Changing Sex Roles or Not? One Family’s Story

June 25, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Every so often, I run across a little something that, by itself is meaningless to all but the people directly involved, but that nevertheless opens a little window on the world. This advice column appeared in the Washington Post (The Washington Post, 6/20/14). It’s the Post’s usual “Ask Amy” column and the “Amy” is Amy Dickinson who is usually spot-on in her analyses. And so she is here.

It seems that “Distraught” is having difficulties with his wife of 25 years.

DEAR AMY: My wife and I have been married for more than 25 years. During that time we have had our share of marital issues, mostly related to our finances.

Although we are very comfortable, my wife makes more money than I do, and it has always been a point of contention. I try to compensate by doing household and outside chores and projects, as well as helping our children, but it is never enough.

The other day I had a private conversation with my wife explaining that I was concerned that our poor relationship was affecting our children. Furthermore, I am concerned that it would affect their current and future relationships.

A day or two later we were having a birthday dinner for me, and I sent a text to our daughters asking if they would be coming to the house.

I got an angry text reply from one daughter, saying that my wife had told her that I said “she was ruined” and that I blamed her mother. Neither of which was true.

I have also overheard my wife making very derogatory and inappropriate comments to my other daughter.

I immediately suggested that we go to family counseling to discuss and resolve the situation. However, my wife refused and denied her statements. My daughter will not return my calls.

I just don’t understand why my wife doesn’t realize how damaging this is to our daughters and how it could affect their marriages down the road. – Distraught

At some point, “Distraught” made a mistake; he opted for the traditional female role. He earns less than she does, but makes up for it by doing more around the house. That’s not only the traditional female role, but the current one as well. Over the years, women have come to do more paid work than before and men have come to do more housework and childcare than they used to. But women on average still do more of the domestic chores and men do more of the breadwinning. Just look at a wide range of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the still larger datasets of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and it’s clear.

What this reveals is that sex roles in this society, while far from immutable, are less flexible than we might once have thought. The simple fact is that women haven’t readily given up motherhood and men haven’t given up their breadwinner roles.

But of course many of both sexes have, which can make it hard on both when two unlike people get married. And that’s what happened with Distraught and his wife. There’s nothing in his letter to Amy to suggest he’s at all uncomfortable with his role as lesser earner or his taking on more of the household duties. In that way, he’s taken to the Brave New World in which either sex may occupy the role of traditional male or traditional female.

But his wife is the opposite. Being the chief breadwinner rankles her. My guess is that she thinks of Distraught as less of a man because of the role he’s adopted. It’s such an important issue for her that she behaves like a high-school girl, passing secret derogatory notes to their daughters about what an awful person Distraught is (in her book).

It’s astonishing that Distraught’s wife seems incapable of simply looking over the fence and noticing that what she’s doing is what tens of millions of men in the United States and elsewhere do every day and think nothing of. Those men don’t kvetch about their wives lesser earnings; they accept what their wives give – some money and more work around the house. So why shouldn’t she?

Predictably, Amy Dickinson’s response is a good one, albeit too short.

DEAR DISTRAUGHT: This interfamily bad-mouthing diminishes your stature with your daughters, and from your description, diminishing you is your wife’s specialty. You are correct that this negative family dynamic will affect your daughters’ relationships down the road.

In order to be effective partners, you and your wife should pool your money to use for the benefit of the family — and not keep score. Some couples are able to peacefully run their households by keeping income and expenses separate, but this can create a serious power imbalance when the person who makes more money uses this to dominate the other.

You should definitely pursue counseling and invite your daughters to join you. If you can’t repair this situation within your family, your wife might end up parting with some of her precious income through spousal support.

Dickinson’s remarks are certainly apt regarding the effect Mom’s behavior is likely to have on their daughters. They’re learning from her how to be women and, if they follow Mom’s example, I pity the men they marry. But I’m particularly interested in her last two words.

Mom apparently hasn’t thought about it, but divorce court is just around the corner, and if Distraught becomes too much so, she can lose him in a heartbeat. Admittedly, he sounds like a very committed guy, but, given that she rejects his every effort to improve matters, he may someday decide he’s had enough of being demeaned by his wife. And if he does, she’ll soon find herself paying him alimony and probably sizeable sums. After all, if she weren’t making significantly more than he does, why all the acrimony over the years? And of course they’ve been married a long time, meaning that, in most states, she’ll find herself paying him for many years, possibly well past the time she would otherwise retire.

Again, alimony is paid by millions of men to their ex-wives every month, month in and month out. They do so because they and their wives opted for traditional sex roles; he earned more, she less. And when they split up, the law said he had to keep supporting her. It may strike Distraught’s wife as a bit of an irony that her emotional rejection of their role reversal might result in an altogether Brave New World outcome – her paying him alimony. But if he divorces her, that’ll be exactly what happens. Whatever the case, the gender-neutrality of spousal support laws means she’ll end up supporting him many years into the future. She might want to think about that.

Sex roles. Are they changing or aren’t they? The aggregate data look pretty ambiguous. Yes women do more paid work than before, but nothing like as much as do men. And there’s nothing to indicate that any time soon, men will start getting equal parenting time with their kids or that women will be required to register with the Selective Service System, serve in combat units in war, receive similar sentences for crime, stop opting out of work to do childcare, do the dirty, dangerous jobs men do, etc. There’s no reason to believe the hardships, injuries and deaths of men will receive anything like the press coverage women’s do. Nor should we expect to see men opting out of paid work to care for kids.

So where exactly are we when it comes to sex roles? I’d say we’re stuck somewhere between where we were 50 years ago and where we started for, about the same time. I’d say we’ve made great strides toward taking women out of their traditional roles but when it comes to doing the same for men, we balk.

Distraught didn’t hesitate, but his wife did. I’d say they look a lot like the rest of society.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.


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