Friday, April 06, 2007

So marriage is a bit of paper?

In my last post I summarised some important research showing that women tend to be happier in traditional marriages than in modern liberal ones.

Why should this be the case? One suggestion made by the researchers is that liberal women see marriage as an open-ended arrangement, in which the marriage partners attempt, individualistically, to negotiate terms in which they can maximise their personal fulfilment. This, however, leads to a strong focus on "account keeping", and a more critical attitude by women as to whether the marriage arrangement is serving their own interests. This critical attitude then alienates their husbands, whose level of "emotion work" declines, and the quality of the marriage suffers.

In comparison, traditional women are more likely to view marriage as an institution, important in its own right, and worthy of personal sacrifice. The work done by husbands and wives, in this more traditional view, is seen as a "gift exchange" in which the gifts take on a larger value within the setting of marriage and don't need to be immediately reciprocated. This fosters a less critical attitude by wives and therefore a higher level of emotional involvement by husbands in the marriage.

The researchers put this argument as follows:

A second, related point is that a high level of normative and social support for the institution of marriage may also promote women’s marital happiness by fostering an altruistic mindset that makes wives less likely to continuously monitor the relationship to see if it is serving their individual interests.

Although a growing number of Americans, influenced by the cultural logic of “expressive individualism” (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton 1985), act as self-interested agents who bargain over their marital roles and interests in an effort to maximize their personal fulfillment (Bumpass 1990; Cherlin 2000), other Americans conceptualize their marriages along more institutional lines (Wilcox 2004).

These Americans see marriage as a sacred institution in the Durkheimian sense that the relationship is accorded extraordinary value. Hence, the marital relationship is supposed to trump the individual interests of partners, calling forth virtues such as fidelity, sacrifice and mutual support (Bahr and Bahr 2001).

In this setting, exchanges between marital partners are often conducted according to an “enchanted” cultural logic of gift exchange where spouses give one another gifts that vary in value, may or may not be reciprocated, and often have some kind of symbolic value above and beyond their immediate instrumental value (Bourdieu 1990: 126; Bahr and Bahr 2001; Wilcox 2004).

Women who are deeply committed to the institution of marriage, and who identify with this enchanted view of marriage, are probably less likely than more individualistic women to keep an ongoing account of how the relationship is or is not serving their own interests. This willingness to avoid looking at the marriage in a self-interested fashion is probably associated with fewer critical evaluations of the marital relationship. This should lead to higher levels of marital quality for women (Brines and Joyner 1999; Wilcox 2004). (p.1324)

If true, this suggests one important reason for treating marriage as something more than "a bit of paper". When marriage is treated as significant, as an institution, then there is a stronger purpose for the work we do within our marriage, so that we don't have to justify our own input with some immediate reciprocation from our spouse. There is less critical account keeping and a greater sense of husbands and wives imparting gifts, of distinct value, to each other.

There's a second reason for highlighting this particular argument within the research paper. It reminded me of a common feminist complaint, that their partners are at fault for expecting gratitude for the work they do within the family.

For instance, this is a tip from one radical woman to feminist men:

A radical will NEVER congratulate you for treating women as human. We're not going to go all cute and cuddly and say, "OH, you're such a good boy for actually helping her with the housework and changing the baby!" Why should we? Seriously, we ARE human, and we DESERVE to be treated as such.

When a man shows up expecting great big loads of praise for actually treating us as human beings what he's really saying is that he's done some great Herculean task by treating us as equals.

Here there is no enchanted logic of gift exchange. There is, instead, a view that women deserve what men give to them as a human right, an entitlement. The attempt to make male and female contributions strictly "equal" (the same) seems to breed the attitude that what we get is simply our "due" rather than a gift motivated by love and by commitment to the relationship.

For one more example of this attitude at work, consider the tone taken by an American woman, Mora, when responding to a female journalist's suggestion that men deserve some credit for the work they contribute to the family:

I gotta shake my head at this topic. Data shows that men no longer just go to work and then come home, plop down in the easy chair and holler for the “little woman” to bring him a beer. Hoooray for Men! Let’s give ‘em all medals for helping with the dishes, doing the vacuuming or even (gasp!) spending time with the kiddies! Let’s throw all these poor, self-sacrificing martyrs a ticker-tape parade…just to say “Thanks for helping maintain the family home” of course ...

Sorry, I’m waxing a bit sarcastic this morning ... I’m glad my sweetie isn’t one of those “Archie Bunker” types who thinks his wife should cater to his every need, but I don’t think he needs to be THANKED for not being an jackass.

Again, Mora considers the work her husband contributes as her "due" within a modern "egalitarian" marriage for which no gratitude is required.

Is this the attitude likely to inspire "emotion work" by men within their marriages? I expect the researchers are right to suggest that it isn't, and that the more traditional, institutional view of marriage is more likely to draw out such commitments from men.


  1. We appear to be looking at a mindset I call "I am not a role, nobody wrote me!"

    Marriage, being a venerable institution strongly associated with specific and well defined gender roles, offends those who are offended by the roles themselves. Such persons are normally inclined to blur or efface sex differences, consider their bond to their gender the most important of their affiliations, and are more than typically inclined to interpret conventional inter-gender gestures -- e.g., a gentleman holds the door for a lady, gives up his seat on the bus for her, and interposes himself between her and potential threats -- as somehow insulting.

    Reality, of course, is indifferent to our opinions, and sex differences are quite real. Quite a number of American women have discovered, in recent years, that they've been conned about the "fulfillment" available in the world of business and commerce. Retrospectively, they'd have preferred a conventional wife/mother/homemaker script to the one they chose to follow, but of course, there are some choices one cannot unmake.

    There are many ironies here, not the least of them the pseudo-individualism of eschewing marriage and children because a gaggle of feminist harridans have told you to do so.

  2. There also seems to be another obvious consequence for those women that choose a competitive/accounting based relationship and why it leads to their greater unhappiness.

    It seems that such a competition appeals to many men's nature while it is unappealing to most women's nature. Women want more "emotional work" from their men, yet, competition does not bring about emotion as much as cold hard calculation.

    This, in turn, requires many women to do that which will win out against cold reasoned persuasion... Rage and hate... It can paralyze many men who enjoy the competition within a relationship, but are unable to counter extreme emotion. These men see the futility of such a situation and simply quit altogether.

    And even a man who gives little is better than no man who gives nothing.

  3. Nice writeup, Mr. Richardson. When I read the words of such feminists I feel like I'm staring into darkness and chaos, into the gaping maw of hell itself. It really does make me thank God for my gracious Southern American wife.

  4. Yes a fantastic essay Mark. Beautifully, & simply written.

    The belligerent attitudes of these feminist makes it remarkable that any man would even CONSIDER a relationship with such a person.

    And since the only exalted opinion these feminists have is of themselves (as shown in the article), no one quite measures up and the romance/love/marriage quotient plummets. Also, feminists completely overlook the reason that women spend so much on clothes, make-up, hair, etc. is so they can present well. They’re the ones applying for the job. And then they show up and start picking fights with the personnel manager.

    They’ll then glumly go back to their apartments & bemoan the lack of strong, independent men who will bend to their every whim & nuance.

    It’s completely frustrating to any thinking man.


  5. Because the modern view of marriage is that it is a "50-50" affair, of course the entire relationship devolves into a vast accounting exercise. If a good marriage is one in which the two spouses divide all work and all roles in equal fashion, then the couple will work as individuals to constantly monitor the performance of the other, to be sure that they are not being cheated on the deal. After all, nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a 60-40 marriage, do they?

    The traditional arrangement, because it seeks to achieve harmony based on distinctive qualities of "husband" and "wife," rather than sameness and unison of "Partner A" and "Partner B" (and who gets to be "A", anyway?), allows instead for an equation of 100-100. I will devote 100% of myself to fulfilling my special role, and you in return will do the same. It is not expected that we will do the exact same things in exactly equal measure, since as a practical matter this is impossible and we are not in any case designed to gain fulfillment by doing so.

    I speak from experience, here. In my misspent you, I was a liberal, and married a liberal woman who was adamantine in her devoting to the prospect of a "50-50" marriage. This seemed so imminently sensible and fair that I could never imagine why anyone would question it.

    Well, all it did was to make a traditionalist of me, albeit by slow and painful degrees. I realized that most of our most bitter arguments were founded in a sense that one or the other of us was bearing too much of one particular sort of burden--in my case, I resented that I was expected to cook more often, and that when I did so that I was willing to invest more effort in the task.

    I could give numerous examples, but the point is that over time I began to feel that what I longed for so desperately was not someone who was basically like myself and whose job it was to reduce my labors by half. I needed someone quite different from me, who was eager to fulfill a role I was not emotionally suited to. When nature intruded, and we began to expect things from one another that didn't fit the "equality" model, incredibly bitter recriminations and accusations of double-dealing followed.

    If I have any advice for a young man, it is to ask his fiancee-to-be two questions:

    1) What is a wife?
    2) What is a husband?

    The answers she gives will tell you an incredible amount of information about what she expects from you, and you might be shocked to find that she has never even considered the matter consciously. Until you can enter into a marriage with these questions concretely answered, in ways that make sense at a gut as well as an intellectual level, you need to wait until you've figured out just what it is you and she think you are agreeing to. It is astonishing that most couples today never ask themselves these things, but then, perhaps that's one reason tradition is so important--it addresses questions for us that we are not especially likely to ask stop and ourselves without serious prodding.

  6. Sage, your comment puts the findings of the research in the clearest of terms.

  7. We appear to be looking at a mindset I call "I am not a role, nobody wrote me!"

    It is notable that the times when women played an assigned role in society was also the time when everybody had such an assigned role. And when that role was determined by a matrix of a number of variables each of which came with advantages and disadvantages and none of which was completely to be envied. A male peasant was superior to a female peasant but a princess was superior to both. Yet a princess could get assassinated whereas, though a peasant might get murdered randomly no one would bother to assassinate a peasant. It was not pretty but emphasizing only the gender role is seeing past societies out of context.