The shifting model of marriage

The day we were married. Source: Meredith Perdue

These days, I’m thinking a lot about the shifting model of marriage. Marriage is shaking up and many in my demographic (the ones who married very young and very Christian) are uneasy about how to proceed. Departing from the traditional marriage model–where the husband makes most if not all of the money, the wife stays home with the kids–is an issue that has frequently come up among my friends who also married young. We start talking about leadership, earning potential, childrearing, and power structures and all hell breaks loose. It’s perhaps a very weird time to be 23, Christian, and married. This subset I belong to is definitely in the American minority.

Here’s a large part of the issue. From anecdotal reports, in the newly formed households of my young married friends, the woman is more likely to be the breadwinner. Wives surpassing husbands in income might still be an unusual thing overall, but I get the sense that it’s an increasingly common phenomenon. (Hanna Rosin would likely back me up on it.) This is a great thing on the whole, that women are FINALLY starting to earn as much (if not more than) men, but it certainly shakes the foundation of the “Leave it to Beaver” marriage we all know and secretly idolize.

I can’t tell you how many different variations of this conversation I have had with young wives since I got married. Long conversations along these lines: I make more money than he does; what is going to happen when we have kids? What if I want to stay home but can’t financially? Will our children suffer if I work? (Side note from the Woolf scholar side of me: These are questions that men never somehow have to ask.) We’re all scrambling around, looking for a model, a standard–anything we can point to–but the bold reality is that we are being forced to make a new standard, a new model for modern marriage. It’s a topic that seems to be constantly cropping up among women, and not just the young Christian ones. I was really encouraged to know that I’m not the only one thinking about it, after having read this thoughtful piece by Jenna from Sweet Fine Day, “When You’re the Breadwinner in the Family.”

As children of the Great Recession, we are grappling with the traditional marriage model in a way that our parents and grandparents did not have to.  These days, it is often essential that both the husband and wife work; staying at home with the kids is an increasingly rare luxury.

So. Everything is changing. But maybe we’re just going back to the way things used to be? As external support, I point to a segment from Kate Bolick’s recent cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, “All the Single Ladies:”

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. [Social historian Stephanie] Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

All of this was intriguing, for sure—but even more surprising to Coontz was the realization that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be onto something. Coontz still didn’t think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. “Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,” she wrote.

Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. “We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change,” she told me. “The transformation is momentous—immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.” (The Atlantic Monthly)

So, if the old ways have broken down, where do we go from here? I think that’s the question that remains firmly lodged in our minds, but I have come to a place of seeing the crumbling traditional marriage model as a non-threatening event. Instead, I see it is a hopeful frontier. To be young and married in 2011! I’ve decided to see my life status as a gift, to suspend judgment on non-traditional marriage models, to appreciate the fact that we’re all figuring it out for ourselves and that it is high time to reject the cultural law that says we all have to practice marriage in the exact same way.