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
“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
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
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.