In 1972, sociologist Jesse Shirley Bernard put forward the theory that within each marriage there are two separate marriages – the husband’s marriage and the wife’s marriage, and that the husband’s marriage is invariably better than his wife’s. These were controversial claims at the time that they were made, and met with much resistance. However, the concept that a husband and a wife each experience their marriage to each other very differently, is in fact an idea that has been widely studied ever since.
While marital quality and satisfaction are very difficult to quantify due to their multidimensional nature, it appears that most studies show that women seem to suffer a lower level of marital satisfaction than their husbands. The question is: why? Sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer have put forward a theory in their book Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States, which addresses this.
“The role expectations associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable… People tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs, whether or not they act on them, and treat them as shared cultural knowledge, whether or not they endorse them.” In other words, when women get married they almost immediately feel that they are being compelled in some inexplicable way to conform to the role of “wife”. Ditto for a husband. And if women are generally less satisfied with their marriages than men are, what is it about this role of ‘wife’ that women are struggling with?
Well, one of the reasons, say Loscocco and Walzer, is that women are assigned the role of emotional caretaker for the family, which is a draining and time consuming job. “Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work — for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations — that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives’ planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.”
Men and women respond differently within the context of marriage to unhappiness.
Another reason, they say, is that many women will provide their husbands with “The false OK” because they struggle with conflict and will often work to maintain the status quo even if it isn’t ideal. The ‘false OK’ is a term coined by “Divorce Court” Judge Lynn Toler, who says, “I think there is a whole group of women out there who don’t do well with conflict. They are the ones with a happy husband because he always gets what he wants and she doesn’t seem to mind. But what he doesn’t see are all of the collected hurts stored up in her emotional closet. Not because she doesn’t ever get what she wants but because that lopsided equation makes her feel unloved.”
So what do we do? How do we change this? The truth is that, like Rome wasn’t built in a day, these kinds of generational changes in mindset and gender roles can only be addressed over time through education and awareness. With every passing generation, the concept of what a wife should be, and what a husband should be, are slowly changing, allowing for more freedom within a relationship. But even then, based on the inherent nature of people as individuals, is it possible to hope for a complete overhaul of ‘his and hers’ perspectives? Realistically,…probably not.
As Bernard explained when she addressed the subject almost fifty years ago, “The demands that men and women make on marriage will never be fully met; they cannot be. And these demands will rise rather than decline as our standards — rightfully — go up. Men and women will continue to disappoint as well as to delight one another, regardless of the forms of their commitments to one another, or the living style they adopt, or even the nature of the relationship between them.”