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Changing Gender Roles in Marriage

There are fewer assigned roles in marriage.

Most married couples develop a shared understanding of who does what in their relationship. It is a sometimes unspoken recognition of an inevitable division of labor and responsibilities.

The current, commonly agreed, “politically correct” plan for marriage is an equal sharing of chores and other duties; but this plan is not followed now any more than it has been throughout history.

In fact, in much of the animal kingdom, there is a division of labor which grows inescapably out of different biological imperatives—although here and there in the animal kingdom there are surprising instances of role reversal. Sometimes the male is charged with taking care of the eggs, for instance.

Although there is a division of labor in human affairs between the sexes, there are changing social expectations, which are reflected in somewhat different gender roles at different times.

When I grew up, fathers were employed out of the home, and mothers tended to the household. That meant not only housekeeping but taking primary responsibility for child upbringing.

Now things are different. Most mothers work. Household responsibilities must be shared. But they are not shared equally.

My reading of current expectations in marriage is that men still fix things and take care of the automobiles. Women still have primary responsibility for the proper maintenance of the home and the welfare of the children. If both parents work, for instance, it is more often the mother who takes off time to bring a sick child to the doctor—unless the father’s schedule is much more flexible.

Most women—although not all—do the cooking and cleaning. Most men—but not all—do the repairs. Men are likely to assemble the furniture, women are likely to find themselves with the task of cleaning it.

I know that some people, particularly women, are likely to object to these seemingly glib caricatures of the various roles women and men play in marriage –and I am not saying that I think this state of affairs is necessarily the way things should be-- but I think these generalizations are still a description of how things actually are. With exceptions, of course. None of these general rules applies to every marriage.

The following observations are mine alone and may reflect idiosyncrasies of where I live and work. Currently, it seems to me:

The generalizations I made above are more or less true. Men take care of mechanical devices: cars, hi-fi systems, appliances, and so on. Women tend to be in charge of decorating the house and making other purchases for the home: choosing drapes and carpets, and, of course, making sure they are clean and cared for properly.

Where a couple lives is still more likely to depend on where the husband works, rather than where the woman works. The man is likely to be better paid.

If someone tosses a ball around with the kids, it is likely to be their father. If the kids need to be driven to activities, it is usually the mother who does the driving. She is also likely to be the one buying clothes for them.

Social arrangements, such as dinner with friends, are likely to be managed by the wife. Wives are more likely to initiate discussions about planned vacations.

All sorts of little tasks fall to one or another of a couple almost by chance and habit. The husband might take out the garbage, do the barbecue and carry packages into the house. The wife might dress the children, make arrangements with the handyman, and call family members.

However, there are other tasks which seem to be up for grabs.

Financial matters: Not long ago, it seemed that husbands were more likely to be in charge of the family finances. Now, I think that either spouse may end up managing the bank account, paying the mortgage and, in general, dealing with a budget—although, often enough, no one is dealing with the budget. It is common now for husbands and wives to have separate checking accounts. Somewhat less common is the practice of some couples of keeping their funds separate. This is especially true if couples are living together, but not yet married.

I am somewhat uncomfortable hearing about such an arrangement. Often I learn about it only when an accusation has been made that someone violated the terms of the agreement. e.g., “I paid the phone bill last month when it was your turn, and I also paid for the hotel rooms, so you should pay a little more of the food bill this month and the dog food.”

Some of these financial arrangements are very detailed, and it is easy to feel taken advantage of or cheated. The money belongs to both of them in a way, but not in another way. I think there is implicit in such a financial understanding the recognition that there is no real commitment to each other. At least not at that point in time.

It is usually the case that one spouse says “we need this,” about a particular expenditure, and the other says, “we can’t afford this.” Over and over again throughout a marriage, each spouse is likely to take the same position. The person who thinks something—a vacation, a new bathroom—is necessary always thinks what is being considered is necessary, and the other always thinks it is unaffordable. These roles are not gender-specific.

Religious matters: It used to be in some places that women took the religion of their future husbands. There are still places in the world where there are rigid rules about these matters. Some religions will not honor a marriage if it takes place outside the church.

Nowadays, in this county, the man’s wishes are not determinative. Usually, when there are children, the parent who feels most strongly about religion will get the spouse’s consent to bring up the child in that person’s religion. More commonly, the children are raised—not very seriously—in both religions or in no religion.

It is unusual to find two parents who are prepared to marry who feel equally strongly about their particular religion. In fact, over the years I have encountered fewer people who feel strongly about religion in general. In taking a history, I always ask about religion. More people are not affiliated. Some people say, “I am spiritual,” which means that they are not religious.

Child-rearing practices: No one parent, by virtue of being the mother or the father, has the last word in determining child-rearing practices. It can be either; but, usually, one person feels more strongly than the other about discipline and other matters, and that person’s opinion is likely to hold sway.

Sometimes parents do not come to an understanding about such issues, and ugly confrontations ensue, upsetting the children. Parents who have different attitudes about education are particularly likely to disagree about how much studying a child should do. Children can learn to exploit these differences and become manipulative, which is not in their long-range interest.

Sex: There used to be relatively clear-cut attitudes about sex. The man’s wishes were what counted. No one believes that anymore; but there is still an expectation in our culture, that the husband should take the lead in initiating sex. But not all the time.

Husbands and wives are not likely to start off automatically in agreement about exactly how much sex they would prefer to have. It is not reasonable to expect that two people will want exactly the same amount of anything, whether it is the number of children they should have, or the number of times they should go on vacations, or the number of times they are required to visit in-laws.

These differences can be readily compromised if there is good-will, and the same is true for sexual matters. However, it is true, nevertheless, that often one of a couple (and sometimes both) is unhappy with their sexual adjustment.

Usually, the discontent centers on having too little sex; and the person who wants to have more sex is just as likely to be the wife as the husband. Some couples seem to adjust to having very little sex, while other couples do not. The level of dissatisfaction often mirrors other dissatisfactions in the marriage.

Who is in charge? There was a time when husbands were in charge. In some areas of the world that is still plainly the case. In fact, in some distant, but more and more familiar places, like Pakistan or Afghanistan, women are not only cast into a submissive role but are treated as inferiors.

But not in Westchester County in the 21st century. In most families here, no one would claim to be in charge. Even if someone really thought he/she was in charge, it would be considered bad manners to make such a claim.

Looking over the shoulders of so many families, I find it difficult usually to say if one spouse or another is really in charge. Gender roles are shifting and complicated, as described above. One person can be the final word in one sort of issue, like finances, and have little to say about other matters, such as dealing with the children.

Still, there are couples whose friends will agree that one person, or the other, is clearly “the boss.” I think this is not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, in these cases it is simply that one person feels more strongly about certain things than the other, or is by temperament more passive than the other. If that person makes most of the decisions in family matters, it does not mean that the other person has a lower status. These roles can change, anyway, in the event of illness or some other family emergency.

The individual and more or less arbitrary division of labor in a marriage is not likely to undermine its success. As is always the case, the success of a marriage will depend primarily on mutual respect and affection.

The role of the children: The role of the children, of course, is to figure out the computers and tablets, and other arcane devices that seem to appear at brief intervals entirely reconfigured.

(c) Fredric Neuman

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