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  • An androgynous vision of marriage undermines the supportive role that men value and the choice women prize most. Tweet This
  • Even today, married U.S. parents typically split up paid & domestic work along gendered lines. Tweet This

The attempt to stamp out sex difference has affected marriage, too.

It’s no secret that marriage has evolved in radical ways over the past half century. Men and women meet romantic partners in different settings,1 value different traits in prospective spouses,2 and marry at significantly later ages than they did before the Sexual Revolution.3 And while marriage in the U.S. once featured relatively rigid gender roles, and especially before the twentieth century, gave husbands greater rights than wives,4 married couples today typically share responsibility for earning money, keeping up their home, and raising their children.

Yet the extent to which men and women play the same roles in marriage is sometimes overstated,5 presumably because many contemporary scholars and journalists are ideologically committed to a version of gender equality in which men and women are effectively identical. Even today, married American parents typically split up paid and domestic work along gendered lines because that’s what most of them want to do.

Consider, for example, how mothers and fathers spend their time. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2011 data from the American Time Use Survey, mothers of children under eighteen devote, on average, fourteen hours a week to child care, whereas fathers devote seven hours to it. Mothers spend eighteen hours a week doing housework, while fathers spend ten. And fathers engage in paid work thirty-seven hours a week, compared to twenty-one for women. In other words, fathers contribute roughly two-thirds of their household’s hours of paid labor, and mothers shoulder roughly two-thirds of the housework and child care, making their total weekly work hours essentially equal.

Much has indeed changed since 1965 when mothers spent just eight hours a week performing paid work and fathers devoted a paltry 2.5 hours to the care of their children.6 But little has changed in the past twenty years,7 not because inequality between the sexes persists in marriage today, as many would have you believe, but because sex difference is stubborn. Most Americans still don’t desire a marriage in which both spouses work full-time and all other tasks are divided on a fifty-fifty basis.

Despite unprecedented economic opportunities for women and equally unprecedented levels of domestic involvement among men, studies continue to find that we want different things out of marriage and family life.

A 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that the majority (fifty-three percent) of married mothers say their ideal situation would be to work part time. Other married mothers are as likely to prefer staying at home as they are to desire full-time work (twenty-three percent each). Fathers, in contrast, generally value full-time employment. Three-quarters say a full-time schedule is ideal for them, while only fifteen percent prefer part-time work and ten percent would like not to work at all.8

The extent to which men and women play the same roles in marriage is sometimes overstated.​

Of course, many if not most mothers—even those with employed husbands—are not able to achieve their ideal. One 2000 survey showed that only forty-nine percent of married mothers with college degrees and forty-four percent of those without college degrees were able to live out their labor force preference. Among those whose work schedule did not align with their ideal, more than seven in ten wanted to work less, not more.9 As feminist psychologist Eleanor Maccoby concluded in The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, even in a society that seeks to minimize the penalty women pay in the workplace for becoming parents, “there is no reason to expect that men and women will want to make exactly the same choices about the way they invest their time.”10

If dividing labor along gendered lines remains the societal norm and the average American couple’s preference, might it also be linked to greater marital satisfaction and individual happiness? The scholarly literature does not provide a simple answer. As one 1998 study documented, “the relationship between wives’ employment and marital satisfaction has changed over the last 30 years.” Wives’ employment predicted lower marital quality in the 1960s, but not in subsequent decades, and by the 1980s, some studies suggested working women were happier in their marriages.11 Women’s full-time employment may even be linked with lower divorce rates, according to another study,12 or only increase the risk of divorce when a marriage is already unhappy.13 A 2015 study using more recent survey data from thirty-two different countries, including the U.S., concluded that how couples with children divide paid and domestic work is unrelated to individuals’ overall happiness in almost all regions of the world.14

On the other hand, a 2006 study using a large, nationally representative sample of Americans found, to quote a press release, that “women whose husbands earn the lion’s share of income, who don’t work outside the home, or who share a strong commitment to lifelong marriage with their husbands report the highest levels of marital happiness.”15

Perhaps the most natural way to make sense of these contradictory findings is a common-sense hypothesis: different couples prefer different work-family arrangements, so their happiness may depend more on whether they can fulfill their personal ideal than on the precise division of their labor. Researchers have marshaled some support for this theory. For example, in a 2013 analysis, W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew found that “no one work-family strategy is linked to higher reports of marital happiness—that is, reporting that one is ‘very happy’ in one’s marriage—among married mothers with children under eighteen.” The fulfillment of individual preferences, however, mattered quite a bit: “Wives who are working full-time or who are at home in violation of their preferences are, respectively, 46 percent less likely and 39 percent less likely to be very happy in their marriages, compared to stay-at-home wives who prefer to be at home.” Whether wives’ preferences are fulfilled also affects their husbands’ satisfaction.16

An earlier study on the same topic arrived at similar conclusions. The effects of the division of labor on both spouses’ marital satisfaction “are largely explained by the mediating variables of perceived unfairness and perceived empathy,” the researchers concluded. And “personal preferences regarding the division of both domestic and paid work significantly influence marital satisfaction for both wives and husbands.”17 The actual division of labor appears to matter less than dividing it the way a couple wants to—and that usually means the husband will take the lead in paid work and the wife in parenting and domestic labor.

Seemingly, in the minds of both men and women, holding down a job is a crucial part of a husband’s role, while labor force participation remains optional for wives.

While the question of how traditional versus gender-neutral arrangements affect couples’ happiness does not have one clear answer, the research is more straightforward in cases where traditional gender roles are reversed. When a husband works fewer hours or earns less money than his wife, as is the case for about one in four dual-earner married couples today,18 he is less happy and the marriage is more likely to dissolve. According to some studies, his wife’s happiness also declines.

In Wilcox and Dew’s study, the only work-family arrangement that predicted the marital satisfaction of men with children was working less than their wives. Married fathers whose wives worked more than they did were sixty-one percent less likely to be very happy in their marriage than men whose wives stayed home.19 Even when the wives preferred this non-traditional arrangement, these husbands were less happy. Husbands whose wives worked more also showed a higher level of “divorce proneness”—a measure of “how far into the process of considering or pursuing a divorce [they] had ventured” that has proven to predict divorce likelihood—than other men.20

Drawing on some of the same survey data, other researchers recently looked at how men’s and women’s relative incomes affected various aspects of relationships. They found that aversion to wives’ out-earning their husbands had widespread effects, impacting “marriage formation, the wife’s labor force participation, the wife’s income conditional on working, marriage satisfaction, the likelihood of divorce, and the division of home production.” Couples in which the wife’s income was higher than the husband’s were six percentage points less likely to say their marriage was happy, and six percentage points more likely to have discussed separating in the past year.21 Other research has shown that in couples where women earn more money, and especially when they are the sole breadwinner, men are more likely but women are less likely to cheat.22 A 2013 study of Danish couples even suggested that a counter-traditional balance of income undermines men’s sexual performance and causes anxiety in women.23

Studies of employment and job loss likewise show that marriages in which the husband is not employed are more likely to end in divorce. One longitudinal study published in 2011 showed that when married men are not working, both they and their wives become more likely to initiate divorce. The authors attributed this finding in part to expectations about what marriage should look like. (Women’s employment did not affect men’s odds of seeking a divorce, and only made women more likely to seek divorce if they assessed their marriage negatively.)24

A 2014 study incorporating recession-era data on job loss, and focusing solely on “involuntary displacement resulting from reduced business demand or firm closing” rather than terminations, indicated that job loss only produces a higher divorce risk if it is the husband rather than the wife who was displaced.25 Seemingly, in the minds of both men and women, holding down a job is a crucial part of a husband’s role, while labor force participation remains optional for wives.

The studies make clear that while there is no one-size-fits-all model that maximizes marital happiness for all couples, there are clear preferences that break down by sex. Ignoring those fault lines and exalting an androgynous vision of marriage undermines the supportive role that men clearly value and takes away the choice that women prize most.

This essay is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Ashley McGuire’s new book, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017). It is reprinted here with permission.

1. Roberto A. Ferdman, “There Are Only Three Ways to Meet Anyone Anymore,” Washington Post, March 8, 2016.

2. David M. Buss et al., “A Half Century of Mate Preferences: The Cultural Evolution of Values,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63 (May 2001): 491–503. 

3. Diana B. Elliott et al., “Historical Marriage Trends from 1890– 2010: A Focus on Race Differences: SEHSD Working Paper Number 2012–12,” United States Census Bureau, 2012. 

4. “Married Women’s Property Laws,” Law Library of Congress.

5. W. Bradford Wilcox argues convincingly that Brookings Institution scholar Richard V. Reeves (in “How to Save Marriage in America,” Atlantic, February 13, 2014) “obscures the extent to which the cast of modern American family life remains gendered.” Wilcox, “Surprisingly, Most Married Families Today Tilt Neo- Traditional,” Family Studies, February 26, 2014.

6. Kim Parker and Wendy Wang, “Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family,” Pew Research Center, March 14, 2013. 

7. The most notable change since the mid-1990s is an increase in the hours per week that both mothers and fathers spend on child care. Mothers’ hours in paid employment have actually declined. “Parental Time Use,” Pew Research Center. 

8. “Changing Views about Work” in Parker and Wang, “Modern Parenthood.” 

9. The 2000 Survey of Marriage and Family Life. The work categories were staying at home, working part time, and working full time. See W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew,  “No One Best Way: Work-Family Strategies, the Gendered Division of Parenting, and the Contemporary Marriages of Mothers and Fathers,” in Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, ed. W. Bradford Wilcox and Kathleen Kovner Kline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 283, table 10.2.

10. Eleanor Maccoby, The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 314. 

11. Jane Riblett Wilkie et al., “Gender and Fairness: Marital Satisfaction in Two-Earner Couples,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60:3 (August 1998): 579.

12. Robert Schoen et al., “Wives’ Employment and Spouses’ Marital Happiness: Assessing the Direction of Influence Using Longitudinal Couple Data,” Journal of Family Issues 27:4 (April 2006), 506–28. 

13. Liana C. Sayer et al., “She Left, He Left: How Employment and Satisfaction Affect Men’s and Women’s Decisions to Leave Marriages,” American Journal of Sociology 116:6 (May 2011): 1982–2018; Robert Schoen, “Women’s Employment, Marital Happiness, and Divorce,” Social Forces 81:2 (2002): 643–62. 

14. Laurie DeRose, “Essay: No One Best Way: Work, Family, and Happiness the World Over,” World Family Map, 2015. 

15. But the top determinant of women’s marital happiness was their self-reported satisfaction with the love, affection, and understanding their husbands gave them. “University of Virginia Study Finds Commitment to Marriage, Emotional Engagement Key to Wives’ Happiness,” University of Virginia News, March 1, 2006; W. Brad Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84:3 (2006), 1321–45.

16. The researchers controlled for race/ethnicity as well as for “number of marriages, marital duration, education, family income (logged), and age of youngest child.” W. B. Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew, “No One Best Way: Work-Family Strategies, the Gendered Division of Parenting, and the Contemporary Marriages of Mothers and Fathers,” conference at the University of Virginia, 2008. 

17. Wilkie et al., “Gender and Fairness,” 589. 

18. “Wives Who Earn More than Their Husbands, 1987–2014,” 
U.S. Census Bureau, April 6, 2016.

19. Wilcox and Dew, “No One Best Way,” 287. 

20. Ibid., 289.

21. Marianne Bertrand et al., “Gender Identity and Relative 
Income within Households," Quarterly Journal of Economics (2015): 571–614, http://qje.oxfordjournals.org/content/130/2/571.full.pdf.

22. Cristin L. Munscha, “Her Support, His Support: Money, Masculinity, and Marital Infidelity,” American Sociological Review 80:3 (June 2015), 469–95.

23. Lamar Pierce et al., “In Sickness and in Wealth: Psychological and Sexual Costs of Income Comparison in Marriage,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39:3 (March 2013), 359–74.

24. Liana C. Sayer et al., “He Left, She Left: How Employment and Satisfaction Affect Men’s and Women’s Decisions to Leave Marriages,” American Journal of Sociology 116:6 (May 2011), 1982–2018.

25. Melissa Ruby Banzhaf, “When It Rains, It Pours: Under What Circumstances Does Job Loss Lead to Divorce,” The Society of Labor Economists, p. 2.