There’s an interesting article by Viren Swami in Business Insider titled, “Gender Equality Appears to Lead to More Stable Relationships.” It lists several studies that back up the assertion made in the title. This includes a 2007 study that explains women in relationships with feminist men reported healthier relationships — both in terms of quality and long-term stability — than those in relationships with non-feminist men. Other studies found that greater income equality and equal division of household responsibilities are associated with greater relationship stability and more frequent sex.
Naturally, there are going to be studies that contradict these facts. A bombshell 2014 New York Times article, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” discussed how egalitarian relationships were happier, yet the couples in them had less sex than those practicing traditional gender roles.
But regardless of where you land with the division of household duties in your marriage, and how it impacts your relationship and sex life, what really stood out to me as husband of twelve years and father of three was this question and answer from Swami’s article: “But why does equality make us happy? One reason might be that endorsement of traditional cultural scripts of romance places a heavy burden on men, just as it does on women. Having to ‘perform’ according to traditional scripts limits expressions of individuality and behaviors, ultimately making it harder for two people to develop true intimacy.”
Now, I have never completed a study on relationships and gender roles and how they relate to happiness. All I really have to go in is my own relationship and the family I was raised in. I was raised without a father. I lived with my single mother until I was 14, and then moved in with my paternal grandmother until I was 18. I never had an active father in my life, so what happened when I got married was a lot of anxiety about whether or not I could perform as a father and husband.
While I wouldn’t wish my fatherless upbringing on anyone, what I can say is that I ended up with a clean slate when it came to gender roles. I didn’t have much of a pre-existing understanding of relationships, love, and expectations. I knew the damage of leaving a family, and I knew how much it could hurt when a father ignores you. But ultimately, I had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error (mostly error).
Mel and I had to figure out what worked for us, and in so many ways, that has caused us to not subscribe to traditional gender roles, but rather to work within our skill sets and passions. And while it might seem strange in the traditional sense that my wife manages the budget while I do the laundry, it works well in our home.
I’m not going to say that Mel and I have an ideal marriage, if something like that actually exists, but what I will say is that we are happy with each other. I don’t see us getting divorced. I feel comfortable with what we have set up as far as duties and obligations, and when something new comes up, whether it’s home repair, car repair, finances, or making a cake for our son’s Cub Scouts auction, we usually discuss who is best to do the job rather than who is required to do it based on gender.
As a father who was raised without a father, I find that incredibly comforting. I find it nice to have someone whom I can discuss problems with, find a way to fix them, and then move forward rather than succumbing to the pressure of being required to do something I might not be all that good at simply because I’m the man in the house. And I like to think that Mel feels the same way too.
Ultimately, our relationship has been able to grow organically, and while it might not fit the traditional script, it works well for us. We communicate rather than expect, and while it’s not always a foolproof plan, we both feel comfortable expressing how we feel about everything from income to frequency of sex, and eventually, we always seem to find a compromise.
Swami ends her article with a grandiose, but interesting observation, “So does that mean that men should stop initiating romantic relationships or that women should start picking up the bill? In the short term (on a first date for example), conforming to cultural scripts may facilitate interactions, so long as both partners are on the same page. But in the longer-term, perpetuating gendered inequalities in our romantic relationships will likely cause more harm than good. Gender equality in relationships doesn’t mean that we lose the romance. If anything, it lays the basis for more satisfying and healthier relationships.”
I can say, honestly, that I fell into an egalitarian relationship and mostly because I didn’t have a model to follow. But in the long run, I’m happy that I did. There is something very liberating about not conforming to a script, but rather writing that script as you go so that it fits the skills and requirements of your relationship. Not that there haven’t been times when Mel and I had to really sit down and wonder if the way we were responding to a situation had to do with the situation itself, or if it had to do with some default understanding of gender and obligation. But for the most part, I think we have figured out what works for us, and I can say, honestly, we are happier for it.