Poll: Are Gender Roles in Marriage an Expectation?

Last month I had dinner with a single male friend (fellow Mormon / age 35).  He spent much of our time together telling me of his troubles in “love” and reviewing the details of a recent break-up. After listing several reasons for the break-up and several faults of his former girlfriend, he leaned in to whisper the greatest offence of all:  “ …. And, you know, she’s not the sort of girl that wanted to stay home and raise our children.”

What should I do in a moment such as this?  Laugh? (Because it was so ridiculous)  Weep?  (Because I was horrified that he was serious)  I did neither, but I did widen my eyes in mock surprise and exclaim, “No Way!”.  Sadly, my sarcasm was lost on him.

I was surprised and horrified. Do single men (in 2012 in Washington DC) really have theses “hands down” expectations of gender roles in marriage? I have long assumed (and communicated to several of my boyfriends) that roles were to be discussed and decided upon depending on the individual strengths of each partners – and the logistics that surround the couple at the time of their marriage.

I expressed these thoughts to another single male friend – at yet another dinner.  He didn’t seem surprised – and then turned the tables on me by saying: “Women are just as bad at gender role expectations.  Many of them won’t even date a man that makes less money than she does.  LDS women want to marry a confirmed provider – and then decide if she feels like continuing in her career or not.”

I was surprised again – and it has made me think about gender role expectation in LDS dating.

Click HERE to respond to the poll.

Suzette

Suzette lives in the Washington DC area and works as a Professional Organizer. She enjoys blogging and serving on the Exponent II Board. Her Mormon roots run deep and she loves her big Mormon family which includes 20 nieces and nephews, 6 sisters, 5 brother in laws, 2 parents - and dozens of cousins. Her favorite things about church are the great Alexandria wards, temple worship, and all things Visiting Teaching.

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19 Responses

  1. Jill says:

    I don’t know, maybe this is going to sound bad, but I kind of feel like people are free to have their preferences in dating. You mention that you think that gender roles should be discussed based on people’s strengths-if this guy feels like his strength is being a breadwinner and thinks that it is important for someone to stay home with the children, why wouldn’t he look for someone who would complement that?

    I think that the important thing is that people have options to make the choices that our best for them and their individual situation. Some people are looking for more traditional gender roles in marriage (based on their perceived strengths), others are not. Personally, I am more nurturing, so I wouldn’t be super excited about dating someone who expected me to support him with a career, but I would wish him well in finding another woman who would. I don’t think that certain personal preferences are inherently more immoral or moral than others.

  2. Whitney says:

    Was there supposed to be a poll at the end? It’s not showing up for me.

  3. jks says:

    I agree with Jill. I truly try to be understanding and supportive of people without gender role preferences, or those who really want to do something else, but for so many people the traditional gender roles are what they are comfortable with, what they have prepared for and it is something that they should be aware of when deciding to pursue a relationship. Not that I think things should be set in stone. If you you want 5 kids and you date someone who wants no kids, this is a red flag. If you really hope your wife will want to be a SAHM but she really hopes to have a successful career, red flag. If you really want to share parenting and providing equally but your partner wants to be a SAHP then that’s a problem.
    Most LDS men and women imagine a mostly traditional family with updated modern changes. Most American mothers if they work, work fewer hours or more flexible times so that they can still be the main nurturer and still spend more time taking care of doctor appts, shopping, schooling, family gathering, family scheduling, etc.
    I’m 41 and when I was looking for a marriage partner, I would have been shocked if I dated a guy who “expected” me to be a significant provider for the family for a majority of our marriage. I made sure to marry someone who seemed very supportive of the idea and who would be willing to make it work financially and otherwise. I married my husband before he declared a major, so we didn’t know how much he would make.
    I sometimes despair at the generational differences and how hard it is to accept. Will my daughters marry men who will expect them to be WMs? I try really hard to prepare my daughters for possible careers (how can you though? one career for no marriage path, one career for sole provider possibility, one career for WM shared parenting path, one career for easy exit and reentry and part time work while being main nurturer……) and my sons for possible paths as husbands. Crazy.

  4. Diane says:

    Suzette

    I use to belong to the DC branch that met at the Press Club, many many moons ago.

    Sadly, the attitude was not much different. Especially, among the Government types.

  5. Amelia says:

    Here’s my thing: people go into marriage expecting their spouse will fit a certain role, perform certain responsibilities, whatever. And then it just as often does not happen as does. And that just leaves people begging for trouble, especially if the “failure” to perform is seen as a failure of will or choice, instead of one caused by accident of circumstance (e.g., a failure to do what it takes to succeed enough at work to provide for a family on your one income, or a failure to be a SAHM because doing so isn’t personally fulfilling). I know people whose marriages have ended because their partner married them for the role s/he hoped they would fill rather than because they loved that individual and wanted to build a life with them and were committed to doing what it took to do so, even if that meant that life looked different than what they had originally imagined. That in my mind is incredibly sad. And frankly really depressing. When you love someone and commit to them for a life, it shouldn’t be because of what they can do for you or what role they fill, but because you love them and want to build a life with them.

    When you love someone, you love them. You commit to them. Not to the role they might fill in the perfect vision of your life you have. So I disagree that it’s not less moral to go looking for someone to fill a certain role. I think it is less moral, at least where moral means something along the lines of having pure love for both others and self. Maybe it’s not uncommon and maybe it’s practical. But i think it’s more perfectly loving and moral to love someone for who they are, not for what they’ll do or the role they’ll fill. When we love others for what we think they should be or for the way we think they do and will enact a certain identity, then we don’t actually love them. We just love of idea of them. When we stop loving someone because they did not live up to our expectations, or even if we simply terminate a commitment to someone that we still love because they did not live up to our expectations for them, then we are not acting with pure love and we are being immoral.

    Life brings us all surprises. In my opinion it’s much better going in with fewer prescriptions for what it should look like than more. If my prescription is “I want to love and be loved as I build a life with this person and raise a family and we’ll both do what we can to make that happen,” chances are better that it will happen than if my prescription has all kinds of details about exactly who will do what laid out in advance in order to make it happen. The former comes from openness and acceptance and simple love. The latter comes from thinking you know the only Right Way to Live. I’ll take the former any day for the week. And I do think it’s more compassionate, kind, loving, moral than the latter.

  6. LovelyLauren says:

    I can understand looking for a certain lifestyle and looking for a spouse who has a common vision of what you want in life. However, I don’t that makes it very realistic or wise.

    What if you look for a woman who wants to stay home and have kids and you get injured and she has to work? Is she capable of that? Will she be resentful that YOU are now no longer filling the role she expected? What if she spends a few years home because she thought it was what she wanted and it makes deeply unhappy? Will you be upset with her doing what it takes to make her happy, just because it doesn’t mesh with YOUR idea of what you wanted your wife to be like? Insisting that your spouse be an ideal stay at home with children parent is expecting a lifestyle change that entirely changes their life.

    I think when you are that inflexible with your idea of the future, you are setting yourself up for failure. Part of making a marriage work is letting go of your ideal marriage and dealing with the one you got. I can’t imagine a guy like this would be very good at that.

    FWIW, I married a firefighter after imagining my whole life I would be married to an engineer/sciency person (I had a very clear “type” when I first started dating). It means that my husband works 24 hour shifts and is gone for weeks at a time during wildfire seasons. I basically live/eat/sleep alone about a third of the time. It wasn’t ever what I imagined, but I like to think that I’ve made it work because I love my husband and am willing to be flexible with my expectations.

    I also wonder what is wrong with our culture when a woman’s desire to stay home with children is the ultimate assessment of her potential as a mate.

  7. Caroline says:

    Great post, Suzette. I think I would have been similarly annoyed by your friend’s comment. I think it is best when everyone — both men and women — are flexible about gender roles. Like Amy said above, my goal in my marriage is to love and be loved. And to have a husband who loves me and knows me well enough to care about my dreams, my passions, my goals — whether that be to stay at home with kids or work.

    Though as I think about it, I will acknowledge with some discomfort that I may have a double standard here. While I want my husband to be open to me fulfilling my needs, whatever they may be, I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of my husband doing the same if it meant him quitting his job. Of course, I’m speaking as a person who hasn’t made any money for the last 4 years. If I had a wonderful job I was passionate about, I would probably be far more open to the idea of my spouse being the stay at home parent.

  8. Ziff says:

    This is a really interesting question. One issue it brings up, I think, is the problems caused by the Church’s unwillingness to ever disavow past teachings, and to try to have it both ways when it comes to gender roles. (I think this is related to the chicken patriarchy issue Kiskilili has blogged about.) The problem is that it really isn’t surprising that different people might have dramatically different ideas about how traditional or progressive or how rigid or flexible their roles will be after marriage, and they will all be able to support their various ideas with statements from Church leaders. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people marrying others from the same church to expect some overlap in their ideas, but precisely because the Church is kind of going through a transition in thinking about gender roles, and the old and new ideas coexist in Church rhetoric, it’s a situation just begging for confusion.

    Thinking about it a completely different way, if people are trying to marry in the Church, the fact that there are so many fewer men than women suggests that men have a lot more power when it comes to choosing, so if it matters to them, they can probably find a woman to marry who holds particular attitudes about gender roles. This is unfortunate, but I would be surprised if it isn’t true.

  9. Miri says:

    My problem with what you’re saying, Jill and jks, is that these “preferences” aren’t really personal preferences; they’re expectations based on having been raised in a patriarchal society. A person doesn’t necessarily want a woman who wants to stay home because that’s the kind of person he would be most compatible with—he wants it because that’s what he’s been told is the natural way of things, the “correct” arrangement and the most ideal setup for a marriage. If we’re just talking about personalities and individual talents and preferences and wants and needs, then sure, absolutely. But I don’t think we are.

    • Naismith says:

      Although there may be some who are as socially brainwashed as is suggested, there may be other factors at play as well.

      I wanted to be at home full-time when I had my children and thus looked for a husband who would support that, not because I am a brainless ditz with no career ambitions but rather because I come from a family of women who have horrible morning sickness and can’t tolerate hormonal birth control (which is 90% predictive of severe nausea/vomiting during pregnancy). The best way for us to manage pregnancy is through great flexibility. I did it while in school, employed, and at home–and the last worked best for me.

      Yes, I’ve read de Beauvoir, who by the way was never actually pregnant herself. And while I know in my head that biology is not supposed to be destiny, reciting that mantra didn’t help me at all when I was puking my guts out, day after day for months. I WAS greatly helped by having a husband who viewed that puking as my work and contribution to the family, and who was fine with earning all our income so that I could gestate fulltime.

      Our decisions had very little to do with church teachings (I’m a convert) and much more with the practicality of supporting the pregnancy, each in our own unique way.

  10. jks says:

    Miri, you might want to make it “fair” to those who don’t conform to gender roles, but for many it does seem natural.
    When I married, I expected my husband (who wanted to love me and have sex with me and have children with him) to want to actually provide financially for said children and stick around to help raise them.
    Some people might say maybe the woman isn’t the best one to raise them, but either I am naturally more inclined or I spent my life gathering skills to be the nurturer. I was less able to develop skills to earn money in a career….was it because of innate talents or was it because I was raised as a girl so I had fewer role models on TV. I do know that I couldn’t imagine myself as a cop or a lawyer or a business exec. I could only imagine myself in roles like teacher.
    I also know that my husband is less able to be a good housekeeper or SAHP. I am way better at it than him. Would he have been better at it if he hadn’t been raised as a boy in a VERY gender role household?
    I am raising kids and I read, so I try to understand the world they are being raised in. But as much as I try, I can’t imagine being happy falling in love with a man who didn’t want to provide and feeling like he respected me. I’m sure it will change, though. I see it changing.
    Out of all of my friends and family, nobody feels like their husband would be a better SAHP than them, and nobody feels like they would provide better than their husband (that I am aware of).

    • Miri says:

      Of course it seems natural. When you’re raised with a certain belief, it’s going to seem natural. Doesn’t mean it is, though. That’s what I’m saying. The fact that people have been raised to expect certain things doesn’t mean that they in fact have the right to expect those things, or that those things are good or healthy or right.

      • Ryan says:

        Miri,

        Why are you only willing to apply your skeptical criticism to the Gospel, and not to feminism? Why criticize members for “blind” acceptance of the Gospel, and then blindly swallow feminist propaganda?

      • Miri says:

        I shouldn’t bother to point out how stupid it is of you to think you know one thing about my critical process. I know I shouldn’t, but I am anyway.

    • motherof1 says:

      What if you can provide better for your family than your husband? You are simply more capable and talented out in the workforce than he is? Is a woman supposed to be SAHM instead of being out in the workforce making 3 times more than her husband is able to bring home?

      This whole line of thinking presupposes that men are imbued with more marketable skills than women.

  11. charlene says:

    Your second friend has a good point — as someone who likes to believe myself a feminist, it really bothered me how inflexible I was, while dating, to the idea of dating someone who was not as academically smart as I was (or even equally as smart — had to be smarter), or who had less in the way of job prospects than I did. Money wasn’t a big deal to me, I wouldn’t have minded a guy who made less money, but there’s no way I could have married someone whose dream was to be a house husband/stay-at-home dad. And that really bothered me, even at the time, because I saw that the guys around me were fine with marrying women who might not be as academic but who had other wonderful qualities, and I knew it was because of the way I’d been brought up (my parents even used to tell me that I should make sure I married a man who could provide well), and my feeling is that true equality will be when it’s just as okay to marry a guy whose stated wish is to be a stay-at-home dad as it is to marry a woman whose stated wish is to be a stay-at-home mom.

    I’m proud of my sister, who grew up playing with Barbies and watching Dawson’s Creek and turned out to be the real feminist of the two of us: she got an M.D. and married a guy with “only” a Masters, something I could never have done — and he does most of the housework and will do most of the child-rearing, and she works the 80-hour weeks. Of course, she’s not active in the LDS church anymore, so there’ s that.

  12. MD says:

    Lovelylauren, it’s called disability insurance. Any responsible person who is the main/sole provider for his/her family carries it. Most people spend more on cell phones, cable television, internet access, and fancy techno gadgets than a decent disability insurance plan costs. It’s actually cheaper than most car insurance plans. And families don’t need it forever; a disability plan is only really necessary until the children are grown and independent.

    My current ward is always harping on emergency preparedness. I think emergency preparedness also means being prepared so there isn’t an emergency. I firmly believe families need disability and life insurance policies for the main or sole provider. My DH has both policies. We opted not to buy an additional life insurance policy for me since my parents already have a policy which they would use to bury me and pay any medical expenses.

  13. Jess says:

    This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. I recently moved across the country to attend graduate school. Before I left home, my boyfriend and I had the whole ‘what do we do’ discussion…well, I WANTED to have that conversation. He wouldn’t even consider trying long distance.
    He informed me that he thought my applying to grad school and “threatening” to move was a ploy to get him to propose. Once he saw that I was going through with it, he knew that we weren’t meant to be. (We had been dating for almost two years at this point; he knew this was something I wanted to do from the beginning of our relationship.) He also didn’t see why I would want to further my education. I had a bachelors degree, which was “plenty for a mom.” AND he told me that he wouldn’t be comfortable being with someone who had more education than him. So that was clear evidence that he was invested in traditional gender roles.
    We broke up.

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