Couples Who Clash
Two-thirds of couples in this study, most of them married for seven to ten years, shared a gender ideology. Two-thirds were both traditional, both transitional, or both egalitarian. But a third of the couples I talked to had important differences of feeling—especially about who should do how much work at home. (And note that couples who disagree violently don’t appear in a study like mine of married couples since I eliminated couples who were currently divorced before I began.)
Like Jessica and Seth Stein, some couples failed to forge a clear marital bargain about roles before they married, each hoping the other would change. In other couples, one partner—usually the wife—changed herself and the bargain after they married, and the other partner couldn’t adapt.
These marital clashes reflect a broader social tension—between faster-changing women and slower-changing mem Because changing economic opportunities and needs influence women more powerfully than men, women differ more from their mothers than men differ from their fathers. The “female culture” has shifted more rapidly than the “male culture”; the image of the go-get-’em woman has yet to be fully matched by the image of the let s-take – care-of-the-kids-together man. More important, over the last thirty years, men’s underlying feelings about taking responsibility at home have changed much less than women’s feelings have changed about forging some kind of identity at work.
Perhaps because couples with dramatic schisms have been purged from the group by divorce, the “remaining” marriages I saw of this type were usually not between a man who disapproved of his wife’s working and a woman who worked. They were marriages between men who were happy their wives worked but wanted them to take care of most matters at home and women who wanted more help at home.
Whether they had to or not, these wives wanted to work. Many professionally trained wives worked because they felt their work was challenging, enjoyable, or worthwhile. But even women in low level service jobs felt work gave them respect in the eyes of others, including their husband.
Tensions that arose between couples with clashing strategies often showed up in each partner’s sense that he or she wasn’t getting credit or appreciation for all he or she was doing, that the other wasn’t grateful enough. The exchange of appreciation in these marriages became a sort of “dead letter office,” thanks sent to the “wrong address.” The question became: Where is my thanks? The big gift Jessica Stein offered Seth was to give up working full time. For Seth, the big gift was to give up leisure to work overtime. Their problem was not, I think, that they could not give. It was that, given their gender ideals, Seth wanted to “give” at the office, and Jessica wanted to “receive” at home—to have Seth play catch with their younger son, play piano with the older one, while she escaped to “catch up” on her career. A gift in the eyes of one was not a gift in the eyes of the other. Each felt “taken advantage of” because they differed so drastically in their frames of reference, their expectations, and ultimately in their gender strategies. In the end, each was left with a thin pile of thank-you notes. If measured not in years but in gifts exchanged, their marriage had quietly ended some time ago.
Countless other self-sacrifices—following a spouse to another city, looking after the ill parents of a spouse, paying the college tuition of a stepchild, doing with less money all around—takes on value only as they are seen through a person’s cultural viewpoint, which includes his or her views about gender. Ray Judson wanted to offer Anita “the privilege of staying home.” Anita couldn’t accept. Peter Tanagawa wanted to offer his wife, Nina, the same. Nina appreciated the offer but not as much as Peter would have liked. Nancy Holt wanted to offer Evan the benefits of her work, her salary, participation in her work friendships, any status that might rub off, dubious rewards to Evan. It is through the different appraisals of such “gifts” that the major social revolution of our time enters the private moments that make a marriage.
Once a tension between partners arises, the couple faces the problem of resolving it, or if they can’t do that, of “managing” it.
Neither the Steins, the Judsons, nor the Holts actually resolved the tension between them over the second shift. Each managed their unresolved tensions differently—the Steins by separating emotionally, the Judsons by separating physically, and the Holts by sharing a joint emotional life under the umbrella of their myth of the happy “upstairs-downstairs” solution.
In different ways, others’ myths also offered a way of allowing a joint emotional life under conditions of great tension. The Livingstons’ myth that “we’re not avoiding each other, we’re just so busy” obscured the frightening thought that they didn’t dare risk the very thing they said they missed—time together. Ann Myer – son held to a more private myth: that Robert shared the second shift. This misrepresentation didn’t obscure a struggle between husband and wife; Robert didn’t think he was sharing at home these days. Ann’s belief obscured a subterranean struggle between the side of herself that wanted Robert to share and the less easily acknowledged but more powerful side that didn’t want him to.
There are probably as many marital myths as there are motives to avoid conflict. But the conflict between husbands and wives over male participation at home seems the most widespread. The stalled revolution comes into marriage as a difference in gender strategy. The more couples clash in strategy but want to love each other happily anyway, the more they settle for containing their differences without, alas, resolving them. And the less they resolve their conflicts, the wider their unconscious search for the myths that can help contain it. Couples pay a price in authenticity for their marital myths, the price they ultimately pay for coming of age in an era of the stalled revolution.