Money (Wade, 2017) has given us an article titled, “The Modern Marriage Trap – and What to Do About It.” As with other articles, examined in other posts in this blog, this article provides an opportunity to consider how the popular press portrays men, and how the media handles topics of interest to men.
The author of the article, Lisa Wade, did her dissertation in the prestigious sociology department at the University of Wisconsin on “Female Genital Mutilation.” Judging by her CV, Wade appears to have done more academic work on that specific topic than on any other. The CV does also list specific work on the hookup culture, female orgasms, and media coverage of sex. But it does not appear that Wade is an authority on marriage.
Note: if the article ceases to be available at the primary link shown above, it may be available through the Internet Archive. In this case, it presently appears you may have to click on the X in your browser’s address bar, to prevent it from continuing to load the page, as soon as the text appears. If you let the page continue to load after that, you may wind up with an error message.
Note also that my previous post explores a number of related topics and sources not rehashed here. In this post, as in that previous one, I am focused on heterosexual couples.
As in several (e.g., 1 2 3) other posts, I did wonder why the media outlet — in this case, Money — decided to publish the article under review. Nonetheless, the article serves to raise a number of interesting and important questions pertaining to the happiness of married women.
An Inauspicious Beginning
Sources of Interest
Married Women’s Unhappiness
A Word from Our Sponsor
Happiness Before and After Divorce
Equality in Marriage
The Love of Money
An Occupied Mind
Being In It for Yourself
Limits to Happiness for Married Women
The opening of Wade’s article
An Inauspicious Beginning
As a scholar of media coverage, author Wade presumably realizes that journalists often consider the first sentence of an article the most important one. A bit of attention to her first sentence actually tells quite a bit. That sentence reads as follows: “Counter to stereotypes, it is men married to women who find the most happiness in matrimony.”
Let’s start with the first phrase: “Counter to stereotypes.” This appears to be a reference to what Time (Luscombe, 2010) calls “the stereotype” in which men “are dragged to the altar.” But that is about getting married — about ending the single life. That’s not a stereotype about happiness in marriage, in the years after you’ve tied the knot. On that, Google searches lead to multiple (e.g., 1 2 3) sites listing stereotypes about men and marriage. Those don’t seem to suggest that men enjoy it less than women. For instance, the Sydney Morning Herald (Arndt, 2012) cites Bernard’s (1972) influential Future of Marriage. It appears that, over at least the past 45 years, the prevailing stereotype may have been that husbands enjoy marriage at least as much as their wives do.
Wade’s opening sentence says that “men married to women” find “the most” happiness in marriage. We learned, in the third grade, that “more” means a comparison between two, and “most” means a comparison among more than two. Wade is a writer, with a PhD, and is employed in a position where she grades student papers. It is fair to expect that her opening sentence, in an article published by a major media outlet, will not contain obvious grammatical errors. When she says “most,” she implies at least a four-way comparison (among men married to men, men married to women, women married to women, and women married to men, with additional possibilities among intersex people). But her article says nothing about the non-heterosexual possibilities. She just meant a two-way comparison: husbands enjoy marriage more than wives do.
I might not have noticed that minor point, if I hadn’t seen another odd thing in Wade’s first sentence. That sentence offers links to sources that she presumably considers relevant. Each word of that sentence is highlighted. Ordinarily, the highlighting would indicate that the author is pointing us toward a related source. Not in this case. Instead, each of those words is linked to a different source: eleven words offering eleven links to eleven different sources. Unless the reader pays attention to link information provided by his/her browser, s/he will probably not even be aware of all those links.
It is not clear what purpose Wade intended to serve with that unusual linking. One guess is that she felt there was a lot to say about the foregoing stereotypes. But if there was a lot to say, why not say it? The answer is, she couldn’t, because her article isn’t really related to this opening sentence. That’s probably why the sentence is so poor. Doing a proper job of it would have required more attention, putting her on the road toward writing a separate article about the alleged stereotype. If she had pursued been interested in that, apparently she would have done a poor job of that too, because for that purpose, her eleven linked sources are mostly useless. They tend to be very general (e.g., Gerson’s (2011) book on “rising gender wars, declining families, and apathetic youth”), outdated (e.g., Tsang et al., 2003, using data from 1988), and/or tangential (e.g., Craig & Swarikar, n.d., which focuses on the link between household duties and a sense of fairness, which is not the same thing as happiness in marriage).
As journalists would say, rather than get right to the point, Wade’s first sentence buries the lede — that is, it draws the reader’s attention to some other issue. Having raised the question of “stereotypes,” plural, on the topic of whether one sex enjoys marriage more than the other, she proceeds to ignore it. There is no discussion of what those stereotypes are, or who might hold them, what they have to do with marriage as a trap, or why they are wrong.
Sources of Interest
The quality of that first sentence provides an inkling of the quality of her article as a whole. When an intelligent, knowledgeable writer has really done her best work on an article for publication, she is not likely to start it that way. A writer would be well advised not to take for granted this opportunity to impose herself upon thousands of busy people.
While nine of Wade’s odd links to eleven different sources are virtually useless, two are not — although their dates of publication suggest that it may have been years since Wade last did any research in the area of happiness in marriage.
The first of those two is by Corra et al. (2009), who examined trends in marital happiness between 1973 and 2006. In that article, the authors compared self-reported happiness levels among four groups of married people: male and female, white and black. They found, among other things, that white husbands were slightly happier than white wives throughout that three-decade period, with slightly more divergence in the 2000s than in previous decades; that blacks were noticeably less happy than whites, but that happiness levels of whites and blacks had converged somewhat by the 2000s; that black wives were noticeably less happy than black husbands until the 2000s, at which time they converged; that “White wives appear to show a slight decrease in marital happiness across the decades”; and that lower levels of marital happiness have typically been associated with higher workloads, children, lower income, lower education, and less frequent church attendance. Corra et al. (pp. 1398-1399) observed,
Our results also indicate that marital happiness for White wives has not increased during the time period under study, despite gaining greater access to jobs and contributing to the financial success of the family.
The findings of Corra et al. call for several observations. First, on the subject of black marriage, it may be informative to consult another post, in which I discuss research finding that blacks are far more likely than whites to remain unmarried. It appears that happiness in black marriages may be rising because, as with other races, marriage is becoming less common, and is entered into more frequently by those who are somewhat older, somewhat more financially established, and thus less likely to divorce. (Note that happiness in marriage may or may not be similar to levels of happiness in cohabitation (i.e., living together) or in relationships whose participants do not live together.)
As Corra et al. observe, then, it is surprising to see what happens when people, nowadays, tend to enter their first marriages at a more mature age. Neither the men nor the women are displaying the increased overall happiness that one might expect. It tentatively appears that the planning and positioning for a truly proper marriage may not contribute to happiness in marriage. For white wives, in particular, there is the unexpected finding that getting more of what women thought they wanted — more jobs, more two-earner households, more household income, certainly more education, fewer children, and presumably less church attendance — is actually reducing their overall level of reported happiness somewhat.
Those findings introduce the other interesting source, among the eleven to which Wade’s first sentence provides links. This source is Stevenson & Wolfers (2009, pp. 1-3, 22-26), who examined data from the General Social Survey from 1972 through 2006, arrived at a number of findings, and raised further questions:
Given [the] shifts of rights and bargaining power from men to women over the past 35 years, holding all else equal, we might expect to see a concurrent shift in happiness toward women and away from men. Yet we document in this paper that measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen . . . .
Arlie Hochschild’s and Anne Machung’s The Second Shift (1989) argued that women’s movement into the paid labor force was not accompanied by a shift away from household production and they were thus now working a “second shift”. However, time use surveys do not bear this out. Aguiar and Hurst (2007) document relatively equal declines in total work hours since 1965 for both men and women, with the increase in hours of market work by women offset by large declines in their non-market work. Similarly, men are now working fewer hours in the market and more hours in home production. . . .
[G]reater equality may have led more women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them. . . . This change in the reference group may make women [feel] worse off or it may simply represent a change in their reporting behavior. . . . [Also,] If the women’s movement raised women’s expectations faster than society was able to meet them, they would be more likely to be disappointed by their actual experienced lives. . . .
[For many women, a question about life satisfaction may have previously been construed as meaning] “satisfaction at home” [but] has increasingly come to mean some combination of “satisfaction at home” and “satisfaction at work.” . . . [Also,] an individual’s assessment of their well-being may reflect the social desirability of responses and Kahneman (1999) argues that people in good circumstances may be hedonically better off than people in worse circumstances, yet they may require more to declare themselves happy. . . . [C]ontrary to the subjective well-being trends we document, female suicide rates have been falling, even as male suicide rates have remained roughly constant . . . . [But it is possible that] women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness.
Bear in mind that, again, Wade herself points toward these sources. They suggest that women are undeniably better off now, in many ways, than they were in the 1970s — and yet that, somehow, the changes demanded by second-wave feminism seem to have made them relatively less happy in marriage. Although the situation is not yet clear, it appears, not that marriage itself is a trap, but rather that the second-wave feminism commencing in the 1970s may have made today’s women less able to succeed in it. That would be unfortunate; tens of millions of women still want to be married, will be married one day, and want their marriages to be happy. In that case, it seems that women who substantially reject marriage, such as Wade, may merely be making it more difficult for the typical woman (and, probably, her husband and children) to find happiness and stability in marriage.
Married Women’s Unhappiness
I have devoted a lot of attention to Wade’s first sentence because it opens up several topics of interest. But let us proceed. The second sentence continues in the vein of slapdash work and distracted attention. Here is that second sentence:
In fact, according to research, the average married women is less happy than the average married man, less happy than single women, less convinced that married people are happier than single people, and more likely to file for divorce.
In the first sentence, Wade gave us eleven articles without saying anything about research; now she gives us four claims about research without citing any articles at all. There would be worse ways to set up a joke, if that were her goal.
In this second sentence, we again see Wade’s apparently persistent difficulty in writing clearly. The average married “women”? (I see that that typo has been corrected since initial publication. As we will see, people at Money have had occasion to revisit this article.) “Less convinced that married people are happier than single people” — less convinced than whom? It’s not clear; she has just mentioned married men and also single women. It would not be surprising if many married women think being single is better, and that single women think marriage is better: the grass is always greener. Give them a few months on the other side, though, and we might see why the married ones are still married and the single ones are still single. But for women as a whole, Wade is simply wrong about that, as we will see below, and that’s probably why she cites no research in support.
It can be effective, to fire off a series of factual points as Wade does, if they are actual facts, and if those facts support your point. For instance, she’s right when she says women are much more likely to file for divorce — but, again, does that show that marriage is a trap? Or does it show, rather, that women influenced by people like Wade feel that marital commitments do not really apply to them?
If, unlike Wade, we were to look at research that is both relevant and fairly current, we might consider the findings of Chapman & Guven (2014):
People in self-assessed poor marriages are fairly miserable and much less happy than unmarried people, even in the first year of marriages. However, people in self-assessed good marriages are even happier than the literature suggests. Women show greater range of responses to marriage quality than men. . . . A strong link from happiness to marriage does not exist. However, happier people are more likely to stay single instead of being unhappily married, but less likely to stay single compared to being very happily married . . . .
Those authors summarize prior research in terms quite different from those of Wade’s article:
The relationship between marriage and happiness has been studied widely in a range of social science disciplines and there is a comfortable consensus that marriage has a positive and enduring influence on well-being. . . . The literature has established a positive and significant relationship between being married and good health for both men and women. . . . In addition, married people live longer than unmarried people . . . . [Moreover,] social support due to being married has an important and positive effect on psychological and self-rated health.
As another source, we have Vanassche et al. (2012),
[W]e find that married people are in general happier than their cohabiting counterparts, a finding that is consistent with prior research and theorizing about the benefits of marriage. . . . [W]omen gain positive feelings from spending additional time at home in a part-time working setting as it allows them to better meet their culturally proscribed responsibilities in the family domain. . . . It seems that gainful work and family are equivalent sources of happiness/satisfaction for women, and that a balanced combination is the most beneficial situation for women. . . . [But] women still don’t experience their greatest subjective well-being in a full-time, two-earner family configuration.
In a study focusing on older married couples, Carr et al. (2014) found
Marriage may be equally salient to the well-being of older men and women. . . . Men’s work-related social ties and women’s rich friendship networks may diminish in number [as they age] . . . . As such, spouses may grow increasingly and equally reliant on one another for both their overall and daily well-being. . . . When men retire and older women’s responsibility for minor children subside, spouses typically experience and report greater role equity. . . . Older adults are more likely than younger adults to forgive their social partners or overlook their transgressions . . . .
(Note that those researchers are predominantly female.)
Of course, married women are fairly likely to have children, and a woman with children is likely to be in a very different situation from one without. Ifcher & Zarghamee (2014) found that, throughout the period from 1972 to 2008, single mothers (including those cohabiting with another adult) continued to be significantly less likely than other adults to describe themselves as happy. The message seems to be: if you are a woman who has children, wants to have children, or will have children, you and they will typically be better off in a traditional marriage. Here, again, my other post discusses some pluses and minuses of cohabitation as an alternative.
Generally, according to Lee (2015, p. 31), “married people are better off than unmarried people in a great variety of ways.” Lee acknowledges important exceptions and qualifications: that some studies point the other way; that some people don’t benefit from marriage; that the benefits of marriage can wear off; that divorce is a real and significant risk for those who marry; and that possibly married people are happier, not because marriage causes happiness, but because happy people are more likely to become and remain married. Those are all valid concerns. But they do not remotely support Wade’s belief that “the average married women [sic] is . . . less happy than single women.”
A Word from Our Sponsor
We are cruising: on to Wade’s third sentence. This one starts to lead us toward what her article is actually about. She says: “Once returned to single life, women’s happiness recovers, whereas men’s declines, and divorced women are less eager to remarry than divorced men.”
Here, as elsewhere in her article, Wade makes clear that she considers marriage a trap for women specifically. Men, she says, are relatively unlikely to file for divorce, less happy after divorce, and more eager to remarry.
So, contrary to Wade’s title, marriage isn’t a trap. It’s just a trap for women — more precisely, for women who are not very good at it.
Not to state the obvious, but Money is not a women’s magazine. Men are going to see the article’s title. Some are going to read the article. In consideration for them, a more appropriate title for Wade’s text would be something like, “How Marriage Traps Women” or “Marriage: Boon for Men, Bust for Women” [sic].
Imagine the reaction if Money ran an article with a title like, “The Trap of Having Children,” whose contents talked almost entirely about how men get trapped into supporting women and kids, and how much happier they are when they bail out of all that. Imagine the reaction, especially, if the article didn’t cite any research for its key claims, or if it misinterpreted the research, or if what it said was flatly bogus. People would be asking, what the hell is the matter with the editors at Money?
Wade’s article treats men as if they were not in the room. Imagine if Money did that to blacks or Asians or other demographic groups. “Here’s what Jews prefer; here’s why that’s a trap for the rest of us.” It will be a while before they publish an article like that. But an article whose title and content treat men as an alien group? No problem. Write whatever you want. You’re a woman with a PhD in a loosely related field, so of course we’ll publish it. Are you kidding? We’ll be so terrified of doing anything wrong, we won’t even proofread what you submit.
Correction: as soon as I wrote those words, I realized there could be another explanation. It turns out that, of the eight top editors at Money, five (including the top four) are female. Also, one of the three males, Marc Peyser, is the author of an article titled “Eleanor Roosevelt, The First Lady of Gay Rights,” and previously worked as deputy editor at a magazine that described itself as “the leading content brand helping women make wise purchasing decisions and enjoy life for less.” So, yeah, I may be wrong; maybe Money is a women’s magazine after all, at least in the view of its editors. It’s puzzling, though — Money‘s media kit webpage says almost two-thirds (64.8%) of its readers are men.
What I am advocating is not that Money has to make everything palatable for everyone. There’s a place in this world for opinion pieces. Just label them as such. Add a disclaimer, like Money‘s disclaimer regarding an online reader poll, letting us know that this article in its Careers section is merely an expression of opinion biased against men, or warning that it may not strive to represent divergent views or situations fairly or accurately. Just, please, don’t publish this sort of material as though it were science, presenting established facts.
Happiness Before and After Divorce
But we were saying: Wade’s third sentence. That sentence continues her machine-gun style, spewing out multiple claims without any specific reference to supporting research. As above, there is a reason for that: the evidence is against her. And she probably knows it. Even if it has been eight years since she last looked at the research in this area, at least she should have been familiar with a well-known older study (Waite et al., 2002) that reached the following conclusions about happiness five years after divorce:
- Unhappily married adults who divorced or separated (regardless of whether they subsequently remarried) were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married.
- Divorce did not reduce symptoms of depression for unhappily married adults, or raise their self-esteem, or increase their sense of mastery, on average, compared to unhappy spouses who stayed married.
- The vast majority of divorces (74 percent) happened to adults who had been happily married five years previously.
- Unhappy marriages were less common than unhappy spouses. Three out of four unhappily married adults were married to someone who was happy with the marriage.
- Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships.
- Two out of three unhappily married adults who stayed in their marriages reported, five years later, that they were now happily married.
Using somewhat more recent data, Bourassa et al. (2015) reached similar findings. Bourassa et al. surveyed people in the mid-1990s with questions pertaining to their marital quality, and then surveyed them again about ten years later, in the mid-2000s, with questions about life satisfaction. For women in very low quality marriages circa 1995, those who had become divorced by the mid-2000s exhibited higher levels of life satisfaction than those who remained in comparably bad marriages. But this category accounted for only about 15% of divorced women. Among women who were in higher quality marriages in 1995, those who had become divorced by the mid-2000s exhibited lower levels of life satisfaction than those who remained in their marriages. This category accounted for 65% of divorced women. These findings suggest that, aside from the small minority of women who are in very bad marriages, divorce tends to result in lower life satisfaction than women would experience by staying in their marriages.
It is plausible that men are more eager to remarry when, as confirmed in the other post, women initiate the large majority of divorces: the typical ex-husband may tend to feel that it seemed to be working OK, as far as he could tell. Men probably account for the majority of the happily married spouses in the unhappy marriages identified by Waite et al. (above). The man who has been served with divorce papers may feel, in other words, that there’s nothing wrong with marriage per se; it’s just a question of finding a partner who is suitable for it — whereas the woman who has sought a divorce may often conclude that she, personally, is not willing and able to be that kind of partner.
Although Wade cites very little supporting research, she is not alone in her interpretation. The Huffington Post (2013) offers a reaction to a large British study (Clark & Georgellis, 2013). While Britain is obviously a separate country with its own laws and internal cultures, researchers apparently tend to feel that divorces there have effects, on the couple, similar to the effects experienced in the United States. These graphs summarize a part of that study’s findings:
This chart compares male and female responses to a single question, administered year after year. The question is, “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?” The bottom (horizontal, X) axis indicates Year Zero as the year in which the divorce occurred. The left (vertical, Y) axis indicates the overall level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction reported by the people participating in the study. (The numbers on the left axis are produced by a complex equation; their usefulness here is just to indicate how relatively positive or negative the average response was.) The authors of the study explain that these graphs show how satisfied or dissatisfied men and women were, throughout the nine-year timeframe shown. As one might expect, people who were moving toward a divorce tended to be dissatisfied during the several years prior to, and not too happy at the time of, that event.
The graphs show that both men and women began to feel better as the prospect of divorce came into view, a year or two beforehand, and continued to feel better for at least two years afterward. It is not clear why male life satisfaction dropped sharply in the third year after divorce. Possibly there is a retrenchment, at which point men tend to become aware of drawbacks in single life and begin to commit to new relationships, whereas women deny or do not experience that; or perhaps that is the point at which men are most intensively comparing their new relationships against the best moments of their previous one. Regardless, by the five-year mark, levels of satisfaction reported by men and women appear to be converging. Indeed, their respective trajectories suggest that men may continue to experience rising satisfaction in years 6 and thereafter, while women may continue to experience gradually declining satisfaction. Of course, life satisfaction at that point could be due to many factors; but where there is a visible trend, it seems that the very significant divorce event continues to have an influence and, with age and maturity, remains a point of perspective on what was gained and lost.
Interpreting those graphs, the Huffington Post says that women “are significantly more content than usual for up to five years after divorce” and that divorce “makes them much happier than men.” The study’s authors do not describe their findings that way. They say that these graphs provide only “mild” evidence that women are more satisfied with their lives after divorce, and they observe that “both sexes are in general significantly more satisfied after divorce than they were in the four years preceding divorce.” Assuming the Post employs someone capable of reading social science research articles, it is not clear why they would have exaggerated the results that way.
While Wade did not name this study, she does appear to have been referring to it. It appears, in fact, that she may have been relying on this sort of article instead of reviewing the scientific literature directly — which, of course, would be exactly what an expert should not do. I say that because, if Wade had read the article, she would have seen that the Huffington Post‘s coverage remarkably ignores the most important findings from the British study. As just indicated, the first part of the study involved the use of a single question about life satisfaction. You might not be too impressed by a psychologist who based his/her diagnosis on your answer to the question, “How are you?” Most of us realize that it can take a bit of exploration to figure out what’s really going on in someone’s head. That’s why mental health is typically measured using instruments that ask multiple questions, so as to get at the desired phenomenon from different perspectives — because, in the case of depression, for example, people may differ in what they experience or how they respond. Some may cry while others become irritable, and so forth.
In the second part of their study, Clark & Georgellis used a standard 12-item questionnaire known as the GHQ-12. According to the authors (pp. 499, 510), “The GHQ is widely used in medical, psychological and sociological research, and is considered to be a robust indicator of the individual’s psychological state.” The questions ask the person to compare his/her present state with his/her usual state. For example, one question asks whether the person has recently “felt constantly under strain,” and the response choices are “Better than usual,” “Same as usual,” “Less than usual,” and “Much less than usual.” Other GHQ questions inquire into ability to concentrate, loss of sleep, feelings of being unhappy, ability to face up to problems, and so forth. So, with that background, look at the results from the GHQ questionnaire:
To illustrate what I just said, look at the situation of women two years after divorce. At that point, the curve is at the zero level. This apparently indicates that, two years after divorce, the level of mental health suggested by divorced women’s answers to the various questions on the GHQ-12 tends to be about the same as the ordinary level of mental health displayed by the average of about 9,000 women whose responses were considered for each of the ten years indicated on the graph (see p. 499).
In these two graphs, the overall patterns are roughly similar to the ones shown above, but the magnitudes and levels are quite different from those produced by the single-question approach. In the authors’ words (p. 506), discussing this second part of the study, “[T]he long-run effects of divorce are estimated to be positive and significant for men but negative and significant for women.” This is, in other words, pretty much the opposite of what Wade said.
The explanation may be that women are more inclined than men to give upbeat answers to a single question about their level of life satisfaction, as shown by the prior set of graphs; but if you probe into the specifics, you get a much less rosy picture. Note, in addition, that the answers given by study participants ask them to compare their present state of mind to their “usual” state of mind. That is not the same as a comparison against a fixed reference point (e.g., “please compare your present feeling to how you felt at the worst point in your marriage”). It appears, in other words, that in most post-divorce years, men may be reporting, in effect, “There hasn’t been the dramatic improvement in mood that I experienced in that first year after the divorce; but I still felt better than usual last year, when you asked me, and I feel even better now than I felt last year.”
Of course, there have been many studies. The British study is just one — a significant one, but not the final word. Thus, it may not be true that Wade and the Huffington Post are offering an upbeat but false impression of women’s actual post-divorce mental state. But this particular study certainly casts doubt upon Wade’s assertion that “women’s happiness recovers” following divorce. It appears, rather, that men typically lose a major mental load, while women eventually find themselves at least as unhappy as they were while married — which is also what Waite et al. (2002) found (see bullet points, above).
Wade is correct in saying that “divorced women are less eager to remarry than divorced men.” According to Pew (2014), eligible (i.e., divorced or widowed) women are nearly twice as likely as men (54% vs. 30%) to say they do not want to remarry. But these results from the GHQ-12 seem to say that’s not because women are so relieved to be free from marriage, or are any happier outside of marriage. For many women, the situation may be simply that their upbringing, their friends, and the “therapeutic culture” and “divorce culture” discussed in my other post, combine to create an impression that being single is more normal than being married. If you’ve been trained all your life to swim, you might rather be in the water than in the boat, regardless of whether that is an objectively superior place to be.
From such studies, and from common sense, the advice seems to be, if you have a marriage that is working, or that can be made to work, you don’t need a PhD to understand the saying about the bird in the hand. If you have something that’s absolutely ruined, of course, then you may have no sensible alternative but to seek a divorce. Generally, the research reviewed here — including specifically the research that the Huffington Post and Wade seem to have relied upon — suggests that women are not generally well advised in their decisions to initiate the large majority of divorces. In most cases, those decisions appear to leave them less happy than their ex-husbands, no happier over the long term than they were before divorce, and less happy than similarly situated women who remain married.
Equality in Marriage
We have now laid a foundation for a discussion of Wade’s real point. We have waded through her introductory verbiage and have found some falsity; now we can begin to approach her actual reasons for describing marriage as a trap.
As it turns out, what concerns Wade is not research, but rather a feeling: she objects to “the invisible workload that drags women down.” We find that she has already discussed this topic in another essay. Perhaps that explains her sloppy work in this piece. She may have just intended this one to serve as a footnote to that one. Maybe she buried the lede because otherwise she’d have had to say, right at the start, “This article is mostly just rehashing my previous one.”
In her previous essay, Wade invokes the work of Seidman (2016) and Walzer (1996). Seidman’s point is, “I am the person who notices.” What Seidman notices is when the household is running out of ketchup, peanut butter, and other essentials of daily life. She provides a long, tongue-in-cheek list of these (e.g., “I am the person who notices we are running low on clean underwear, unless you count the pairs with holes which some people do”). Seidman notices that vegetables in the fridge are rotting, that various electronic devices are not plugged in and recharging, that “the throw in the living room hasn’t been washed in approximately eleven years. But at least I finally noticed.” Seidman also alludes to “the vast amount of details and to-dos packed into my brain” (e.g., family clothing and shoe sizes; when prescriptions need to be refilled; “All the words to Jessie’s Girl”).
Seidman says, “It doesn’t take a village — it takes me.” But in the grand scheme, she’s wrong, and her post shows why. She does demonstrate that a dedicated, hardworking specialist can provide a last-ditch defense against the many times when society, community, and family let things slip. But that is the state of deterioration found in an anarchic and indifferent world, where nobody cares if you live or die. That is not the situation in a healthy community; it is not the tendency where people are allowed to settle themselves long enough to become familiar with and engaged in their neighborhood’s customary rhythms. Over the long term, society tends toward helping people, so that the heroic Seidman won’t have to remember and organize everything. Those annual dental appointments? Yes, in previous generations it was every man, woman, or family for themselves. But now we have socialized that, in multiple ways: by preferring an economy in which dentists compete by reminding their clients when it’s time for a checkup; by encouraging physicians, social workers, and other caregivers to watch or ask about such matters; by favoring online calendars and personal management tools that remind us. These and other collective efforts amount to a modern version of the town crier, the rooster crowing at dawn (or whenever he feels like it), the Sunday morning church bell, and other social innovations that unfold when people live in close contact with one another. To the extent that domestic life is allowed to settle down from the turmoil of recent centuries, in coming decades the village (more typically, the neighborhood) may continue to recover some of its organizing functions in our lives, sparing us from the overwhelming tide of trivia that I discuss in another post.
In the shorter term, to be sure, Seidman does have a point. Until we have substantially recovered from the social atomization of the industrial era, there will continue to be many small tasks and facts that one or more household members will have to remember and take charge of. Some will be lucky enough to find a chief householder like Seidman, who wears well the responsibility for making sure the place runs as it should. That person will probably be a housewife, in most cases, but not necessarily: I, myself, have lived the life of a house husband, without children, producing very positive results for my wife and, at the time, for myself. In the course of listing the myriad small things she takes care of, Seidman makes clear,
I am the only person in our household who ever notices that we need more t.p. . . . And this is why I rock. . . . This is not to disparage my beloved. Hells to the no! . . . This isn’t about him. This is about me.
So that’s the viewpoint of one of Wade’s sources. The other one is not so good-humored — and this one, unfortunately, seems much closer to Wade’s own position. Walzer (1996) interviewed 50 parents (forming 25 couples) to explore “the more invisible, mental labor that is involved in taking care of a baby.” Walzer believes that this invisible mental labor results in “gender imbalances” that “play a particular role in reproducing differentiation between mothers and fathers and stimulating marital tension” (p. 219).
Plainly, Walzer feels that imbalance or differentiation between marital partners is bad. And there certainly is evidence that many who have not yet been married, and perhaps many who were not successful at marriage, prefer a pairing of equals. For example, Coon Sells and Ganong (2016) found that twentysomething Americans “anticipated being more personally satisfied in an egalitarian GRR [gender role relationship] than in any other GRR type,” where the other types included (a) male or female head of household, with a partner functioning as homemaker, and (b) male or female senior earner, with a partner as junior earner having reduced decisionmaking power.
No doubt that research is right; no doubt this is what most young adults think they want in their marriages. They may assume that real life will be like life in high school or college, when everyone is on a relatively level playing field. But that’s not reality. Pew (Wang, 2013) found that, when those young people actually got married, they were less likely than older couples to have a dual-income marriage, and more likely to opt for the traditional breadwinner-housewife pattern. Wang noted that 57% of those young couples did have dual-income marriages, up from 51% in 1980. She also observed that the gap between ideal and reality, for those young couples choosing the traditional pattern, was probably due to the presence of young children in the household. Yet that is precisely the scenario in Walzer’s remark about “taking care of a baby.” There is the wish for an egalitarian relationship, and then there is the fact that many pressures, ranging from the workforce and childcare to one’s in-laws, persistently push people toward the traditional model.
Clearly, an unequal relationship can engender unhappiness and abuse. If two business partners bring different strengths to their partnership, it will be possible and tempting for one to exploit his/her advantage at those times when the other depends on him/her. For instance, a partner who speaks Spanish may have to accept the opinion of his partner, a tech wizard, regarding the specifications of a device they are marketing; and, in turn, the tech wizard may have to accept the Spanish-speaker’s explanation regarding payment from their client in Chile. The trick is to develop justified trust, so that you can both be looking forward instead of constantly watching each other.
In other words, there is no necessary advantage to equality per se. Equality can actually produce an inferior outcome. Two tech wizards, neither speaking Spanish, wouldn’t have that Chilean client. A partnership will be stronger, not if the partners have identical roles or capabilities but, rather, if their pooled capabilities are greater than either would have alone. In the context of romantic relationships, what appears most desirable is for each partner to bring a mix of similar and dissimilar traits to a relationship: similar, so as to share enough in common to form a resilient bond; but dissimilar, so as to increase the partnership’s ability to cope with external threats — and also, vive la différence, to facilitate curiosity and discovery between partners. It is worth considering, for example, that Kornrich et al. (2014) find that “both husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency” (see also Jozifkova et al., 2014).
Let us be clear: equality with men is not something to aspire to. As stated by Proudman (2015),
I am a feminist and I do not strive for equality. . . . To be equal, women have to show they are strong enough to live up to men’s standards in a man’s world. . . . Once women have joined male dominated areas of work, nobody asks why anybody regardless of gender would work in these repressive institutions. The crux of the matter is that men live and work in a brutal society . . . . When women enter the male realm whether law, politics, or a construction site, they find themselves in a repugnant world in which their only means of survival is by undergoing a fundamental transformation leaving them with little opportunity to make any change.
As other women suggested in my previous post, what is needed is not for women to pile on top of the existing social order, in which the household has been denigrated in favor of the industrial and corporate purposes that men’s bodies and minds have been compelled to serve for the past two centuries. What is needed is to dedicate as many of us as possible — female, most likely, but male whenever possible — to the rebuilding of home and community, so as to reverse priorities away from the imprisoning houses and schedules that are all we can manage, in these lives devoted to corporate priorities.
According to Pew (Parker & Livingston, 2016), 52% of working fathers and 60% of working mothers agree that it is difficult to balance the responsibilities of work and family. As fathers become reoriented toward awareness that there is more to life than the job — specifically, as they find themselves spending more time with their children than their fathers spent with them — they may start to realize that, actually, raising kids properly requires even more time than they expected. One can say much the same about building a community. A community, a child, a marriage — these things can persist at a starvation level, at least for a while; but we are apt to discover that much is required, once we become engaged enough to see how much they need us, and what a positive difference we can make by becoming really committed to them.
The Love of Money
Unfortunately for married men who might wish to become more fully engaged in home and community, the priorities of their wives may push toward long hours of work. Pew (2013) reports that, on average, married fathers work five hours per week longer than single fathers, and seven hours per week longer than cohabiting fathers.
What their wives expect, it seems, is not exactly that the guy will spend the equivalent of an extra day per week at the office. Rather, the situation seems to be that the men whom women want to marry are those with successful careers that often require inordinate time commitments. For example, Tinsley et al. (2015, pp. 38, 46) found that women “are less likely to marry men whom they may out-earn” and that “On average, both men and women, across a variety of ages and income levels, preferred the husband to out-earn his wife.” Pew offers other related findings:
- The percentage of the public considering it extremely important for fathers to provide income (41%) continues to be significantly larger than the percentage considering it extremely important for mothers to do so (25%) (Parker & Livingston, 2016).
- As of 2011, fathers devoted 76% more hours per week to paid work than mothers did (37 hours vs. 21 hours), and also devoted one more hour per week, on average, to the combined total of paid work, housework, and child care (54 hours vs. 53 hours) (Parker & Livingston).
- 78% of never-married women (vs. 46% of never-married men) consider it very important that their prospective spouse or partner have a steady job (Wang & Parker, 2014).
Among women generally (i.e., married or not), Fales et al. (2016) found that 97% (vs. 74% of men) considered it “desirable” or “essential” that their potential partner had a steady income, and 69% of women (vs. 47% of men) considered it desirable or essential that the potential partner makes, or will make, a lot of money. At the same time, women were nearly as likely as men (84% vs. 92%) to consider it desirable or essential that the potential partner is good-looking. Such findings testify to a widely recognized double standard: women are significantly more likely to be considered appealing if they have looks but not much money.
It is no surprise that the hardest-working, best-earning guys are the most sought-after marriage candidates. Frankly, I’d like to marry someone like that myself: kiss the partner goodbye in the morning, and then spend the day lolling on the couch, eating bonbons. But the researchers say I’m very unlikely to find a woman willing to be my breadwinner. And I’m not gay, so having a husband is not an option. Or, hmm, maybe it is. According to The Daily Beast (Lang, 2015), a high percentage of gay marriages are not monogamous. Maybe I could marry some dude, we could have a platonic marriage, and I would be free to have sex with women. There’s got to be someone out there who would just love to have me on those terms.
Not that stay-at-home wives really do pass their days getting their nails done. But it is clear that quite a few of them want something that is largely unavailable for men: a mixed life in which they can spend a chunk of their weekday time at home with their kids, instead of just slaving away for fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week at one damn job, year after year, with everything riding upon keeping that job or another that may be even more demanding. Gallup (Miller & Adkins, 2016) reports that men are 50% more likely than women to work more than 40 hours per week; meanwhile, men are less than half as likely as women to work less than 40 hours per week. In hourly jobs, men are more than three times as likely as women to work 60+ hours per week. I’m going to guess which women are working the most relaxed schedules: it ain’t the single ones.
Truly, equality could be a legitimate objective for a married couple, if women weren’t so strongly inclined to value men for their financial worth. A report on research by Munsch et al. (2016) suggests that it is better for both parties if the man bears less of a financial burden and the woman bears more:
[A]s men took on more financial responsibility in their marriages, their psychological well-being and health declined. Men’s psychological well-being and health were at their worst during years when they were their families’ sole breadwinner. . . . Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one’s family with little or no help has negative repercussions.
Breadwinning has the opposite effect for women when it comes to psychological well-being. Women’s psychological well-being improved as they made greater economic contributions. . . . Men who make a lot more money than their partners may approach breadwinning with a sense of obligation and worry about maintaining breadwinner status . . . [whereas women] may approach breadwinning as an opportunity or choice. Breadwinning women may feel a sense of pride, without worrying what others will say [or what will happen to their marriage and family] if they can’t or don’t maintain it.
Miller & Adkins (2017) report that female participation in the labor force rose from 1975 to 2000, when having a job still seemed like liberation; but the percentage (and, more so, the absolute number) has been gradually falling ever since, now that women have begun to experience what I was saying about spending one’s life serving a corporation. For many, the best advice may be, Get out while you can, honey — it sucks! Gallup (2017) reports that a majority of women are looking for “greater work-life balance and better personal well-being” — that 60% of them feel those are “very important” attributes in a new job. I think so too. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get it.
I’m rooting for the women: I hope they manage to change the workforce for the better. I bet they won’t, though. It’s been 40 years since they really started flocking to the workforce, and the improvements have been underwhelming. Work-life balance and personal well-being are simply not what the traditional workforce has tended to be about; and in these years of offshoring and task automation, I don’t know that women will have much leverage in such matters — until they decide to unionize, if then.
Having money, working hard at a job — these are traditional male virtues. Today’s de facto feminist view appears to be that a woman can continue to use men in these traditional ways, and yet can simultaneously reserve the right to complain that he is spending too much time at work and should be doing more of her traditional job. He can respond to those complaints by reducing his income, becoming more of a homemaker, and spending more time with his kids, but in that case there’s another gotcha: it appears that doing so will make him less appealing to women, potentially including his partner — with consequences for, among other things, the quality of their love life (above).
Of course, rank exploitation of men would be unfair, and I’m sure many women strive to be fair. I’m also sure many wives love their husbands, and are not (or at least not consciously) driven principally by money. Besides, women are not the only ones influenced by money. In one study, for instance, Li et al. (2016) found that men who feel they have more money are less likely to be satisfied with their partners’ physical attractiveness — which should not be surprising; female priorities position and encourage such men to exploit their opportunities.
To some extent, money itself may be the culprit. Adult Americans have grown up in an unprecedentedly prosperous time in human history. Martin et al. (2016) find that people who had wealthy parents are more likely to be narcissistic (i.e., to have reduced empathy, a belief that one deserves special treatment, and a tendency to take a dominant role toward others, as distinct from having more realistic views of oneself and of one’s place in the world). Americans may not feel wealthy; they certainly haven’t been sharing in the rewards reaped by the top 1% since the 1970s; and yet we have been really spoiled — we have indulged unrealitically rising expectations — compared to what earlier generations had, and what people have in many other countries. Among other things, American adults may be inclined to assume their personal entitlement to the things that persons of their gender would traditionally hope for. In particular, what we expect of our partners, in terms of physiques and finances, is often not what we are going to qualify for; and in that case, many of us may want to take our toys and go home.
As long as you believe you are likely to get a millionaire husband, and especially if you believe that’s what you deserve, it is going to be difficult for you to take a realistic view of your own responsibility for contributing to the financial bottom line and allowing your mate to share equally in the experience of family life and in the enjoyment of leisure time. Likewise, if you believe you deserve and, someday, will find the kind of woman who would normally chase a millionaire husband, you may struggle to accept and be happy with a woman who isn’t so perfect but who is actually there at your side, pulling her weight and contributing to a better life than you would have without her.
Money is a potential problem, not only in feeding unrealistic expectations, but also in another sense: exposure to it has been shown to distort judgment and debase character. For instance, The Atlantic (Thompson, 2013) cites studies demonstrating that merely thinking about money often results in increased dishonesty and selfishness; Laracy’s (2017) dissertation observed a link between wealth and paranoia; and Vohs et al. (2006) found that reminders of money resulted in reduced helpfulness and a preference for greater distance from others. Wang & Krumhuber (2016) summarize current research thus:
[W]hen it comes to interpersonal relationships, money has been found to have a dark underbelly by increasing selfishness and ‘breeding’ unethical behaviour. Specifically, money reduces pro-sociality, compassion in the face of others’ misfortunes, and the ability for emotional inference and perspective taking. These effects are robust as even using subtle reminders of money (e.g., exposure to money-related words and images) can lead to negative consequences such as cheating and a reduction in helpful behaviour.
Wang & Krumhuber suggest that these unfortunate behaviors result from objectification — from, that is, viewing others as means to an end, effectively denying their humanity. In their own study, the authors found that, when study participants felt wealthier, they tended to prefer people who were of direct use to their goal achievement; tended to downplay or disregard a person’s ability to think, plan, or feel pain; and, in a subtle but telling task assigned by researchers, displayed unnecessarily destructive behavior toward stuffed animals.
Those who bemusedly observe the antics of billionaires may not be surprised to hear that money can become an addiction. A variety of articles in the popular press discuss aspects of this problem. For instance, Time (Ashford, 2015) advises seeing a financial therapist when money issues take on a psychological dimension. None other than Inc. (Weisul, 2014) offers an article, “How Anyone Can Become Addicted to Money,” quoting a former CEO: “The strange part is, the more I made, the more I got preoccupied with money.” The Huffington Post (Dayton, 2011) offers some clarification: addicts become preoccupied with the object of their addiction, to the exclusion of other parts of life; their identity becomes dependent upon it (e.g., “Who would I be without it?”). Writing in the Journal of Financial Therapy, Canale & Klontz (2013, pp. 46, 49) found that money-hoarding individuals “often lack a personal connection with other people, and therefore develop intensified attachments to possessions” and that “individuals who linked net worth to self-worth and held the belief that the key to happiness and the solution to all of their problems was to have more money were significantly more likely to engage in hoarding behaviors.”
Needless to say, a number of these observations can apply directly to the golddigger whose first taste of moneyed men leaves her wanting more. Along these lines, Ong & Wang (2015) found a striking increase in the number of visits that women made to the profiles of men on a popular Chinese dating website: male profiles not only received more visits as their incomes rose, but also received disproportionately more visits from higher-earning women. (Note, however, that online and speed dating contexts do not necessarily predict what people will experience or prefer when meeting in person. See Abramova et al., 2016; Li & Meltzer, 2015, p. 91.)
Addiction to money may be worse than some other addictions, for purposes of enjoying a balanced life with good relationships to others. For one thing, there is no toxic physical limit, so it can just keep going for years. In addition, the dose can be increased very quickly, under conditions of dramatic financial gain. Also, people generally assume that you are in a superior situation, even if you are actually experiencing some of the disadvantages of wealth. And you may be pretty much alone in such experiences, as few others may be able to believe or relate to the possibility that you could still be unhappy — that, for example, your ability to afford the best may actually leave you more dissatisfied with imperfection.
The foregoing findings on money suggest a different perspective on the phenomenon in which marriage is increasingly for rich people. The usual assumption, discussed in my other post, is that people are now more likely to view marriage as a capstone event, best undertaken at a somewhat older age and by people whose finances are in relatively good order. What was puzzling about that interpretation was that these relatively well-to-do people would continue to experience such frightful rates of divorce — not as high as the peak among the Baby Boomers, but nonetheless far higher than their rates of failure at anything else in their lives and careers. If their houses collapsed at the rates their marriages do, there would be a national outcry.
The better interpretation may be that people used to be somewhat unsure about whether to marry for love or for money, but that the increasing social acceptability of cohabitation has bifurcated the picture. Those who are driven primarily by a desire to find new ways to take what they can get from other people — who, in particular, begin to fear that they may age out of the prime marriage and childbirth years — may conclude at some point that they are pushing their luck on the socially approved age for transitioning into those pursuits. That is, they may have to take action if they are going to optimize, for themselves, the acquisition of private and social benefits that selfish people hope to get from marriage. They may also be more able to afford, and willing to risk, the drawbacks of divorce, bearing in the backs of their minds the possibility of trading up at some point in the future. By contrast, those who would marry to be with someone they love, or to be part of something other than themselves, but who have been sobered if not traumatized by previous generations’ catastrophic rates of divorce, may be more inclined to cohabit instead.
The unfortunate possibility, in that interpretation, is that the legalization of no-fault divorce, which may be most suited for people who are less committed to one person and more open to the idea of moving on, may have robbed the marry-for-love crowd of the stability that the previous era’s institutionalized marriage offered. (Here, again, the other post provides relevant information.) There is a question of whether many cohabitations end, not because their relationships are less rewarding than those experienced by many married couples in the previous era, but just because cohabitation is so easy to end when a relationship hits an inevitable rough spot (see Li & Meltzer, 2015, p. 99). It would be reassuring if failed cohabitations were unusual — if, that is, the occasional bad match were usually remedied by discovery of a good partner with whom one would then spend many years — but that does not seem to be the case. It seems, rather, that the avoidance of marriage and the unreliability of cohabitation mean that a great many people find themselves passing much of their adult lives in alternating periods of relationship and singleness, variously enduring conditions that compare poorly with those of married couples, in terms of stability, loneliness, time stress, and financial difficulty.
These thoughts suggest, again, that women may be disserving themselves by indulging groupthink in the area of money — in giving money the role it now plays in their mate selection. Prioritizing wealth and income means limiting yourself to a certain type of man — often, a morally dubious type — and becoming more sympathetic to that type’s view of people; accepting the reduced time that such a man may have for you and your family; swimming with the sharks, in terms of the risk that your highly desirable husband will be highly desired by others who may out-compete you; and adopting a skewed and potentially isolating perspective on what is important in life. A preoccupation with money is understandable. Money is a cause of many marital fights. But the poor are not the only ones who have such fights. Indeed, money can make the stakes higher. Poor people are not usually the ones who can afford the long, grinding divorce battles that I saw documented in the legal casebooks, during my own years of exposure to that sphere of activity.
Contra Walzer, at any rate, and regardless of whether women should favor egalitarian thinking, it seems clear that women (and society in general) do tend toward role differentiation. Husbands have little practical alternative but to stay on the job and succeed at it, while wives are more likely to enjoy the freedom to treat paid work as an option, and to indulge it on a more relaxed schedule, with greater work-life balance. Progress toward equality in relationships seems to depend upon a move away from feminist exploitation of traditional role expectations. Unfortunately, women are not yet becoming significantly more like men in their appreciation of potential partners who appear unlikely to enhance their household wealth and personal comfort.
An Occupied Mind
The two preceding sections have discussed the work of Seidman and Walzer. Seidman took an upbeat view of being the household expert on the question of what her family needs; Walzer took a critical view of gendered roles in the household.
Wade cited those two sources in support of her concern regarding “the invisible workload that drags women down.” But as just shown, that phrasing distorts Seidman’s presentation. She is not dragged down. Wade finds it “exhausting to read” Seidman’s words, but plainly Seidman herself is not exhausted, nor is she complaining. One might guess that, unlike Seidman, Wade previously had an unsupportive spouse, did not enjoying being a mom, and/or did not allow ample time for the job of being a mom.
Wade’s article appends a link to another Money article (Levs, 2017). It appears that link may be there because the editors at Money heard an earful from men who objected to Wade’s statements. The Levs article takes particular issue with Wade’s remark, “To be free, we need to free women’s minds. . . . Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men.” Levs replies: men have as much stress as women, greater struggles to get enough sleep, 3.5 times as many suicides, “Mad Men-era work structures,” and far greater barriers to spending time with their families. In contrast to what he describes as Walzer’s small and outdated study, Levs summarizes research presented in his book, All In, indicating that “men suffer from work-life conflict even more than women do.”
Levs also questions Wade’s assumption that men need their wives to tell them what to buy at the store. He acknowledges that women may do more worrying in general, but rejects the claim that men aren’t doing their fair share of the household’s mental work. He says, in addition, that views like those put forward by Wade are counterproductive, insofar as they feed into employers’ beliefs that mothers do the housework and therefore fathers don’t need flexible schedules or paternity leave.
Christianity Today (Kennedy, 2017) likewise expressed bafflement at Wade’s claim that men experience “lightness of mind”:
I can only assume that Wade hasn’t had close contact with lower-class, middle-class, and even upper-class men who carry significant economic and domestic burdens. Perhaps she means the beleaguered silence that men lapse into when they’re accused of not helping enough. Or perhaps she has in mind the deadbeat dads who shirk their responsibilities. Setting aside these outliers, however, “lightness” is not the word that best describes the mental state of the average American husband.
Kennedy quotes Slaughter’s (2015) book, Unfinished Business: “Polls suggest that men feel as great a conflict between work and family as women do (and in some polls, a greater conflict) . . . . Both sexes are trapped in the same system.” Kennedy adds, “My husband is completely unlike me. He doesn’t notice what I notice because he is busy noticing different things that I hadn’t even considered. He carries around a mountain of anxiety just like I do, but it is not the same, and that is a great gift, a blessing, a providential grace.”
Various media outlets affirm that women do tend to worry more than men. Remes et al. (2016), reviewing a number of previous studies, found that women around the world were almost twice as likely as men to be affected by anxiety disorders. They also found that people under 35, and people living in North America, were at higher risk of anxiety. Taken together, these findings did support the impression that a young American wife, facing the same domestic situation as her typically somewhat older husband, might display inordinate anxiety about household conditions. Wade says,
If she were gone, you bet her husband would start noticing when the fridge went empty and the diapers disappeared. Thinking isn’t a superpower; it’s work. And it all too often seems only natural that women do the hard work of running a household. . . .
It’s about housework, yes, but it extends to having to consider what neckline, hemline, height of heel, and lipstick shade is appropriate for that job interview, afternoon wedding, or somber funeral, instead of relying on an all-purpose suit; it’s about thinking carefully about how to ask for a raise . . . .
To which the reaction might be, actually, Lisa, her husband just might not be as bent out of shape about things. If she’s going to beat him to the punch every time, then, yes, she is going to bear the burden. There does seem to be a question of whether complaints about men not doing housework are actually complaints about men not running the house in the way an anxious woman would. But I doubt most women would prefer a constantly anxious, Woody Allen type of husband.
I do sympathize with the other part of her complaint, about the neckline and lipstick shade and such. But here, again, I don’t think the solution is for me to start worrying about all that. If you enjoy dressing as women do (and perhaps must) dress in the corporate workplace, great — knock yourself out. If you don’t, then you might want to redirect some of that worry power to the question of why you’re choosing this sort of life, and stop complaining that your male partner isn’t more like you.
Being In It for Yourself
Let us return to Wade’s primary article (i.e., not the one that discusses Seidman and Walzer). There, she offers another remarkable statement:
Men also do thinking work, especially the thinking work that’s culturally masculine. One friendly reader commented, for example, that her husband is responsible for making sure the lawn gets mowed, the cars get serviced, and the gutters get cleaned. . . . Granted, but those household chores—like the ones that are usually delegated to men—are weekly at best, and often monthly, seasonal, and even annual. They aren’t comparable in frequency to the chores that many women feel responsible for: dinner, laundry, carpool, practices, lessons. So women’s minds tend to be more relentlessly and unceasingly occupied than men’s.
It does appear that the Christianity Today writer was on target — that Wade seems not to know much about what men are thinking. This raises, again, the question of why on Earth the good people at Money decided to tap her as a supposed expert on this topic.
But beyond that, how is it even possible for a grown woman (never mind a supposed expert on marriage) to make such statements? I mean, I’ve lived with several different women in my life. I had a pretty good idea of what was on their minds, at least to the extent they were willing to tell me. Ordinarily, if one believes the stories about superior female intuition and communication, one would expect that Wade would have a clue as to what would be on her partner’s mind. Wade’s self-positioning as a writer and expert in this area would also lead one to expect that she would have done some reading on the subject, or at least would know what other women say. How could a person in her position possibly have the idea that men who are devoting substantial hours to housework and childcare are only busy with occasional tasks like mowing the lawn and cleaning the gutters? For that matter, how could she describe cleaning the gutters as “thinking work”? And how is it that these hard, risky, physically challenging tasks are “his” job, but everything else seems to be “their” job?
My first reaction was that Wade must have had a sheltered childhood. I wondered whether maybe more husbands should drag their wives along, now and then, when they’re getting the car serviced or stopping at the hardware store, so as to give their wives some concept of what goes on in such activities. Put her up on that ladder for a change! Give her a screwdriver and let her rewire that busted light switch! (Don’t forget to turn off the circuit breaker, or she’ll really be the light of your life.) My second reaction was that Wade, herself, seemed to be a case in point, in her advice to others:
[Gerson asked men and women] about their Plan B. Plan A, if you recall, was sharing [household work], with 70% of men and 80% of women preferring it. But on Plan B, men and women diverge in catastrophic ways: almost 70% of men want to revert to traditional gender roles. Faced with that option, nearly 75% of women want a divorce.
There are a powerful lesson in this literature . . . . [W]e need to talk to our spouses and potential spouses about our ideal plans and our backup plans. If we only talk about what we want, we miss a dangerous point of conflict.
Did Wade, herself, have that kind of talk with her spouse? Probably not: she doesn’t seem to have grasped much detail about what men think about, and anyway her writing seems generally oriented toward her own experience, though she doesn’t generally admit it.
What Wade describes in that quote does convey a sense of how out-of-touch women might be. She seems to say that, in Gerson’s research, women are generally unaware that marriage today frequently results in a fairly traditional division of labor, especially during the years of caring for a young child (above). But this, she says, is news to young women. How is that possible? Are their mothers and other advisors failing to prepare them for marriage? Men, by contrast, do seem fairly acquainted with what will be expected of them, if their wives decide to stay home with the baby. Are we to understand that young wives would rather take the baby and be single mothers than deal with life as a housewife?
To put that question in context, we might consider Matthews’s (1987, p. 98) description of the work of a housewife in the 19th century. Laundry, which might have to be done multiple times a week for multiple children, included soaking clothes in cold water, rubbing the seams with soap, washing and wringing by hand, adding tepid water, wringing again, rinsing again, and hanging out to dry. And laundry was just one item on the list of other chores, nearly as long as that offered by Seidman, and much more backbreaking: canning and preserving fruit, making sauces and jellies, cooking three meals a day, polishing stoves, keeping lamps and gas fixtures in order, patching, darning, knitting, crocheting. Like Seidman’s list of things to remember, it is a long list — and, this time, it really is daunting.
In other words, there’s no denying that the modern home can be stressful. But it is not unreasonable to wonder whether self-indulgence is part of the problem. Not many wives are carrying out those 19th-century tasks anymore, whereas quite a few husbands still work in backbreaking jobs — and the rest are quite commonly expected to be ready to perform dangerous tasks on behalf of their wives and children, in the middle of the night or in unfamiliar neighborhoods or as their new way of bringing home the bacon, if it comes to that.
In a number of Wade’s remarks, I was reminded of an article in FiveThirtyEight (Pierson, 2014) titled, “In the End, People May Really Just Want to Date Themselves.” Pierson describes her study of a million matches made by eHarmony.com. Pierson found that members of that dating site — women, especially — are overwhelmingly interested in people like themselves: “In fact, of the 102 traits in the data set, there was not one for which women were more likely to contact men with opposite traits,” whereas men were more willing to contact women who were not entirely like them. In this, as in a number of other areas noted in this post and in the preceding one, there did seem to be a sense of narcissistic unreality or self-entitlement in the attitudes that many women bring to marriage.
Limits to Happiness for Married Women
Taken as a whole, Wade’s article seems to demonstrate that there are women who have unfair or unrealistic attitudes toward men and marriage. It is not surprising that such women would never marry or, having married, would find themselves divorced.
The availability of divorce surely helps to explain the happiness of married women: many of those who are not happy in marriage don’t remain married. Studies cited above suggest that married women are happier than divorced women, and that women who remain married despite marital difficulties wind up happier than women who divorce. Yet these observations require some clarification. Other charts from the large British study mentioned above (Clark & Georgellis, 2013) provide interesting information:
The previous GHQ charts (above) looked at mental health after divorce. These charts show the results of the GHQ-12 questionnaire for men and women in the years before and after marriage. The charts indicate a drop in happiness several years before marriage. This may mean that, for those who marry, the single life tends to lose its appeal, and it feels like it’s time to find a lifelong partner. Levels of self-reported happiness rise for the next several years, as more find that special person and as the marriage date approaches. After peaking in the year of marriage, the curve turns downward.
As above, the GHQ question is whether the person feels better, worse, or about the same as usual. If you have had years of pre- and post-marital happiness, presumably “happy” (or, more accurately for the GHQ, a positive mental state) becomes your “usual” state of mind. For four or five years, starting before the wedding and continuing afterwards, you feel better than usual. Three years after marriage, women stop reporting gains — but they also don’t report losses. They seem to be living at the new, higher level of happiness that they accrued during the preceding years of feeling better than usual. For men, the post-wedding picture is different. Starting a few years after marriage, perhaps with the arrival of children, men begin to lose ground, possibly returning to something like their typical pre-marital level of mental health.
Again, the British study is but one among many. As noted earlier, it suggests that divorce may only temporarily lift the mood of those women who get divorced. But what about women who never marry? DePaulo (2016) forcefully advocates that marriage does not make people happier than those that never marry — that, in fact, if you include those who marry and divorce, it makes them less happy on average (see also Singal, 2016). Yet plainly there are people who find marriage much better than life before marriage — who would not have wanted to go through life without being married.
Recent attempts to capture the situation have resulted in various formulations. One is the Chapman & Guven (2016) quote provided above. As another approach, the Huffington Post (Neal, 2013) equivocates, noting that “In many ways, staying single makes sense, especially for women” and yet “there are still compelling reasons for women to marry.” Neal reminds us that Stevenson & Wolfers (2009) found marital happiness declining over the past 35 years — but (aside from the possible change in benchmark discussed by those authors) would that be a comment upon marriage in general, or just upon the drawbacks of no-fault marriage (see other post)?
It is unlikely one answer will work for everyone. On one hand, some people will be raised to succeed in marriage, and will be of a mindset and personality type conducive to marital success, and will be smart and/or lucky enough to find a partner who is likewise suited for it. After subtracting out the more dismal marriages of the previous era, it seems likely that the era before no-fault marriage did motivate people to make sure they chose well and gave it their best, because that’s what people expected them to do, and also because the state treated marriage as an institution, for the benefit of kids and community and not just the partners, and was not inclined to let people out of it easily. On the other hand, we live in a new era, with new options (notably, staying forever single or cohabiting), and surely there are people whose personalities and/or life circumstances are not conducive to happiness and success in marriage.
It appears we await a day when more of the unknowns are sorted out. At some point, it may be possible to take a test — I was thinking of a written test, but possibly it would be something very different, like a genetic test or brain scan — that will predict a person’s odds of success in marriage. Someday, laws may protect the tangible and intangible investments that people make in marriage, without simultaneously trapping anyone in profoundly abusive or otherwise truly miserable situations. Other changes are possible as well. People may eventually burn out on the drama and the exaggerations of sex and romance, as portrayed by the media — not to say there will ever cease to be a market for tales of romance, but just that an aging population may be better at sorting out reality from myth, for purposes of formulating their own plans and hopes.
Clearly, marriage is not a trap. In claiming otherwise, Wade presented me with an opportunity to explore a number of interesting questions about the happiness of women (and to some extent men) in marriage. Marriages do fail. Wade offered reasons to suspect that hers has failed or will fail. Presumably she has been married; presumably she would not be describing marriage as a trap if she were married at present. Her webpage states that she is “currently on leave” from her position at Occidental College in Los Angeles,” and is now living in New Orleans, “the place she calls home.” Her vitae indicates that she is currently a visiting professor at Loyola. Overall, hers does not appear to be the profile of a happily and stably married woman.
It tentatively appears that, to a considerable extent, Wade’s article reflects her own unfortunate experience in marriage. I am sorry if that’s so. But I do think researchers and public intellectuals have an obligation to strive toward the truth, and not to mislead others who may depend upon their doctoral degrees, professorial positions, and publications in well-known periodicals. Lisa Wade does not seem to have done her homework. Somehow, a predominantly male-read publication like Money chose to publish her nonsense without a disclaimer, as though it presented scientific fact. That does seem surprising.