The Half-Happy Marriage

Couples open up about the challenges of monogamy and redefining the rules of long-term love.

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Published in More Magazine in February 2012

Joan Thompson considers herself mated for life. She’s been married for more than 30 years to a man with whom she’s raised two kids, now in their twenties.

She and her husband have their differences: She votes Green Party, he’s a staunch Conservative; he likes to putter on his boat while she’d rather visit art galleries with her friends.

They’ve experienced their share of secret betrayals over the years - she has had a couple of affairs and suspects he has too, although they’ve never talked openly about it. They don’t have sex much anymore.

She resents still having to pick up after him. “Sometimes I feel more like a caregiver than a wife,” admits Thomson, 55, who works in administration for an Ottawa-based non-profit organization.

She has contemplated divorce, but chooses to stay with her husband - partly out of parental duty (their kids still live at home), partly for the comforts of habit and also because, well, divorce is messy.

But it’s more than that - “I still do love him and, after all these years, he is my family,” she says. “Besides, I don’t know anyone who is really completely happy in their marriage.”

Call it the half-happy marriage - not bad enough to initiate divorce proceedings, but not burning with passion or even simmering with contentment. Sound familiar? It’s not uncommon for midlife malaise to creep into what might have begun as the strongest of relationships.

The twin goals of child rearing and mortgage paying may have put the two of you on the same team as a couple, but now that the kids are almost grown and the house is practically yours, you may find yourself humming The Supremes tune “Where Did Our Love Go?”

You still care about your partner, but it’s not the same; you aren’t “in love” anymore. And there may have been hurts along the way. Perhaps he cheated. Perhaps you did. You’d never admit this to your friends, but your marriage sometimes feels, well, disappointing.

Like many of your peers, you’ve thought about divorce (the highest divorce rate in Canada is among middle-aged couples), but you tend to agree with Margaret Atwood, who has observed: “A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there’s less of you.”

So if splitting up isn’t the answer, your only other option is sticking it out. Or is it?

According to Pamela Haag, author of the new book Marriage Confidential, there are legions of ambivalent couples stuck in half-happy or “low conflict” marriages. They may not be throwing dishes at each other, but the sizzle has long gone.

When she interviewed couples, she found the problem “wasn’t a matter of the toilet seat being left up, or of easily remedied flaws, but a collusive, ineffable shortcoming such as withered passion, boredom, lack of connection, lost affinities, or a world-weariness that beset their married life.”

Despite their disappointments, however, many couples told Haag they were more or less satisfied. “They weren’t contemplating separation, despite the absences and the longings in their marriages.”

Baltimore-based Haag says discontent with her own 13-year marriage prompted her in part to write the book. “In my own case, I really can’t tell if my marriage is woeful or sublime,” she admits, referring to “unarticulated grievances, deferred fulfillments and lost ecstasy.”

Marriage Confidential examines the reasons why so many couples are living “semi-happily ever after” and describes how even well-intentioned men and women can become dispirited in listless, albeit high-functioning marriages.

Haag says the problem is seldom the individuals involved, but their ideas of what marriage should be. Perhaps, she argues, the time has come to rewrite the rules. “It’s not my proposition that marriage is obsolete. But I do feel it has to evolve to new forms.”

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