Women want a good provider who's listening

March 12, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

WHAT DO WOMEN want? A pair of sociology professors at the University of Virginia think they know: a sensitive guy with a healthy paycheck.

Even women who might describe themselves as feminists report being happier in marriages where the husbands earns the lion's share of income, as long as he is engaged in the emotional life of the marriage, according to the study by W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock.

In a report titled "What's Love Got to Do With It: Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women's Marital Quality," published in the March issue of the journal Social Forces, the two researchers set conventional wisdom on its ear.

For example: The emotional engagement of her husband, not the division of housework and paid work, is the most important determinant of a woman's marital happiness.

"Wives are much more concerned with whether their husband lends an attentive ear to their concerns and aspirations than whether their husband does half the cooking and cleaning," said Wilcox, after poring over interviews with 5,000 couples in the National Survey of Families and Households.

The researchers found that women are happiest in their marriages when their husbands earn 68 percent or more of the couple's income.

Also, women who share with their husbands a strong commitment to lifelong marriage are more likely to report that they are happy in their marriages.

And happy wives do not require a 50-50 division of chores. An unequal division of housework is still considered "fair" by these women, as long as they perceive their husbands as a good provider.

"Conventional and academic wisdom now suggests that the 'best' marriages are unions of equals," said Nock. "Our work suggests that the reality is more complicated.

"Wives are surely sensitive to imbalances in routine tasks and efforts, as almost all research shows.

"However, we find that they are more concerned with their husband's investments in the emotional content of the marriage."

While it may be surprising that women are not as adamant about equal pay and equal chores as we might have thought -- especially given the fact that housework is so often mentioned as a sore spot in even the happiest marriages -- this study makes more sense than it does news.

Why wouldn't a woman be happier with a good provider, considering his salary may make it possible for her to stay home with the kids, work part time or do meaningful work that might not pay well? It is also possible, as the researchers point out, that an unhappy wife may be working harder because she fears for the future of the marriage.

Why wouldn't a woman who believes she and her husband share a commitment to lifelong marriage report herself to be happier than the woman who believes she and her husband will only be together for as long as love lasts? Certainly the first woman is going to feel more secure, at the very least.

And it is no surprise to me his hefty paycheck is cold comfort if the guy is deaf to the language of the heart.

I am also not surprised to learn that the happiest marriages may be those that are organized along traditional gender lines. He cuts the grass and carves the turkey, she plants the flowers and cooks the turkey. He deposits his paycheck and she fills the larder. He makes pancakes on Saturday morning, and she cooks every other meal.

Is that equal? The researchers use the word "equitable," meaning "the experience of fairness and justness." As long as he stays tuned in to her and the kids, she can be happy with a slightly unbalanced scale.

But the importance of his affection and concern in making a marriage happy means that women have not relented on their demand that he be "present in the marriage." We are still not willing to put up with a lump in front of the TV, the way our mothers did.

In a way, this research may give the lie to the conventional wisdom that sex starts in the kitchen -- with him pitching in.

It looks as if marriages are happier if he invites her for a walk after dinner.

Do that, and she won't mind so much if you never get around to loading the dishwasher.


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