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Is Marriage a Bad Deal for Women?

"If you love me, you should want to help.”

Key points

  • More women end marriages because the relationships are no longer worth the sacrifices required of them.
  • Research shows that men are just as capable of empathy as women, if they are motivated to be.
  • Most marriages can be saved, but only if both partners make a consistent, visible effort.
Alex Green/Pexels
Lack of empathy pushes some marriages beyond repair.
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are the same. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In my couples therapy practice, however, I’ve found the opposite to be true: People are unhappy in remarkably similar ways.

In the wake of the pandemic, one scenario seems to be playing out in my work with heterosexual couples on repeat: Women are ending their marriages because the relationship is no longer worth the sacrifices required of them. They don’t get enough in return.

It’s not just the oft-cited unfair distribution of housework and childcare they’re unhappy about. They’re lonely. They feel in many ways disconnected from their husbands, who they often say lack empathy. They’re tired of offering their husbands emotional support and care but getting none in return. To compensate, women tend to turn to their friends and extended family for that emotional connection—something the pandemic pulled out from under them.

Healthy partnerships can go through tough times and emerge stronger afterward. Less secure relationships will often buckle under the strain, especially if the strain is long-lasting, creates uncertainty, and cuts the couple off from other resources and sources of support. In other words, a strain like the pandemic.

The pandemic has been a boon for couples therapists.

While it’s often true that couples finally start therapy only after their relationship is in tatters, this is especially true recently. By the time they’ve found their way to my office, the women in these couples are no longer looking for changes—after seeing no effort from their husbands to make the marriage better, they’re done trying. They want a divorce. He looks stricken while she appears resolved. He feels blindsided that she’s willing to blow up the relationship. She’s incredulous that he didn’t see this coming. His shock is simply more evidence of his disconnection from her.

Women have long been less satisfied with marriage than men. In fact, 69 percent of divorces are initiated by women. There are many reasons for this gender disparity—for example, men are more likely than women to have affairs, struggle with substance abuse, and be violent. In other words, they are more likely to engage in behaviors that cross the line for most women. But the couples I’m talking about involve nice guys who wouldn’t dream of breaking these basic marital agreements. Instead, these men are operating according to long-standing societal norms that encourage men to be “self-oriented” and women to be “other-oriented.”

Men have been reared to view their value in terms of material contributions.

Many men don’t expect to be judged by their emotional supportiveness and collaborative efforts when it comes to their families. Women have been reared to view their value in terms of their contributions to their families and communities—even when they have their own successful careers. These norms haven’t changed much with women’s entry into the mainstream economy over the last half-century. If anything, they have been amplified after two-plus years spent in the pressure cooker of COVID.

Unfortunately, being an other-oriented person partnered with a self-oriented person leads to a host of predictable problems. In general, men participate less in household chores, child-rearing, and the emotional labor involved with running a family. Often, they prioritize their work, leisure, and happiness over hers. The unfairness of this imbalance may have felt tolerable when society was functioning normally and everyone wasn’t home together all day. But when faced with this dynamic day after day, this disparity broke the back of many unions.

For some women, it isn’t even the labor itself that is so galling. It’s the underlying lack of empathy: Their husbands see this happening and don’t care. As one woman said to her husband, “You know I’m running around like a crazy person, and you just sit there on your phone. If you love me, you should want to help.”

The traditional marriage, with clearly delineated gender roles, is over.

In most marriages, women are working and contributing to household finances. As a result, they have more leverage and resources than ever. The expectation that wives orient themselves around their husband’s emotional needs and preferences, offer unconditional support but not get that same care in return is no longer working for many women. And they’ve come to believe that marriage is holding them back from living the life they want to live. If she’s already bringing in an income, is still doing most of the housework and childcare, and doesn’t feel seen or understood by her partner, she may tally the reasons to stay and come up short. Women expect emotional care and empathy. A partnership devoid of emotional intimacy no longer feels worth the sacrifices that come with any long-term relationship.

Of course, it isn’t true every husband is self-centered, and all wives are selfless. Plenty of men actively engage with their wives on all levels and prioritize closeness and connection. But as a whole, men are still socialized to put their own needs first while women are socialized to put their needs last. These gender expectations, still retrograde even after decades of efforts at gender equality, lead to gender differences in how our brains respond to others.

A study in the scientific journal Nature showed that women get a dopamine hit when they engage in pro-social behavior, while men get a positive hit when acting in their own interest. Researchers speculate that this is not because of a structural difference in our brains but because of social conditioning. Our brains are plastic and change in response to our experiences. But the good news is that this same plasticity allows for change and growth.

Research shows that men are just as capable of empathy as women but that they don’t demonstrate their empathetic skills unless they are explicitly motivated to do so. In one study, men scored far worse at accurately inferring the feelings and thoughts of others when they knew they were being judged on empathy but otherwise weren’t incentivized to do so. The men scored just as well as the women when they were paid for accurate empathic responses. In a later study by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that empathetic accuracy was less important than empathetic effort. The authors end the piece by advocating for helping couples to more clearly communicate their empathic efforts.

It’s discouraging to think that the happiness of their wives, stability of their families, and longevity of their unions isn’t enough for some husbands to make their strongest empathic effort—especially when they don’t even need to get it right. They just need to make a consistent, visible effort. But I don’t think this is true. I think men are motivated to make this effort, but only once they fully understand the depth of their wife’s unhappiness. Sometimes this only happens once she has her suitcase packed and is heading for the door.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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