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"Desperate Feminist Wives"
Does the Quest for Marital Equality Doom Marital Happiness?


Tuesday, Apr. 04, 2006

Is the feminist goal of sex equality within marriage a failure? Is it a recipe for unhappiness?

So it would appear, at least from a tantalizing headline in the recent Slate article: "Desperate Feminist Wives," by Megan O'Rourke. The article reported on a new study by two scholars from the University of Virginia, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, "What's Love Got To Do With It?: Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women's Marital Quality."

But we beg to differ - as we will explain. In this column, we'll take up the premise that the ideal of egalitarian marriage may be a recipe for unhappiness. We will put the debate over the link between marriage quality and marriage equality into historical perspective, and then ask how this modern debate might bear on a significant new federal governmental initiative: promoting "healthy marriage."

The Study's Conclusion, O'Rourke's Question, and Betty Friedan's Key Belief

This study, contrary to some other scholarship about the family, found no evidence to support the idea that "companionate," or "egalitarian," marriage leads to higher marital satisfaction. To the contrary - and hence the Slate headline - it found that "traditional wives," who have lower expectations of marital equality in the household division of labor, are happier than wives with "gender egalitarian" ideals. The study also reports that women who do not seek egalitarian unions achieve greater emotional satisfaction in marriage.

O'Rourke therefore asks, Is it feminist ideals, rather than domestic duties, that are making women unhappy? Pondering contemporary gender relations, she refers back to the premise of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique: that more egalitarian marriages, in which husbands and wives could pursue careers and have a home life, would lead to greater happiness for women. This type of marriage, Friedan and other feminists hoped, would help solve what Friedan famously called "the problem that has no name": the discontent and unhappiness she found among the wives with whom she spoke, women who struggled with "the feminine mystique" - a conception of women's proper role that encouraged women to channel all their energies into, and find fulfillment solely in, the role of housewife and mother.

Friedan's recent death has sparked musings about whether "second wave" feminism has failed. These join a dizzying series of conflicting reports on the so-called "opt out" revolution: are women "opting out" of the paid work force because they are making a choice to stay home with their children? Or is it happening because work conditions make it too difficult to combine paid work and mothering? Is the real "glass ceiling" at home, where women still do far more housework and child care than men? Or is the opt-out mom herself a "myth" - one that is contradicted by women's actual rates of workforce participation?

Some Historical Perspective on Men, Women, and Companionate Marriage

To begin, let's return to the study O'Rourke cites, by Wilcox and Nock. The authors introduce their data with the observation that a variety of forces over the last century have combined to "heighten the importance of the emotional life of marriage." As a result, they claim, "[t]he emotional functions and character of marriage have become particularly crucial for contemporary marital happiness," especially for women. Their study, the major findings of which we detail below, also purports to show the prevalence of traditional gender roles, and a tie between those roles and marital happiness.

One might think, from Wilcox and Nock's study, that "companionate" marriage is a feminist invention of the 1960s or 1970s. To the contrary, it has a much longer history, as does women's discontent over unmet marital expectations. Indeed, what is most interesting about this study is the suggestion that very little has changed in over a century. The idea that couples (especially women) value emotional satisfaction within marriage, and are disappointed when it is absent, is far from a Twenty-First Century development. Indeed, similar theories were developed to describe marriage - and couples' rising expectations for emotional satisfaction and happiness - at the close of the Nineteenth Century. And gender has always been a salient factor in delineating marital roles and expectations.

Husbands and Wives: Their Predetermined Roles

Let's consider the origins of "traditional" marriage roles for men and women. Until the late Nineteenth Century, marriage in the United States (carried over, legally speaking, from its English roots) revolved around a series of well-established reciprocal rights and obligations, operating primarily around the axis of gender. The respective duties owed to each other by men and women in such a marriage were described authoritatively in the extremely influential treatise, Blackstone's Commentaries on the law of husband and wife, but, more importantly, were part of society's conventional wisdom about marriage.

Men's duties were public and financial, including, most centrally, the duty to support wives and children. Women had a commensurate duty to give birth to, nurture, and educate children and a duty to maintain the home and hearth.

These duties - and the gender roles they flowed from - were reinforced by Nineteenth-Century divorce laws, which permitted divorce only on established grounds like adultery or neglect. Grounds for divorce in most states mirrored the standard expectations for husband and wife, by creating a remedy for the failure to meet them. For example, a wife in most states could lawfully divorce a husband who failed to provide adequate economic support, and a husband could do the same to a wife who refused to procreate.

What about Love? Companionate Marriage in the Victorian Era

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, gender remained the predominant determinate of marital expectations, yet marriage evolved from an institution serving primarily economic and support needs, into one that served emotional needs as well. An institution that was once deliberately patriarchal and revolved around male control and female submissiveness became - at least as an ideal -- "companionate."

Couples thus began to expect not only that their spouses would honor the gendered obligations of marriage and respect their marital rights, but also that they would provide emotional support, affection, and love. The companionate ideal represented a change in the very nature of the marriage relation. In legal historian Lawrence Friedman's terms, "a wife was to be more than sex partner, servant, and nursemaid; a husband was to be more than a breadwinner and protector."

The ideal had its downside, though. These higher expectations were easily disappointed, and divorce rates seemed to rise as a result. Both women and men expected more from marriage than the seemingly crass paycheck-for-housework exchange their ancestors had settled for, and, consequently, were more often disappointed by marriages that failed to fulfill their expectations. Family law historians such as William O'Neill have noted the increasingly intimate, emotional nature of marriage in the Nineteenth Century and its role in the surging demand for divorce.

Egalitarian Marriage: Does It Have Any Historical Roots?

History reveals a gendered aspect not only to marital obligations, but to marital satisfaction as well. Better access to divorce - necessary to escape unhappy and often oppressive marriages -- was among the demands made by women's rights advocates. Feminists at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention called for easier divorce (and fewer marriages to begin with), to ease the plight of the "typical" wife, who they argued was "degraded in marriage."

Women were also the primary filers of divorce petitions, which social historians tend to believe reflects their greater dissatisfaction with marriage. But there was little, if any, pressure for truly egalitarian marriage - one in which gender did not predetermine marital roles - before the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Is Companionate Marriage A Failed Ideal, Even Today?

Let's turn back to modern times. Wilcox and Nock examine whether there is any empirical support for the argument, made by many contemporary family scholars - and feminists -- that egalitarian marriages make for high-quality, stable marriages. They call such marriages "companionate," and explain that the "companionate theory of marriage" - which assumes a link between marriage equality and quality - is based upon three assumptions: First, "spouses share similar work and family responsibilities," which will increase the "equality of emotion work in marriage." ("Emotion work" refers to "affection, empathy, [and] quality time devoted to intimacy," and is distinct from housework.) Second, "the elimination of patriarchal authority and power is seen as a key mechanism for promoting marital intimacy." And third, "egalitarian-minded men are supposed to be more open to a 'counter-stereotypical' masculinity conducive to marital emotion work."

Their method is to examine the National Survey of Families and Households (1992-1994) and look at data concerning "women's marital happiness," "women's satisfaction with the love/affection they receive from their husbands," and "the quality time men devote to intimate interaction with their wives." Then they consider how well this maps with husbands' and wives' degree of "gender egalitarianism in belief and practice."

What did they find?

To simplify somewhat:

- "Men's emotion work (and women's assessments of that work) is the most crucial determinant of women's marital quality," more important than household labor, and a host of other factors.

- Traditional wives, with lower expectations of equality in the division of housework and emotion work, are happier than women who hold egalitarian ideals. (Wilcox and Nock call this the "gender model of marriage.")

- Such traditional wives may be happier because they expect less, and thus, when they get less, they are not disappointed. At the same time, by expecting less, they seem to get more. They may be happier because their husbands actually do more emotion work and invest more, because they experience less conflict with their wives over the household division of labor.

- Wives who share with their husbands high levels of church attendance and normative commitment to marriage as an institution are happier than their peers. Wilcox and Nock suggest that such wives "are more inclined to view their husbands' emotion work through a rose-colored lens." (The authors call this "the institutional model of marriage.")

And what about wives with egalitarian ideals?

- Wives who are more egalitarian-minded (that is, with higher expectations of intimacy and equality) and who are not happy with the fairness of the division of household labor are less satisfied with their husband's positive emotion work. They are also less likely to receive such emotion work than their peers. Why? Wilcox and Nock suspect that wives' higher expectations have "increased marital conflict" and thus "dampened men's marital emotion work." In other words, when women expect more and complain about it, men give less. And they offer one more hypothesis: even when men and women embrace a gender egalitarian ideology, they face "strong internal and external pressures to produce gender in their marriages," and thus are happier with more gender-typical patterns of behavior.

The authors conclude: "the irony here is that - at least over the short term - the increased popularity of companionate ideals of marriage seems to have contributed to a decrease in the prevalence of the companionate marriage in practice."

Assessing Wilcox and Nock's Findings: What Do They Prove, Exactly?

Does this sound like definitive proof that companionate marriage is a failed ideal? Or does it sound like there is still a sizeable gap between theory and practice? What we do not seem to read about, is the happiness level of wives who hold egalitarian ideals about sharing emotion work and household labor and have a marriage that lives up to both of those ideals. Are they less happy than other women?

To be sure, the Wilcox and Nock report about wives in gendered marriages expecting less and getting more dovetails well with advice given to frustrated wives found in Dr. Laura Schlessinger's The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands and Laura Doyle's The Surrendered Wife. Both Lauras counsel wives to give up on feminist ideals of equality and stop criticizing their husbands. Instead, they advise, if wives embrace more traditional gender roles (let their husbands be the boss), show their men respect and appreciation, and deploy more traditional tools of femininity (by using influence rather than confrontation), their men will want to do everything for them. By expecting less and complaining less, the advice goes, they will get more.

And what about the finding that wives integrated into institutions that endorse marriage are happier, perhaps because they look through rose-colored lenses at husbands' contributions? Consider those conservative Christians who believe that the household division of labor should track the Biblical teaching that wives should submit to their husbands and that husbands are the head of the wife (and household). Religiously-based beliefs in gender complementarity may well help women to view as a natural and proper role division, reflecting sex difference, what egalitarian-minded women would regard as inequitable and unfair. Yet, here too, advice to such wives counsels that femininity is "strength wrapped in a velvet glove. It doesn't insist on its own way, but most of the time it gets it."

The Wilcox and Nock study, as well as these various visions of marriage, suggest a common view of men: women's expectations of equality spark conflict and men's resistance. Demand little, get more. Expect less, be happier.

To be sure, we agree with Wilcox and Nock that a basic orientation of account-keeping in marriage may discourage attitudes of generosity, commitment, and sense of mutual enterprise that contribute to stability and happiness in marriage. What troubles us is how this too readily leads to a view that all will be well if women lower their expectations, and accept inequality and unfairness as unavoidable.

Contrary Research Should Also Be Considered and More Research Done

To the contrary, as the authors acknowledge, other research, in contrast to their study, does suggest a link between marriage quality and marriage equality and that egalitarian marriages may foster marital stability. And they conclude by calling for further research to explore this link. We hope that further research will also examine (as O'Rourke recommends) men's happiness and their marital expectations. And, given Wilcox and Nock's findings about how institutional support may contribute to marital happiness, it would be valuable to explore how institutions might support egalitarian marriages.

This issue of what makes for marital happiness is of considerable importance for another reason: the promotion of "healthy marriage" is now a component of federal welfare law. The federal government has a Healthy Marriage Initiative and many states have healthy marriage campaigns. What inferences will they draw from studies like Wilcox and Nock's? That the best recipe for promoting "healthy marriage" is to prepare wives to expect less and, thereby, get more? To warn them that expressing unhappiness about what seems unfair will just spark conflict and lead their husbands to give less?

And what messages will marriage education campaigns give to future husbands?

Research about why low-income mothers do not marry suggests acute concern over both the quality of marriage and equality within it. Such women, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas found in their book, Promises I Can Keep, like so many women across the economic spectrum, want a partnership of equals. This sounds like the ideal of companionate marriage.

The National Marriage Project (hardly a feminist bastion) also recognizes the hold of the ideal of companionate marriage. It attributes women's disappointment and dissatisfaction with marriage to a "mismatch" between their higher expectations of emotional intimacy in marriage and more exacting standards for a husband's participation in childrearing and household work and their marital experience. This mismatch contributes to women's increased willingness to exit marriage. This parallel to historical reasons for divorce is striking. But is this mismatch a reason to abandon the ideal of companionate marriage? Or should we do the exact opposite and seek to foster greater equality within marriage?

Companionate marriage is a challenging ideal, but it is too soon (and too depressing) to deem it a failure.

Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is a professor of law at Hofstra University. Her columns on family law, trusts and estates, and discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, may be found in the archive of her columns on this site. Linda McClain, who has been a prior guest columnist for FindLaw, is Rivkin Radler Distinguished Professor of Law at Hofstra University, currently visiting at University of Pennsylvania Law School. She discusses marriage and other family law issues in her recent book, The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility (Harvard University Press 2006).

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