Sisterhood Blog

R.I.P. Breadwinner Marriage

By Elissa Strauss

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In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, professor Stephanie Coontz explains how marriage has not only survived the great upheaval that is the women’s movement, but is actually stronger because of it.

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These days, high-achieving women are more likely to get married, the later a woman gets married (when she is presumably more independent) the less likely she is to divorce, and egalitarian values and sharing housework are becoming increasingly important for a marriage to succeed.

It is wonderful to hear that feminism is not a natural-born enemy to marriage, despite what some conservatives and the traditionalists say. In fact, from the way things are going, it seems as though feminism might have saved marriage. As we saw in the divorce boom in the 80s, that old breadwinner model wasn’t exactly working.

As for myself, I am proud to be in one of these egalitarian marriages that is challenging old notions of who should be responsible for what in a household. But all the pride in the world doesn’t help the fact that equal marriages, as strong as they may be, are trying.

In another recent Times piece, film critic A.O. Scott takes a look at all the work that goes into an equal marriage and what that says about romance today.

To say that marriage is work is to insist, above all, that it is not static. Far from a condition of smiling serenity or unvarying habit, wedlock, in the modern imagination, is supposed to be dynamic, active and interesting. In old movies and TV shows, marriage, when it was not upheld as a romantic ideal, was usually portrayed either as a state of dull stability or endless drudgery. That it turned out to be work was presented as a “realistic” or mocking rebuke to the expectation of bliss.

Scott goes onto to explain how in recent movies and TV shows, the squabbling and wrangling over who is in charge of dinner or whose career takes prominence is no longer portrayed as drudgery, but rather the beating heart of a dynamic and fulfilling relationship.

Indeed, with equality, or at least the goal of equality, comes countless negotiations and score-keeping. But, for those of us suited to it, these challenges bring a potential for growth and discovery that the old model could never provide. And according to Coontz, we seem to really like it.

Ultimately, there is absolutely something utopian, as Scott mentions, about the whole endeavor. Marriage was for so long an arrangement of convenience, with or without love. There are still many convenient factors to marriage, things like having someone to both have and raise kids with, split the mortgage, and to lie beside at the day’s end. Still, one does not enter an equal marriage for convenience or ease. Instead, we enter it because we really believe that having a partner will push us to go deeper into ourselves and into life than we could on our own.


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