Divorce and the Second Shift
Over the last thirty years in the United States, more women have gone out to work, and more have divorced. According to the sociologist William Goode, working women have a higher divorce rate than housewives in the former Soviet Union, Germany, Sweden, and France. Indeed, in France, working women have twice the divorce rate of housewives. Some commentators therefore conclude that womens work causes divorce. As evidence of this, a recent national survey conducted by Joseph Pleck and Graham Staines found that working wives were more likely than housewives to say they wished they had married someone else and more likely to have considered divorce. But people who conclude that it is womens work that causes divorce look only at what the women, one-half of the couples, are doing—earning money, feeling more independent, thinking better of themselves, expecting more of men.
My research suggests something else. Since all the wives I studied worked outside the home, the fact that they worked did not account for why some marriages were happy and others were not. What did contribute to happiness was the husband s willingness to do the work at home. Sharing the second shift improved a marriage regardless of what ideas either had about mens and womens roles. Whether they were traditional or egalitarian, couples were happier when the men did more housework and child care. A national study of over a thousand married couples conducted by Ronald Kessler and James McRae also found that working wives suffered less distress if their husbands helped with the home and children.2
Among the families IVe described, a number came close to divorce. Two months after I first interviewed them, Anita and Ray Judson separated. John and Barbara Livingston had been about to separate when they decided to see a marriage counselor. The Steins seemed divorced in spirit if not in actuality. In the study as a whole, one out of every eight couples had at some point thought seriously about divorce. Apart from the Livingstons, who had different problems, in every one of these couples, the man avoided the work at home.
By avoiding the work at home, certain men removed themselves from the company of their wives. Did they avoid their wives in the course of avoiding the second shift or avoid the second shift in the course of avoiding their wives? It was often hard to tell. But wives often felt their husbands refusal to help at home as a lack of consideration.
A twenty-six-year-old legal secretary, the mother of two and married to a businessman, said: “Patrick empties the garbage occasionally and sweeps. That’s all. He does no cooking, no washing, no anything else. How do I feel? Furious. If our marriage ends, it will be on this issue. And it just might.” A thirty-year-old mother of two, who works at word processing, was more resigned: “I take care of Kevin [their son]. I do the house cleaning. I pay the bills. I shop for birthdays. I write the Christmas cards. I’m a single mother already”
Tom O’Mally, a thirty-eight-year-old engineer, described a harrowing marriage and bitter divorce from a working woman who wanted him to share the work at home. For seven years of marriage to his first wife, Tom left all housework and care of their four sons to his wife, a school administrator. He said his wife reasoned with him about it, then she argued with him. Then she tried lists. When that failed, she tried therapy. When that failed, she left, and Tom was faced for the first time with the sole care of their four sons. When asked what caused the divorce, he answered, “Lists.” As he explained:
Especially the last several years of my marriage, we had lists of household chores that had to be done. I came to hate these lists. We had this formal thing about Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—whose turn to do dishes, whose turn to do the laundry. Finally, when it didn’t work out, my wife went to a therapist. Then we went to one of those marriage encounters and came up with a definite way of splitting up housework. I have to think that [arrangements to split housework] destroy more marriages than they save. I
No. I wasn’t doing any of them. I always felt I’d been railroaded into doing them against my will. I hated that goddamn list. I still remember blowing up and stalking out of the house. I never stuck with the list.
With her Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday list, his ex-wife reminded me of Nancy Holt. But instead of accommodating to the extra work at home, his wife quit the second shift and her family with it. Tom O’Mally then married a much younger, less-educated woman who stayed home to tend the house and children. He told his second wife, “Anything but a list!”
Men’s resistance to sharing the extra month a year is by no means the only cause of divorce, but it is often an underacknowledged source of tension which underlies the others.
In a few cases, a certain reverse of this story may occur. A twenty-eight-year-old saleswoman, Diane Hatch, told an equally sad but far more unusual story of how a marriage of seven years ended when her baby was nine months old. She said that her husband had always supported her career, that the marriage had been stable and the baby had been planned. But when the baby arrived, and Diane wanted to stay home for six months to take care of him, her husband objected, suddenly worrying—she felt needlessly—about their finances. As she put it, “I went back to a job I didn’t want before I was ready.”
At first blush, it seemed that Diane’s husband, Jim, was replacing the old adage “A woman’s place is in the home” with a new one: “A woman’s place is at work.” But Diane went on to explain matters in a way that cast a different light on him. She said her husband had suffered a blow at work, that she had criticized him strongly, adding one blow to another. He had been extremely involved with the birth of his son, and wanted to share the care of him. Perhaps if things were not going well at work, he wanted to devote more of his identity to being a father. It was when Diane began to crowd him out of his role at home that Jim began to urge her back to work. She would not share the power at home with him or appreciate the identity as a father he was trying to build. To the utter shock and dismay of family and friends, Jim walked out on his wife and nine-month-old baby. But this may have been why. If women want men involved at home, they will have to share the power and the respect for the work it takes.
In one 1983 study, Joan Huber and Glenna Spitze asked 1,360 husbands and wives: “Has the thought of getting a divorce from your husband (or wife) ever crossed your mind?” They found that more wives than husbands had thought about divorce (30 percent versus 22 percent) and that wives thought about it more often. How much each one earned had no effect on a spouse s thoughts of divorce. Nor did attitudes toward the roles of men and women. But the more housework a wife saw her husband do, the less likely she was to think of divorce. As the researchers noted: “For each of the five daily household tasks which the husband performs at least half the time, the wife is about 3 percent less likely to have thoughts of divorce.”3 (The five tasks defined as taking the most time in housework were meal preparation, food shopping, child care, daily housework, and meal cleanup.) In addition, the researchers found that if a working wife thinks her husband should share housework, she is 10 percent more likely to have thoughts of divorce than if she does not believe this.
In another study, of 600 couples applying for divorce, George Levinger found that the second most common reason women cited for wanting divorce—after “mental cruelty”—was “neglect of home or children.” Women mentioned this reason more often than financial problems, physical abuse, drinking, or infidelity. Among middle-class women who filed for divorce, a mans neglect of home or children was the single most common complaint, mentioned by nearly half. Both men and women mentioned neglect of home and children: 39 percent of the women, and 26 percent of the men.4 Since women traditionally care for the home, it is striking that so many women considered mens lack of care for the home such an important source of their unhappiness.
Happy marriage is supported by a couple s being economically secure, by their enjoying a supportive community, and by their having compatible needs and values. But these days it may also depend more on sharing a value on the work of nurturing others. As the role of the homemaker is being vacated by many women, the homemaker s work has been devalued and passed on to low – paid housekeepers, baby-sitters, and day-care workers. Like an ethnic culture in danger of being swallowed up by the culture of the dominant group, the contribution of the traditional homemaker has been devalued first by men and now by more women.
In the era of a stalled revolution, one way to reverse this devaluation is for men to share in that devalued work, and thereby help to revalue it. Many working mothers are already doing all they can at home. Now it s time for men to make the move. In an age of divorce, marriage itself can be at stake.