What Is the Twenty-First-Century Deal for the Wife?
Let’s face it, it isn’t always easy being a wife. I write this with some experience, since I myself have been married twice and have spent my adult life in two very distinct marriages. The first time I got married I was in my early twenties. Most of my friends weren’t married yet and were busy being single, flocking to cities to start their careers. I remember running into a college acquaintance on my second wedding anniversary who remarked that she heard I’d gotten married. I told her I’d also had a baby girl. She looked at me in wonder and asked why had I done this, what was the rush? This was in the early eighties, a period of flux in terms of women and work, women and marriage; the concept of life balance was not yet a fully formed dilemma for women. Mostly what I felt that night was misunderstood, as if those who had not signed on for wifedom couldn’t possibly understand what it entailed.
In those days, women were building careers and applying to graduate schools in unprecedented ways, but the safeguard of marriage was clearly in the ether as well. Twenty months after my daughter was born, my son was born. I was deeply invested in the marriage/wife business, swept up with the life of the wife—taking care of little children, pleasing a husband, writing in what stolen hours I could find. By the time my third child, a daughter, was born, five years after my son, I felt that three children might as well have been ten. During this breeding period, I had established a bevy of friends who also had husbands and children. I began to notice that everyone’s husbands seemed cranky and less forgiving than they’d been just a few years earlier. Meanwhile, my friends, the wives, had now become doubly stressed, but stoic—purposely chipper and intent on pleasing all family members, including, in some cases, even their mothers-in-law.
Few of us wives dared to disclose a negative thought, divulge a disloyal feeling. No one said it was hard to raise small children, that her sex life was precarious, that she stuck with her husband for the security, that she suspected her husband of having an affair. No one spilled forth that she was lonely or overwhelmed as a wife, that her husband was controlling, that she was worried about money, that a colleague at her part-time job had caught her eye. Anyone who got divorced was a pariah in our group—practically diseased. It was too threatening to mothers of young children who shared a rarefied universe to hear of such defection; we were too deeply entrenched in our wife/mother bubble to tolerate it.
If I ever had any doubts or dared confide any uneasiness at this juncture, my mother and my aunts reeled me in. They reminded me I was a member of a coveted, age-old club, a time-honored institution, one that defines women, stamps them with a seal of approval and offers an idealized version of life ever after. So what if your marriage went through all sorts of inexplicable stages—Lucky you, you were married.
The Truth About Being a Wife
Neither the reveries nor the compromises of my first marriage lasted for me and after much soul searching, I filed for divorce when my youngest child was seven. For me this was one of the most painful periods of my life, filled with remorse and murky memory, damage and despair. I didn’t glibly dismantle my family; my marriage had completely deteriorated—it had no viability. I was still female, still a mother, still a daughter, a writer, a sister, a friend, but I was no longer a wife. Oddly enough, not being a wife loomed large and sinister—it was a profound loss of identity. A few of my married friends dropped me, and I made new friends, among them single women, divorced or widowed. As I got to know these women, I realized that they were unhappy with the status quo; their goal was to be married, and they spoke endlessly of being a wife again.
And in the years that followed, for my research, I have listened to a varied group of women beyond my own circle talk about their lives—with marriage inevitably part of the conversation. Most recently, two hundred women in this study, from small towns, suburbs, and cities, ranging in age from twenty-one to eighty-five years old, expressed that a love relationship, preferably a marriage, is a big piece of their lives. Some interviewees were realistic, seasoned, and sophisticated; some naive and hopeful. That isn’t to say that others weren’t disappointed the first time around or that young women assumed that it was a slam-dunk; rather, it was the happily-ever-after aspect that was ubiquitous, that got everyone’s attention. These women reported that:
- 80 percent of wives begin their marriages believing they are based on romantic love.
- 70 percent of wives express unhappiness and dissatisfaction (emotional, sexual, financial) in their marriages over time.
- 60 percent of wives feel that they’ve married for the wrong reasons.
- 65 percent of wives say they wouldn’t marry their mate if they had it to do all over again.
- 85 percent of women yearn to be married at some point in their lives.
After I had compiled the statistics, I felt that the complexity of these feelings had to be addressed. I was curious to know what it is about marriage that makes us want it so intensely, and why a faction of women say they have grown apart from their husbands while others are content with their husbands for decades. Although I anticipated a natural progression for each phase, I wanted to investigate those wives who felt uneasy after five years, others who reported a disconnect from their husbands after ten or fifteen years, and those who finessed every phase. If we are able to look closely at ourselves as wives, at every stage of our marriages, we may be able to find a middle ground, and establish better bonds with our husbands.
Nine Phases Rolled into One Marriage
Since my second marriage, my second chance, took place fifteen years ago—two years after my divorce was finalized, I’ve come to see that marriage, with or without children, is challenging. I watch myself play “the good wife,” I remain idealistic, and like many of the wives with whom I’ve spoken, I am capable of acrobatic feats. Sure, I’m older and wiser, and the common snafus of everyday life are more apparent. I realize there is a natural progression to love relationships—in theory. Because I’m also part of a culture that spins marriage for women today—and this applies to young wives as well as wives married twenty years and more.
Thus, the role of the wife is in play with plenty of societal prescriptions—as if we’ve shifted gears for the twenty-first century, added new requirements, but are still paying heed to the old rules. We may marry later, become part of a dual working couple, put off childbirth, decide not to have children at all, remarry once or twice, and with any of these choices, our hopes of success don’t lessen. Few of us can deny that the pressure is on for wives to value their marriages, glamorize them as celebrities do, and when the going gets tough endorse the improvement plan. Could it be that although we can’t give up the dream, we don’t have the skills or understanding to make it work for us?
To this end, I have devoted each chapter to one of the nine phases of marriage from the wife’s perspective. I believe that by seeing ourselves in various phases and identifying with other wives whose experiences echo ours, women are at a great advantage. It is then that we face the pros and cons head-on in order to formulate fresh options. Women who can create an intersection of knowledge, self-awareness, and personal power can better sustain their marriages and adapt as wives. These informed wives will pick and choose their battles wisely, realize when the marriage is in jeopardy, divorce and remarry if they wish, and engineer a beneficial relationship with their husbands based on symmetry and mutual respect. Whatever phase you are in, it is not too late to have a better understanding of your role as a wife and a more satisfying marriage.