What's in a husband?

Women's recent strides threaten the traditional marital model. Maybe it's time for a redefinition


Tracy Clark-Flory
February 23, 2010 12:01AM (UTC)

The old model of marriage is dead. With women outnumbering men on college campuses and in the workforce (though still earning less than men), the traditional breadwinner-housemaker team simply isn't a realistic option for most couples. That raises the question: What is? Will we redefine marriage or let the hoary institution fall to the wayside? On Sunday, the New York Times took those questions to a couple experts in hopes of seeing into the future of marriage. Depending on which vision you trust, things will either get better or a whole lot worse. 

The good news first: Betsey Stevenson, a professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts the rise of the "hedonic marriage," in which people pair up based on "similar preferences and desires for balancing work, fun, and family." It's all about having shared goals, priorities and interests -- all of which sounds pretty damn good, if you ask me. She explains, "This new model of marriage thrives when households have the resources to enjoy their lives. Not surprisingly then, marital happiness is much higher among the college-educated and divorce has fallen most sharply for them." 

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Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage," suggests men will start to step it up more at home. "Today, more men than women report feeling work-family conflict, suggesting that men are internalizing an identity based on their ability to nurture, not just earn money," she continues. "Conversely, most women now say that having a husband who is capable of intimacy and who shares housework and childcare is more important than having a partner who earns more money." So, to recap: We have marriages based on shared values and equality at home -- all of which sounds great, right?

Now for the bad: Coontz says it's possible that "in the absence of alternative models of masculinity, many low-income men will compensate for their lack of respect and resources by cultivating a hypermasculine identity that scorns traditional definitions of responsible manhood." But that doesn't sound like a maintainable way of life so much as a passing tantrum and, as Coontz says, we shouldn't underestimate men's "capacity for change." Then there's the issue of compatibility: Stevenson wonders "whether college-educated women will find enough in common with their non-college educated dates to form a shared vision for a lifetime together." If not, the "hedonic" model is a no-go, and we just might start to see the marriage rate among college-educated ladies take a nose dive.

One issue that unfortunately goes unmentioned is whether the redefinition of heterosexual marriage will ultimately open up the institution to same-sex couples. Given that we're talking about the need to reimagine traditional gender roles, it seems straight couples could stand to learn a thing or two from gay couples.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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