MAKING RELATIONSHIPS WORK BETTER
Many happy and productive unions prove marriage to be eminently worthwhile, for wives as well as husbands, when both partners value each other’s contributions equally. In a 1995 poll of four thousand readers, New Woman magazine found that women in Egalitarian Marriages, defined as those in which both spouses probably work full-time, and share domestic and child-rearing chores more or less equally, are by far the happiest. The alternatives were Traditional Marriage, in which the husband is the principal breadwinner and the wife takes care of the home and the children, and the In-betweens, in which the wives described the allocation of responsibilities as “something-in-between” the egalitarian arrangement and the traditional one. (“Isn’t there a category where the wives are the boss?” asked my daughter.) In summary, Stephanie von Hirschberg senior editor and the author of the article, writes that shared power and responsibility “seems to be crucial to a woman’s happiness in marriage.”
Three other elements also increase the odds of a successful long-term relationship: chemistry, the desire to care for each other, and common life goals. Anybody can live with anybody, depending on how many compromises he or she is willing to make. This is an essential part of any relationship, heaven knows, and only the person making the compromises can decide whether they’re worth it in the long term. The arrangement tends to be worthwhile as long as the give-and-take balances out in the long run. It may be 80 percent give and 20 percent take one day, or for a month, or even for a year or two; then it needs to be 20-80 for a while. Fluidity is the key, because circumstances change: someone goes back to school; a parent moves in or a child moves out; somebody gets sick; one person hangs on to a paycheck while the other takes a professional flyer. Forget roles; it doesn’t matter who does what. It’s fine to be a stay-at-home mom while the kids are small, and it’s also fine to hire a baby-sitter and head for the office. It doesn’t matter if she washes every dish as long as he assumes some other task, domestic or otherwise, that she dislikes. All solutions are personal.
Men and women need to treat each other as equals, which is no mean feat in a world that does not. For husbands and wives the effort requires imagination and the courage to be unconventional, because the structure of traditional marriage is not egalitarian. Wives want their careers to be as important as their mates’; wage parity will bring this about eventually, but until then, it’s a tall order. Wives want spouses who really listen and who genuinely care about their opinions. They want to respect and care about their husbands, and to be loved and respected in return.
Instead of giving in to their husbands’ desires as a matter of course, or expecting husbands to magically intuit their desires, wives need to articulate what they want. This means turning a deaf ear to inner and outer voices that say such behavior is selfish or bitchy. It means learning and daring to express feelings both loving and murderous. Many women interviewed for this book said that poor communication lay at the heart of their marital problems, and that expressing themselves was the key to a better relationship. Although it wasn’t a conscious goal at the beginning of her second marriage, Laurie makes “trying to keep the lines of communication open” a top priority. “It’s so easy to get lost,” she observes. In my case, I spent much of my marriage afraid that my husband was angry at me, and thoroughly repressing my anger at him. Now I ask Bob directly, “Are you mad at me?” “Huh?” is his usual response. And when I’m mad, I take a deep breath — I still have to steel myself — and say what’s bothering me. The habit of censoring oneself dies hard, but as these women have learned, it is poisonous, not only to their relationships, but to their own happiness.
What does the future hold? Will women wise up and start asking les of marriage? No, and it’s just as well: women should ask more of relationships, not less. Marriage isn’t the solution, or the problem. Whether the institution is redefined or abandoned is really not the point, nor does it matter whether people pair up as husband and wife or opt for a wedding-free zone. Everything is up for grabs between conscious adults, which is both frightening and heartening, and wedlock guarantess nothing. Marriage itself is becoming less relevant.
Blaming men for the sorry state of gender relations is as easy — and unconstructuve — as blaming marriage for the unfulfilling nature of many unions. The point is not that husbands are brutal and wives hapless, or women righteous and men inadequate; if men are self-centered, it is in large part because women are socialized to let them get away with it. Asking less of men is one way to reconcile differing expectations, but one that demeans both men and women. Because we are stuck with the very human tendency to get away with whatever we can, to settle the battle between the sexes we have to revamp the social contract. This is especially difficult when so many of our religious and political leaders are looking backwards toward outmoded models rather than ahead toward innovative solutions.
The fact that marriage is oppressive for so many women is not the fault of the institution or the players but of society. When men have more power than women, women are readily exploitable. I got divorced because I felt personally, not politically, oppressed. But gradually I saw that what doomed my marriage was less my exhusband’s and my personal failings, many though they were, than social forces about which I was completely clueless at the time.
To stop being stifled, I and the other women in this book chose to end our marriages. Avoiding marriage altogether is another way to sidestep the imbalance of power between husbands and wives. So is working with a like-minded man to craft a truly egalitarian marriage. All three solutions are unconventional and all have political repercussions, but the last is the greatest challenge of all because it calls for social change on an individual and collective level. Until men and women are paid the same wages and are jointly responsible for family life, there will be no such thing as equal opportunity. Until men and women come to the table — be it in the kitchen or the boardroom — as true peers, the egalitarian marriage will remain the exception, if not a downright contradiction of terms.
Improving the odds of happy marriages means working to end wage and job discriminatioin against women. It means providing economic and social support for single mothers, and for men who want to participate fully in raising children. Women who point out inequities worry about being accused of bashing men, but as Naomi Wolf says, you can hate sexism without hating men. The world is a sexist place, but if each of us responds to it in a nonsexist way, society will accommodate us because it must: individual action sparks social change. When a woman ends an oppressive marriage, it is a creative act of resilience and survival; she is not deviant or immoral, but a brave pathfinder. Until we figure out a better way to do marriage, divorce is here to stay.
It is women, not men, who lose sight of the underlying truth grasped by my daughter after a bedtime schmooze about gender politics. “Mom,” she said, “women are awesome.” We have nothing to lose and much to gain: the chance to reinvent partnership and show our children what love between equals can be all about. Slowly, by trial and error, each of us is writing her own script. It’s part of a collective one that’s stacking up, page by page, as women make their way to financial, social, and personal equality with men.
About The Author
Ashton Applewhite is the author of “Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well” published by Harper Collins, 1997. Her book, which addresses both the personal and sociopolitical aspects of marriage, is a timely and encouraging companion for any woman contemplating divorce, or seeking to improve her own life, and ultimately her family’s.