The Paradox of the Happy Marriage

PART I Beauty, Love and Marriage The Myth an the Reality

The Structure of American Marriage

In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville analyzed the American marriages:

  • In America the independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony if an unmarried woman is less constrained there than elsewhere a wife is subjected to stricter obligations... The Americans... require much abnegation on the part of women, and a constant sacrifice of her pleasures to her duties which is seldom demanded of her in Europe... When the time for choosing a husband is arrived at, that cold and stern reasoning power which has been educated and invigorated by the free observation of the world, teaches an American woman that a spirit of levity and independence in the bonds of marriage is a constant subject of annoyance, not of pleasure; it tells her that the amusements of the girl cannot become the recreations of the wife, and that the sources of a married woman's happiness are in the home of her husband. As she clearly discerns beforehand the only road which can lead to domestic happiness, she enters upon it at once, and follows it to the end without seeking to turn back...
    Nor have the Americans ever supposed that one consequence of democratic principles is the subversion of marital power, or the confusion of the natural authorities in families. They hold that every association must nave head in order to accomplish object, and that the natural head of the conjugal association is man. They do not therefore deny him the right of directing his partner; and they maintain, that in the smaller association of husband and wife, as well as in the great social community, the object of democracy is to regulate and legalize the powers which are necessary, not to subvert all power. This opinion is not peculiar to one sex, and contested by the other. I never observed that the women of America consider conjugal authority as a fortunate usurpation of their rights, nor that they thought themselves degraded by submitting to it. It appeared to me, on the contrary, that they attach a sort of pride to the voluntary surrender of their own will, and make it their boast to bend themselves to the yoke, not to shake it off.[1]

In 1912 Mary Roberts Coolidge speculated Why Women Are so:

  • Mastery... was the natural ambition of men not fully civilized; but, in a brutal, competitive world, they found difficult to achieve over other men and contrary circumstances. All the more, therefore, they desired mastery in their households - it was easier to begin at home. The head of a family who spent his days even in mere commercial content with other men, would naturally expect subservience in his wife and children, just as he did in his employees; nor would he be likely to tolerate in them original opinions an independent action... In the past century, by far the larger number of women were wee broken; and, in proportion as they were, they lost the power of thinking and deciding, for themselves in any matter outside the household affairs for which they were responsible.[2]

The Wife's Marriage

A substantial body of research shores up Emile Durkheim's conclusion that »the regulations imposed on the woman by marriage are always more stringent (than those imposed on men.) Thus she loses more and gains less from the institution.«[3] Considerable well-authenticated data show that there are actual two marriages in every martial union - his and hers - which do not always coincide. Thus for example, when researchers ask husbands and wives identical questions about their marriages, they often get quite different replies even on fairly simple factual questions.[4] Although in nonclinical populations roughly the same proportion of men and women say they are happy (Table 5-1), by and large when husbands and wives are asked specific items in their relationships, the wives' marriages look less happy than their husbands'

For as Durkheim found, marriage is not the same for women as for men; it is not nearly as good.
Half a century ago, G. V. Hamilton found women more dissatisfied with marriage than men. I. K. Folsom, analyzing marital discord, found that in 58 percent of the cases where there were sufficient data on which to base a judgment, the wives were more frustrated than their husbands. Among happily married couples, Harvey Locke found husband-wife agreement on family matters reported by fewer wives than husbands on ten out of eleven items; fewer wives than husbands reported »no difficulties at all.«[5] Boyd Rollins and Harold Feldman found that although general marital satisfaction varied over time, wives reported it somewhat less frequently, negative feelings somewhat more, and positive companionship and present satisfaction slightly less.[6] Gerald Gurin, Joseph Veroff, and Sheila Feld found that more wives than husbands reported marital problems.[7] And, what is equally if not more interesting, more husbands as well as more wives mentioned the husband rather than the wife as creating the problems.[8] A recent study, which was particularly impressive because of the size of the sample (6,928 persons twenty years of age and over plus never-married persons sixteen to nineteen years of age) and because such a large number of the respondents - 2,480 - were couples,
found that more women (23 percent) than men (18 percent) reported marital dissatisfaction. More wives (7 percent) than husbands (4 percent) considered their marriages unhappy; more wives (9 percent) than husbands (6 percent) had recently considered separation or divorce; more wives (34 percent) than husbands (30 percent) had at some time regretted their marriage.[9] Even when the
marriage was better than had been expected, more wives than husbands expressed dissatisfaction. It is understandable, therefore, that more women than men show up in marriage counsellors' offices [10] and that more wives than husbands initiate divorce proceedings.
These findings on the wife's marriage are especially poignant because marriage in our society is more important for women's happiness than for men's. »For almost all measures, the relation between marriage, happiness and overall well-being was stronger for women than for men,« one study reports.[11] In fact, the strength of the relationship between marital and overall happiness was so strong for women that the author wondered if »most women are equating their marital happiness with their overall happiness.«[12] Another study based on a more intensive examination of the data on marriage from the same sample notes that »on each of the marriage adjustment measures ... the association with overall happiness is considerably stronger for women than it is for men.«[13] Karen Renne also found the same strong relationship between feelings of general well-being and marital happiness: those who were happy tended not to report marital dissatisfaction; those who were not, did. »In all probability the respondent's view of his marriage influences his general feeling of well-being or morale«;[14] this relationship was stronger among wives than among husbands.[15] A strong association between reports of general happiness and reports of marital happiness was also found a generation ago.[16]

  • Because women have to put so many more eggs in the one basket of marriage, they have more of a stake in its stability. Because their happiness is more dependent on marriage than men's, they have to pay more for it. All the studies show that women make more concessions.The preponderance of replies of husbands and wives in our interviews was that the wives made the greater adjustment in marriage. This finding is in agreement with the theory advanced by Burgess and Cottrell in their study of success or failure in marriage. They point out that in both their study, and in Terman's investigation of marital happiness [in the 1930s], the background scores of husbands have a greater correlation than those of wives with marital success.. . . With many couples, the husband upon entering marriage maintains his routine with no expectation of modifying it in relation to his wife's wishes. Often she submits without voicing a protest. ... In other cases the wife may put up a contest, although she generally loses. ... Wives appear, on the average, to make the greater adjustment in marriage according to their own testimony and that of their husbands.[17]

Finally, in a study of lower-class marriage, Lee Rainwater found that when differences existed between husbands and wives with respect to role expectations, especially the affectional, it was »probably easier for the wife to go along with her husband than ... for her to persuade him to interact more affectionately - both because it is difficult for one person to force affection from another and because the wife already is persuaded that the parental and work roles are important, while the husband may be quite insensitive to the wife's affectional needs.«[18]
Wives are, therefore, reflecting objective circumstances when they report more problems and dissatisfactions in their marriages than their husbands do. Their marriages are more problem-laden and dissatisfaction-prone than their husbands' are. The psychological costs to women of the happiness achieved by thus adjusting to the demands of marriage have been not inconsiderable.[19]

How Happy Is the Happy Housewife?

When radical women indict marriage as it is now institutionalized, invariably at least one listener indignantly challenges them. The charges cannot be true because she is perfectly happy with present arrangements; she enjoys her status as wife and mother; she would not have anything different; she does not want the boat rocked; she rebukes the radical women for raising such threatening issues. Only sick women would want things changed ...
It is true that a considerable proportion of married women judge themselves as happy. Although several studies differ somewhat, by and large a sizable proportion of married women report themselves as happy (Table 5-1), a considerably larger proportion of married than of single women (Table 5-2). Since there is a close relationship between evaluation of one's marriage and of one's marital happiness,[20] especially, as we have just seen, for women, they also report their marriages as happy (Table 5-3).

But how happy is the happy housewife? Examination of specific personality and behavioral items reported by women and surveys of mental-health impairment raises doubts. In such studies [21] married women appear to be more damaged than single women. Thus, for example, in one study more married than single women were bothered by feelings of depression (50, 30); did not feel happy most of the time (17, 15); disliked their present jobs (19, 11); sometimes felt they were about to go to pieces (44, 24); were afraid of death (53, 19); were terrified by windstorms (34, 24); worried about catching diseases (30, 19); sometimes thought of things too bad to talk about (30, 20); were bothered by pains and ailments in different parts of the body (17, 10).[22]

Overall, more married than single women were reported to be passive, phobic, and depressed, at least half of the married women falling into one or another of these three categories (Table 5-4). Although the total number was small, almost three times as many married as single women showed severe neurotic symptoms (11, 4), and, except in the menopausal decade, there were' more married than single women with mental-health impairment (Table 5-4).
Married women also show up less well than married men (Table 5-5).
 Twice as many married women (25 percent) as married men (12 percent) have felt that a nervous breakdown was impending;[23] many more women than men experience psychological anxiety, physical anxiety, and immobilization.[24] More wives than husbands, especially among college women, have feelings of inadequacy in marriage. Except among college women thirty-five to fifty-four years of age, many more women than men have negative or ambivalent self-perceptions.[25] Many more wives than husbands mention their physical appearance as a shortcoming,[26] reflecting the enormous emphasis put on youth and beauty among women in our society. Except among young college women, many more women than men mention their lack of general adjustment as a shortcoming.[27] Their husbands may create the problems, but women feel their own inability to adjust to them to be a shortcoming on their part.[28]

A Shock Theory of Marriage

Can we accept de Tocqueville's contrast between the unmarried American woman, »less constrained« than women anywhere else, and the abject wives who »attach a sort of pride to the voluntary surrender of their own will,« who »make it their boast to bend themselves to the yoke, not to shake it off.« Did they really? Or were they really as »well broken« as Mary Roberts Coolidge reported them to be?
In 1942, on the basis of data far less abundant than today's, I proposed what I called a shock theory of marriage.[29] It was suggested by a study using a forty-item questionnaire of 1,400 preponderantly urban men and women of upper socioeconomic status, higher than the average in education and intelligence. Comparing married women and spinsters, the author concluded that »either a calm type of woman remains unmarried or that marriage has disturbing effects upon women.[30] Since the differences between married and unmarried women tended to be slight in younger age brackets and to increase with age, I concluded that »the hypothesis that marriage is selective of more emotional women seems less tenable than the alternative hypothesis, that marriage has disturbing effects upon some women... The data suggest that marriage has a traumatic effect on personality.«[31] As the structure of marriage lags farther and farther behind the needs of the kind of women modern life calls for, the theory seems increasingly apt. »Shock« may have been too shocking a term to use; researchers tend to use the less frightening term »trauma.« But whatever the term used, it refers to both commonly reported phenomena and others less likely to find recognition in the literature.
Some of the shocks to which marriage subjects women have been widely recognized. The »rape« of the bride on the honeymoon used to be a common folk stereotype. The let down in personal appearance is a shock for both men and women: the unshaven face and neglect of personal cleanliness on his side and the cold cream and curlers on hers. The relaxation of general manners - that is, no longer seeing the other always on best behavior - is another shock. Increasingly, the shock implicit in the wife's change in occupation upon marriage has been recognized. From being a secretary, sales girl, teacher, or nurse in her own right she becomes a housekeeper, an occupation that is classified in the labor market and in her own mind as menial and of low status. The apologetic »I'm just a housewife« that she tenders in reply to what she does illustrates how low her self-evaluation of her occupation is, no matter how loudly and defensively she proclaims her pleasure in it. Although the young wife feels secure among her peers because now she has succeeded in a goal- - marriage - common to all of them, in other relationships she finds herself ciphered out as an individual. She is no longer the young woman who was an individual in her own right, entitled to ideas, opinions, preferences of her own, but only a shadow;[32] it is assumed that her husband represents her. Employers now see her as bound to another loyalty and hence not to be taken seriously. She is shocked to learn that her husband's work is likely to win out over her in competition for his time and attention; she had thought before marriage that she was the most important component in his life; she learns now that his work is likely to come first when a choice has to be made. Furthermore, he »is involved in more stimulating activity in adult concerns and with adults, while ... [she] is involved with small children. ... There is apt to be differential personal growth, with the husband and wife having less and less satisfying interaction with each other.«[33]
In addition to these »conventional« shocks, well documented in the literature, there is another only recently recognized - discovering the fallacy of the sex stereotypes that the wife has been socialized into accepting and around which she has built her life. Her husband is not the sturdy oak on whom she can depend. There are few trauma greater than the child's discovery of the fallibility of his parents; than the wife's discovery of her husbands dependencies; than the discovery of her own gut-superiority in a thousand hidden crannies of the relationship; than the realizations that in many situations his judgment is no better than hers - that he does not really know more than she; that he is not the calm, rational, nonemotional dealer in facts and relevant arguments; that he is, in brief, not at all the kind of person the male stereotype pictures him to be. Equally, if not more, serious is her recognition that she is not really the weaker vessel, that she is often called upon to be the strong one in the relationship. These trauma are the more harrowing because they are interpreted as individual, unique, secret, not-to-be-shared with others, not even, if possible, to be admitted to oneself.
There are doubtless many ways of meeting the situation. One is to hide it, to refuse to recognize it, to go on believing that the husband really does conform to the stereotype, that he really is superior, to learn, as de Tocqueville reported, to glory in her lowly status' Even, if necessary, to trim her sails so that she really becomes inferior to him, dependent on him (an incubus at middle age, in fact).[34] That approach at least prevents facing the situation. Another way to meet it is to reinterpret it. »Men are just little boys grown tall« is the reassuring cliche that saves older women from the disillusionment. This redefinition - or inversion - of the cultural stereotype helps salve the wound by making the situation sharable with other women; they are not alone.
If the structure of marriage is so unfavorable to women as compared to both married men and single women, why do married women report themselves as happy? It is difficult to reconcile the depressed, fearful, passive-dependent women in Table 5-4 with the happy woman in Table 5-1.[35] Why do women who present such a far-from-happy picture nevertheless think of themselves as happy? What is back of the happy housewife's judgment?

Happy or Reconciled?

In order to adjust to a relationship structured as marriage has been until now, the character and personality of women have had to be socialized according to a specific pattern. Just as the feet of traditional Chinese gentlewomen had to be bound, the wings of Western women have had to be clipped. If some young Katharine did manage to arrive at marriageable age before she had been properly tamed, there was always a willing Petruchio ready to take on the task.
The pattern of socialization, that in the United States transformed de Tocqueville's free and unconstrained girl into a self-abnegating wife has been unquestioned even by clinicians. Only now, in fact, is it coming to be seriously challenged by them. The challenge raises disturbing questions. For example, could it be that women report themselves as happy because they are over socialized, overculturated, or too closely integrated into the norms of our society? We know from the Burgess-Cottrell data that conventional people, conforming people, people shaped for our institutions, fit them and are comfortable in them. Could it be that because married women thus conform and adjust to the demands of marriage, at whatever cost to themselves, they therefore judge themselves to be happy? Are they confusing adjustment with happiness? For, as de Tocqueville reminded us, until recently women were indoctrinated with the idea that their happiness lay m devoting their lives to their husbands and children.[36] They are doing just that; they are living up to the prescribed norms. Everyone defines feminine happiness in these terms so, ipso facto, they must be happy. By definition, having managed to adjust to the demands of marriage, they are convinced that they are happy; they interpret their conformity as happiness. Conforming to the standards of femininity fits women for marriage.
When few if any alternatives existed for women, there may have been a defensible rationale for this happiness-as-adjustment point of view. Healthy people do bow to the unchangeable. They do come to terms with the inevitable, or what they accept as inevitable.[37] The talented woman who as a girl dreamed of becoming a singer, dancer, actress, author, musician, nurse, even doctor, lawyer, merchant, or chief may look back with tender secret nostalgia at her dreams, but she dismisses them - with a sigh - as childish fantasies and resumes her vacuum cleaning. Without options, without alternatives, many married women do thus achieve a kind of reconciliation that is easy to interpret as happiness. Their standards for marriage are low. They have no idea how exciting, joyous, and delightful a relationship between a man and a woman can he when they can share their minds as well as their bodies and when they can appreciate one another's ideas as well as one another's sexuality. For many women, untrained for independence and »processed« for -wifehood, marriage, even if not up to their expectations, is preferable to the alternatives. They will settle for a »good provider.« Only when attractive alternatives become available do many find they want more.
But as radical women have been pointing out and as clinicians themselves now agree, the standards of femininity, however suitable they may have been in the past, may now be dysfunctional. They are not standards of good mental health; in fact, adjustment to the demands of marriage may greatly impair mental health.

Happy or Sick?

Some clinicians are now seriously questioning whether the qualities that are associated with marital happiness for women may not themselves be contrary to good mental health. Is it possible that many women are »happily married« because they have poor mental health?[38] A generation ago, Winnifred Johnson and Lewis Terman noted that happily married women were, among other things, docile rather than aggressive, indecisive, cautious rather than daring, and not very self-sufficient.[39] They were, in brief, women who had achieved an »adjustment« standard of mental health. They fit the situation they had been trained from infancy to fit and enjoyed conformity to it.
Few people challenged this Hausfrau concept of marital happiness. Indeed, therapists and clinicians encouraged it. Psychoanalysts, in fact, measured their success with women patients by the degree to which they could help them achieve reconciliation with their inferiority and accept the standard described by Terman.[40] Even a generation later, some clinicians were still thinking in terms of a »healthy« feminine woman as one far below the standards of adult mental health. Thus, for example, in one experiment male and female clinicians were given lists of traits. On one they were told to specify those that characterized a healthy adult, sex unspecified; on another, those that characterized a healthy adult male; and on still another, a healthy adult female. Analysis showed that the first two coincided, but that the third was different. The clinicians were more likely to attribute traits characteristic of healthy adults to men than to women. They had, in fact, a »double standard of health for men and women... [which stemmed] from the clinicians' acceptance of an >adjustment< notion of health.[41]

  • ... clinicians are more likely to suggest that healthy women differ from healthy men by being more submissive, less independent, less adventurous, more easily influenced, less aggressive, less competitive, more excitable in minor crises, having their feelings more easily hurt, being more emotional, more conceited about their appearance, less objective, and disliking mathematics and science. This constellation seems a most unusual way of describing any mature, healthy individual.[42]

The authors of this study called for alternative definitions of mental health and maturity that would include self-actualization, mastery of the environment, and fulfillment of potential. They recognized that these drives were »in conflict with becoming adjusted to a social environment with associated restrictive stereotypes.«[43] Nevertheless, they felt that »the cause of mental health may be better served if both men and women are encouraged toward maximum realization of individual potential, rather than to any adjustment to existing restrictive sex roles.«[44] In terms of these updated standards of mental health, the happy housewife, depressed, phobic, passive, does not seem very well.
Radical women now appeal to psychiatrists to review their past orientation. The Women's Caucus of the Radical Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association m 1969 resolved that »research and therapy should at this time in history view women's mental health problems as arising from: (1) the unequal power relationship between men and women in which women are at the bottom and (2) the woman's position as legal domestic in the home or exploited public worker« and urged psychiatrists to stop rationalizing the situation of women by labeling its victims neurotic rather than oppressed.
In terms of the present structure of society, this new orientation is completely subversive. But it may well be a sine qua non for the kind of structuring now called for. It may come to seem increasingly anomalous that we must make women sick in order to fit them for marriage.
Could it be that marriage itself is »sick«?