Kathryn Jean Lopez:Your study has gotten a lot of attention. Are you surprised? Were you expecting more of a backlash?
W. Bradford Wilcox: I’m surprised that outlets as varied as The Today Show and Slate have run largely sympathetic stories on the study. I thought they would be more critical of our findings. But our study has something for everybody: liberals are happy that we show that husbands’ emotional engagement is crucial for wives’ happiness, as is wives’ sense that housework is divided fairly. Conservatives are happy that we show that women married to breadwinners are happier, and that wives who share a strong commitment to a “till death do us part” model of marriage with their husbands are happier.
Lopez: Can feminists look at this objectively and constructively?
Wilcox: Yes they can. We got valuable input from feminists like Professor Paula England at Stanford. The editor at Social Forces who shepherded this piece through the academic-review process, Professor Judith Blau at the University of North Carolina, is also a feminist. So there are plenty of feminists who can look at the issue of marriage fairly and constructively.
Lopez: Could the subtitle of your study be “Betty Friedan was wrong?”
Wilcox: Not quite. I think that Friedan was right to point out that a lot of married women at home–especially well-educated women–experience very real frustrations. Being at home with small children is challenging for anyone, especially someone who has enjoyed a rich and rewarding career outside the home. But I don’t think Friedan really understood how difficult it would be for women to combine childrearing, a full-time career, and a marriage. There are only so many hours in the day. One of the things that our study shows is that working wives spend less quality time with their husbands, probably because they are juggling so many balls in the air.
Lopez: What do your findings mean for women? She’s gonna be unhappy if you work outside the home, period?
Wilcox: One thing that has gotten lost in media coverage about whether or not the wife works outside the home is that marital commitment matters more for her happiness than does her labor-force status. So even feminist-minded wives who work outside the home can be very happy in their marriages if they share a strong commitment to the “till death do us part” model of marriage with their husbands.
Our study also suggests that the marital happiness gap between working wives and stay-at-home wives may be strongest for married women with children at home. So it may not be true that working wives in every stage of the life course are less happy than stay-at-home wives.
Lopez: What about men? Can they be happy only if their wives have dinner waiting for them at home?
Wilcox: We are currently investigating men’s marital happiness. So I don’t have a complete story about men, but I can tell you that men are less affected by their wives’ emotional engagement than are women. In other words, wives’ marital happiness is tied more directly to their husbands’ emotional engagement than vice versa. But, of course, men still benefit from having an affectionate wife.
Lopez: Speaking of men, a husband’s refusal to do the laundry is not the root of marital unhappiness?
Wilcox: For most couples, no. For a minority of couples, yes. Wives working full-time, especially wives with more progressive attitudes, are significantly more likely to report they are unhappy with the division of housework. And that spells trouble for them and their marriages.
But most wives think the housework is fair. And the most important factor for all wives is how emotionally engaged the husband is. Wives are happy when their husband is affectionate, appreciative, and makes an effort to set aside time to be with them. So a husband’s phone call during the day to check in with his wife (be she at work or home) is more important than a 50-50 approach to the dishes.
Lopez: What does your study mean for “equal partnership” talk?
Wilcox: It means that the average American wife is more likely to see fairness in terms of a husband’s total emotional, financial, and practical engagement in the home rather than in terms of a 50-50 arrangement. Of course, definitions of fairness will vary from couple to couple. But that is the point. Each spouse should talk to the other about their expectations for fairness in their relationship and find a common ground that they can both live with. But we should all recognize that 50-50 partnerships will not be the norm for most married couples. But they can still be “equal” partners in the sense that they treat one another as full equals.
Lopez: Are children at the heart of this happiness you found in stay-at-home moms?
Wilcox: Children probably play a crucial but indirect role in our findings (see above). Having kids adds a whole level of complexity to the household. So married mothers who are dealing with this complexity and working full-time may not be able to focus on, and enjoy, their marriages as much as stay-at-home wives with children in the home.
Lopez: What’s the single most important finding from your study?
Wilcox: Men’s emotional engagement is absolutely crucial for wives’ happiness.
Lopez: The most surprising?
Wilcox: Even feminist-minded women are happier when their husbands take the lead in breadwinning.
Lopez: What’s your practical advice to couples coming out of this study?
Wilcox: Find an emotional middle ground. Husbands have to do more emotionally for their wives than they might be inclined to do. Wives have to expect a little bit less of their husbands emotionally than they might otherwise be inclined to.
Commit yourself together to the norm of lifelong marriage. This commitment generates trust, emotional security, and more mutual service in a marriage. It also gives you a sense of a marital future together that can make the inevitable bumps in the road look less daunting.
Lopez: And your public-policy advice?
Wilcox: I think we should give couples and families the ability to make choices about work and family that best suit their own needs. Among other things, this means adjusting the tax code so that child-care tax credits do not reward one model of organizing family and work.
I also think we can reform divorce laws so that spouses who commit themselves to marriage do not find themselves holding the bag when their spouse thinks they have fallen out of love or finds an attractive alternative. For instance, court decisions regarding child custody and property division should take into consideration the responsibility that each spouse bears for the divorce. As a matter of simple justice, innocent spouses who do not wish to divorce should not lose primary custody of their children or primary control of their property. Of course, spouses who are the victims of adultery, abuse, or abandonment should be able to get a divorce promptly.
Finally, because many of our tax and welfare policies–e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, etc.–are means-tested, they end up penalizing marriage among low-income couples with children (see). To strengthen marriage for all Americans, federal and state policies must be reformed to stop penalizing low-income couples who are considering marriage or who wish to remain committed to their marriages.