Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What kind of marriage makes women happiest?

Modernist assumptions about marriage continue to unravel. Last week a major research project came to some "surprising" findings, namely that women are happier in traditional, gender-based marriages rather than the "egalitarian" (non-gendered) partnerships which they have been encouraged to embrace.

The starting point for the research project was the idea that what counts for women is the emotional quality of a marriage. It has been assumed that men will do more "emotional work" within a modernist "companionate" form of marriage, one in which the husband and wife share similar work and family responsibilities; in which husbands do not have distinctive paternal authority; and in which traditional concepts of masculinity are absent. (pp.1322-23).

The project's authors were aware, though, of research showing that traditional women were happier in their marriages than their modernist counterparts (p.1323). They therefore wanted to test a theory that what was missing in the modernist marriage was not so much traditional gender differentiation, but the institutional support for marriage available to more traditional women (such as from churches) and a focus on equity (a perception of justice in marital arrangements, even where roles differ) rather than equality (the same division of household roles).

The researchers did, in fact, find that institutional support and a focus on equity rather than equality improved the level of female satisfaction in marriage. However, these factors weren't enough to overcome the disadvantages of modernist "egalitarian" marriages. A traditional, gendered form of family life still produced the highest levels of female happiness within marriage.

Here are some of the results of the research project in the authors' own words:

Model 1 indicates that wives who hold egalitarian gender attitudes, who work parttime, and who take a larger share of the family breadwinning responsibilities are less happy. (p.1331)

Women who share high levels of church attendance and normative commitment with their husbands are happier than their peers. (p.1331)

... one reason that the companionate model has not gathered much institutional empirical support is that marital egalitarianism is also associated with lower levels of institutional commitment to marriage and with higher standards of equality, both of which seem to diminish women's chances of marital happiness. Nevertheless, even after controlling for institutional and equity factors, we still find no positive evidence for the companionate theory of marriage.

Indeed, Models 3 and 4 provide some support for the gender model of marriage insofar as women who earn a greater-than-average percentage of couple income ... and whose husbands take up a greater share of household labor report greater unhappiness. In other words ... women who live in marriages characterized by less gendered patterns of earning and housework are less happy in their marriages. (p.1331-32)

Contrary to expectations of the companionate theory, Model 1 of Table 4 indicates that women's gender role liberalism and women's labor force participation are associated with lower levels of women's happiness with the affection and understanding they receive from their husbands. (p.1332)

This last finding is especially noteworthy. The researchers did find strong evidence that female happiness in a marriage depends on the "emotion work" undertaken by husbands. However, contrary to expectations it was men in traditional marriages who did more such work and whose wives reported greater satisfaction with such work:

Men who are married to more traditional-minded women and to homemakers ... are more likely to devote themselves to spending quality time with their wives.

Table 5 is also significant because it provides additional evidence for the gender model of marriage and against the companionate model of marriage. Models 1 through 3 indicate that no measure of egalitarianism in practice or belief is associated with higher levels of men spending quality time with their wives. Indeed, in keeping with the gender model of marriage, wives' gender egalitarianism and work outside of the home leads to less positive emotion work on the part of husbands ...

Thus, consistent with the gender model of marriage, it would appear that women who are in marriages that are characterized by more traditional gender beliefs and practices are happier with the emotion work they receive and do receive more such emotion work from their husbands. (p.1337-38)

So take a bow traditional men! It seems that you combine longer hours at work, longer hours with your children and longer hours of quality time with your wives.

Finally, it's worth quoting a few of the researcher's conclusions. They remark, for instance, that:

adherence to traditional beliefs and practices regarding gender seems to be tied not only to global marital happiness but also - surprisingly enough - to expressive patterns of marriage ...

We also find evidence for the institutional model of marriage, which stresses the importance of social and normative support for marriage. Wives who share high levels of church attendance are more likely to report happiness with their husband's emotion work in marriage ...

In conclusion, our results suggest that the road to successful "new families" is more circuitous and difficult than originally thought. While it is true that changes in men's behaviour are required for this transformation, it also appears that contemporary couples could benefit from a heightened appreication of the role that shared religious commitments and normative commitments to marriage play in supporting women's marital quality and the expressive dimension of marital life.

Our results also suggest that more traditional beliefs and practices regarding gender play a positive role in the quality and expressive character of many women's marriages ... (pp. 1341-42)

This still leaves the question of why traditional marriages are happier on average than modernist ones, but I'll raise this for discussion in a later post.


  1. women are happier in traditional, gender-based marriages

    I can really only comment for myself, but I'd say I'm very happy in our marriage, which is traditional in many respects.

    Although as human beings men and women have a lot in common, I did discover after a few years of marriage that men and women are also quite different.

    IMO, both the similarities and differences can contribute to real and lasting love in a marriage if both spouses are prepared to work at it.

    Just my personal reflection fwiw.

  2. I'm wary of any conscious pursuit of happiness, or of a self-evaluation of happiness. Those tend to degenerate into anecdote battles of subjectivity and ephemeral good-feeling. Mr. Richardson's description of liberalism as self-definition fits perfectly here.

    We need a more objective and external criterion, such as "is it ordered or disordered?" This is where tradition and religion come into play.

    In this context, we see that liberalism says, "there is no order."

  3. I'm wary of any conscious pursuit of happiness, or of a self-evaluation of happiness. Those tend to degenerate into anecdote battles of subjectivity and ephemeral good-feeling.

    Jaz, I agree. The point of quoting the findings of the research project is to show that the liberal view of marriage doesn't work within the terms of liberalism itself.

    This doesn't mean that we should follow liberals and justify social policy in terms of the individual pursuit of happiness.

    For instance, I doubt if too many traditionalists would accept a man leaving his wife and child on the basis that he would be happier with some other woman (even if it were true that he would be happier).

    We have had, though, influential second-wave feminists claiming that traditional women were frustrated and unhappy in their marriages and that they would be more content pursuing a genderless form of marital partnership.

    The research just doesn't support these claims.

  4. Historically, marriages were held together by a social network of community, family and religious ties.

    Those ties have loosened in the industrialised world in the last few centuries, and they got really loose in the 20th century. With the rise of the romantic novel in the late 18th century and the increase in literacy in the 19th, love came to be seen as more and more important in marriage and in quasi-marriage (boyfriend-girlfriend relationships).

    Love is now the reason why people enter into marriages/quasi-marriages and—as those above-mentioned social ties have loosened—love is expected to be the tie that will keep such relationships together.

    The problem is that love (being just an emotion) is ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow—and therefore a very weak tie and a weak guarantee of happiness. Also, we’ve grown up in a media-saturated culture where the dominant story being constantly broadcast at us is one of idealised eternal-love, and that’s had an effect on what we expect in those marriages/quasi-marriages.

    And when neither person can live up to those expectations, tension and fighting are inevitable. Some couples accommodate themselves to lowered expectations better than others, but I doubt that what happens in most marriages/quasi-marriages lives up to what the couple had hoped would happen when they first fell in love.

    Today - the whole marriage/quasi-marriage game looks very “un-fun” to me, and I have no interest in playing along in it's current 'legal' incarnation.


  5. The reality is that women who pursue a career are older by the time they marry and probably find it harder to find men who will support them being 'just' homemakers.
    I wouldn't marry a woman who wanted me to do all the bread winning because I like what I do for work and I don't make a heck of a lot.
    And let's face it!!! If you don't include Student Loan figures for these "so called" married women, you aren't doing really sociology.