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Modernizing Marriage

Equality and flexibility make better husbands and wives.

The power structure of traditional relationships is a wellspring of resentment that ultimately undermines love. So welcome a new kind of coupling that's more intimate and rewarding to both partners. America's leading sociologist of sex finds that "peer marriage" has arrived--and it works!

It is the nature of human relationships that each commitment requires some modifications of totally unfettered individual self-interest. I have spent the past several years studying an emerging type of relationship in which couples have successfully reconstructed gender roles on a genuinely equitable basis. I call these "Peer Marriages." The rule books haven't been written yet; peer couples are making it up as they go along. But this much I have observed: Peer couples trade a frustrated, angry relationship with a spouse for one of deep friendship. They may have somewhat tamer sex lives than couples in traditional marriages. They definitely have fewer external sources of validation. And these couples have a closeness that tends to exclude others. But theirs is a collaboration of love and labor that produces profound intimacy and mutual respect. Traditional couples live in separate spheres and have parallel lives. Above all, peer couples live the same life. In doing so, they have found a new way to make love last.

The dialogue of the decade is the sound of American men and women reshuffling traditional gender relations. The common experience is that women enter the labor force with little or no modification of their traditional duties at home. There, it is said, they work a "second shift." And they break down. While that may be true for the majority, I now know that is not the way it has to be.

In 1983, my late colleague, sociologist Philip Blumstein, Ph.D., and I published American Couples, discussing our decade-long study on the nature of American relationships. During the course of that study I noticed that there were many same-sex couples, and a few heterosexual ones, with an egalitarian relationship that both partners felt was fair and supportive. As a sociologist, I sometimes get trapped by the law of large numbers instead of those in the minority. But over time, I realized there was more I wanted to know about these people, about their success at this aspect of their relationship. How could married couples get past traditions of gender and construct a relationship they both needed? I began reexamining those couples, and sought out more of them to talk to and learn from.

These couples, I discovered, base their marriage on a mix of equity--each person gives in proportion to what he or she receives--and equality--each has equal status and is equally responsible for emotional, economic, and household duties. But these couples have more than their dedication to fairness. They achieve a true companionship and a deeply collaborative marriage. The idea of "peer" is important because it incorporates the notion of friendship. Peer marriages embody a profound psychological connection.


In their deep and true partnership based on equality, equity, and intimacy, peer couples, I found, share four important characteristics.

o The partners do not have more than a 60/40 traditional split of household duties and child raising. The couples do a lot of accounting; the division of duties does not happen naturally on account of our training for traditional male and female roles. These couples ask themselves, "What wouldn't get done if I didn't do it?" The important thing is they do not get angry. These partners demonstrate that couples do not have to have a perfect split of responsibilities to lose resentment; what it does take is good will and a great deal of effort and learning skills. We may not be able to jettison our socialization, but we can modify it.

o Both partners believe the other has equal influence over important decisions.

o Both partners feel they have equal control of the family economy and reasonably equal access to discretionary funds. The man does not have automatic veto power. Money is so crucial because in our society, and most societies, we give final authority to the person who is the economic support of the relationship. If you ever have to say, "I'll do that if he'll let me," or "I don't know if she'll let me," that should be an alert. It's not a question of what someone lets you do or not do with money, it's what you've arrived at as a couple. Insofar as we let money determine status in the relationship, it always corrodes equality and friendship.

o Each person's work is given equal weight in the couple's life plans. Whether or not both partners work, they do not systematically sacrifice one person's work for the other's. The person who earns the least is not the person always given the most housework or child care. These couples consciously consider the role of marriage and their relationship in making their life plans. They examine how they wanted to be married.

Many couples I talked to believed they were doing this, or believed in the ideology of equality--but in actuality they weren't doing it. They were doing the best they could. Or they knew they weren't doing it now and had deferred it to "some day." Many had plans for it. I call these couples "near peers." Most couples in American culture today are near peers. I compared the peer and near peer couples to traditional couples--those who divide male and female roles into separate spheres of influence and responsibility, with final authority given to the husband.

In my research, I saw each spouse separately and together. I gave them problems to solve and assigned them discussions, all of which were tape-recorded. The peer couples would argue seriously; they had equal standing to do so. One didn't defer to the other. But in the near peers, many of the men would show off to me, to try to show who was really smart.


What most undermined near peers was their attachment to the man's income and the man's job. They talked about friendship. But under no circumstances would they endanger his job, even if it meant pulling up stakes every two years, which is very hard on a marriage, or if the man worked days, nights, and weekends for 10 years, or if he traveled to the extent that he essentially put in special guest appearances with his family. Many were fast-track men where both partners agreed this was the way to be.

The second distinguishing factor of the near peers was lack of equal participation in parenthood. Either the woman did not want to give the male full entry into parenthood, or he picked and chose what he would do while extending his work hours.

There are some men who are hell-bent on becoming peer men. They need little guidance in achieving mutual respect, shared responsibility, and joint child raising. There are many more men who want to raise their children, who want an equal partner and a friendship, and who want to enjoy their work but not make it the sole point of their life but don't know how to do it; many resent not having had a dad in the household while growing up.

I consider both of these groups of men equally available for peer marriages. But without an explicit conversation between the two partners about their values, they will never achieve what they really want. Instead, they get caught up in the provider role because it has been traditionally expected of them.

Most often, it is the woman who has the vision of a peer relationship. Women are more positioned for it because the long-term gains are more apparent to them. It is also women who have the most to lose as parenthood approaches, in terms of what they want in a father for their child. As a result, I believe, it is often the woman's responsibility to get across to her partner the relationship style she wants.

There are a lot of men who, if approached with the idea of creating a marriage on these terms, would be extremely amenable. Either they do not get reached in time, and then they develop too much of an investment in the way they are living, or, the woman simply never demands it. I believe that whoever has the vision has the responsibility to say, "Here's what I need," and "Here is what we've got to solve."

There are those who see peer men as weak, who question anyone's desire to be a peer man, with all that housework and child care--as if those did not have great benefits for the relationship. The truth is, what makes a peer relationship is not "housework"--it's joint purpose. It's creating something together. It's not "child care"--it's knowing and loving your children and being a team on that. It will not kill your work, but it will shape it.


Although the peer couples tended to be dual earners, not all were. There was no hidden hierarchy in these relationships. The couples I talked to were not on an ideological quest, although they embody ideals feminists have talked about. They came to peer relationships from life experience. For many, the peer relationship grew out of a rejection of past experience; it developed only in a second marriage. Many peers had formerly had a traditional marriage that had been unsatisfying and that they did not want to repeat.

Almost half of the peer marriages contained a previously divorced partner. Of the women who were previously divorced, most said they left their first marriage because of inequitable treatment. The previously married men typically said they sought a peer relationship after a devastating period of fighting over property and support in a marriage marked by emotional and financial dependence. The second time around, many fell in love with exactly the sort of independent woman they avoided or felt insecure around when they were younger.

Peer couples are made, not born. Having a peer relationship requires first and foremost having a sense of yourself; you need something to be equal to. It is harder to do when you're very young, a time when many are willing to hand themselves over and change with each partner. When young, you may land in a peer relationship by sheer luck, but you have not been tested in certain ways about yourself. You may still be trying to find out who you are and your first several attempts may be very wrong.

Flexibility is another important trait, the ability to enter a marriage with no ironclad rules about roles, but to see what you are both doing and say, "Here is what I need." It is possible to enter a relationship mistaking your needs, but you must be able to say, "This is not working for us," and reconfigure how it could work. I was shocked by how many women poured out their resentment who never simply said to a partner, "Here's what has to get done; what's a fair amount of responsibility for you to carry?" Many of these women insist they have a close relationship, but they are afraid it would end if they asked for what they believe a relationship should be.

The only way peers get to the position of equal responsibility is by coming to some agreement about values. "Who am I and what do I need?" "Who are you and what do you need?" They have to figure out, make lists of those things they do need, even of things that get taken for granted. And it takes lots of interacting and negotiating. Often the person who brings up a subject is the one who is being taken advantage of. It may seem banal to talk about the executive role of the household--"Who will take the dogs for their shots?" "Are we going to take a trip this summer and who will plan it?"--but that's what makes a household work.


Many benefits accrue to people in peer marriages:

o Primacy of the relationship. They give priority to their relationship over their work and over all other relationships, even with their children. Their mutual friendship is the most satisfying part of their lives. Each partner feels secure in the other person's regard and support.

o Intimacy. Because they share housework, children, and economic responsibility, partners experience the world in a more similar way, understand the other more accurately, and communicate better. They negotiate more than other couples, share conversational time, and are less often dismissive of the other.

o Commitment. These couples are much more likely to find each other irreplaceable. They describe their relationship as "unique." Their interdependence becomes so deep and so customized that the costs of splitting up become prohibitive.

If peer marriage is so rewarding, why, then, doesn't everyone seek or achieve it?

o There is little or no outside validation for this new type of domestic arrangement, and often outright opposition. Outsiders--from parents and friends to coworkers and bosses--tend to question the couples philosophy and be unwilling to modify work or other schedules to help a couple share family life. Commonly, a man's parents feel betrayed and see their son as emasculated. His in-laws aren't generally enamored of his peerishness, either. The Good Provider role is still uppermost in their minds.

o There are career costs. Couples need jobs that allow them to coparent. Either they have to wait long enough to have enough clout to manage their work-life this way, or they have to be in jobs that naturally support parenting. Many couples report they have to modify their career ambitions in favor of family aspirations. It's not that one or both partners can't be high-powered lawyers, but it's almost impossible to be pit-bull litigators whose every hour is spent in court or who may be put in another country for two years on a case. Couples can alternate priorities--one partner's job will take priority for a year or so. But there have to be boundaries. There's no formula--it's an art form.

o Peer couples have to define success differently than by the prevailing mode, which is by traditional male and female rules.

o They make others feel excluded and possibly resentful. Most people like married couples to dish their spouse occasionally. Peer couples tend to be dedicated to their relationship and to parenting.

o They face a new sexual dynamic. They benefit from so much everyday intimacy that they may have to go out of their way to put eroticism back into the relationship.

o In the absence of a blueprint for their type of relationship, peer couples face the inexact challenge of figuring out the right thing to do all the time. It's tiring!


In the vast majority of couples today, the relationship exists on women's skills. Perhaps the biggest job women carry is to be the expressive member of the couple. Most of the warmth and interaction is transmitted on women's terms. According to sociologist Francesca Cancian, love has been feminized. Our culture overdoses men with information about what women want.

Women see love and self-revelation as synonymous. But men see expressions of their love in mundane little acts like paying the insurance and other caretaking chores. Unfortunately, with the abundant help of gothic novels, we have come to define love almost exclusively on women's terms; flowers and candy have no intrinsic meaning for most men. The result is that neither partner feels understood or appreciated, and men are judged emotionally incompetent. Ultimately, men stop trying to get credit for their style of loving and withdraw from the intimacy sweepstakes. So women do much of the relationship work--and then resent the lack of reciprocity. Eventually, resentment can thwart desire altogether.

The prevailing definition of love, I believe, is too narrow. By not taking pleasure in utilitarian displays of affection, two partners unnecessarily create emotional limitations for their relationship and reduce the amount of love they can receive from one another.

Because both are living the same life, peer couples are more likely to merge male and female styles of communication and affection. They learn love in each other's terms. Men as well as women are responsible for generating discussion and warmth. And women appreciate men's affectional style. The yearnings for affection that continually arose in my interviews with traditional wives rarely surfaces in peer relationships.

I find that there is a "new romance" being born, and its hallmark is the ability of a couple to relate to each other in each other's terms. If, like peers, a couple lives life the same way, then they both understand intimacy and romance on similar terms.


One of the most significant differences between peer marriages and traditional marriages is in the role of sex. Peer marriages are built on commonality, traditional marriages on differences, especially power differences--hero and heroine. Traditional sexual tension is anchored on difference; male leadership and control of sex is regarded as inherently erotic. The man's power and status over the woman turns them both on.

Of course, all long-term relationships involve a diminution of sexual interest. Familiarity is simply not as erotic as newness and the desire to be loved and accepted--and to reconcile after difficulties. In traditional marriages, passion is typically kept aroused by disappointment, fear of loss, anger, and other types of negative emotions. Couples may have good sex, but they finish still feeling that they don't know their partner. There is an ultimate loneliness even after making love.

Peer marriages get the ability for romance and for comfortable and happy sex unencumbered by anger. And for intimacy unencumbered by distance and lack of personal knowledge about the other partner.

In traditional marriages, couples have to work against massive odds to achieve intimacy. Any security that may be attained is fleeting. There may even be more sexual frequency when that is the only way a partner can even hope to touch the other person emotionally. Whether it is more deeply satisfying is very open to question. Many women I have interviewed, in this study and others, report that the only time that their husband shows himself to be emotionally needy is during sex. It is the only time that he allows himself to be vulnerable.

Very passionate relationships are often tortured relationships. Volatile people manufacture a great deal of adrenaline, and it adds an edge to sex. Anger in one partner fuels the desire of the insecure partner to be ratified by the one who loves less. It can be thrilling and sexually explosive to get that affirmation, but it goes away right afterwards. It may make for a passionate relationship, but it makes for a lousy marriage and an insecure life. One important conclusion is that passion is not the highest and best valuation of a couple's sex life.

Passion can be evoked upon occasion, but what peer couples are really superb at is romance--the good and lasting romance of equals. When more than one person has expressive skills and uses them, more positive exchange takes place, and satisfaction is greater. Peer couples:

o are dedicated to being a couple, over and above being a family;

o display physical and verbal affection;

o spend nonutilitarian time together.;

o exchange conversation and gifts to show that the partner is valued;

o celebrate special days that mark the relationship's beginning, history, and progress.

All couples need these elements to enjoy romance; peer couples are more likely to because both partners take responsibility for them.

If there is a downside to peer relationships, it's that in their strong affinity for one another, peer couples have to fight against the tendency for sex to become a residual category. They must specifically cultivate this part of the relationship. The biggest problem, I found, was that peer couples report that they are not having sex as often as they used to.

Of course, for all couples, life gets in the way. But if the vulnerability of traditional couples is anger and resentment, the vulnerability of peer couples is keeping the spark alive. These couples are getting so much from their relationship with each other that they do not need sex to get all their emotional needs met.

Peer couples have to work at eroticism and at ways of coming together sexually. The challenge is to take off the buddy mantle and find erotic ways to play with each other. It may mean going off by themselves for a weekend, or they may want to put on costumes and play out individual fantasies; they have to take a break from the negotiated partnership and from the communal self.

The positive side of this is that peer marriage actually frees partners to bring their own private, uncovered self into the relationship and display it in the bedroom. What is more, there can be more innovation. Equalizing the initiation and leadership responsibilities in sex doubles the creativity that can be brought to bear. Many peer couples speak of this.

What typically happens in traditional marriages, I have long observed, is that the woman makes the children her real emotional community--in place of her partner. In a sense, he just seeds the family and visits it. He does not have the same relationship to the child, and he does not have the same relationship to the relationship that his partner does.

By contrast, peer spouses have built up a real friendship and investment in each other's life; they keep in the front of their mind that their relationship is about the marriage. The children are part of the marriage, but the marriage is not part of the children. Keeping that fact straight is important both for the fluidity and validity of the marriage, but also for safeguarding that child. No doubt, children are best protected by a strong and happy marriage of two parents.

Similarity, when prized, can be exciting. Hierarchy and domination are not essential for arousal.


Peer marriage, like any other type of marriage, is not a panacea for all things emotional and intimate. There are lots of ways people can be disappointed in each other. They can grow differently. They can come up with strongly held values that do not mesh. Peer marriage is not a guarantee. But it increases the chances that both partners will find emotional rewards, that they will create a stable partnership for parenting, and that love will last without resentment.

It is the direction marriages are going to move in. I am happy to report that some couples have achieved it. There will always be some people who find solace, security, and love in a junior role in the relationship. And some who truly want to further only one income. There will be some who have no desire to know one another in the intimate way I have described.

I do not see all of us in the same kind of relationship. We're all too different from one another for that. I wouldn't sentence everyone to the same kind of roles in marriages. But peer marriage will become a predominant cultural theme and perhaps the predominant type of marriage in the very near future.