Somewhere in the effort to advocate for women as equals — in families, communities, business and government — an assumption developed that men and women should do (and want to do) exactly the same things. True equality seemed to demand it. As a result, underlying the push for equality has been a relentless demand for “sameness,” including in family roles and responsibilities. Underlying such advocacy is the notion that equality — manifested as “sameness” — will promote happiness for women, as well as men.
But equality in family life does not mean or demand sameness. And neither does happiness. Nowhere is that more clear than in research on women’s happiness in marriage.
Unquestioningly the roles of men and women in marriages today look different than they did in the 1950s. That is perhaps most evident in the increased time fathers give to housework and child care. Recent research by Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew confirmed that the difference in total minutes per day with children between mothers and fathers dropped from a ratio of 5.6 in 1975 to 2.2 in the 1990s. Similarly the difference in the amount of time spent in housework decreased significantly.
But there have been no changes since the 1990s. Today, married women still do 69 percent of child care and 68 percent of the housework. And married fathers continue to put in more hours at work than their wives. As Wilcox reported earlier this year, married fathers average 39 hours/week in the paid labor force (65 percent), while their wives average 21 hours/week (35 percent). As might be expected, married fathers also earn a substantially higher proportion of the family income, specifically 69 percent in 2012.
A large minority of couples do follow what many have described as an “egalitarian” model (where both mom and dad spend equal time in paid work and child care), but the most common picture of married families looks far more traditional — or “neo-traditional,” as coined by Wilcox. And they do so because they express a preference for it. Since the ’90s, survey data has consistently shown that more than 75 percent of married mothers prefer part-time work or to be stay-at-home moms. In contrast, 75 percent of fathers identify working full-time as ideal, and 13 percent prefer part-time employment.
The reality is that most married families prefer different roles and responsibilities. And far from being a source of discord, such differences actually predict marital stability and happiness. In fact, the picture that emerges confirms what many already know intuitively: What makes marriage happy is not our modern notions of “equality through sameness” as much as feeling loved, committed to and cared for.
Wilcox and Nock’s insightful research from “The Happiest Wives Project” found that “the most crucial determinant” of women’s marital happiness was the love, affection and understanding they felt from their husbands. His “emotion work” was more important than any other traditional predictor of marital quality, including the division of household labor, perceptions of housework equity, childbearing and education. And that held true not just for wives who were “traditionally” oriented, but even for wives who held more egalitarian views.
A woman’s perception that division of household labor was fair (not necessarily equal) was also an important predictor of marital happiness. But its importance was tied up in how it signaled to her that her husband cared about her, was committed to their marriage and shared the responsibilities of their family with her. Indeed, the happiest marriages were those in which both the husband and wife shared a strong commitment to marriage (that is, opposed easy divorce and believed children should be reared in married households), both attended church together each week, and the husband was the primary breadwinner. Those characteristics were closely tied to the amount of love, affection and understanding wives felt from their husbands.
Arlie Hochshild, a scholar who has devoted her work to increasing equality between men and women, once wrote that “gratitude is a vital, nearly sacred, nearly bottom-most, largely implicit layer of the marital bond.” What our public discourse largely seems to have missed is that a difference in roles and responsibilities actually facilitates the experience of gratitude and interdependence that is so central to unity between men and women.
Gratitude for what the other offers to the building of something far greater than the sum of their individual parts binds the hearts of a husband and wife together. And that unity and joy, built on gratitude for what is given, is the real purpose of it all. Equality is not actually the end goal in and of itself. Equality is important as it facilitates the real end of gratitude, respect and caring commitment in a unity with one another. Equal partners can respect the unique contributions that bind them together as one.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.