Women’s Resentment in Marriage
My mom once told me how someone from her women’s group at church announced that her husband had died, which unsurprisingly triggered pity and sympathy from everyone, but also a glimmer of envy.
“Envy?” I asked, incredulous of these reactions and how nonchalantly my mother was reporting this.
She went on to say that she assumed some resentment in the sacrifices and responsibilities demanded of a woman in a traditional, heterosexual marriage. Not that any of them wanted their husbands to die, but still, at the back of their minds, lingered some form of relief at the thought of not having to be responsible for cleaning up after him, providing the emotional labor that keeps the household and marriage going, etc.
I never imagined this. Not the general idea of women resenting husbands — I’ve even imagined if I ever would, how I’d push for equality in household responsibilities and emotional labor and wonder if that would be enough to offset millennia of gender roles.
But I’m pretty liberal and identify as a feminist. I didn’t expect these thoughts to come from women ranging in age from perhaps 40 to 80, mostly conservative, devoutly religious. I didn’t expect my mother, saint-like in her selflessness and patience and prioritizing of family obligations and household duties, to normalize this thinking.
Maybe that’s why those women harbored some resentment, however; more is asked of them as older, more conservative women in traditional Christian marriages.
But without knowing those women well I can guess that at least most of them would describe their marriages as happy. I presume most couples at church aren’t abusive toward each other, that they hold decades of good experiences together.
And that’s the most disturbing part for me. I could get it easily if they were getting physically abused every day, but imagining the traditional constraints of marriage being enough to make the most unlikely-seeming women know that they’d probably feel at least some relief at their beloved’s death makes me uncomfortable, for my potential future as well as women in general.
The Japanese women’s weekly Josei 7 included a study over widows, with 62% of respondents describing themselves as happy, and many of the issues women did cite were attributed to economic reasons rather than loneliness and mourning.
“Many women sacrifice their lives to housework, child-rearing, caring for aged parents and in-laws. Their husbands’ death comes like a liberation. Free at last. They travel, go to the theater, play golf.” — Ryoko Ozawa, writer (76)
While I’m certain there are also husbands who easily find happiness after their wife’s death, or even directly from her passing, many of the problems widows cited in the study stemmed from responsibilities and expectations explicitly directed at women. Men have their own problems, such as the pressure to provide or their own self-image issues, but it seems safe to assume that most of men’s problems with marriage, if already married for a while, would be more personal than societal.
Marital Benefits for Men
As uneasy as I feel over some of these attitudes, I also can’t blame women for such thoughts when too much is expected of women in heterosexual marriages — to be responsible for keeping up a nice household even if they work more hours, to have children and be present in their lives with in a way that’s not expected of men, to be constant willing sexual partners despite an orgasm gap for straight women.
Again, it’s not as though men don’t face their own challenges. But on the whole, it’s clear that marriage favors men in general, with married men statistically getting paid more than any other group and living longer than their unmarried counterparts (although that gap has gone down in recent years, possibly because of changing attitudes over the necessity of marriage).
Meanwhile, according to a 2019 article from The Guardian, “unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population,” while also living longer than those with kids and spouses. And the unmarried women who are unhappy due to their marital status often cite societal pressure rather than innate desire for a partner as the issue (particularly in countries with traditional views of marriage like the United States, Bulgaria, and Mexico).
And it’s not like men are incapable of making marriage happier for women. Women are two-thirds of the initiators of divorce, but divorced men often become “great second husbands” after realizing their wives were serious in their concerns, as declared by marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis.
I’m sure increased communication could go a long way, although that is easier said than done when women are socialized to swallow their own emotional well-being, to not make a fuss—in part, learned behavior from being dismissed from men as being too emotional or demanding. I’m not dismissing women as incapable of standing up for themselves, but acknowledging some existing barriers, as a first step, can only progress the conversation. And also, do men really need be told that women might feel tired of doing all of the housework in a house that someone else is also living in?
Hope for the Future?
Obviously, this is a complex issue spanning cultures and ages and stemming from deeply entrenched ideas over marriage and gender; it won’t be fixed overnight. However, it’s important to at least amplify such sentiments so that women don’t feel alone and can feel emboldened to assert their boundaries and desires, and so that men realize marriage might be draining for their wives in ways they haven’t considered, even if they are well-meaning. While it’s necessary for men to listen and respond to their wives’ complaints, as noted by writer Gemma Hartley, “even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor.” Men also need to initiate these conversations and complete tasks implicitly delegated to women without being asked or expecting congratulations.
True, men have increased their childcare responsibilities somewhat over the years, but it hasn’t been proportional to women’s work, especially with the time-consuming “intensive parenting” that is normalized nowadays. “Working mothers today spend as much time doing activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.”
And while more and more men are embracing certain aspects of gender equality, like women working full-time, there’s not as much progress in areas where they actually have to sacrifice something. “Men might be happy to have a partner bringing in another paycheck, but not happy to do more chores.” Even among progressives and younger generations, men tend to imagine women taking care of the house as the ideal arrangement.
Thus, in order for real progress to be made, men need to embrace feminism even when it is inconvenient. Not only will this help present couples navigate responsibilities and communicate better, but also it will lay out an effective model for generations to come. While a completely 50–50 split of emotional and household work could be nearly impossible and perhaps not even desirable given differing schedules, the important thing is that children learn by example to take responsibility for their spaces and actions as well as make others feel appreciated and heard.
“Children learn their communication patterns and gender roles (kids can recognize ‘proper’ gender behavior by age three) from a variety of people and institutions, but their parents are the ones that they, in theory, interact with the most.” — Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Berks
Furthermore, as marriage rates decline, the pressure to get married might go down, making it less likely for women to get married to men who take more than they give.
I have wavered over my own feelings of marriage, but hearing my mother’s story solidified a commitment to never marry just for marriage’s sake. Because I do find myself being more assertive with women than with men. Sometimes, I’ll wonder if I’m asking too much of a man, but then realize I’m wanting behavior that is automatically expected from women, which makes it easier to speak up for myself.
If I am lucky enough to find someone, of any gender, who shows through their actions that my life, career, and desires are just as valued as their own, then I would love nothing more than to get married. But it’s okay if that doesn’t happen, too.