Should wives lower expectations in pursuit of happiness?

March 20, 2006|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I have a friend who taught her daughters to express their feminist views with men they dated. Her advice went roughly like this: Speak up; the only man you will scare off is your future ex-husband.

This was during the era when sociologists were warning uppity women that they might end up alone. They were expected to trim their ambitions for the sake of a wedding ring. My friend saw right past the marriage ceremony to the divorce decree.

Fast-forward to a new study that carries another subtle message: Wives with high expectations of equal relationships might end up less happily married.

This month, two sociologists from the University of Virginia, Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, published a portrait of happy marriage. Using data from 5,000 couples in the National Survey of Families and Households done in the 1990s, they looked at the wives' views and came up with a model that had something to please traditionalists and progressives.

To the pleasure of progressives, they found that a husband's emotional engagement is crucial to a wife's happiness. So is her belief that the housework is divided fairly. To the pleasure of traditionalists, they found that women married to breadwinner husbands are happier than full-time working wives. And that wives who believe in marriage till death do us part - rather than marriage as long as love shall last - are also happier.

Typically, about 80 percent of spouses claim to be happy or very happy. After all, the miserable ones (see above) get divorced.

As for the part of this analysis that has gotten the most publicity - the notion that housewives are more content in their marriages than working wives - the differences are too slim to be worth all the attention.

What intrigues me most is the choice morsel the researchers pluck from the data. As Mr. Wilcox describes it: "Wives who work full time and have more-progressive attitudes are more likely to be unhappy with the division of housework. And that spells trouble for them and their marriages."

The best marriages, he says, are not just those in which men do more emotional work than they might choose, but those in which women "make an effort to expect less" in household sharing.

There are no surprises in this "semitraditional" model of marriage. The new norm is a husband who expresses more feelings than his father and a wife who cleans more toilets than her husband. But do women really want to lower their expectations?

If homemakers believe labor is divided fairly along traditional lines, it probably is. But how many women who work equal hours for lower wages end up doing more laundry because he brings home more bacon?

What if women had never raised expectations? Feminists began pushing men for more openness and family involvement a generation ago. Mr. Wilcox acknowledges, "Men who have taken that message are the men who are most likely to have happy wives."

Progressive women pressed, demanded - dare I say nagged? - for the benefits that are now also reaped by more-traditional wives. And let's remember how many husbands have become full and equal partners in their family lives.

We are in the midst of a long and bumpy era of social change in which the relationships between men and women are in flux and marriages may change or end. Women who expect equality are not likely to heed the old Archie Bunker line: "Stifle yourself, Edith." Indeed, women at the demanding, cutting edge might eventually be the ones who reduce the divorce rate.

So the question is not whether women should lower their expectations. It's whether men will kick it up another notch. To the current generation of wives, here's an update on my friend's advice: Speak up; your daughters' "semitraditional" marriages may depend on it.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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