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Marriage Confidential

London Times Review

Somewhere between for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer exists a grey world inhabited by those spinning away their days in a semi-happy marriage. That is, according to American social analysts, a low-drama relationship where the spouses do not love or hate each other but are 'rubbing along' for the sake of the kids or a shared mortgage - or for fear of social failure and dying alone, surrounded by cats.

The matrimonial walking dead were identified in Pamela Haag's book Marriage Confidential during the summer. It caused such a stir that several publishers have commissioned "me too" titles that will appear on the bookshelves next year.

Many will be stuffed with advice, urging us to communicate better and put aside time for our once-beloveds - all blindingly obvious, you might think. But Haag seems to be on to something. The semi-happy marriage is not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to fulfil you.

Many people stumble into that cocktail of lust, romanticism and uncertain expectations known as marriage from a broken home and have a formidable task ahead in creating their own version of a once-venerable institution.

It's not just the twentysomethings who find themselves struck by the semi-happy malaise. Way back in the 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler, the blighted protagonists of Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, were trapped in a wintry suburbia by a "blind desperate clinging to safety and security at any price". How many of us know that feeling?

Haag says that if she went to a dinner party with five couples, she would expect one polite pair already to be lost at sea ... and a second would be becalmed.

"The semi-happy marriage is not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to fulfil you," says Haag, who has been studying relationships since graduating from Yale two decades ago.

"Sometimes the marriage has one or two things that work really well - maybe you are wonderful parents together - but the camaraderie has died. Maybe you are more like roommates than lovers. Your marriage may have the vices of your virtues - for example: great passion but no stability."

The result? "We drifted apart", said Lenny Henry, Susan Sarandon and myriad other new singletons.

Haag says that while adultery makes the headlines - think Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher — two-thirds of marriage failures in America stem from "low conflict" unions that are amiable but listless.

There is no clinical definition for such a state but, according to Haag, you know you are in a semi-happy marriage if you:

Wake up in the middle of the night, stare at the ceiling and fret.
One moment you cannot imagine leaving your spouse, the next you cannot imagine staying.
Find yourself dreaming about moving to French Polynesia. Alone.
Know friends would be shocked if you split up, because you always seemed so nice together.
Find the jolly phrase "sticking it out" slides off the tongue all too readily.
Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers University in New Jersey, says the most lasting relationships combine three drives generated by the hormones dopamine and oxytocin in the brain. These are basic animal lust, a need for attachment (which allows us to tolerate each other long enough to breed) and a culturally adaptive need for romantic love.

These drives seem universal: in a recent survey of 37 countries, 91% of women and 86% of men said they would not marry someone even if they ticked everything on their physical, emotional and economic fantasy list if they did not also "love" them.

Fisher also says that later in life these three drives can split apart - you can lie in bed feeling deeply attached to your mate while dreaming of Brad or Angelina in both romantic and lustful enhanced colour.

If all three feelings fade for your spouse, then the relationship is in danger of accelerated decrepitude, greying into a civilised cohabitation built on shared duty.

Some will think this decline is inevitable and that anyone who expects more is not living in the real world. Yet the latest American divorce statistics challenge this. After four decades during which the rates made for unnerving reading - 48% failure within 10 years if both spouses married in their teens, 24% for those marrying at 25 and over - the rate has stabilised and may even be reversing.

There are many regional and demographic factors behind this, including fewer shotgun nuptials and others declining to marry at all. But experts also credit "marriage lessons", which are mandatory in some bible-belt counties, at least for first-timers, and other schemes such as California's early counselling in "divorce avoidance".

This idea surfaced a decade ago when Hollywood newlyweds Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe reportedly visited a marriage therapist from day one. Friends said there was nothing wrong, they just wanted to keep communication channels open to stop them boring each other.

They divorced seven years later. Yet "perma-counselling" has become one reason why American colleges are turning out more social workers and lawyers than engineers or mathematicians. There are, however, advantages to this pre-emptive "marriage work", as those who have taken the seven-week course offered by the Church of England's Alpha programme can attest.

Unlike Relate, which traditionally deals with couples already in crisis, Alpha lays out the warning signs of the semi-happy marriage - the tempting office temp, that last beer, the antidepressants that repress dopamine and thus kill both romance and sex drive.

"Take stock of your marriage. Develop good habits, such as finding real time for each other. Remember what you liked about each other in the first place. And never, ever get lazy on each other," is the mantra for the 50-plus couples who crowd Alpha's west London church every week to take part in the programme, devised by Nicky and Sila Lee.

That is, in between suggesting new areas of the house suitable for sexual rejuvenation. Alpha is not exactly your archbishop's Church of England.

"It is not a luxury: this is an investment," conclude the Lees, who this week are flying to Costa Rica to spread the word. One might grumble sourly that this is all right for shiny young things - wait until they have swallowed more of the world's ills and raised a few kids.

Haag, 45 - and happily married - says there is no reason for the older generation to give up on deeper happiness. She loathes the idea of giving advice, but insists that even those stuck in the matrimonial mud can pull themselves out of it.

They, unlike the young, may have the money to get away at weekends. They are grown-ups, they can change their habits - surprise each other, make jokes, have fun.

It may not result in the perfect second honeymoon, but she insists that most fundamentally compatible couples can still turn up the thermostat.

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