity to do things differently.
You write that we're living in an anti-divorce age, that people don't want to split because they don't want to come off as "selfish" or "whiny."
People don't talk about marital issues socially because there's a good chance they're just going to be told that they should suck it up. There's a lot of shame attached to marital failure. Some of that stems from the weird decades in which my generation grew up. In the 1970s, people were "seeking out their happiness" and divorce started skyrocketing, but then we were adolescents in the 1980s with family values and the re-entrenchment of this pro-marriage stand. We were influenced by both.
Shirin, one of your interview subjects, thinks marriage will become obsolete.
A lot of Americans do - the Pew research from last November found that 50 per cent of younger Americans believe that. I think it's in a brainstorming phase. Marriage will be stronger if it's able to adapt. One of the reasons why Americans feel it's becoming obsolete isn't because their expectations of marriage are too high, but because their expectations might be very low. They say, what is this going to add to my life that I can't already get as a single person? Marriage needs to fulfill some goal for people to still want to do it. I could see parenting marriages becoming more common in the future, where we get married mostly when we want to have children or when we've already had a child.
North Americans are fascinated by European, don't ask, don't tell marriages, in which affairs are condoned but not discussed. And yet it doesn't seem to work here.
We're not known for being open-minded about these things. There's a lot of slipping up and a lot of judgment. Infidelity rates are high while Americans massively disapprove of infidelity. Still, in a survey of almost 1,900 people online, I asked, 'Do you agree or disagree: non-monogamy could work if both partners agree to it,' I was surprised that 41 per cent at least neither disagreed nor agreed, or thought it could work. That seemed kind of high to me.
Aside from divorce, what do you see as alternatives?
I look at arrangements in which they don't talk about it but maybe their marriage is a little tolerant, or they practise the 50-mile rule, where they could have a fling if it's beyond the home base. Then I move into the updated open marriage, where it has to be consensual and they can have other attachments under certain conditions. The best estimate I could find was [that this accounts for]five per cent of marriages. It's definitely not for everyone but I thought it was interesting to see that it ever works at all.
One wife is permitted sex just with other women - the husband sees it as less threatening. Another has a "payback fling" for one of her husband's affairs: she lets him know and makes the family a nice casserole dinner for when she's out. These pacts seem like the opposite of don't ask, don't tell.
Ethically, it's a really different arrangement because the spouses genuinely believe that it's possible to have more than one intimate attachment and they have to consent that it's a life they want to try in marriage. There's a real premium placed on honesty. This new ethical non-monogamy is a philosophical belief.
It doesn't get messy? What about the human tendencies toward resentment, jealousy and insecurity?
I think that they're incredibly challenging relationships. There are all sorts of issues and negotiations that go on around that. On the other hand, having a relationship of lifelong marital monogamy is also very challenging. At least in the United States, we haven't succeeded at it all that well. I don't think there's anything that's easy.
Another interview subject, Josie, suggests alternative arrangements such as non-monogamy don't work if a relationship is "unequal." Aren't most relationships unequal?
That is the big problem: Can it be truly consensual? Can it actually be something that both partners really equally believe in? Given all those difficulties, it's interesting to discover situations where it does work.
Who loses out bigger in the semi-happy marriage? Men or women?
Men feel a little penned in and women told me they felt lonely. The feelings are different but it's not ideal for either spouse. In the U.S., women still initiate divorce more but that statistic isn't easily interpreted.
How does the workaholic wife fit into all of this?
There are so many ways to arrange breadwinning now, from stay-at-home-dads to stay-at-home-moms to dual career. One of the chapters that's resonated so far is the workhorse wife. The problem now is that marriages still need to move forward on being fair. If one spouse feels like he or she is always the backstage roadie and the other spouse is the rock star who gets to pursue the big career dream, that situation can cause real tension. The issue of fairness of whose doing the unglamorous work, however that's defined, is still with us.
Although you insist it's not an advice book, you suggest people should live marriage as if they're "always on vacation." What does that mean?
Some marriages have gone over the deep end with responsibility and taking care of the home front. Those are great values but these marriages are swallowed up in the routine. For that kind of marriage, maybe they need to have a little more bungee-jumping kind of energy. Occasionally, they've got to do something that's kind of selfish, that is just for them.
Are you and John exploring any of the other alternatives yourself, or planning to?
I'm happy with our marriage now and writing this book on occasions sent me flying back into the arms of my marriage because I heard all sorts of stories of things that were even worse. So, you know, it's good to be appreciative of what you do have.
This interview has been condensed and edited.