Archive for the ‘Marriage’ Category

Why register with the state?

Monday, June 5th, 2006

In honor of Blogging for GLBT Families Day, Shannon at Peter’s Cross Station wrote a provocative post in which she argues against marriage, for anyone:

"The government should not be in the business of deciding whether or not we or anyone else can have what should be universal human rights based on whether or how or if they have made similar vows to someone else.

"Gay marriage would get Cole and I on equal footing with her heterosexual colleagues. How nice for us. How nice that we too could have an upper-middle-class income, a stay-at-home parent, a child for whom we may choose a high quality private school, a well located, well funded public school or homeschooling by a PhD with teacher’s certification without paying an extra few thousand dollars a year penalty for being lesbians.

"Gay marriage would do nothing for the majority of people we know who either aren’t partnered with someone with good employment benefits or aren’t partnered at all—gay, straight or otherwise."

Moxie made a similar point, writing "And, FWIW, I’m in favor of civil marriage for none; civil rights, benefits, and protections for all; and religious marriage for anyone who wants it."  She later clarified that she meant that anyone should be able to have a private ceremony of whatever sort they choose, but that it should not have legal significance.

I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view.  I agree that everyone should have access to health care, regardless of whether they choose to make a lifetime commitment to another adult.  I also think that it would make a lot of sense to have everyone explicitly designate the people who you want to be able to visit you in the hospital and decisions on your behalf.

I also think that there’s a logical elegance to the argument.  It neatly sidesteps the discussion about whether it’s possible to draw a line that supports same-sex marriage but opposes polygamy.  (I know this has been debated on Alas, a blog, but can’t find the links right now.)  Instead, it says, the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding whose relationships "count" and whose don’t.

But (you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?), I do think there are some privileges that are both appropriately within the governmental sphere, and should take relationships into consideration.  The prime example that comes to mind is immigration.  Unless we’re going to have a full open door policy, which I think would be disastrous, the government is going to be in the business of deciding who gets to immigrate (legally) and who doesn’t.  And I think it would be deeply wrong to say that only blood relations of citizens should get priority in immigrating, that no families of choice rather than birth should be taken into consideration.  There has to be some legally binding way of saying "this is my partner."

I also think that there’s a benefit to building on what’s already (more or less) working, rather than trying to "invent a language of new grunts."  I’ve been reading The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly.  It’s about the failures of Western aid to less developed countries.  Easterly argues that aid has largely been a failure because planners have tried to impose top-down reform schemes that don’t pay enough attention to the cultural realities on the ground.  He quotes Popper (Karl?) as saying "It is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social system would lead at once to a workable system."

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I’m somewhat skeptical of grand plans that require knocking down everything that’s already place in order to rebuild.  In practice, I think that if civil marriage were eliminated, children would be the ones hurt the most, followed by anyone who is economically dependent on their spouse.  Yes, in theory we could build a system that provided protections for children and caregivers whether or not they had a relationship with another adult.  So far, the closest thing to that we have is welfare, and it hasn’t worked so well.

Blogging for LGBT families

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

I learned via Shannon at Peter’s Cross Station that today is Blogging for LGBT Families Day.

I don’t have anything terribly profound to say on the subject, so I think I’ll just share a kid story:

Last week at dinner, D asked "Do you know who I’m going to marry when I grow up?"

"No honey, who are you going to marry?"

"I’m going to marry Joe."  [One of his good friends.]

"Uh, ok."

"Boys can marry boys, you know."  [Said in a truculent sort of voice, as if he were daring me to disagree.]

"Uh, yes, that’s true, at least in some states.  Ummm.  Virginia’s not one of them.  But, sweetie, I will do everything I can so that if when you grow up, you still want to marry Joe, you can.  Ok."

"I’m not going to marry N.  Because he’s my brother."

"That’s right, he’s already part of your family."

Two views of marriage

Monday, March 27th, 2006

I wanted to share these two posts about marriage that were in response to the same post about "false advertising" I wrote about last week.  They’re very different, but both lovely.

Becca at Not Quite Sure writes:

"But I see marriage as two people coming together as autonomous individuals to share their lives. Indeed, in my vision, it is that very autonomy that generates the pleasure and productivity of marriage… But our bodies? Our thoughts? Our work? Our friends? Our passions? Those are very much our own, if sometimes, happily, shared, and one of the cornerstones of our marriage is that we each try to enable the other’s life… Our marriage is in no way perfect–sometimes I wish it would just go away, or maybe I wish he would just go away–but one of the things I like best about it is that in it I can be fully myself, knowing that S is supporting and appreciating me for myself, whatever or however I am."

Dutch at Sweet Juniper writes:

"At some point you could almost stop drawing a line between us as individuals, and consider every step that we took and choice that we made as done together. In that way, we were married before we were married. We were one… I realize that kind of experience before marriage might put us in a minority, but I hope that most successful marriages go through that once the knot is tied. Individuality and individual interests sort of become secondary to what works as a unit. Passion doesn’t recede, but grows as you find completion in another person. All of that horrible pain of loneliness disappears. What happens on the surface means nothing compared to the inward attraction and bond. One partner can’t "let themselves go" because that partner is inextricably bound to the other…"

I guess Tolstoy was wrong.

My image of my marriage is closer to Becca’s, but Dutch’s comment about "growing up together" very much resonated with me, as T and I met when we were both 18.  My image is of the trees that you sometimes see growing right next to each other — they’re separate, and have their own root trunks and root systems (sometimes they’re even different species), but they’ve each been shaped by the other, and in places their branches intertwine.

(Image borrowed from:  Found via google images for "two trees intertwined", which also resulted in lots of ketubah pictures.  Guess it’s not an original idea.

Promises, contracts, and false advertising

Friday, March 24th, 2006

Moxie, Cecily, Jody and others have thoroughly covered the weight issues raised by Morphing into Mama’s post, so I’m going to focus on the idea that changing after you get married could be considered a form of "false advertising."  First, as Lisa V points out, it’s crazy to think that any of us aren’t going to change.  She writes:

We have had 8 pregnancies, 2 births, 2 adoptions, 3 homes, 7 dogs, 5 cats and more jobs and deaths than I can count.  These things have all left physical and emotional scars on our psyches and bodies. But we are grown-ups, we can handle it.  I love Bert not because of his spare tire or lack of it, but because of who he is and how he has changed my life for the good and the bad, and how we are still here through all of it. To me this whole thing comes down to accepting who your spouse is, not who you wish they were or used to be, but who they are. And then love them and like them and build a life together.

Exactly.  Some of us will gain weight, others will lose, some of us will get new jobs that require us to travel 20 weeks a year, some of us well get laid off, some of us will have life-threatening physical conditions, some of us are going to become alcoholics, or get sober.  There’s a reason the traditional wedding ceremony talks about "for better or for worse."

But I don’t think it’s totally crazy to talk about false advertising in relationships.  Part of what drives me crazy about books like The Rules is what happens if they actually work and attract a man.  Either you’re stuck the rest of your life pretending that you’re totally fascinated by whatever interests him, or he’s going to wake up one day and figure out that you totally lied to him.  Ugh.

Similarly, I think in some ways that wifestyles guy was doing the women he was dating a favor.  If someone’s going to have a huge long list of expectations for the person you’re going to marry, it’s nice to have it out on the table in advance, so you can go screaming in the opposite direction if that’s not the way you want to live your life.  Much better than having it sprung on you after you’re married. Or, worse and more likely, the list stays hidden until you have a child and then all these hidden expectations come out of the woodwork, just when it’s become even harder for you to walk away from the relationship.  (I am, of course, ignoring the fact that this guy didn’t seem to expect that his wife would have a similar list of his responsibilities.)

Getting this stuff on the table up front is one of the arguments for a pre- or post-nuptual agreement.  If you have major disagreements, it’s better to know them sooner rather than later.  Such contracts also promote better negotiations within relationships, because they make sure that everyone has a decent fall-back position (what people who do this stuff professionally call a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA).

All that said, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing when two people divorce, even without abuse or anything horrific, but when two people find that they have changed in non-compatible ways.  For all the increase in divorce, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the average length of a marriage has also increased, because of the overall increase in life spans — 100 years ago, an awful lot of women were still dying in childbirth.  Is it reasonable to expect people to pledge to stay together for 40 or 50 or 60 years?

Shel Silverstein on marriage

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Tomorrow, I’ll have a serious post responding to the widespread blog discussion of this post about post-marriage weight gain and tying it to Jen’s post about wifestyles.  But for tonight, I just want to share this poem by Shel Silverstein.

My Rules

If you want to marry me, here’s what you’ll have to do:
You must learn how to make a perfect chicken-dumpling stew.
And you must sew my holey socks,
And soothe my troubled mind,
And develop the knack for scratching my back,
And keep my shoes spotlessly shined.
And while I rest you must rake up the leaves,
And when it is hailing and snowing
You must shovel the walk… and be still when I talk,
And — hey — where are you going?

From Where The Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein.

Tierney and Tolstoy

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

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.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

Today’s book is Bringing Home the Bacon: Making Marriage Work When She Makes More Money, by Harriet Pappenheim and Ginny Graves.  It was on display at Powells when I visited over Thanksgiving, and the cover literally made me swivel my head as I walked by.  As soon as I got home, I hunted down the book and requested it from the library.

I’ve been taking an excellent free course at Barnes and Noble online on Thinking Like An Editor and it’s helped me understand why this book was appealing to an editor.  Improving your marriage is one of the perennial hot-selling book topics, and this book is aimed at a clearly defined and large group of women (1/3 of married women earn more than their husbands) that hasn’t been addressed before.  The authors’ credentials are impressive — a therapist and a journalist.  On the book jacket, they promise to address such important questions as "why working women still do more housework than their husbands — even when their husbands stay home" and "how couples can navigate financial decisionmaking when the breadwinner’s reins rest firmly in the wife’s hands."  They promise to answer them based on Pappenheim’s professional experience and interviews with 100 couples.

Unfortunately, all this didn’t actual make for a very good book.  As it turns out, 100 interviews is a challenging number to write a book about.  It’s not enough to say anything statistically valid about overall trends, but too many for individuals to stand out from the mass.  All the Susans and Bills and Daves blurred together, so you never got a clear picture of any one couple across the topics covered in each chapter (sex, money, housework, etc.)  Pappenheim and Graves never really answered the gripping questions that they posed.   And the advice they offer is so generic as to be useless.  (Their top recommendation for how to make marriage work when she earns more is "Make mutual respect priority Number one."  As opposed to every other marriage, where mutual respect isn’t important?)

Overall, I think the problem is that they discovered that marriages where the women earn more than their husbands don’t necessarily have that much in common.   As I could have told them, a lot depends on whether it’s voluntarily chosen.  In other words, is the husband a SAHD, a low-earning artist, or umemployed?  Some of the generalizations they reached for totally missed the mark for me (fatigue and lack of time may interfere with our sex life, but not lack of respect), while others seemed right on target:

"Women’s hunger for options, for leeway, for relief from the relentless grind, were recurrent themes in our interviews.  Perhaps when women pine for a male provider, what they’re really craving is greater latitude in a life that’s come to feel too restrictive. What’s clear is that when a career becomes just another kind of trap, limiting our options, dictating the course of our lives, many of us become disenchanted and start trying to find a way out… It’s possible (maybe even probable) that male breadwinners feel the same way about being trapped in the daily grind, but unless they are very wealthy, it never occurs to the majority of them that they have an option to stop working… They certainly don’t seriously feel that they are entitled to be taken care of by their wives.  But many women, consciously or unconsciously, feel entitled to being taken care of by their men."

Feminism and marriage

Monday, February 13th, 2006

Somewhere in the 231 comments on Bitch, PhD’s post about feminism, her marriage, and Kidding Oneself, someone asked her to explain what she thought constituted a good feminist marriage.  I’d also be interested in reading Bitch’s take on the subject, but thought I’d throw in my two cents on the matter.

I think Jenell at the Paris Project has it right, that what makes a marriage egalitarian isn’t the roles you play, but the distribution of power, and the assumption of equal personhood.  So I wouldn’t necessarily look at who earns the money in a family, but at who gets to make decisions about how to spend it.  Not how many hours are spent with the children, but who makes plans without arranging for child care.

But what makes a marriage feminist is the recognition that no couple is making their choices in a vacuum, that there are societal forces shaping those decisions, a lot of history hanging over you.  And as a result, it’s easy to drift into patterns that perpetuate inequality, so you need to keep paying attention if you want to keep things in balance.

The tricky part is figuring out how to pay attention to these things without it degenerating into petty scorekeeping, where every last dirty sock or wet towel left on the floor is recorded for history.  Perhaps the definition of a good marriage is one in which each party thinks that the other is doing more than their share of the work.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Policy levers and the domestic glass ceiling

Friday, February 10th, 2006

Having been quoted as saying I don’t know what’s going to break through the domestic glass ceiling, I’ve been thinking a lot about what will.

In Judith Warner’s op-ed on Friedan, she suggests the usual laundry list of "family-friendly" policies: parental leave, child care, universal preschool, better afterschool options, good part-time jobs.  I think that these are good things to demand for other reasons, but I’m intensely skeptical of the idea that they’re going to change the division of household labor.  In particular,  I agree with Rhonda Mahony, that increasing the availability of part-time options is likely to accentuate the gender division of labor — because if you have one part-time worker and one full-time worker in a family, the part-time worker is likely to do the vast majority of the housework.  And in the absence of other major societal shifts, women are much more likely to avail themselves of the part-time options than men. 

It’s really hard to think of public policy levers on this issue.  I can’t make a case that there’s a public interest in cleanliness that justifies subsidizing housecleaning (vs. the very real public interest in well-raised children).  Feminist authors sometimes wax nostalgic about the government interventions during World War II, such as public canteens, that made "Rosie the Riveter" possible, but in a world with a McDonald’s on every third block, cooking is probably the household task least in need of further outsourcing.

The one area where I think there might be some productive intervention is in pushing back against the increasing number of hours expected of full-time workers.  As Laura at 11d wrote in The Wolves From Work:

Let me get this straight. He’s gone from the house for 60 hours per week. He sees his kids for an hour per day. And now he’s supposed to be checking his e-mail, while he watches his kid’s soccer game. The people that he spends 10 hours a day with are making him spend more time in the evening with them, so they can do jello shots and pat each other on the back for closing all those deals. As he’s pounding shots and head butting the other guys, the kids and I are supposed to amuse ourselves.

It’s just not realistic to expect people with any choice in the matter to work 60+ hours a week and then come home to scrub the bathroom floor.  And men pretty much always have a choice in the matter.

The domestic glass ceiling

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

I see that Bitch PhD thought much more highly of the Hirshman article than I did

In particular, she picked up on Hirshman’s statement that:

"The answer I discovered — an answer neither feminist leaders nor women themselves want to face — is that while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home."

I think it’s an overstatement to say that "private lives have hardly budged" — even setting aside the relatively small number of reverse traditional families, most people would agree that fathers today (at least those who are married to their children’s mother) are more involved with their kids’ lives than in our parents’ generation.  But certainly domestic tasks are far from equally divided.

I think Hirshman is totally off-base in thinking that increasing women’s earnings will automatically lead to men doing more housework.  Already, about 1/3 of married women earn more than their husbands, but it doesn’t seem to have set off any huge changes in the division of domestic labor.  I’ve written before about stay-at-home dads and housework, and argued that "two basic cultural assumptions — that housework is the responsibility of the SAH parent, and that housework is the women’s responsibility — conflict.  So there’s no default position about who does what, and everything is up for negotiation." 

I don’t remember the source right now, but I’m sure I’ve read something that said that the graph of the relationship between the share of family income brought in by women and the amount of the housework they do is u-shaped — men who bring in a very small share of the income do less housework than men who bring in about half.  My guess would be that some low-earning or unemployed men feel that their masculinity is threatened by their low earnings and therefore are more resistant to doing traditionally female tasks.  (I have a hold at the library for a new book called Bringing Home the Bacon: Making Marriage Work When She Makes More Money; I’ll be interested in their take on this issue.)   

Bitch offers the following advice: "be willing to be a bitch about housework."  In particular, she suggests:

"My advice is, go ahead and do what needs to be done. But let him know what you are doing every goddamn step of the way, and let him know that it pisses you off. "I’ve just gotten home from work, it’s nice to see you’re home earlier than I am. Before I take off my coat, I’ll put your shoes away for you, shall I? Oh, and I’ll pick up your coat from the floor and hang it up. Okay, now I can take off my own coat and hang it up right away, instead of dropping it on the floor for someone else to pick up later. I see there’s no dinner started, I’ll just get on that shall I? First, though, I’ll clear the mail off the dining room table where you seem to have dropped it when you walked in the door. I’ll file it over here where it belongs. Ok, now I’m going to go into the kitchen to get a sponge to wipe off the table, which I see hasn’t been wiped since breakfast–I guess you didn’t have a chance to do that yet, since you had to sit down and read the paper first, right? Wow, now that I’m in the kitchen, I see that before I can start dinner I have to load the dishwasher, but before I can do that I have to unload it…."

Oh my god would that drive me insane.  Either as the person doing it, or as the target of it.  I’d rather live in squalor — or by myself — than have that kind of running monologue. I might win the battle over the chores, but I can’t imagine my relationship surviving it.  As I’ve written before, I’d rather pick up T’s socks than sulk about them all day.  (Although, honor requires me to note that T’s gotten much better about moving them to the hamper since he read that post.)

Yes, I want the house to be clean enough that I’m not embarassed to have people over.  But I don’t want to live like a perpetual houseguest either, afraid that if I leave something out for five minutes someone’s going to resentfully start cleaning up after me.   And I don’t think it’s fair to expect my partner to clean on my schedule or to do it exactly the way I would.

I honestly don’t know what’s going to break through the domestic glass ceiling.  I used to think that it just was going to take time, that of course the younger generation would adopt a more equitable distribution of labor.  I don’t see that happening.  But I do think these conversations — these virtual consciousness raising sessions — contribute to the change.