Tools for Couples Happiness — 31 August 2009
Is total equality in marriage desirable?

We are a society built on justice, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It would thus be natural to think that couples who could create a totally egalitarian marriage would be the happiest individuals in a most satisfying relationship. Research and evidence do not support this assumption.

Since the 1960’s women’s roles have been expanded. The prior “traditional marriage” in which the man was the breadwinner and the woman was the homemaker and primary parent has changed. The feminist movement encouraged women to broaden their horizons, feel free to seek employment outside the home if they chose to do so, become more equal partners and expect men to do more at home.

Psychologically, the last forty years altered women’s views of themselves, their husbands and their role definitions and power sharing with their mates. The formerly subservient position of the wife was gradually shed, as more women entered the labor market and began to contribute financially to the household’s income. Sexually, women no longer saw sex as a “wifely duty” but as a pleasure they too can enjoy. Parenting and the household chores have now become accepted as the mutual responsibility of both mates.

Men also begun to modify their previous position and perhaps even welcomed the sharing of the financial load and the access to greater connection with the children. Though women still do more work at home than men, the role divisions merged and partners operate now in a more equal way. But, did men and women find greater happiness in this more egalitarian marital state?

As ideal as full equality in marriage seems, both men and women appear to have some psychological difficulties with this concept. Evolutionally, both males and females expect the man, the “provider and protector”, to be the higher earner and the woman to be “the nurturer and care giver”. Ellen Frank, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, clarifies, “Women are genetically pre-programmed to be more affiliative…. It has an adaptive significance for the survival of the species. If women didn’t attach, babies wouldn’t survive.” This programming for attachment makes women more emotionally vulnerable.

Hormonally, testosterone programs males for assertiveness, power, control and independence. Estrogen, serotonin and oxytocin propel women to be compromising, peacemaking, seeking attachment and bonding.

Researcher Pepper Schwartz sought to find couples who had a 50/50 division of responsibilities. She settled for a 60/40 split, where women did more than men. She found that in these more equal marriages the couples reported a strong, intimate relationship with mutual respect and shared interests. However, the husbands were unhappy since they felt that their home responsibilities hindered their career advancement, and were dissatisfied with the constant negotiations, compromises and their arguments about child rearing practices. The marital “peer” relationship sometimes interfered with their sex lives.

We must realize that that the male/female differences are essential and desirable for both mates to create the attraction and emotional/sexual charge they both desire.

If we try to culturally force each gender to bend too far to the other side for the sake of a totally equal marriage, we may be disrupting the natural, biological, hormonal and survival programming of our species.

Therefore,

• Accept your partner’s natural inclinations as healthy and helpful. They have served society’s survival for generations.
• Modify the tendencies for control and dominance or submission and deference by mutual agreements.
• Absolute equality may deprive women of feeling cared for and males of being leaders.
• Abstain from a feeling of superiority about your ways – they are not better just complimentarily adaptive.
• Treat your partner with respect and consideration. Highlight his/her contribution to the family. This will make both of you valued and happier.
• Role division could not and perhaps should not be evenly split. It should be negotiated, executed lovingly and responded to appreciatively.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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