Are women happier as homemakers?

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Are women happier as homemakers?

Are homemakers happier in their marriages than working women? Are wives happier when their husbands are the major breadwinners? Is too much equality between men and women bad for marital happiness?

There was a study that came out some time in 2006 that said: Yes, Yes, Yes! Reacting to this New York Times columnist John Tierney had concluded that women “want their husbands to be providers who give them financial security and freedom.”

Around the same time, in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen, co-editor of the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum, cited the study as proof that “the more traditional a marriage is ... the higher the percentage of happy wives.” The story also buzzed around the blogosphere and was fodder on some cable shows.

So, here we go again... We seem to have the ongoing job of reminding the other news media that despite its devotion to the idea that the male of the species is an unregenerate chore boor, the actual research shows him helping out more and more around the house.

Published in March 2006 in the sociology journal Social Forces (University of North Carolina), the study by W Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock of the University of Virginia was based on data from studies in the early 1990s.

Over the past 15 years, some 20 studies have looked at the association between women's employment and earnings and their marital happiness. These studies have involved different samples of people and different methods of arriving at results. But they all tell the same story: Employed women are as happy (and perhaps happier) in their marriages as non-employed women and having an income generally improves a woman’s marital happiness.

Then again, do working women’s marriages fail at a higher rate than those of homemakers? No. In fact, as University of Michigan sociologist Hiromi Ono found in 1998, a woman is more likely to divorce if she has no earnings than if she does in fact earn money. Other researchers have also found that the higher the household income — whatever the source — the higher the quality of family life and marriage.

Studies researching the same subject have drawn different conclusions. But readers beware: Black-and-white conclusions can't be fairly drawn. The Virginia study found wives happier if their husbands were the breadwinners. Other research disagrees. Today, a substantial percentage of married women outlearn their husbands. Are these marriages falling apart? Not according to the divorce data. These marriages are as stable as those in which husbands earn more.

In the 1990s, the gap between husbands’ and wives’ earnings began to narrow. At the same time the divorce rate — which had been on the increase — levelled off. If Wilcox and Nock were correct, and women naturally yearn for male breadwinners, we should be seeing an increase in divorce as women earn more than their husbands. But no such trend exists.

In a 2001 analysis of data from our own study of 300 dual-earner couples, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, wives’ earnings — whether higher, lower or the same as their husbands’ — had no effect on their marital happiness. (And, for the most part, men’s marital happiness was unrelated to how much their wives earned.)
The notion that women yearn for a traditional breadwinner is highly questionable, and stands in stark contrast to the large body of literature in this area.

Sociologists Elaine Wethington (Cornell University) and Ronald Kessler (Harvard Medical School) found that women who were homemakers at the beginning of their three-year study and then went to work full time reported a decrease in psychological distress. In contrast, women who were employed full time and then dropped out to stay home reported an increase in distress, regardless if they had children. Women who had a child but stayed in the work force showed no increase in distress. But women who had a child and dropped out of the work force experienced a major increase in stress.

One of the Virginia study's strongest findings — that men's loving attention to their wives is an important predictor of women's happiness — may be true. Or it may not be.
Overall, the picture of who is — and who isn't — happily married is very complex. Both women in paid employment and traditional homemakers may have good marriages or bad ones.

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