How to Avoid Having a ‘His’ and ‘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, what she noted as a “his” and “her” marriage.
The “psychological costs of marriage seem to be considerably greater for wives than for husbands,” Bernard says in her book, The Future of Marriage.
But 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 2020, the age of stay-at-home dads and bread-winning moms, the age of equal partnerships. Right?
Well, not quite. The coronavirus pandemic lockdown is glaringly revealing that hetero couples aren’t dividing housework and child care any differently or more equitably than they were before the stay-at-home mandates even though there is ample time to do so.
The problem is marriage itself, or more precisely heterosexual marriage.
Heterosexual marriage, especially among white, educated and well-off couples — the couples who are marrying more than others nowadays — is still very much 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’s book The Marriage-Go-Round, which attempts to explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While Cherlin 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:
- Women are less happy in their marriages than men
- Women are more likely than men to see problems in their marriages
- Women are more likely to initiate divorce (women ask for divorce two-thirds of the time), and are more than three times as likely as their former husbands to have strongly desired the divorce
- Once-married men are more likely to say that they want to marry again than are once-married women (and some women are just done with men, period)
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.”
Sadly, many 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.
Cultural messages lend tremendous staying power to the notion that wives and husbands are fundamentally different and that wives should take responsibility for dealing with marital discord — largely by adjusting themselves and working to minimize their dissatisfactions.
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,” which same-sex couples more easily have. Clearly, there’s some huge disconnect in what a husband and wife know about how each is experiencing the marriage. Can that change?
Maybe. Their paper cites studies that indicate ‘‘unrealistic expectations’’ about and ‘‘inadequate preparation’’ for marriage are keeping many couples from having an “our” marriage — just the sorts of things addressed in my book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.
It may be too late to adequately prepare for a marriage once you’re already in it, but it’s never too late to adjust expectations. And to change gender-stereotyped attitudes and behavior. Otherwise you’ll forever be in a “his” and “her” marriage and all its discontents.
Want to how an “our” marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.