Tierney and Tolstoy

I don’t have anything to add to Laura or Amanda‘s comments on Tierney’s column from Tuesday’s Times.  I do have a bit to say on Wilcox and Nock’s underlying paper, which is far more subtle and interesting.

The article tests the hypothesis that "egalitarian marriages" — marriages in which husbands and wives share similar work and family responsibilities — are happier than traditional marriages.  The authors reject this "companionate" model, finding that wives’ gender role egalitarianism (e.g. their belief that tasks ought to be split evenly), wives’ employment, and wives’ earning significant shares of the family’s earnings are all associated with lower levels of wives’ satisfaction with their marriages.  The factor most associated with wives’ satisfaction with their marriages was whether they were happy with the level of affection and understanding shown to them by their husbands.

I’m not actually all that surprised by these findings.  First, I think it’s more than a little insulting to suggest that employed and stay-at-home parents won’t have "common experiences and interests around which they can build conversations, empathetic regard, mutual understanding and the like."

Lots of people have pointed out that dual working couples — especially those with small children — are essentially trying to share at least three jobs between two people.  Of course they’re going to be stressed.  And often their marriage is going to be a lower priority. And when both people think they’re doing more than half of the work, they’re not likely to be especially appreciative of their spouse.

The authors claim that the husbands in dual-earner families are actually less affectionate than those in traditional families.  They hypothesize that wives who are unhappy with the division of labor in the family stir up conflict (e.g. nag) or emotionally withdraw, resulting in less emotional investment by the husbands.  I could also spin a similar story that was grounded in sex — women who are exhausted and feel unappreciated are less likely to be interested in it.  (In a footnote, the authors point out that their regressions of husbands’ satisfaction with their marriages had less explanatory power.  I’d love to see what happened if they were able to include a measure of satisfaction with the sexual side of the relationship.)

One thing to note is that the study’s main measure of husbands’ "emotional work" is actually a measure of wives’ satisfaction with what their husbands are doing.  I think it’s a reasonable interpretation of this study’s findings to say that the secret of marital happiness is low expectations.

Does this mean that we should all give up on trying to break through the domestic glass ceiling?  I don’t think so.  For one thing, the study only looks at happiness with the marriage, not overall happiness.  For another, the study also seems to suggest that to have a happy marriage, you shouldn’t have children — the number of preschool children in the family was consistently associated with lower levels of marital happiness.  But that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from having kids.

6 Responses to “Tierney and Tolstoy”

  1. Vickee Says:

    I have found the only way to insist the spouse participate more in home/child/relationship care is to make it inconvenient if they don’t pull their share. Stop doing their laundry. Stop cooking for them (if they arrive home late). Hire out their portion of the chores and charge them on their discretionary budget for it. Don’t ask permission, just do it! If they don’t put away stuff, have a 2 day rule – then the items get either tossed or thrown into a cardboard box. When the item is finally missed say “It’s in the ‘Thoughtlessly-left-for-clean-up-by-the-servant-we-don’t-have-box'” and smile. I used to just throw everything away, but that almost caused a stroke (and divorce).
    I also leave lists, and an ‘accomplish by X date’ indication. If it isn’t done, I hire the work out. No asking. And I don’t nag, never have. We have the chores broken out. If I have to, say, vacuum, the job is worth $50. I vacuum and write myself a check. If dh complains, I tell him the job is now worth $75 for aggravation. If he forgets to load the dishwasher too many nights in a row, no problem; I go out and buy a new set of dishes.
    A few years ago, I was beside myself with anger over the huge amount of the work load I was doing. Then I decided to pay myself for doing the work. I now do all my tasks cheerfully, knowing that even if I end up doing more than my share, there is a reward at the end. For example, I am flying to Las Vegas next weekend for 4 days/3 nights to visit family and Do Nothing for Four Blessed Days. For the past year, dh has worked a tremendous amount of hours. Okay. I understand these things happen. I cheerfully subtracted some tasks from dh’s chore list. However, we decided that my reward for cheerfully taking on the extra tasks would be 2 trips by myself for 4 days each (to visit friends, to avoid hotel costs) as soon as dh’s work load normalized. It normalized last week, so off I go.
    The one thing I don’t ‘keep track of’ is how much time I spend with our sons v. dh. That time dh has lost is punishment enough on its own. At 4 and 5, both boys are little enough that they want me all the time due to seeing so little of their dad. And that is it’s own sad punishment. It breaks their dad’s heart.
    Is there an egalitarian marriage? No, probably never. But you’ve got to get it honed to the point that one of you isn’t pissed all the time. Whatever it takes; hire out the chores, get rid of stuff so you don’t have the clutter, have children involved in less ‘extra’ stuff; whatever it takes.
    Good luck to all of us. We are all just sneakin’ along the highway of life.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    The last time we were talking about this stuff, I found some really interesting research (http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/afrcpapers/baxter.html) that suggested that women’s satisfaction with the split of housework is highest when either (a) the man does some traditionally female tasks (I imagine cleaning the bathroom would work particularly well) or (b) the woman has very traditional gender views. Comes back to your low expectations point, I suppose.
    So this study supports the study above, in that an “egalitarian marriage” is less likely to be happy, because the woman doesn’t have traditional gender expectations, so is more likely to be disappointed. Doesn’t suggest to me that we should give up on egalitarianism, though.

  3. amy Says:

    Vickee, I considered doing that charge-for-chores thing. Sounded reasonable enough to me except that I didn’t want to do the extra chores at any price. So I hire out instead. Am with you on the deadlines/hiring/discretionary.
    :) It’s extraordinary how little argument there is over cleaning-up-after-the-man after a separation. Whole category I no longer concern myself with.

  4. P Daniel-Ohms Says:

    Thanks for highlighting the original paper by Wilcox and Nock – it was both fascinating and disturbing for those of us who are advocates of companionate/egalitarian marriage. It raised several questions for me:
    1. Their data is from 1992-1994 – it probably hasn’t changed all that much, but could this make a difference?
    2. Didn’t we read somewhere that there were actually higher rates of divorce for red-state religious/traditional marriages than for blue state/egalitarian marriages? Could Wilcox and Nock’s findings reflect the selectivity of traditional marriages that last vs. those that didn’t and thus aren’t represented by the study?
    3. Are traditional men are really doing more “emotion work” than egalitarian men – or is this just in the traditional marriages that last? Or are couples merely “preserving a sense of mutuality by accounting for the gender imbalance [in emotional work] as something beyond men’s choice or control….” (Stazdins & Broom).
    4. Are there secular/feminist/liberal equivalents to the important normative support provided to traditional couples by churches?
    5. How would current data (12-14 years later) apply to non-traditional families with stay-at-home dads?

  5. Scrivener Says:

    As someone in a marriage where my wife is by far the primary wage-earner, though I teach full-time and am trying to get research done, and where I am primarily responsible for child-care and housework too, all of what you say in this post sounds more or less right. And very depressing. I’ll go read the paper, hopefully once I can get the kids to take a nap, since they’re home with me for spring break while I try to grade this humongo stack of essays and prepare for class tomorrow and clean the house properly since we’ve got a drop-in dinner coming up on Wednesday.
    I have long believed that the high rate of divorce has more to do with our unreasonably high expectations for marriage than with any sort of decline in values or anything else. But that hasn’t helped me lower my own expectations for marriage a whole lot, has it?

  6. Scrivener Says:

    I should have said, the kids are home with me for their spring break. My classes go on as usual this week.

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