What’s holding couples back from having an egalitarian marriage?

There’s an image we have about marriage, about “two becoming one.”

Anyone who’s been married for length of time realizes that’s a bit of a lie. We’re still people with our own needs. In fact, many believe what hetero men and women experience is a “his” and a “her” marriage.

Some 50 years ago, sociologist Jessie Bernard noted that marriage is not a single entity; how marriage was experienced depended a lot on whether you’re the wife or the husband. In general, she noted, marriage generally benefits the guys more than the gals. His and her marriage

True, marriage was a lot different in the early 1970s, when women had fewer options (although Bernard herself bucked a lot of trends back then). It’s now 2016, the age of stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms, the age of equal partnerships.

Well, not quite.

Heterosexual marriage, especially among white, educated and well-off couples, is still a gendered social reality and a gendered institution, or so argue sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer in Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States. The two explore the work of Andrew Cherlin in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, which attempts to  explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While he does not take gender into account, Loscocco and Walzer argue we must:

“The role expectations  associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable. … people tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs whether or not they act on them and to treat them as shared cultural knowledge whether or not they endorse them.”

Which means even in the most equal of marriages, there’s an incredible awareness of gender and how a wife and a husband “should” act. And that continues to drive “contemporary heterosexual marriage and its discontents.”

And boy, are we discontented.

What does that look like? They cite studies pointing out that:

So, what’s making women so miserable in their marriages? For one, women are still in charge of the emotional caretaking:

“Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work — for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations — that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives’ planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.”

It’s exhausting being the one who always has to be on top of the emotional temperature of a relationship, and keep the ties to family and community going. Plus, that kind of work often goes unnoticed or undervalued — and sometimes even resented — which, they note, “can lead to marital tension.”

What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope; the wives still “tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners’ contributions to their relationships.” Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, “leading to feelings of resentment and frustration.”

Of course, self-help books and relationship “experts” — from Steve Harvey (Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) to John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) and others — tend to encourage women to “accept imbalances in their relationships with men to attract and keep them.”

The message is always the same; if a wife just worked hard enough she could save her marriage, if not from unhappiness than at least from divorce. Yet studies show that when husbands take greater ownership of the emotional work — beyond just household chores and child care — wives are happier and healthier. So by continuing to advise women to “act like ladies or girls and to accept their ‘cavemen’” sets couples up for “reproducing the very patterns that are implicated in marital stress.” There’s a bit of craziness to that!

Why can’t men and women have an “our marriage”? Clearly, there’s some huge disconnect in what a husband and wife know how each is experiencing the marriage. Can that change? Maybe; their paper cites studies that indicate ‘‘unrealistic expectations’’ and ‘‘inadequate preparation’’ for marriage are keeping many couples from having an “our” marriage (which is why we believe our book is so important because it raises essential questions couples need to address).

Poet Jill Bialosky once wrote, ‘‘I had wanted to get married, but I realized now that I had never wanted to be ‘a wife.’’’ Oprah Winfrey doesn’t want to be a wife, either. What about you?

Want to have an “our” marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do:Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

One thought on “What’s holding couples back from having an egalitarian marriage?

  1. I will readily admit that my wife does the “emotional” legwork in our house in terms of caring for friends, family, schools, etc. She also is the scheduler and carries the unproportionate load of structuring our family life. I guess it really just turned out this way since I work a lot of hours and she stays home with the kids. It also probably doesn’t help that I’m an introvert (read the book “Quiet” – it was enlightening) and I’m not the best at communicating. I do appreciate all that she does for us, and I do communicate that. However, our marriage in terms of intimacy is essentially dead…she isn’t interested in sex any longer (at least not with me). The marriage is now a business of taking care of the kids/house/finances/and what little social life we individually have with friends (more her than me). I do love her, but it’s more like loving a friend you’ve known forever. We sleep in the same bed but nothing ever happens in it. When I think too hard about it all, it seems very strange to me that we are living our lives this way. I do know we aren’t alone in this, but it doesn’t help when casual friends are making remarks about us not doing anything on Valentine’s Day (the Hallmark holiday).

    It’s confusing, because I want the best for everyone; me, her, the kids, our future financial security. I guess you can’t have it all. Maybe I’m complacent, or rooted in the routine of life, but what we have is working for now. I’m told the problems will come later once the kids are gone, or maybe the problems just get exposed since we won’t be as busy…

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