The Case Against Androgynous Marriage

by Steven Rhoads, The American Enterprise, September 1999

Candice Bergen has now admitted what her TV character, Murphy Brown, never did: Fathers matter. Social scientists have never been more sure, because fathers help boys become responsible men and teach girls good men will love them even if they don’t “put out.”

And when men—even men who have been good fathers—divorce their wives, they usually end up divorcing their children as well. Two leading family experts, Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin, find that “over time, the vast majority of children [of divorce] will have little or no contact with their fathers.” So if we care about the future of our kids, we should care about finding the secrets to marriages that last through “sickness and health,” through “better and worse.”

These traditional phrases from church weddings might remind one of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage–one where wives “submit” to the “servant” leadership of their husbands. Last summer the Southern Baptists reminded the faithful of this Biblical teaching, and feminists denounced it as “domestic feudalism.”

Most of the rest of America shrugged it off. After all, androgyny is everywhere. Women fly jets and make up 43 percent of all law school graduates. Men go to hair stylists and wear earrings. To most of us, male headship seems like something from another planet.

But social science research on intact marriages finds that in real marriages, male headship is simply a fact. Most men and women seek things in a mate that render something like male headship inevitable. If we care about marriages that work, the Baptists just may have something to teach us.

Feminists can hardly look at married men without a certain measure of disgust. Men won’t do their share of housework and child care. In the typical two-earner family they contribute about half as much housework as their employed wives and less than half as much solo child care.

Most feminists believe men’s power in the home comes from their power in the marketplace. In Ms. one family therapist sets forth her golden rule of marriage, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” But the overworked wives cited above are already bringing home gold. Perhaps they’re not bringing home enough? To answer, we need to know whether women’s power soars when they are the big earners in marriage.

When husbands make more than wives, both say the husband’s job is the more important, but when wives earn more, neither spouse says the wife’s job is more important. Indeed, such wives are more likely than other married women to leave the labor force or move to a lower position. At home these high-achieving wives attempt to be especially attractive and sexual for their husbands, and they report indulging husbands’ whims and salving egos. When husbands are more dependent on their wives’ incomes, the husbands do very little additional housework.

Questions of income aside, there are, of course, marriages where women have more power. Do such marriages make women happy? One survey of over 20 studies on marital power found that wife-dominant couples were the least happy, and the wives in wife-dominated unions were less happy than their husbands.

Liz Gallese’s study of women graduates from the 1975 class of the Harvard Business School finds that the women have a tendency to “pull back” on their way to the top. One woman who did not do so was Tess. When her career shot past her husband’s, he took on most of the child care. On the surface Tess’s marriage made role reversal look workable. Tess seemed proud of her job, her son, and her husband. Gallese did not glimpse the truth until she spent time alone with Tess’s husband, who admitted he and his wife had almost no sex life, though he would try to “do things to rekindle her interest.”

Soon Tess began to seduce other businessmen. Eventually she came clean with Gallese, admitting that she would love to have another child someday but not with her husband. She stayed with him because he was “a wife.” “I absolutely refuse to sleep with that man. I’ll never have sex with him again.”

Feminists will no doubt say they want neither an old-fashioned marriage nor Tess’s but rather one in which promotions and relocations come in tandem or sequentially. But marriages in which spouses devote equal time to work, home, and children are very rare, and rarer still are marriages in which the spouses are equally successful in all realms. Pepper Schwartz searched hard to find couples where there was at least a 60/40 split of duties on the home front. Her study found that such “peer” couples feel they have a strong marital relationship with intimacy, mutual respect, and mutual interest. But they also face serious problems. Many husbands are unhappy when their careers suffer. There are constant negotiations and compromises, and serious conflicts over child rearing.

Last but not least, a number of the androgynes share some of the Tess-and-Kevin problem. Schwartz notes that their intimacy and familiarity make them feel more like siblings than lovers. They were more likely than other couples to “forget to include sex in their daily lives.” “Women had fantasies of being taken or mildly dominated,” and one complained of a husband who began treating her “too darn respectfully.” Many of the peer couples, though, thought they had terrific sex lives, often because they adopted different personas in the bedroom. Schwartz suggested therapy for those who could not “transcend their identities in everyday life” by separating their days from their nights.

Ordinary women show the attractions of male power by making the romance novel the most popular form of fiction in the world. About half of all mass market paperback sales in the country are romance novels. The hero in the romance novel is always a man with power; the heroine seldom has worldly power.

In real life, most women do not seem to want equal worldly power. Even professional women want the man to be chief provider, not only because they believe the husband’s work is more important to his sense of self, but also because they need their husbands to be successful.

For feminists the news gets worse. Working women say they respect stay-at-home moms more than mothers who work full time. When asked whether the increased number of working mothers with young children is good or bad for society, women of all educational levels think it is bad, and college-educated women are particularly likely to think so.

Finally, most women with full-time jobs do not resent their double shift. Despite the imbalance in housework and child care, the majority of wives think the division of labor is fair. Husbands and wives tend to define equality in marriage as mutual respect, commitment, and reciprocity over time, rather than as an equal division of tasks.

Once we look at what is known of men’s and women’s natures, it’s not surprising women take to domestic life more readily. It may seem remarkable that men marry at all. The marital ideal is about one man and one woman becoming bound in body and soul—sharing, comforting, communicating through good times and bad. But this ideal resonates more strongly for women than for men. Men want more space. Studies show women like to be alone by thinking in a bedroom or office, whereas men are more likely to need real isolation—a long drive or a trip to the mountains. Think also of those frequently solitary and overwhelmingly male pastimes, hunting and fishing.

Feminists such as Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan make much of the male insistence on standing alone. They think society conditions men to be this way. Theresa Crenshaw, co-author of a leading medical text on sexual pharmacology, once agreed but now thinks the source is testosterone: “The ‘loner profile’ of testosterone is absolutely crucial to understanding what men are all about.… Testosterone motivates the male to strive for separateness in ways a woman is not designed to comprehend.” Indeed, “It is fair to say that it causes a compelling sexual urge that spurns relationships, unless they represent a conquest or acquisition of power.… It makes you want sex, but it also makes you want to be alone, or thoroughly in control of sexual situations—so it specifically promotes masturbation or one-night stands.”

Female sexuality usually functions as a means of expressing affection to someone in a committed relationship. Women’s sexual fantasies dwell more on romance, commitment, non-sexual caressing, and story line.

Let’s return to the marital ideal—sharing, comforting, communicating in a faithful, monogamous relationship. An unmarried 25-year-old woman is there. She is ready. From her early days she has loved intimate, comforting communication with a special friend. Blinded by the androgynous assumptions of the day, she anticipates a husband who will be a best friend in a similar way as well as a sexual companion.

But men don’t talk much. When they do talk with friends, they interrupt, heckle, and put down. They help pals with troubles by downplaying or dismissing the problem. They’re uncomfortable with intimacy (98 percent of wives in one study wanted their husbands to talk more about their thoughts and feelings). For men a friend with real problems needs advice or action, not talk. One man, told to show more affection for his wife, washed her car.

Men are far more likely to report they need free time to relax and pursue hobbies away from their mates. Yet they sense that marriage means less time for hobbies, and more time spent with children and kin, activities women tend to enjoy more than men.

The androgyny advocates believe that with different social conditioning, men can be reprogrammed to become fully intimate, communicative partners like their wives. And once reprogrammed, men will gain from the sharing of problems as women do. But the testosterone research suggests otherwise. So too does a study that followed the progress of patients dismissed from hospitals after recovery from congestive heart failure. For women the absence of emotional support in the community increased their death rates more than eightfold. For men it made no difference at all.

Another study—part of the world-famous Framingham research—suggests women who bring office problems home may kill off husbands before they’re properly feminized. It seems husbands of white-collar wives with unsupportive bosses are more than three times more likely to die of heart disease, apparently as a result of frustration: Men do not like to talk about unresolvable problems; women do. The men wanted to protect their wives from hostile bosses but felt unable to help.

An experiment at the National Institute of Mental Health had men and women recall deaths, divorces, and other sad events in their lives while PET scans viewed their brains. The limbic system glowed in both sexes, but the glowing area was eight times as big in the women. In her book Sex on the Brain Deborah Blum quotes Ellen Frank, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh: “Women are genetically pre-programmed to be more affiliative. Interpersonal attachment is a bigger deal for women than men, and that’s true in all cultures and times. It has an adaptive significance for the survival of the species. If women didn’t attach, babies wouldn’t survive.… If we have one-half of the human race that’s more preprogrammed for attachment, then that’s the half that’s going to be more vulnerable.”

The average woman’s innate attachment to and skill with babies would, by itself, be more than enough to sink the androgyny project since most men cannot match women in either the attachment or the skill. Mothers everywhere, in all cultures, take care of young children. This seems to be true even in alternative family forms such as communal living groups and unmarried couples.

Feminists talk a lot about the “burdens” of child care and the “sacrifices” that women make for it. Some women do find child care boring and depressing. But most do not. In her powerful defense of homemakers, Domestic Tranquility, Carolyn Graglia describes her child-rearing days as an “everyday epiphany of exquisite happiness.” Award-winning novelist Alice McDermott sounded the same note in describing how she and her graduate school classmates were transformed by motherhood. The joy of children seemed “too satisfying, too marvelous” to be put in words. But they tried: “Becoming a mother is the best thing I’ve ever done.” “It’s like floating in warm milk.” “I could fill a stadium with babies.”

More than social conditioning is needed to explain such bliss––or the anguish of the involuntarily childless. Women undergoing infertility treatments have levels of depression comparable to patients with AIDS and cancer. The risk of a major depression within six months is five times higher for childless women who have a miscarriage.

The existence of women’s innate desire for connection and nurturing is beyond debate. In the first day of life, girl babies respond more intensely than boy babies to the sound of another human in distress. The heart rates of non-mothers exposed to a video of a crying baby accelerate, while the heart rates of men watching the video decelerate.

Women’s estrogen facilitates the effect of oxytocin, a substance which promotes touching, holding, and bonding. During pregnancy and nursing oxytocin surges in women, engendering pleasure and relaxation. When male rats are given oxytocin, they start building nests like their sisters.

The effect of male hormones on nurturing is dramatically different. Evidence comes from studies of women exposed to high levels of male hormones in their mothers’ wombs. These women have little interest in dolls as children, and compared to most women, they are less attracted to infants as adults. On the other hand, Turner’s syndrome girls, who do not produce the small amount of male hormone most women do, show heightened interest in dolls and babies.

Women’s keener sense of touch makes them more responsive to babies, and their high, sing-song voices have been shown to be more pleasing than men’s attempts at baby talk. Especially pleasing is a mother’s voice. Babies hear it in utero, and after birth its sound slows, calms, and steadies a baby’s heart.

Given women’s greater interest in and skill with young children, it is fortunate that the vast majority of women and men think wives should concentrate on nurturing and husbands on providing. Data on the proportions of husbands and wives who work full time does not accurately reflect husbands’ greater commitment to the work force. Sixty-one percent of husbands work more than 40 hours a week, whereas only 24 percent of wives do. Moreover, husbands are seven times more likely to work more than 60 hours a week. And though 51 percent of wives with children under 18 work full time, only 30 percent want to.

These figures do not point to an androgynous future, and if we want strong marriages we should be delighted. The richest discussion of American men and women’s reasons for divorce, Catherine Riessman’s Divorce Talk, finds women divorcing men who do not work steadily at good jobs; in parallel fashion men divorce women when they fall down as homemakers. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz’s major work, American Couples, finds exactly the same thing. Women are much more likely to divorce men who are not ambitious, whereas men are more likely to divorce women who are ambitious. Men divorce wives if they think the wives are not doing their share of the housework. Women do not divorce men if the men do less housework than they would like them to.

A cross-cultural anthropological study looking for reasons for conjugal dissolution in 160 modern and primitive societies finds this pattern everywhere. Since many of these societies are poor, one might think men would divorce women who do not bring home the bacon. But they don’t. As Laura Betzig reports, the economic reasons for divorce are “clearly segregated according to sex. Husbands are divorced for failing to provide material means, wives for failing to process them.”

In marriage men and women get exactly what they want. If you ask men how they would like to be described, they use words like “dominant,” “assertive,” “independent.” If you ask women how they would like to be described, they say “loving,” “generous,” “sensitive.” But if marriage means bringing together one person with a taste for domination and another with a taste for generosity, we should not be surprised to find that the former is the head of the family.

In marriages women are more accommodating. If husbands think it is important to have a “proper” dinner,again, it is the wives who spend more time on housework. In family quarrels during dinner, mothers are most likely to compromise. Daughters are the next most likely to. Theresa Crenshaw thinks these inclinations go deep: One reason “women are the peacemakers” is their hormonal makeup. “Mellowing them are their relatively high levels of serotonin compared to the male, oxytocin in abundant supply, and estrogen, a gentle, ordinarily soothing antidepressant hormone.”

Another reason women are the peacemakers is their deep need for amiable connection. And their most important connections are at home. Women say that family relationships are the key to their happiness. Family distress has more effect on the mental health of wives than of husbands. For husbands, satisfaction in work or as a parent can offset an unhappy marriage. But for wives, feminist Rosalind Barnett and co-authors report that “dissatisfaction in the marital role cannot be compensated for by satisfaction in any other role.”

When wives perceive their family and marriage are not going well, their blood pressure goes up. When husbands perceive trouble, their pressure does not go up, but the husbands’ perception of trouble will send the wives’ blood pressure up. Similarly, after an argument, the wife’s immune function decreases much more than the husband’s.

Studies show that the more housework men do, the less they love their wives, and the more arguments the couple has. Since these arguments take more out of women, they are more inclined to give in to avoid them. It is hard to see how politics or a social movement could do anything to change this inclination—or the physical effects that fuel it. Nor is it clear that women’s capacity for attachment is something that on balance leaves them worse off—despite their increased vulnerability. Men and women both agree women are more likable than men. Both male and female children are usually closer to their mothers than their fathers, and women have more close friends.

One might wonder why women care so much about marrying in the first place. Men are obstinately resistant to female influence. Experiments have found that boys pay no attention when girls tell them to stop doing something and that men pay less attention to a taped message if the voice is a female’s. Husbands will push their wives to change things they don’t like about their behavior but will resist similar requests on the grounds that “it’s just the way I am.”

Yet it seems there is some truth in this male retort. Psychologists say females have “more flexible self-concepts” and consider themselves in “a broader array of life domains.” Girls will play with boys’ toys much more readily than boys play with girls’ toys. Young male geniuses often love only math while female geniuses love math, and literature and art and friends.

Marriage is good for society because it gets single men off the street. David Courtwright’s book Violent Land shows that violence, death, and exploitation have followed unmarried men in all locales throughout American history. Marriage is good for children because intact families fight crime, illegitimacy, depression, drugs, and school failure. And marriage is good for individual men and women; married persons are healthier, wealthier, and happier than single folks.

Though both sexes gain from marriage, men seem to gain more in terms of physical and psychological well-being. Why, then, are women’s magazines filled with advice about how to get him to pop the question, while men’s magazines seem aimed at contented single adolescents?

Androgynous assumptions cannot explain why women still seem more eager than men to tie the knot. The sex differences presented earlier can. From their earliest days women care more about close relationships. None is potentially closer, nor potentially more satisfying, than marriage. A 1997 survey shows that nine out of ten wives say their marriage makes them happy all or most of the time. Yet many marriages end in divorce, and women file for most divorces. The physiological effects of marital quarrels on women, and woman’s inability to be happy in other realms if their marriage is failing, explain why they will try so hard to make marriage work, just as they show why women choose divorce when they conclude it has failed. Women’s need of connection and desire for a loved man to help provide for and raise children explain why they want to take the plunge.

For a man a wife means an end to care-free adolescence and, usually, more than 40 years of more than 40 hours a week answering to a boss. Explaining the benefits of marriage will not necessarily reconcile unattached males with a wandering eye and a passion for freedom.

If any women should still be reading, please note I have been describing how things are. As for how things might be, I would argue for a kinder and gentler male headship. For all the reasons given, the headship part won’t go away. Most women don’t really want it to. They like a manly man in the outside world and in the bedroom. They could, however, do with men who are a little less lordly in the rest of the house.

And if we care about solid marriages that rear solid children, we have to side with wives here. Riessman’s Divorce Talk describes women filing for divorce because they feel devalued and dominated. In retrospect even their former husbands often agree they were treating their wives like “a dictator” or “a little Hitler.” Although many happy marriages are characterized by moderate male dominance, marriages often fail when there is extreme male dominance. John Gottman finds successful marriages have a husband who accepts a wife’s influence. They also have wives who couch complaints in a gentle, soothing, sometimes humorous way.

But how can we induce the stronger sex that likes to dominate to do it less? This is where the Baptists can help, by reminding men of their sacred obligation to use their familial power to serve their families. Husbands must be ready to sacrifice themselves for their wives and children as Christ gave all for the church. By making the male role in marriage vital, Baptists attract more men to it. And by condemning extramarital sex, they make alternatives to marriage less attractive and less available.

Men in marriage are capable of a high-mindedness not hinted at in what we have said thus far. Their sense of duty—one of their most attractive traits—makes them capable of self-sacrifice. Steve Nock has found that husbands are more likely than wives to avoid divorce because of a sense that their mate is committed to the marriage and would be seriously harmed by a divorce. At the end of any week poor immigrant laborers can be seen lining up to wire most of their paychecks to their families in the mother country. In a crisis, such as the fires that swept Florida last year, men temporarily leave their families and undergo great hardship to protect other families. Men’s desire to protect and provide for families does good for wives and children alike.

Wives doubtful about granting husbands titular headship should realize they may not have to give up much more than the title. Studies suggest husbands overestimate their decision-making power while wives underestimate theirs. Indeed, one study found “the most satisfied husbands were those who believed they had the greater decision-making power even where there was no independent evidence of it.”

Women in such marriages probably rule indirectly as the wisest wives usually do. David Blankenhorn tells the tale of a traditional wife who said her husband was the head of the family and she was the neck—which turns the head in the direction it should go. Most wives set husbands going in better directions, and civilization is in their debt.

The facts contradict feminist doctrine on women’s route to marital power and happiness. We have seen that wives who earn as much or more than their husbands do not usually achieve power or happiness. There are also hints it may be counterproductive for wives to insist that their husbands do half the housework. In New Families, No Families Goldscheider and Waite report that 47-year-old wives with “very modern” attitudes about job and family roles receive a little less help with household tasks from their husbands than do 47-year-old wives with “very traditional” attitudes about job and family roles. Another study found that the husbands most likely to help wives with household chores are orthodox Christians.

Still another large study on sexuality has found that the women most likely to achieve orgasm each and every time are conservative Protestants. So if we put it all together, it looks as if the more traditional and religious woman, far from being a serf in “domestic feudalism,” is the most likely to have a mate who shares housework and satisfies her sexually. It may not be self-hatred, after all, that explains why most men at Promise Keeper rallies are there at the behest of their wives.

Click here to read the article in The American Enterprise

© 2004 Steven E. Rhoads
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