Several cartoons capture the seismic cultural shifts in men and women's roles that have occurred over the past few decades. One cartoon pictures a mother sitting at a huge executive desk at work, phone in hand, talking to her children and saying: "Tommy! Stop hitting your sister! Jenny, give back Jason's starship! Jason! Stop crying and eat your broccoli!!!"
Another cartoon pictures a woman handing a man a pan, saying "New Men not only eat quiche; they prepare quiche!"Yet a third pictures two children, a dog and a husband in an apron watching a wife leave the house as she says, "Mommy will see you later. Mommy has to go to law school now."
The shifts in roles depicted in these cartoons have arisen from numerous new conditions in the culture, including: a rise in technology; in inflation; in housing, medical and tuition costs; in consciousness-raising with respect to equality issues; in women's education; in divorces and more women heading one-parent homes; in women entering the workplace; in industry acknowledging women's contributions; and in new career openings for women.
These changes have caused a reverberation in traditional men and women's roles, often causing couples to reel from emotional collisions and marriages to shake clear to the core as new - but little understood - responses are required to insure the basic survival of the family.
Speaking to the impact of these cultural shifts on marriages is Arlie Hochschild, author of "The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home." Says Hochschild, who recently finished a study of 150 two-career couples: "Each marriage bears the footprints of economic trends which originate far outside marriage . . . Problems between husband and wives, problems that seem `individual' and `marital,' are often individual experiences of powerful economic and cultural shock waves."
Many of today's marital clashes reflect a broader social tension - between faster-changing women and slower-changing men, says Hochschild, causing what she calls the "stalled revolution: The `female culture' has shifted more rapidly than the `male culture'; the image of the go-get-'em woman has yet to be fully matched by the image of the let's-take-care-of-the-kids-together man. More important, over the last 30 years, men's underlying feelings about taking responsibility at home have changed much less than women's feelings have changed about forging some kind of identity at work."
And so, what happens to men and women who are changing at different rates - especially when they understand so little about the dramatic cultural shift in roles over the past several decades and the personal impact of themselves? They fight. And argue. And get angry and hurt over the issue of who does what. And they become emotional estranged.
And sometimes they divorce. Often because they personalize issues caused by cultural forces that are quietly transforming their marriages.
Specific dynamics that put pressures on couples include the following, says Hochschild:
- In two-career couples, women still continue to carry a far greater portion of the responsibility associated with running a home and rearing children. As a result, in their "second shift," women spend 15 fewer hours of leisure each week than their husbands. In a year, they work an extra month of 24-hour days.
And what are the consequences of the wife's extra month a year in an age of high divorce? Dire, Hochschild stresses. Marriages and couples in her study were fraying at the edges.
And fatigue among women was rampant. Women tended to speak more intently than men about being over-tired, sick and "emotionally drained." They "talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food."
- Both men and women suffered severe repercussions from these existing inequities. Men made no connection between housework and love, while women directly associated a husband's willingness to contribute to housework to a sense of being loved.
Describing the impact of these differences, Hochschild says: "I came to realize that husbands who helped very little at home were often indirectly just as deeply affected as their wives through the resentment their wives feel toward them" - resentment that often puts their marriages in jeopardy.
As a couple, you can counteract the impact of cultural stresses on your marriage by acknowledging that you're living under unprecedented and swiftly changing cultural conditions that are putting mega stresses on your marriage and blowing many out of the water. That means that you need to shuck the past and arguments over who didn't do what when and look to the future.
Consider yourselves an executive unit charged with identifying responses that will help in the future. What kinds of role adjustments are needed to decrease stress on the marriage? What kinds of changes in the future could ensure that work and role distributions in the marriage are fair and that both partners have personal time? What kind of help might you need from outside the home (say, housecleaning services) that could reduce stress?
Be creative! Remember, new behavioral responses to unprecedented cultural changes might just ensure the survival of your marriage.
- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.