This is the second part of a topic that’s pretty common and can be pretty difficult for a lot of couples. It’s really just the idea that the wife is running the marriage and family and the husband is the breadwinner but not really engaged or involved as much as they would like him to be. We’re assuming you want to change that.
Last week we looked at the wife’s role in this scenario. Today we are challenging the men. Before you get defensive, husband, know that we realize what a horrible place it is to feel disempowered or marginalized or even kind of useless. If you want to lead, to be involved and engaged, then this is for you, even though it may be tough to hear.
Does Your Involvement As A Husband Matter?
That’s the short answer. Yes.
Even if your wife wants to do everything and run the family and the marriage, the research says this is not beneficial to her or to the family. Your involvement will help both your wife and your family to function better.
Let’s look at housework for a moment: when husbands are involved in housework, their wives have less psychological stress, feel more satisfied with their marriages and are overall happier.[i]
These results were found in a study that compared the well-being of wives whose husbands were highly involved in housework with wives whose husbands were minimally involved in housework. It found that “wives whose husbands were minimally involved were 1.60 times more likely to be distressed, 2.96 times more likely to be uncomfortable with their husbands, and 2.69 times more likely to be unhappy.[ii]
An article compiling the research from hundreds of articles, looked for the benefits of father involvement. Here are a few things they found:[iii]
- Academic Benefits: School aged children of involved fathers are better academic achievers. They are more likely to get A’s, have higher grade point averages, get better achievement test scores, receive superior grades, perform a year above their expected age level of academic tests, obtain higher scores on reading achievement, or learn more and perform better in school.
- Emotional Benefits and General Wellbeing: When fathers are involved, their children are less depressed, have fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress and negative emotions such as fear and guilt.
- Social wellbeing: Children with involved father have more positive friendships with less aggression and conflict and more generosity.
- Parenting Relationship: There is a positive correlation between marital quality and levels of father involvement in child care, the quality of the father-child relationship, the father’s satisfaction with his role as a parent, and the father’s competence as a parent.
I’m sure we could keep going on this idea that involved fathers and husbands makes for a better family and marriage. So we would encourage you, even if your wife has explicitly communicated she doesn’t want you involved, to challenge her on it. Maybe you’ve only assumed her desire from some non-verbal communication or misinterpreted some Womanspeak.
It’s going to be a difficult conversation but you can find some help with it in Episode 55: How to Disagree Without Sinking Your Love Boat.
The next question then, is how can a husband get more involved if his wife is taking control and pushing him out?
How To Get Your Pants Back
Before we actually get to the “how-to’s”, let’s look at some psychology.
There is an area of research called Identity Theory. Identity Theory says that individuals seek to verify their identity – the person they see themselves to be – by controlling the situations around them so that these situations match their desired identity.
For example, you may see this at work: a manager who sees himself as a problem solver actually kind of tweaks the experience of his direct reports so that they’re dependent on him and keep having to come to him to solve problems. It reinforces his identity and makes him feel better about himself.
But back to our marriages… If a wife sees herself (or wants to see herself) as a supermom and super wife – if she is given the power to do so – she may actually arrange the family dynamics around her own desire to verify that identity.
A researcher looked at Identity Theory in the context of food preparation and housekeeping behaviours in married couples. Each spouse considered what they wanted their identity to be in terms of how much they wanted to be involved in food prep and housekeeping. The researchers found a few interesting things:[iv]
- Husbands expect their wives to be more heavily involved in these activities than wives expect husbands to be involved. (Nothing surprising there.)
- More powerful individuals were more able to behave in ways that were consistent with the identity that they desired (so if you want to be The Cook and you have the power in the coupe dynamic to achieve that, then you could be The Cook)
- These people also imposed identities on their spouse to further control the situation.
Although no one is being a freak here, it’s a little freaky. You have one spouse controlling the situation so that they can affirm their own need for a specific identity, and the other spouse is going along with this.
The first step for you as a husband to get your pants back is to really stop and think about the identity that you’ve accepted. Your acceptance of this, and your relinquishment of power, have both contributed to where you’re at today. So you can’t sit there and say “My wife did this to me!”. What did she actually do to you? You accepted, you bought into this.
It could be that you even wanted the identity of the disengaged dad so that you could play computer games, go hunting and fishing all you want, work super-long hours to fulfill your own identity needs as the hero or the manly outdoors man or the successful business guy. It could be possible that you gave her the identity of family leader so that you could go pursue your own identity needs.
This is the point at which we say, “Don’t blame this all on your wife!” Yes, we challenged wives last week, but you are just as much a part of what is right now in your marriage.
So, what is your attitude towards housework and childcare?
Housework and Childcare
Another article we read looked at the different attitudes that men and women held towards housework and childcare and how that impacted who does what.
They found that one of the reasons women do more childcare and housework is because they have a more favourable attitude towards it, probably because they are socialized for it.
The next part, which also makes sense, is they found that one’s own attitude is more important than one’s spouse’s attitude. When it comes to who does childcare and housework, both husbands and wives tend to act upon their own attitudes. So a wife might have a favorable attitude towards her husband helping with housework, but the husband is not likely to act on this, unless he also has a favorable attitude towards housework. The husband’s attitude towards his own role in parenting and housework in parenting and housework is more influential than the wife’s attitude towards what his role should be.
This is where it gets painful (for Caleb anyways, as he realized he was guilty of this for the early part of our marriage): When it comes to housework and childcare, men’s attitudes are more influential that women’s attitudes in how the labor is divided. Men are most likely to leverage their unfavorable attitude towards tasks that are the least favored. As in, they’re not going to do what they don’t want to do. They tend to leverage their ‘male dominance’ against tasks that are more unpleasant. Because men have more power than women do (in our culture), men may be able to resist doing household labor when they do not want to do it, whereas women have to give in.[v]
So, dear husband, is it possible that in your marriage you are actually the one wearing the pants in the family? The problem is that those pants never get off the couch.
You grumble about your wife making all the decisions or you even joke about letting the woman decide, but whether you pass it off as a complain or as humor the real issue is simply a failure to lead. You impose that because of your male power.
It’s like having a Disengaged Dictator. It may not be unpleasant but there’s this force of power that keeps your wife busy and running the show and looking like she’s making the decisions, but really it’s because you’ve established an identity that blends male dominance with male disengagement.
I can hear it already, the typical, “But I work all day, why can’t she do the dishes?” argument. My question to you is, who decided that was fair?
Before we go any further, we want to throw a slight caveat in. We saw this crazy show on BBC a few years back about this wife who played Second Life all day (a computer game of role playing) and sat on her butt all day long and didn’t take care of the kids or the home or got to work, and he had to do everything. If you are that guy, you are not who we are talking to today – you have our empathy!
But for the rest of you good husbands out there, who just want to do a little better, here’s Caleb’s real life example.
“I used to think that I worked all day so I deserved to get the evenings off. But I’ve come to realize, that even though she’s home, Verlynda works all day too. So when I come home, it’s not actually that I’ve worked all day, and she is only just getting started, therefore she should do the dishes and get the kids to bed. No! It’s actually like she’s worked all day too, so, guess what? We’re even, which means that housework and childcare for the evening should get split 50/50.
For us, even though that’s my attitude now, it actually works out differently. I will wash dishes, but I’ll also tend to do more stereotypically manly household duties like yard work, shoveling snow half the year, etc. So I’m not proposing an egalitarian model of marriage, but rather a complementarian model.”
The point here is this: you as a husband need to consider what identity you want to have in your marriage. Think about your wife writing your obituary, or think about your child giving the eulogy at your funeral. How you will be remembered is first derived from the attitudes you choose to have today, and then the behaviors that flow from those attitudes.
What is your attitude? What identity do you want to have that’s helpful for you, your wife and your family?
[i] Marwan Khawaja and Rima R. Habib, “Husbands’ Involvement in Housework and Women’s Psychosocial Health: Findings From a Population-Based Study in Lebanon,” American Journal of Public Health 97, no. 5 (May 2007): 860–66.
[iii] “The Effects of Father Involvement: An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence Inventory,” n.d.
[iv] Alicia D. Cast, “Power and the Ability to Define the Situation*,” Social Psychology Quarterly 66, no. 3 (September 2003): 185–201.
[v] Anne-Rigt Poortman and Tanja van der Lippe, “Attitudes Toward Housework and Child Care and the Gendered Division of Labor,” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, no. 3 (August 2009): 526–41.