Marriage is a Dud deal for Men
There’s got to be something more than this!” This howl of discontent comes from Alex, a thirtysomething married executive, one of four Aussie males romping their way through Certified Male, a blokey Australian comedy.
Alex rarely questions the 65-plus working hours he puts in each week. He’s always agreed with his wife, Sam, that he has to work long hours, so she can be there for the kids. Besides, she’s got her charity work and, as she says, there’s no point in her taking up a job just for the sake of earning money, is there? All her friends at book club totally agree.
But during the days Alex spends with his mates on a work retreat, his alienation in his marriage starts to surface. ”I get into bed next to my wife and it’s the loneliest place on earth.” He determines he’s going to have it out with her.
This conversation starts well. ”It’s just that I’d like some time with the kids, too. Perhaps you could take up some part-time work?”
The response is a solid jab to the head. His long list of concerns doesn’t get a look in. ”What do you mean I don’t appreciate you?” He wails as her punches hit home. He’s reduced to pitiful bleating: ”Of course, you’re a good mum.” (THUMP.) ”I love it when your parents stay the weekend.” (WALLOP.) ”I was not looking at your cellulite.” (BASH – and he’s knocked out.)
Welcome to the world of modern marriage – a world where men’s needs, wants and desires don’t always feature highly on the agenda. Marriage has changed dramatically over the past 50 years since the sociologist Jessie Bernard wrote her influential book, The Future of Marriage. There was his marriage, which offered power and satisfaction, while her marriage brought stress, dissatisfaction and loss of self. Bernard’s depiction of women suffering through marriage as a kind of psychological torture drew on feminist Betty Friedan’s discovery, a decade earlier, of ”the problem that had no name” – wives’ unvoiced frustrations with their confined, housewifely role.
Marriage was good for men and bad for women, Bernard concluded.
But has that all changed? Women’s lives and marriages have been transformed, but now many men are wondering if they may be the ones being offered a dud deal. It’s rare that they complain openly about their lot but, beneath the surface, there’s an undercurrent of discontent, suggests the men’s health expert Steve Carroll.
Carroll has spent more than 30 years travelling around rural Australia talking to groups of men about their health – conversations that often end up focusing on relationships. He reports of men bewildered to find themselves in marriages where they never get it right or get any thanks for what they do. A typical lament to Carroll: ”Why in the f— am I doing all this when I don’t get given the time of day?”
Carroll mentions a 35-year-old agricultural worker in Hay, who felt after he married ”the noose got tightened” and he was no longer given support or respect. Rather, he was just there to ”do the heavy lifting”. A 42-year-old miner from Broken Hill said his wife had ”all the important stuff and my stuff is just not important”. Carroll’s conversations reveal a mood of resignation and despondency in many married men: ”They can’t understand why they are always in trouble with their wives.”
Others are noticing that men’s stuff doesn’t make it on to the marital agenda. Spend any Saturday at the Deus Ex Machina in Camperdown, Sydney and there’ll be a bunch of men wandering around, gazing at the ultimate male excitement machine – a custom-made motorcycle. The shop’s owner Dare Jennings – a co-founder of Mambo – regularly talks to men who yearn to lash out on one of his dream bikes. They are mainly married men, he says, many clearly well-heeled. Yet as much as they are tempted to indulge themselves, they rarely take that step without checking with the wife. Flushed with enthusiasm, they rush home – and rarely come back.
Jennings argues that men’s dreams are clearly not a high priority in modern marriage. ”The wives play the safety card, arguing the bikes are just too dangerous.” But he adds: ”I’ve had women joke to me that they’ve got the men under control and don’t want trouble. These days married men are on an incredibly short leash.”
Think about men’s leisure time – or what’s left of it. If men ever dare to reflect wistfully on past glory days of patriarchy, high on the list would be the freedom enjoyed by the man of the house to come and go as he pleased. Gone are the days when married men were free to drop off at the pub for a beer or three on the way home from work. Or spend most weekends playing golf, or at the dogs, or tinkering under a car. Men’s discretionary leisure time has been shrinking for years, says New England University sociology professor, Michael Bittman. He discovered it fell by more than two hours a week between 1974 and 1987. Bureau of Statistics time-use data showed a further drop between 1992 and 2006 of about 45 minutes, with the more recent figures showing men average 37 minutes free time a day compared with 30 minutes for women.
Men rarely talk about their leisure, or lack of it. But is that because they spend their lives on the back-foot cowering from constant complaints about their failure to share the domestic load, the burden of childcare and housework carried largely by women? Women’s dual shift – doing most of the domestic work while many also have paid jobs – is very real. But it is odd that public discussion of this issue, including regular reports from the ABS, somehow fails to mention that there is no difference in the total work load of men and women, if you add paid and unpaid work.
Men are doing more hours of paid work than ever – two to three hours a week more than in 1985, according to a National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling report. Housework hours for men in dual full-time-earner families increased from 14 hours in 1986 to 17 hours in 2005, according to research by Belinda Hewitt and colleagues from the University of Queensland.
”Men notice they don’t get much kudos for all that they do,” says Steve Carroll, pointing out many men are doing it tough, spending years doing jobs they don’t like, facing job uncertainty, seeing little of their children. ”When they were growing up, dad’s contribution was acknowledged and respected. You know, ‘Dad’s home! Come on, kids, don’t bother your dad. He needs some peace.’ ”
Comedy is one of the few outlets for men’s disappointment about their changing deal in marriage. Witness the ABC’s comedy series Agony Uncles, with constant jokes about men in trouble with their partners for missing the target in late-night trips to the loo, for not cutting their nose hair, for not doing enough housework, and so on.
And the risks of getting it wrong, ending up divorced and losing a house. There are endless jokes about men’s post-divorce finances, like the one about the man who goes to buy a Barbie doll for his daughter. He’s offered a range of different dolls, all selling for $19.95, except for Divorced Barbie. This one comes with the hefty price tag of $265. He asks why? ”Well, it’s like this: Divorced Barbie comes with Ken’s house, Ken’s car, Ken’s boat, Ken’s furniture …”
The truth, of course, is more complex. Well-heeled men often recover financially from divorce more easily than their ex-wives and some evade all responsibilities. But an Australian Institute of Family Studies report found a quarter of older divorced men who remain single experience financial hardship.
Men are also aware of the legacy of decades of legal decisions favouring mothers in custody battles. They’ve witnessed the public agony of men denied a proper role in their children’s lives. Singer-activist Sir Bob Geldof – in an essay in Andrew Bainham’s book Children and Their Families – wrote about being offered ”access” to his children: ”A huge emptiness would well in my stomach, a deep loathing for those who would deign to tell me that they would ALLOW ACCESS to my children – those I loved above all, those I created, those who give meaning to everything I did, those that were the very best of us two and the absolute physical manifestation of our once binding love.”
”Who the f— are they that they should ALLOW anything? REASONABLE CONTACT! Is the law mad? Am I a criminal?”
Generations of males have watched friends, relatives and perhaps their own fathers lose contact with children through divorce. At the time this article was written almost 50,000 Australian children were being affected by their parents’ divorce each year and almost a quarter of people aged 18 to 34 experienced such a break-up as children1. Half of all children not living with their divorced fathers see them less than once a fortnight, a quarter have contact once a year or less (ABS, Australian Social Trends March 2012). So huge numbers of young men have grown up seeing their fathers alienated from their families. These young men know what they have to lose if a marriage goes wrong. And in two-thirds of divorces it is the mother’s decision to leave.
Despite new freedoms and choices available to women, their happiness – their subjective well-being – has actually declined over the past 35 years, according to research by the economics professor Betsey Stevenson and colleagues at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Women have become less happy with their marriages over that time, perhaps due to the gap between their expectations and reality. For men this is a disaster. Think of that truism: happy wife, happy life. The reverse is even more true.
”Men have a very real fear of being turfed out or becoming redundant,” says the clinical psychologist Owen Pershouse, who has spent more than 15 years helping men through separation and divorce through his Brisbane group MENDS. ”Men know they often pay a huge price if a marriage ends and can be held hostage by women who are usually the ones to pull the plug.” Pershouse notes that many men only question the costs of marriage after it is all over.
Many divorced men are now very publicly questioning whether the risks of marriage work mainly in women’s favour, which may be why we so often hear complaints about men’s reluctance to commit. There’s been a huge drop in the crude marriage rate (the number of marriages per 1000 people) over the past five decades, dropping from 9.3 in 1970 to 5.5 in 2010 2. Yet this is mainly due to more couples in de facto relationships. There is overseas research suggesting cohabiting men are more likely to resist the shift to marriage.
They may have good reason. For a start, marriage may well mean less sex. There’s no Australian research on the subject but a 1992 US national sex survey shows co-habiting men have more sex than husbands do.
That really matters to men, as evidenced by psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister’s observations on significant gender differences in sex drive: “Men initiate sex often and refuse it rarely. Women initiate it much more rarely and refuse it much more often than men” (Psychologytoday.com).
There’s been the most extraordinary shift from the 1950s, when sex was among a wife’s marital duties, to the current situation where so many wives feel entitled to shut up shop if they are not interested. The men taking part in my research projects (published in The Sex Diaries and What Men Want) poured their hearts out about their misery at finding themselves in marriages where they had to grovel for sexual favours. One man went for 19 years with no sex in his marriage. His wife announced when his second child was born that their sex life was over.
But these murmurs of discontent are largely hidden from public view, as was the case back in the 1960s when Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique about ”the problem which has no name”. Friedan gave voice to women’s frustrations about the limitations imposed on them by the wifely role and decades of consciousness-raising followed. Now women grasp every opportunity to state their case, loud and clear.
Yet most men still lead unexamined lives. Their ”problem which has no name” – marital discontent – remains unexplored. But one day that too will change.
1 The proportion of divorces involving children has, however, been steadily declining. Since 1977, the proportion of divorces involving children under 18 declined from 63 per cent to 47 per cent in 2016 (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
2 By 2016, the crude marriage rate was down even further – 4.9 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics)