I recently saw an image that said “Marriages don’t last like they used to back in the day”. Someone issued a rebuttal saying “It wasn’t until 1975 that women could open a bank account in their own name.” The rebuttal makes the point that it would have been very difficult for women to live without a man due to the laws that discriminated against them. In addition to bank accounts and credit cards, women were not allowed to get a mortgage or a business loan. They were also snubbed from full-time employment positions. Many employers saw working women as threatening a man’s ability to provide for his family.
Given this cultural climate, women had little choice but to get married. Immediately after that they fulfilled their prescribed role by becoming mothers. No matter how bad the marriage was, women had to endure, because our society was not set up to treat women as human beings worthy of the same rights as men.
Thankfully, a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg broke nearly every societal rule. She became a lawyer hellbent on changing discriminatory laws. Between 1971 and 1976 several laws that prevented women from having checking accounts, credit cards, mortgages and business loans were overturned and declared unconstitutional. She also had a supportive husband equally uninterested in upholding gender norms. Both Ruth and her husband Martin worked full-time while sharing childcare and housekeeping responsibilities. Without her accomplishments and his progressiveness, discriminatory laws may still bind women to a male partner.
Undoubtedly there were plenty of women in the 1960s and 70s who would have said these rights were not necessary. Who can blame them? Most of these women were born into narrow roles in which everyone in their lives reinforced beliefs that marriage and child-rearing is a woman’s sole purpose in life. Even if a woman wanted to pursue ambitions outside the home, she would have risked alienating herself from her entire support structure. It would have felt like an impossible feat.
But only 20 years after changing those laws I opened my first bank account. Another 20 years later I bought my home without requiring a male’s signature on the loan. My life would be inordinately different if such laws still existed. So while the women of the day may not have understood its significance, it allowed the next generation of women to live as any man would – free to make our own financial decisions. I can’t imagine it any other way.
Although we’re living in a post-1970s world, the work is far from done. Women are still under-represented in leadership, politics, and religion. Decisions are being made without adequate representation. We have to continue to demand women receive the same rights and responsibilities as men. And we need to support the women brave enough to to make it happen.
Any male lawyer could have argued those cases and overturned those discriminatory laws. None did. So next time we see a woman trying to advocate for more women’s rights, let’s find ways to support her instead of holding her back. Chances are, we will all benefit even if we can’t yet see how.
Why Aren’t Marriages Lasting?
Next we need to challenge the statement lamenting the fact that marriages don’t last. We’ve all heard the comments full of judgement and shame for those who choose that path. If a marriage is so bad that the solution is divorce, then clearly divorce is better than that marriage. What makes a lot more sense than stigmatizing a personal decision is understanding the reasons for it. To do that, we have to look beyond the symptoms and seek out the causes for them.
An ended marriage is the culmination of many factors. To focus only on the outcome misses the opportunity to understand the causes and adapt. Given that women could not easily live without a man prior to the 1970s, marriage was more of a requirement than a union of unconditional love. In the years following, we should not be surprised to see the divorce rate climb now that women are no longer forced to be dependent on men. As a man on TikTok recently said “Women actually have to like us now.”
Women Initiate the Majority of Divorces
Taking a closer look at the data paints a clearer picture. An important starting point is that women initiate 69% of divorces. This figure rises to 90% among college-educated women! 2 Why are so many women initiating divorces? As it turns out, for some pretty good reasons:
- Men tend to value a high earning partner, as long as that partner’s income does not exceed his own. At that point, men generally view a woman’s income as a liability instead of an asset. 3
- Among couples in which spouses work an equal number of hours, women typically perform 2-3 times more of the daily, repetitive, and necessary unpaid household labor than men. 4
- Women’s unpaid domestic work increases their partner’s income while decreasing their own income. 5
There is one category where men are more likely to initiate divorce. If either partner becomes severely ill, physically or mentally, men are 7 times more likely to divorce their spouse. 6
Fatherly, an independent publication for dads, put it this way:
“Research generally finds that men’s health benefits more from marriage than women’s,” Mieke Beth Thomeer, a sociologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who researches illness and divorce risk, told Fatherly. “One explanation is that women provide more care and support for spouses within marriage than men do — many men reap more benefits from marriage than women do while women are doing more work.” And when those benefits dry up due to disease, men are more likely to walk away from the marriage.”
While these statistics don’t represent the dynamics of all hetero marriages, they illustrate the condemning reasons why many marriages fall apart. And no woman should have to bear the judgment of others for the repeated shortcomings of her partner.
The Incriminating Role of Gender Roles
Within these statistics we can see the influence of traditional gender roles. And let’s be honest, gender roles benefit men first and foremost as they’ve historically made all the rules. In traditional roles, men expect to provide financially and women are expected to handle everything else. However, when women financially provide, some men find this threatening. Instead of celebrating their partner’s success (which benefits them both) some men can actually impede in an attempt to restore their own role as the provider. Men who see marriage as a hierarchy instead of a partnership will put their energy towards restoring the hierarchy. Such men allow the authority they feel entitled to supersede their love for their partner.
Fighting over power dynamics does little to contribute to the marriage. Instead, it puts unnecessary strain on it. A true partner would:
- Recognize that supporting their partner is a crucial contribution to the marriage
- Fulfill their spouse’s role understanding the give and take nature of symbiotic relationships
- Not undermine their spouse’s contributions simply because they are not their own
If a husband cannot support his wife the way that she supports him, why should any woman accept that? As women realize this, that their partner’s love for them has conditions, and that she must shrink herself for sake of her partner’s ego, resentment sets in. Suddenly those other disparities of housework and childcare are layered into a teetering tower that she alone is expected to keep from falling.
Let the tower come crashing to the ground in all its glorious splendor.
Drop the Stigma
Instead of lamenting the fact that more marriages end in divorce, women taking ownership over their own health, happiness and success is a sign of progress. Why should women continue to care for partners who care more about their position atop the hierarchy? To suggest any woman should simply tolerate the inequity throws yet another undue burden on her shoulders.
Drop the stigma. Celebrate not letting others walk all over you, and go kick ass on your own. Or find a spouse that acts as a true partner. One who would have advocated for your right to have your own bank account in 1975. One who values your time, interests and ambitions. Male allies exist and they are some of the most marvelous men.
The song “Self-Esteem” by The Offspring feels appropriate to mention here. It’s written from the perspective of an insecure man in a relationship with a woman who’s taking advantage of him. In his confused state of what love is, he tries to convince himself “The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. Right? Yeah.” The reality is the more you suffer, the more it shows *they do not* care. Anyone who truly loves you will not want to see you in anguish. It’s ok to stop suffering.
Change the Outcome by Starting at the Beginning
Not long ago I overheard a mom apologize to her 35 year old unmarried son for not doing his laundry. I wondered to myself at what age her parents last apologized to her for the same reason. I bet it was less than half his age, but I bet it’s even more likely it never happened at all. What type of partner do you think her son is going to be?
If we truly want to live in a society with fewer divorces, we have to address the contributing factors. Girls and boys need to learn that they are equals in their formative years, teachings that are more powerful when they see their parents mutually respecting one another and sharing responsibilities. They need to see that marriages are not a hierarchy, rather a partnership of equals. They need to see that providing financially, doing housework and taking care of children aren’t gender specific.
Let each couple decide what works best for them. And if for some reason that couple just can’t make it work, it’s no one’s business but their own. Shame and judgment do not solve problems. They provoke depression and anxiety.
Own Your Life
It’s still crazy to think that only 9 years before I was born were women allowed any financial freedoms. The birth of our financial freedom has provided us an invaluable choice to become who we want rather than who others expect us to be. And while traditionalists may voice their dissent for our choices, make no mistake, their opinions should play no role in our lives. Our contribution to this world goes far beyond our marital status.
Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you must learn about what Ruth Bader Ginsberg did for American women. A great way to do that is to watch the inspiring documentary RBG. Every woman owes many of our freedoms to her fight for equality.