Marriage Inequality

March 18, 2015

 

 

By: Nicole C. Iacovoni, LCSW, Willow Tree Wellness & Counseling, LLC

 

As a couple’s therapist, I’ve come to recognize some of the common struggles experienced

by married couples, but there is one prevalent problem I have discovered that leaves a bitter taste

in my mouth and sets me on fire. I have heard countless stories about unfair distribution of

responsibilities, discrepancies in decision making power, and inequality surrounding mutual

respect and caring for the family. In most cases, the husband maintains the power, control, and

“light duty”, but not in all. I’ve seen it the other way around too, but in far fewer instances.

Marriage Inequality is a societal problem that has existed for decades, but with the progress

of Women’s Rights and the increase of women in the workplace, one would think the inequality

gap wouldn’t be nearly as wide as it is today. Before I go on a rant about why this is such a

disgusting problem, let me first say that not all marriages are this way. Each marriage is as unique

as each of the people in them, and to overgeneralize and assume that inequality exists in all

marriages would be false. Furthermore, not all men take advantage of their wives or abuse their

power and authority in their relationships. That being said, I have worked with a startling

number of women who have, or still do, encounter the problems I describe here, and the need for

change is great.

 

So, what does marriage inequality look like? Here are statements I often hear from wives:

“My husband seems to believe his only job is to bring home a paycheck. He goes to work

and provides financially for our family, but when it comes to helping with housework, child care,

cooking, or managing the bills, he’s unwilling to help.”

“ My husband tends to place his own desires before the needs of our family, so I’m often the

one stuck with the majority of the responsibility, and that leaves little to no time for myself ”.

“My husband isn’t present and is often distracted with work, hobbies, spending time with

friends, video games, the computer, or his phone. I receive very little emotional support from

him”.

“My husband doesn’t involve me in any of the decision making. I feel out of the loop and

when my husband makes a bad decision, we all pay the consequences. I feel like I don’t have a

say in what happens”.

“Even though I work outside the home, my husband expects me to do all the housework,

keep track of our schedule, and take care of the kids. When we got married, I thought we would

both share the responsibility of contributing income and the responsibility of running a

household and raising a family”.

 

When I hear these stories as often as I do, it pisses me off. There are so many things wrong

with this picture. I can’t help but wonder, “Where is this problem coming from”? We no longer

live in the 1950’s, a time when gender roles were black and white, and the norm was for men to

bring home the bacon and women to run the household. Yet, it seems that kind of mentality

prevails and stereotypical gender roles remain intact for many marriages, even with the shift of

women working outside the home. Is it the way we’re raising sons that’s contributing to this

phenomena? Are we in some way teaching our little boys they don’t need to concern themselves

with laundry, vacuuming, or changing diapers? Is the problem in the way we’re raising

daughters? Perhaps we’re still instilling the belief in our little girls that their role is to provide for

the needs of each family member, even at the sacrifice of their own. Gender roles are developed

through observation and mimicking, so perhaps the answer lies in the way we model behavior for

our children or in the way behavior was modeled for us growing up. In many two parent working

families, wives are still taking on majority of the household chores. Is it because they saw their

mothers doing this? Did their mothers also work outside the home or were they stay-at-home

moms?

 

No matter what the cause, the problem is a big one. The wives of husbands who aren’t

stepping up to the plate are left feeling a deep sense of lack. Many women struggle with feelings

of resentment, anger, sadness, loneliness, and frustration. More so, these women feel betrayed,

hopeless, and helpless. By today’s standards, most women enter marriage with an expectation

that their husband will serve as their best friend, teammate, co-parent, and partner in all aspects

of life. It seems reasonable to believe that if both partners are contributing financially, both

partners would also contribute similarly in regards to chores, parenting, planning, and decision

making. The women I have worked with tend to say the same thing; they feel like they’ve been

fooled by their husbands in a preverbal bait and switch scheme. During courtship, they were

given the distinct impression that the relationship was equitable and fair, but when the going got

tough with the addition of demanding jobs, children, and more responsibility, their husbands let

them carry the load alone. This dynamic creates an “I didn’t sign up for this crap” notion, which

leads to feelings of resentment and bitterness.

 

What we’re seeing as a result of marriage inequality is that many women are seeking

divorce. Ironically, couple’s therapy is usually ineffective in these instances. In most of the cases

I’ve worked with, the husband is in deep denial that a problem even exists. Many husbands

simply can’t understand what their wives are so upset about and are unable to gain the self

awareness necessary to take ownership of the problems they create in their marriages. After failed

attempts to change their husbands and the relationship for the better, wives simply give up and

throw in the towel. When the begging and pleading for help falls on the deaf ears of their

husbands, there are few other options. Sadly, these women are given a bad rap for “giving up” on

their marriage. The worst part though is that most of these men are actually decent people. Most

of the husbands I’m talking about here are good providers (in the financial sense) who care about

their families and are well liked by others. It’s terribly sad to see loving wives of good men end a

long-term relationship because the burden of responsibility was shifted too much in their

direction…and the men either didn’t notice or weren’t willing or able to make it better.

 

Which brings me to my next question. Is it that men aren’t willing to take on more domestic

responsibilities or aren’t able to? Are the demands and stress of today’s workforce too much to

cope with? Are these husbands being overworked, underpaid, or not afforded ample time for self

care, which would allow them more energy and time to devote to their families? Are today’s men

ill-equipped to handle parenting issues, household problems, or multi-tasking? Are husbands

turning a blind eye to the stress their wives are under because they can’t tolerate it themselves?

If I had to choose which way to look at the problem, my choice would be to believe that

both men and women in today’s society are under extreme amounts of pressure, stress, and

unrealistic expectations from themselves and others, and that is the real root of the problem.

Viewing this issue from a lens in which women are the victims and men are selfish assholes

doesn’t seem humanistic or realistic. What makes more sense is that both partners feel the

demands of life are simply too much for them to deal with, so they either turn toward their

spouse for help or they withdrawal from their spouse and hide. In either case, the outcomes of

these behaviors are grim.

 

Wives tend to reach out to their husbands for help and support, while husbands tend to

withdrawal and avoid. If the theory that inequality stems from a husband’s inability to cope

effectively is true, it makes sense that men would withdrawal from women who are seeking

support. They can’t help their wives if they can barely help themselves. There’s nothing left to

give. So, wives are basically on their own; “every man for himself ”. It then becomes a matter of

mere survival. The husband does what he needs to for himself to get by, make do, and keep from

going insane, which usually involves disconnecting from the family in some way. The wife does

what she needs to do to take care of her family, which usually involves self sacrifice and overextending herself.

 

Feeling as though you can’t rely on your spouse certainly doesn’t bode well for intimacy, and

over time, the emotional gap widens into a great divide. As the distance increases, so does the

tendency to perceive each other more negatively, jump to false conclusions, and take things

personally. This combination is the perfect cocktail for marriage disaster. So, what can we do

about it? The answer isn’t simple or clear, but I have a few suggestions that could improve upon

this problem, and they require action on the part of both men and women.

 

First, wives living with marriage inequality must take a no-tolerance stance and make a

commitment to change the power distribution in the marriage. However, change won’t occur by

force, nagging, threats, or ultimatums, which is typically what most women do in pursuit of

changing their situation. On the contrary, love, patience, kindness, and empathy toward the

husband is the only means by which progress has any potential. This concept may not make

sense at first. It seems counterintuitive to extend empathy, understanding, and kindness to

someone who appears to have it made in the shade with pink lemonade. Women must remember

that we tell ourselves all sorts of stories about how easy our husbands have it, but it’s all made up

in our minds. It’s incredibly easy to make ourself the main character in our own life story and live

in a world that revolves solely around ourself. The same holds true for men, but if we can

become aware of this tendency in our brains, we can rebel against the lies we tell ourselves and

finally see the truth. When the real reason for why a husband slacks off is discovered, the truth is

finally revealed, and it can only be done through love, communication, and understanding.

Without a doubt, when wives learn about the deep vulnerabilities their husbands possess, the

power dynamic instantly changes. Women become more empowered and men stop having the

need to hide.

 

Second, men need to rid themselves of the stigma that was created long ago and realize

that being emotional or vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. Withdrawal and avoidance are

directly related to feelings of shame and guilt, and many men believe that admitting to their

wives they can’t handle the stress of the life they willingly created is the ultimate emasculation.

Rather than maintaining an attitude of superiority to fend off feelings of inadequacy, men need

to own up to their perceived short comings and have honest discussions with their wives. Men

tend to make excuses for their actions rather than providing reasons, which can send women

through the roof with anger. If men can take the time to explain the legitimacy behind doing

what they do (or don’t do), and express a willingness to work together with their wives so they

both can feel better than just ok, many marriages will be saved from divorce.

 

These are just two suggestions which could potentially improve the problem of marriage

inequality, but the problem is much greater than the power of these proposed solutions. Without

knowing the exact cause of the problem, it’s incredibly difficult to pin point any resolutions with

great accuracy. However, all change begins with awareness and ends with action. Without the

awareness that marriage inequality is a terrible problem in our society, nothing will be done

about it, and without action to bring forth positive change, all we will have are theories and ideas.

It’s time to bring this real issue to the forefront and give it the attention it deserves. It’s time for all

of us to start talking candidly about our marriages so we can gain the answers to our questions

and discover what’s really going on here. Most importantly, it’s time for us to work together to put

an end to marriage inequality so more marriages can be filled with love, mutual respect, integrity,

and team work. What can you do today to improve the chances of those qualities existing in your

own marriage, in the marriages of the people you care about, and in the marriages throughout

our country?

 

 

 

 Nicole Iacovoni, Founder & Executive Clinician, received her master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from The University of Denver. Utilizing scientific based techniques, she is masterful at helping clients navigate and address family transitions, mood management, relationship issues, life trajectory, and general self care concerns. She also has expertise in cultivating emotional resilience and healthy identity development in young adults. Nicole has dedicated her career to building a wellness center where clients generate positive change, enhance esteem, overcome obstacles, and create a peaceful, well-balanced life course. Her vision has resulted in a multifaceted therapeutic setting that provides complete mental health services, yoga and meditation classes, massage therapy, nutritional counseling and health coaching, educational workshops, and community building groups and events.

 

You can get more information about our counseling services, including Marriage Counseling with Nicole, here.

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