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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 18, 2006

Road to marital bliss (blisters?) still rough

By Ellen Goodman

I have a friend who taught her daughters to express their feminist views with men they dated. Her advice went roughly like this: Speak up, speak up, the only man you will scare off is your future ex-husband.

This was during the era when sociologists were warning uppity women that they might end up alone. They were expected to trim their ambitions for the sake of a wedding ring. My friend saw right past the marriage ceremony to the divorce decree.

Fast forward to a new study that carries another subtle message: Wives with high expectations of equal relationships may end up less happily married.

This month, two sociologists from the University of Virginia, Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, published a portrait of happy marriage. Using data from 5,000 couples in the National Survey of Families and Households done in the 1990s, they looked at the wives' views and came up with a model that had something to please both traditionalists and progressives.

To the pleasure of progressives, they found that a husband's emotional engagement is crucial to a wife's happiness. So is her belief that the housework is divided fairly. To the pleasure of traditionalists, they found that women married to breadwinner husbands are happier than full-time working wives. And that wives who believe in marriage till death do us part rather than marriage as long as love shall last are also happier.

Of course, happiness in marriage is pretty dicey to calculate, especially when you depend on wives as the sole source. Typically, around 80 percent of spouses claim to be happy and very happy. After all, the miserable ones get divorced.

As for the part of this analysis that has gotten the most publicity the notion that housewives are more content in their marriages than working wives the differences are too slim to be worth all the attention. Indeed, sociologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California Riverside tweaks the same numbers and finds no difference at all.

But what intrigues me most is the choice morsel the researchers themselves pluck from the data. As Wilcox describes it: "Wives who work full time and have more progressive attitudes are more likely to be unhappy with the division of housework. And that spells trouble for them and their marriages." The best marriages, he says, are not just those in which men do more emotional work than they might choose, but those in which women "make an effort to expect less" in household sharing.

There are no surprises in this semi-traditional model of marriage. The new norm is a husband who expresses more feelings than his father and a wife who cleans more toilets than her husband. But do women really want to lower their expectations? Aren't they low already?

If homemakers believe labor is divided fairly along traditional lines, it probably is. But how many women who work equal hours for lower wages end up doing more laundry because he brings home more bacon? How many wives comfort themselves with the Lake Wobegon theory of marriage: All their husbands are above average?

The two researchers ponder an irony for further study: "whether women's expectations about marital equality are indeed linked to marital conflicts and, in turn, to lower levels of men's emotional work." They seem to suggest that her discontent breeds his withdrawal.

Well, the change agent in any relationship is likely to produce conflict. As Nock says, "whether you are striving for equality in the law or in a relationship, it's going to be a challenge; the question is whether it's worth it."

What if women had never raised expectations? Feminists began pushing men for more openness and family involvement a generation ago. Wilcox acknowledges, "Men who have taken that message are the men who are most likely to have happy wives." Progressive women pressed, demanded dare I say nagged? for the benefits that are now also reaped by more traditional wives. And let's remember how many husbands are already full and equal partners in their family lives.

We are in the midst of a long and bumpy era of social change where the relationships between men and women are in flux and marriages may change or end. Women who expect equality are not likely to heed the old Archie Bunker line: "Stifle yourself, Edith." Indeed, women at the demanding, cutting edge may eventually be the ones who reduce the divorce rate rather than raising the unhappiness index.

So the question is not whether women should lower their expectations. It's whether men will kick it up another notch. To the current generation of wives, here's an update on my friend's advice: Speak up, speak up, your daughters' "semi-traditional" marriages may depend on it.