''I had wanted to get married," poet Jill Bialosky once wrote, "but I realized now that I had never wanted to be a wife.''
There's something about being a wife that causes some women to feel diminished -- "an asexual being who is long-suffering and exists only to pop out babies and slide a casserole dish out of the oven every now and then," as one Slate commentor put it -- and others to get all starry-eyed.
It's marriage itself, according to sociologist Jessie Bernard, who noted some 50 years ago that how a marriage was experienced depended a lot on whether you're the wife or the husband. Forget about "two becoming one" when a man and woman marry; in fact, what we really experience is a "his" and a "hers" marriage -- a husband's and a wife's. In general, she noted, marriage generally benefits the hubby more than the wife.
True, marriage was a lot different in the early 1970s, when women had fewer options. It's now 2013, 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, whose book, The Marriage-Go-Round, attempts to explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While Cherlin does not take gender into account, Loscocco and Walzer argue that 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 discontent!
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, they note, 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."
Sometimes women create their own problems by doing what "Divorce Court" judge Lynn Toler calls "The False OK":
"I think there is a whole group of women out there who don't do well with conflict. They are the ones with a happy husband because he always gets what he wants and she doesn't seem to mind. But what he doesn't see are all of the collected hurts stored up in her emotional closet. Not because she doesn't ever get what she wants but because that lopsided equation makes her feel unloved."
Still, we're bombarded by self-help books and relationship "experts" encouraging 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.
Clearly, there's a disconnect in how husbands and wives perceive their spouses to be experiencing the marriage. Can that change? Maybe -- the sociologists' paper cites studies that indicate ''unrealistic expectations'' and ''inadequate preparation'' for marriage are keeping many couples from having an "our" marriage (and these are just the sorts of things Susan Pease Gadoua and I are discussing in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers.)
As Bernard wrote:
"The demands that men and women make on marriage will never be fully met; they cannot be. And these demands will rise rather than decline as our standards -- rightfully -- go up. Men and women will continue to disappoint as well as to delight one another, regardless of the forms of their commitments to one another, or the living style they adopt, or even the nature of the relationship between them. And we will have to continue to make provision for all the inevitable -- but, hopefully, decreasing -- failures of these marriages to meet the rising demands made on them which we can unequivocally expect."
We may just need to work a little harder on making wives happier.
A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG chronicles.