What is equal, really?

Mainstream American culture has embraced the idea that spouses can have equality in marriage. But what does this really look like? Should each partner want the same things -both working outside the home and both taking care of kids to the same extent? Should both do laundry or mow the lawn? If they have equal say in decisions, how do they manage to resolve a conflict when they disagree? Fortunately, there are ways to think about equality in marriage that resolve some of these questions.

“Egalitarian marriage” is a more useful term than an “equal marriage.” One of the definitions of egalitarian is democratic. In our society, it means that each person gets a voice or a vote, and this may be a more relevant concept in a marriage than equality. This does not mean that everything is the same for each person. When each spouse is an equal participant in the marriage through effective decision-making, the benefits of having a relationship can be more equally shared. This does not mean that both partners are getting the same thing from the marriage. For example, I know one couple, Emily and Vince, who each receive different things from their long-term relationship. Vince needed someone (Emily) who helped him remember to have fun, take a few risks every now and then, and let down his guard. Emily needed a person (Vince) who could remind her to make plans for the future, consider solutions carefully, and listen to her outrage about an injustice rather than take immediate action. Their challenge came in negotiating which approach to take at what time. When they did this well, each received great benefits from their relationship but in no way did they get the same things out of the marriage.

One of the true indicators of a healthy marriage is when both partners are supported in being the best versions of themselves. Each person wants different things from life, whether this is being career-minded, focusing on raising kids, or having a passion such as art or music aside from a job. It may also mean that each will have priorities that change over time. These shifts in interests and goals require spouses to re-evaluate their roles and duties within the relationship.

Break some stereotypes about relationship roles. Many couples “break the rules” of traditional roles because doing so suits them better. I have a colleague, a woman who is also an academic, who proudly told me that she always mows the lawn instead of her husband. Her husband is fine with the arrangement since mowing the lawn was something he hated doing as a kid. The lesson here is that only you and your partner should decide who prefers, and is best suited, to do any particular household task. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different duties once in a while. Being partners in an egalitarian relationship means occasionally trying on different roles and household jobs to see what fits you and your partner best at that particular time.

Spouses in military families often face changes in roles. Brief or extended deployments for training or for other military operations occur several times a year for many service members. Their partners often take on all aspects of running the household, including paying bills, day-to-day decision-making about the kids’ activities, and major purchases. The research interviews we have conducted with Veterans and their spouses in our study at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center have shown us that many spouses whose partner was deployed for combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan embrace these responsibilities with enthusiasm. Their ability to take on these roles is essential to keeping the family operating as usual and essential in supporting service members as they serve the country.

An egalitarian relationship is more of a “process” than “fixed” relationship contract. Spouses need to talk from time to time about their needs and wants in order to have a successful egalitarian relationship. I mentioned above that Emily and Vince need to negotiate how to handle problems that arise for them. She often wants to try a new restaurant, and Vince likes to go to their usual place because he knows the dishes he likes and it is a low-cost option that saves money. Periodically they discuss a change in their routine, negotiate and agree on how often to try a new, potentially more expensive eatery. Because their preferences change, they return to this discussion every now and then. No decision they make, on this or any other issue, is ever set in stone.

Some spouses resist this give and take. At times this is because one spouse likes the status quo. At other times this occurs because frequent changes in plans can be bothersome. It is important for spouses to be willing to discuss a change in routines and roles often enough so that they don’t appear to be “stonewalling.” When one partner stonewalls often, he or she often hardens the other partner’s resolve and reduces the partner’s willingness to change, which only makes the situation worse.

Future blog entries will discuss how couples can learn to have brief, effective discussions about changes in their relationship that will make them feel good about negotiating with one another.

Check out Coming Back Together: A Guide to Successful Reintegration After Your Partner Returns from Military Deployment, by Steven L. Sayers, Ph.D.