Everyone grows up surrounded by cultural paradigms, lenses through which we view or interpret the world. I’ve been thinking about two common cultural dialogues surrounding marriage / commitment and household economics – topics that interest me because I am in a serious relationship and because I find money, cultural norms, and gender roles to be fascinating topics.
The Nag and the Commitment-Phobe
An underlying assumption of our romantic cultural dialogue is that men are dragged into commitment, kicking and screaming, while women are the planners and instigators of such commitment, plotting and scheming. Cultural discourse portrays marriage as an end for the man (the end of freedom, fun, excitement, etc.) but a beginning for the woman (the beginning of “happiness”, true womanhood, “real life”). Think about the jokes about women having to get married by 35, or about men who deserve “condolences” when they announce their engagement [see A Practical Wedding blog for more on these topics]. Even though they might be said with a wink and a smile, these assumptions are internalized and disseminated.
Popular media talk about the woman “trapping” or “getting” the man to marry her (can you believe there’s such as a thing as an engagement chicken!?). I find that kind of…well, strange. While I do want to get married, I don’t see my job as “getting” CB, or any man for that matter, to marry me. My job is to treat myself and my partner with love, respect, and honesty. Call me a romantic, but isn’t a relationship a mutual journey and not a one-way pursuit?
A few days ago, CB and I talked a bit about how we see our future (I want to keep my name but lose the engagement ring, we both want a smallish wedding but big travel plans, he wants a big screen TV where we can play PS3 together, etc.). Our relationship is playful, but I do not play games with the important things. That means we reach marriage by deciding together that we want to commit to a lifelong partnership, not by me imbuing poultry with magical powers of persuasion. That’s why I find the language and perceptions surrounding men, women, and marriage to be so insidious, because I believe the way we discuss marriage and the future impacts how we live our marriage and build our future.
Real Men Make (More) Money
Another, related, line of cultural dialogue is that the man has to be the main economic provider in order to be a successful husband and father. CB and I have actually discussed this at length, because the man-as-provider was the model he saw as he was growing up. These dialogues are evolving, of course; but they exist. CB has said that he feels the pressures to support a family, even though we have every intention of being a dual-career, dual-income household.
Many couples have problems with the wife making more money than the husband because money is seen as a source of power in the relationship – even if the income is pooled. Not only that, money is seen as a source of masculine power. That’s why many women (not just men) find themselves uncomfortable when the girlfriends or the wives are the breadwinners. Knowing where the source of that discomfort comes from, though, is a first step in negotiating the landscape where household economics may differ from the traditional norms.
These paradigms are worth exploring and understanding, not because everything has to be analyzed to death, but so that we don’t unconsciously fall into these definitions of “marriage,” “money”, and “power” in our own relationships. I believe that a traditional arrangement where the man works and the woman takes care of the children is every bit as valuable a relationship as one where the couple both works or the woman works and the man stays home or both work part-time, etc., etc. By acknowledging and examining these cultural dialogues, couples can choose how they want to build their lives together.
CB and I will probably fall into some traditional gender roles because our interests have aligned themselves with such activities – I’ll do most of the cooking, because I enjoy it, and CB will change the oil and check the tire pressure on cars, because he’s good at it. As a New York Times article said so eloquently, the point “is not to spit at tradition for the heck of it but rather to think things through instead of defaulting to gender.” Exactly! The key is that we arrive at these decisions on income-earning and home-making thoughtfully, with an understanding of the cultural forces that influence our thinking.