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December 8, 2000
Volume 38, No. 8


Achieving Marital Utopia
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Achieving Marital Utopia

During the last three decades, a revolution has taken place in the American social landscape. In recent articles and a new book, Margaret Brinig, University of Iowa law professor and economist, has tackled the nature and implications of that revolution.

As millions of women moved from full-time homemakers to full-time employees—and even employers—the nature of marital and family relationships began to change for baby-boomer couples. Two-income families, day care, and "quality time" became part of our national discourse. But while the nature of the paid labor force changed, the division of labor within families has remained surprisingly stable. Numerous studies have shown that while millions of American women now work outside the home, they also continue to do more work than men inside the home.

In Brinig’s April 2000 book, From Contract to Covenant: Beyond the Law and Economics of Family, and her study of this seeming disparity are part of her long-standing consideration of socioeconomic elements in family relations.

"Family law has profoundly changed since I began teaching," says Brinig, who taught family law at George Mason University from 1973 until coming to Iowa last fall. "During the last 25 years, states have altered their views on many aspects of family law, especially divorce. But my particular interest is in changes in family responsibilities, labor, and roles of American women."

Margaret Brinig


Brinig herself is proof of those changing roles. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Duke University in 1970 and a law degree from Seton Hall University in 1973. While raising five children, she taught law for 25 years and earned a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University in 1994. She says that while career and life opportunities have changed dramatically for women of the last two generations, opportunities for men have changed very little. That disjunction has made for some very interesting economic and social patterns within the American family unit.

"When women started to assert their rights during the late 1960s," Brinig says, "we assumed that the guys would pick up more of their share of the housework and the result would be a more egalitarian division of labor."

And, according to this view, the logical—even inevitable—outcome of a more equal division of labor would be increased marital stability. But as research and casual observation have shown, this marital utopia never blossomed. Brinig’s research provides insight about why not.

Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Brinig and University of Virginia sociologist Steven Nock have shown that family relationships are much more complicated than can be described by the simplistic—if hopeful—egalitarian model launched in the late 1960s. Conducted by the University of Wisconsin during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the survey gathered vast amounts of data from some 13,000 American families. Brinig and Nock analyzed data from about 3,600 of those households involved in first marriages and for whom all data was available. They discovered that various issues concerning the division of labor within a family affect marital stability.

"For instance," Brinig says, "we found that couples who shared both household and outside-the-home work about equally—or at least thought they did—were not necessarily in the most stable marriages. In fact, the more stable marriages were those in which the wife did more work and both the husband and wife acknowledged this disparity. These were marriages in which the guys thought their wives had a raw deal."

Publication of Brinig and Nock’s findings is forthcoming in the edited volume, Marriage and Divorce: An Economic Perspective. Brinig says she and Nock were surprised by their findings, which begged explanation.

"We now both believe," Brinig says, "that marriages are best when the husband and wife don’t just live in the present, when they can look to the good times in the past and anticipate a happy future. Rather than calculating every minute of work and comparing a weekly ‘score sheet,’ these couples take the attitude that it will all come out in the wash.

"Our research shows that both the husband and wife must look to happy times in the past and a shared anticipation of a content future to create stable, long-term marriages," she says.

Brinig also hypothesizes that despite the average additional three hours per week that wives work, marriages are strengthened when the husbands make up for this disparity in other ways, such as showing their appreciation.

Other, more subtle, issues began to emerge as Brinig and Nock analyzed the data on American households. For one thing, not all household jobs are valued equally. This unequal valuation affects how couples view the division of labor and even marital stability. So, for instance, jobs traditionally considered "men’s work"—mowing the lawn, repairing leaky faucets, changing the spark plugs—lend themselves to stabilizing marriages if regularly done by wives as well as husbands. Marriages in which husbands regularly do laundry, wash dishes, and vacuum, however, are not necessarily strengthened. The reasons for this difference lie in how men’s and women’s work is valued by the larger society.

What is considered men’s work around the house tends to make something more salable, whereas "women’s work" tends to be consumed or undone. House and car repairs maintain the value of these consumer products; cooking and laundry are efforts consumed.

"I’m interested in patterns of behavior and why things happen," Brinig says. "Ultimately, I want to examine what kinds of laws might foster a good family life and which might work to break it down."

Article by Jean C. Florman

Reprinted from an article that first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Iowa Advocate.


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