Happy Wife, Happy Life: The Truth Inside the Lie

Thursday, May 14, 2015 | 0 Comment(s)

One of the most common responses I get when someone hears that my graduate research concerned romantic relationships and marriage is, "So, it's like, 'Happy wife, Happy life.' AmIRight?" Most of the time it's a guy who's faux-asking the question whilst simultaneously patting himself on the back prematurely.

Generally speaking, I no longer want to be a part of the conversation at this point so I nod and smile and agree and walk away with a, "Oh totally! You nailed it, man. You've got marriage figured."  It makes em feel good and gets me that hell out of there.  The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated.

It's at this point that I have to jump in quickly to say that there is a heteronormative assumption being made when we talk about marriage as a negotiation between a man and a woman.  I want to say explicitly that homosexual couples, not having well-worn societal gender stereotypes to lazily fall into, generally do better in dividing the labor of housework equitably in a manner that makes both partners happy.  Without stereotypes to rely on, each partner gravitates towards what they enjoy more/have more competency in.  For the rest of this blog post, we'll be dealing with heterosexual couples when talking about marital couples. But, this doesn't mean to devalue all other forms of love because, frankly, heteros ain't all that.

Taken at face value, "Happy Wife, Happy Life" tends to hold up. The truth of the statement, however, isn't half as important as understanding the mechanism of action at work behind the scenes. Women, both historically and still today, doing more than half the domestic work.  This includes cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work, trash takeout, etc.  Women, even and especially working women, demolish their male counterparts on time spent doing housework.  By how much?  I'm glad you asked.

A study a few years back by Lennon & Rosenfield (1994),  investigated what ratio of housework (male partner vs. female partner) each partner had to complete in order to make BOTH partners perceive the division of labor as "fair."  The study concluded that both partners were satisfied in the marriage when the women was doing 64% and the men were doing 36%.  Crazy right.  What blows my mind is remembering that this finding isn't about "horrible men making their wives do everything," it's about the accepted (by men AND women) societal roles in our culture that has made two-third to one-third the new even steven.

To me, "Happy Wife, Happy Life," falsely implies that the wives are in charge; that their happiness controls the equation.  In actuality, what this says is that husbands need to minimally contribute to their partnership.  Again, husbands don't need to do much to create harmony, but in the absence of any effort at all, wives realize this, get pissed, and things fall apart.  Wives aren't in control of the process, they are the babysitters and disciplinarians of a system that is built on the understanding that the expectations on wives are greater than on husbands. Because wives are the group always left vulnerable to being screwed in this set-up  (aka. husbands not completing the little work that is expected), they are forced into the role of relationship barometer.

Happy Wife, Happy Life is like placing a band-aid over the gaping wound of gender inequity and calling it a day.  It rests itself atop the fundamental principle that both partners are not equally responsible for their households well-being.

We'd all be better off in a world where Happy Wife, Happy Life didn't apply, and that starts with changing expectations.  When both women and men agree to a 66%-33% split in division of labor, there is no longer an expectation of equality.  And by equality I don't mean that both partners complete the same tasks, but merely that they both contribute the same amount to the total. When each partner is equally entrenched in the work of the relationship, the sensitivity towards fairness gets dissipated across both partners as well.  In a romance structured around a fair and equitable division of labor, both partners become relationship barometers.  Instead of this ramping up relational sensitivity, this extra engagement serves more like a second early warning system when discord rears its ugly insidious head.

So let's go back to where my non-friend was asking me his non-question, "So, it's like, 'Happy wife, Happy life.' AmIRight?" 

At the time I appeased him, but allow me to answer more genuinely.  "Sir, I suspect you are doing the bare minimum in your household.  Your wife is most likely overwhelmed by the daily tasks passively assigned to her that she is forced to ask you to do a few odds and ends so that she doesn't loose her fucking mind.  Do you have kid? No, don't answer that -- I don't want to know.  Just try harder sir. Know that anything you don't do around your house, she has to do by default.  You really want a happy wife, imagine yourself in her position and then do everything you wish were done for you.  Then, sir, you will have a happy wife, not for just a moment, but for a lifetime.  And if you walk down that path far enough, there's a good chance your happy life will follow. "

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