Redefining Our Roles And Expections Of Marriage

Yesterday’s “Dear Wendy” column, in which a woman wrote in asking whether she should marry or dump her boyfriend whose earning potential she felt was much less than hers, sparked a huge discussion (over 170 comments and counting). We Frisky-ians have lots of opinions on the issue of marriage and feminism and the role money plays in long-term commitments. And we aren’t the only ones discussing these hot topics! The New York Times had a big article just the other day on this very topic. In an age when “185 women [are] earning college degrees at age 22 for every 100 men,” and “nearly a fifth of all men between the ages of 25 and 54 [do] not have jobs,” many people — men and women — are redefining expectations of marriage. Unlike the generations of women that came before, many of us are no longer financially dependent on men, which means our role in marriage — a financial institution — is drastically changing. It’s happening so quickly that it seems our social and biological conditioning hasn’t had time to catch up.One need only read through some of the comments in yesterday’s “Dear Wendy” to see how complex these issues can be and how divided we are on the idea of marriage as a financial union rather than strictly a romantic one. These conversations force us to confront our traditional views of masculinity, too, as well as our ideas of femininity and what it means to be a wife and mother. How does being the sole financial provider affect a woman’s feeling of femininity and her ability to nurture her children? And if men are no longer the major breadwinners in the family, how does that affect their identity as being the “providers” like generations of men before them were? In the Times article, Stephanie Coontz, a teacher of family history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, worries about how low-income men will process the feeling of “inadequacy.”

“In the absence of alternative models of masculinity, many low-income men will compensate for their lack of respect and resources by cultivating a hypermasculine identity that scorns traditional definitions of responsible manhood.”

The news isn’t all bad though, of course. The model of marriage is changing, but not everyone is feeling growing pains. For many people — men and women — sharing the financial responsibilities as well as housekeeping and child-rearing is a welcome change. Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says this about the new role of marriage:

In this new model, which I have called “hedonic marriage,” couples who have similar preferences and desires for balancing work, fun, and family are well-suited. This new model of marriage thrives when households have the resources to enjoy their lives. Not surprisingly then, marital happiness is much higher among the college-educated and divorce has fallen most sharply for them.

So what should we expect as women increasingly garner the greater share of college degrees? The changes of the past have helped marriage thrive for women for whom financial security is not the main benefit of marriage. Thus, potential husbands with lower earning power may not pose a problem.

Where there does seem to be a problem, though, and what some commenters suggested yesterday’s “Dear Wendy” column pointed to is when these high-achieving women don’t feel as though they have much in common with their less-educated and perhaps less ambitious mates/dates. Stevenson says:

The real question that remains is whether college-educated women will find enough in common with their non-college educated dates to form a shared vision for a lifetime together. If the growing gender gap in education leads to a shortage of men with compatible interests for college-educated women then we might just see the high modern marriage rates of college educated women retreat toward the lower rates of the past.

And while so many of us are altering our expectations of marriage, it’s important to note that there is still a great percentage of men and women who are more than comfortable with the traditional role of marriage — the one where the husband is the sole breadwinner and the women carries more of the responsibilities at home. Our own Jessica Wakeman, a self-proclaimed feminist, once wrote an essay about how she didn’t think it was such a bad idea for a woman to marry for money. She writes:

I’m not ashamed to “marry for money,” if that’s what would you can even call it, because I don’t fundamentally believe it is the “man’s role” to provide for women. My actual motivations, as I see them, are pure enough. I know of great guys out there—journalists, teachers, non-profit dudes—who will probably make great dads. But I personally wouldn’t pair up with them because, realistically, our two salaries together just wouldn’t be enough to cut it for what I want out of life. But, but, but, “Bank accounts shouldn’t matter at all!” And, while I agree with that in theory, sorry, a man who can provide for me and our children is just much more attractive to me.

Maybe not surprisingly, she got flack for her comments as did yesterday’s letter writer to “Dear Wendy.” But I don’t see these women as “gold-diggers” or deserving of the kind of criticism they received. Marriage is a financial institution. Someone needs to bring home the bacon, so what’s so wrong with acknowledging one’s limitations or expectations of that role before signing on to a life-time commitment to someone? Yes, our roles are changing, but does that automatically make the “old” model of marriage “wrong”? Are people who prefer more traditional roles of husband and wife setting us back? What are your thoughts?