| June 6, 2012

If you're not in a semi-happy marriage yourself, chances are you've seen one or know one intimately because the term describes a large number of marriages today. Semi-happy couples should be happy — on paper. If only they could live their marriages on paper instead of in real life!

The semi-happy marriage is not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to fulfill. I conducted a survey for my book, "Marriage Confidential," and found that 30 percent agreed that "most marriages I see around me aren't really happy or unhappy." Forty percent agreed, "most marriages that I see aren't really that happy."

Marriage scholars distinguish between the types of marriage that end in divorce. They've estimated that a majority of divorces — anywhere from 55 to 65 percent — hail from the ranks of the "low-conflict," low-stress, amiable-but-listless marriage. The majority don't come from couples who throw dishes and scream at each other. Where the high-conflict, troubled marriage explodes, the low-conflict marriage implodes.

There are two things that a semi-happy marriage is not. First, it's not the same as a "contented" marriage. Those cozy, settled, "granny panties" marriages feel good to the spouses in them, and are generally happy unions that don't find themselves haunted by "woulda, coulda, shoulda" thinking, or questions about whether the marriage is "enough." The passion and frisson in a contented marriage may have mellowed over time, but the spouses are comfortable with that, and don't find themselves gravitating toward divorce.

Second, spouses in a semi-happy marriage don't have irritatingly trivial complaints about the marriage. A common criticism of spouses who divorce is that their standards were too high, or that they weren't willing to tolerate life's ups and downs. In my experience, it's an unfair judgment. Many semi-happy marriages are dealing with serious deficits.

Having established what the semi-happy marriage isn't, you know you're in a semi-happy marriage if:

  • you wake up at 3 a.m., stare at the ceiling, and worry about divorce;
  • you find yourself cruising real estate websites, or fantasizing about moving, alone, to French Polynesia;
  • you have elaborate conversations with yourself about whether you're being selfish to expect more from marriage;
  • you know that your friends and acquaintances would be shocked if you got divorced;
  • and, if one minute, you can't imagine leaving, and the next, you can't imagine staying.

The semi-happy marriage tends to have the vices of its virtues. That is, the household works efficiently and the couple gets along reasonably well as roommates and friends. But one or both members find the marriage lacking in serious ways. In some cases, the marriage has morphed into merely a friendship, and has gone sexually dormant. In other cases, the couple has lost any feeling of intellectual connection, or affinity; in other cases, the marriage hasn't grown and kept pace with the spouses in it.

A composite portrait of the semi-happy marriage would probably include the following characteristics. The spouses might have married their "best friends" right at the start — partners who were similar to them, and companions. Of course, that's really good news for marriage, and it can make for a very fulfilling union.

But it can also turn to bad news if the marriage becomes just like any other friendship and loses traction, a sense of mystery, or perhaps its aura of specialness in our lives. Many marriages slide from happy to semi-happy with the arrival of children, especially if spouses follow the prevailing trends of hyper-parenting and perfectionist over-parenting. All of the energy in the family funnels toward child rearing, and marriage becomes the forgotten bond of family. Semi-happy marriages — especially after children arrive — sometimes have lost their sexual energy and settled into a comfortable, companionate state. That state makes daily life comfortable, but has its obvious problems.

These semi-happy unions can be agonizingly ambiguous for the spouses themselves, and they could go either way — or, another way entirely, if the couple changes the premises of their marriage instead of either sticking it out or divorcing. I've yet to talk to a spouse who took divorce lightly, even if they ultimately felt that it was the right decision.

"Marriage Confidential" isn't an advice book, and I don't believe that there are clear and easy answers. Nor do I think men and women who find themselves lost in a mildly depressed marriage should be dismissed as selfish for wondering about their marriage, or for wanting more out of their relationships, or for asking tough questions about the institution of marriage. The semi-happy among us deserve more than the advice that they suck it up and stick it out, or quit "whining." A life and a relationship is too important to trifle with like that.