Conjugal Roles: Married Couples

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Conjugal roles apply to the functions that each part of a married couple fulfils. If they are symmetrical, it means that they are balanced and equal. That each is fulfilling half of all the jobs that need to be done to make the family run efficiently.

This essay shall look at the arguments and evidence to conclude whether or not conjugal roles have become more symmetrical. In 1973 Wilmott and Young claimed that symmetrical families were evolving. He said that traditional segregated conjugal roles were breaking down e. g. the traditional roles of the breadwinner and the housewife/mother.He stated that there was a trend towards a more egalitarian marriage and that it was due to a reduction in extended families and an increase in nuclear families. He said that in a nuclear family husband and wife had to rely on each other and share jobs and chores more as they did not have such a large support network. When looking at conjugal equality, people will tend to focus on two areas: the employment of married women, and the readiness of men to help in the home.

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If you apply Wilmott and Young’s theory to these two areas in today’s society, it would appear that the theory is correct.There are increasing numbers of married women working and a greater readiness of men to help in the home. However, two key points are overlooked, one is that a lot of the work that women do for the family is unseen. They usually are the person who provides most the emotional and mental support.

Secondly the power in the family often still remains with the man. A key example of this is domestic violence. In the USA in 1994, 21% of all violent victimizations against women were committed by an intimate, as opposed to only 4% against men.As previously said, one aspect to consider when trying to determine whether or not conjugal roles are becoming more symmetrical is employment of married women.

It is obvious that more married women are working than, say, 50 years ago, which would suggest more equality, but an experiment by Linda Morris in 1986 would propose otherwise. Her aim was to find out what effect high levels of unemployment would have on conjugal roles and on the concept of the ‘family wage’ the idea that the male breadwinner should be paid a wage which would support a family.To get a broad range of participants, Morris chose 40 married or cohabiting couples from the electoral register in Hartlepool, an area of high unemployment. She took even numbers of couples from each type of housing council owned, privately owned, rented accommodation etc and interviewed each.

The rate of male unemployment was 27% as the area had been hard hit by industrial decline. Morris had observed that “nationally there has been a structure change in the employment patterns, with an increase in the number if women employees at the same time as there has been a decrease in male unemployment.However most of the increase has been in part-time work and most of the women involved in the work are married. ” In 1951, 38% of the female work force was married.

By 1971, this had increased to 68%. Morris made four key findings in her experiment: Firstly, of the 20 employed males, only 5 were the breadwinner. In the other 75% of cases, women also worked. Secondly, in the remaining 20 cases where the male was unemployed, 85% of the women were also unemployed.

These figures were higher than the national average but did reflect the trend of social polarisation, in which some households have high employment, leaving concentrations of unemployment in others. Thirdly, there was little evidence that women were taking over the role of the breadwinner. The majority of women who were in paid employment were doing so on a part-time basis and had partners or husbands with full time jobs. Lastly, the traditional image was rarely found, male breadwinners and unemployed women were uncommon.

So, what do these findings tell us?It is a possibility that the changes in economic structure have made it difficult for a man to earn a ‘family wage’. However, Morris argues that this has not led to great changes in conjugal roles because of employment opportunities, the welfare system and culture. Employment opportunities for women have focused on part time employment. Shirley Dex argues that employers have deliberately created jobs that take advantage of the availability of cheap labour.

Dex calls this ‘gendered part time employment’. Women’s employment is determined by their husband’s job, or lack of it.When the husband becomes unemployed however, women may find that only this ‘gendered part time employment’ is open to them. The welfare system also played a key role.

There was a strong disincentive for women to work part time in that any additional income over £4 would mean a cut in benefits, whilst part time employment would be unlikely to exceed benefit levels anyway. Culture and ideology are constantly reinforcing the traditional views of gender roles. Female friends and family who were able to look after children etc supported women who took up part time employment.Despite women working, their traditional role was not being challenged; they were working as well as fulfilling their role as housewife/mother even though the male would presumably have a lot of free time to help.

Morris’ findings support that of Nicky Gregson and Michelle Lowe feminist sociologists who suggest that women’s employment does nit provide a sufficient context for change. Gender roles and our ideas about them are formed by patriarchal ideology as well as changes in capitalist production.As said previously, the other reason that people think conjugal roles are becoming more symmetrical is the apparent readiness of men to help in the home. However, Ann Oakley conducted a study in 1972 which shows that this ‘help’ is rather limited.

The aim of her study was to make conclusions on women’s attitudes to housework. The participants were taken from the practice lists of two doctors in West London. They consisted of 20 middle class women and 20 working class women, aged between 20 and 30 with at least one child under 5.There was low employment within the group, which reflected the national trend for women with young children.

34 of the participants were full time housewives and of the remaining 6 only 1 worked full time. This meant that the division of labour within the marriage could not be entirely considered to be a response to external factors. It would also suggest that if ideological change were occurring for the male’s role, it may be revealed at the stage of the family cycle when the wide is more-or-less a full time housewife.Each woman was interviewed and asked which tasks their husband regularly helped with and what they believed the roles of husband and wife should be within the home.

The findings highlighted several very interesting points. Firstly, there was a clear distinction between housework and childcare. The degree of conjugal symmetry in one area may be very different to the other. Secondly, in working class marriages, help with children was more apparent than with housework.

In the middle class group, 3 housewives received more help with housework than with childcare whereas none of the working class housewives did. The help that was given in both areas housework and childcare was often very restricted. For example, fathers would play with their children, bathe them and read them bedtime stories, but they would not push a baby in a pram and they would not change a dirty nappy. In the area of housework, men would do the washing up, clear the table or make the tea, but they would not wash the floor or clean the bathroom.

Amongst the working class, fathers often had little involvement with babies. The belief of these men was that the activities involved with caring for an infant were inherently feminine. However, some wives made statements such as “He reckons he wants to play football with him though” which suggests that these fathers were willing to participate once the child was recognisable masculine. When looking at the women’s views about conjugal roles, three questions seemed to provoke the most interesting answers.

These were: “Do you agree with men doing housework and looking after children? “; “What would you think of a marriage in which the wife went out to work and the husband stayed at home to look after the children? “; and “Have you heard of the women’s liberation movement? ” If the answer is yes: “What do you think about it? ” In general the women gave an impression of conservatism, even a reactionary backlash against the democratic ideology of sex-equality. Key words, which repeatedly appeared, were “unmanly”, “unnatural”, “unmasculine” and “henpecked”.Just 6 out of the 40 housewives agreed that the reversed roles marriage could be an arrangement, which might suit some couples. 2 women, one from each class, approved of some points made by liberation movements and only the working class woman said that she would “have been a bit of a Pankhurst”.

So what can we conclude from Oakley’s study? Primarily, none of the women questioned that their main role was that of looking after the home and the physical needs of the family. 34/40 also did not believe that roles could or should be reversed.These attitudes prevent conjugal roles from becoming truly symmetrical. The study also showed that in both working class and middle class households, men’s help in the home was very limited and often only stretched to the ‘pleasant’ tasks e. g. playing children, washing up etc. 15/40 husbands were categorised as low on participation in both housework and childcare. The level of help is also restricted by the stereotypical view that men are domestically inept and alien to the wife’s world of housework and children.

Husbands are not regarded as domesticated creatures, nor is domestication set up as an ideal. From this we can assume that the help that employed married women receive is simply due to the fact that she is employed, and not because there is a change in the expected role of the male in a marriage. Although there has been an increase in the involvement of the father in his child’s life, it could be argued that the mother gains nothing from this help. He simply carries out all the pleasurable tasks, leaving her with the rest.

This takes away many of the rewards of child rearing and gives her nothing but more time to carry out the household chores. One thing that is very important to remember when we look at this study is that it in now 30 years old. It is highly probable that these statistics no longer apply to society, but they are useful at showing us the general trend. We must be careful not to take the results to conclusively.

An experiment, which supports the findings of Oakley, is one that was carried out by Legal and General in 1996 that assessed the number of hours spent on household tasks by adults and children in the family.There were several key findings when comparing the tasks adopted by the mother and father. Women spent 13. 30 hours a week cooking and preparing meals as opposed to just 2. 50 hours with men. They also spent 13. 15 hours cleaning compared to 2. 00 hours with men and 9. 05 hours washing and ironing clothes compared to 0. 55 hours with men.

The tasks which men and women did more equally included spending time just with children, washing up and driving children to school, which ties in with the previous study which stated that men only help in the pleasant tasks. Other interesting statistics could be drawn from the differences between sons and daughters.

For example, 22 girls surveyed always made meals for others in the family, compared to 3 boys. 24 girls always looked after younger children as opposed to 4 boys. These findings would suggest that domestic tasks were much more expected of girls rather than boys and those daughters were, to an extent, trained for a role of a housewife and mother.It was also interesting to note that the age of the children in the family greatly affected the amount of time the wife spent on household tasks but did not really effect the husband.

Mothers with children aged 2 spent around 85 hours a week on household tasks compared to the average of 62 hours. It stayed around the same for men at an average of 23 hours a week, considerably less. Mothers who were employed still spent more hours on household tasks than they did at their place of work, at an average of 53 hours a week.As said previously, it is usually the woman in the family who provides most of the emotional and mental support.

This is often a neglected role that is overlooked when determining the symmetry of conjugal roles. Arlie Hochschild called this ’emotional work’ in 1983. This area has been relatively unresearched, according to feminist sociologists this is because the ‘male stream’ sociologists find emotion personally threatening, to be relegated to the irrational, unquantifiable and therefore essentially untheorisable.Another reason for this is that discussion of emotion in couple relationships was further inhibited by the powerful male backlash against any emphasis on the personal at the expense of the political and by feminists’ reluctance to discuss romantic love as anything other than an expression of male hegemony.

In the media today, the apparent asymmetry between man and wife in the way they emotionally express themselves is thought to be an important feature in modern marriages. However, increasingly high numbers of women are complaining about the lack of intimate emotion their partners express.To examine this area of married life, I shall be looking at Mansfield and Collard’s study that was conducted in 1989. They interviewed 60 newly wed couples and found that while most wives accepted that they should do more housework because their husbands were the breadwinners, they were disappointed with the lack of emotional reciprocity within the marriage.

They desired a close exchange of intimacy based on emotional openness and disclosure. However, the majority of the husbands resisted this emotional sharing and their disclosure of intimate emotions surrounding love and sex was minimal.There also appears to be a lack of emotional disclosure surrounding children. Despite modern fathers claiming to be deeply moved by the birth of their children and struggling to juggle both work and family life, the majority spent less time at home once children had been born than before and little time with the children themselves.

It is argued that commitment to the role of fatherhood is only sustained by women interpreting and supporting their husbands and their children.Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden carried out the second study I shall be looking at in this area in 1995. The aim of their study was to find out why, in a time when women were increasingly initiating divorce, certain couples stayed together. They interviewed 40 white couples from one district and spoke to them both separately and as a couple.

They found that many of the women felt a sort of ’emotional loneliness’ and a desire for their husbands to make them ‘feel special’ again, as they had done at the start of the relationship through unprompted romantic or intimate behaviour.Most of the women’s responses fell into two categories, those who claimed that they were ‘ever so happy really’ or that they had come to accept that their husband was just ‘not the kind of man’ to express loving behaviour. It was repeatedly found that the men in the marriages gave priority to work and psychically or even physically desert the marriage by refusing to take the ’emotional responsibility’ for the relationship. This lack of emotions often also extended to the children.

This was to the extent that some women even wondered why their husbands had ever wanted children at all.When challenged by their wives about their lack of emotional involvement, many men became angry and did not understand, or did not accept, that there was any problem. Many claimed that they were pulled between home life and work but would like to be able to put home life first, though they were unsure as to how to go about it. As the husbands often considered to be working for the family, the request for emotional involvement at the end of a long day was often seen as unreasonable demands.

Now that we can see this asymmetry between the emotional roles of man and wife, we can now look at why this is and what effect it has. In the 1950’s Talcott Parsons said that in the ideal type of nuclear family the conjugal roles would be asymmetric, in which the husbands would assume the unemotional and instrumental role of breadwinner. Whereas the wife should become the homemaker and carry the responsibility of providing emotional stability for the family. The Marxist-Structuralists take a differing view, they say that women’s supposed emotional role is simply a further dimension of their exploitation by men.

However in 1992, Giddens argued that it is the changing conditions of ‘late modernity’ that is causing women to seek a ‘haven in a heartless world’ through greater emotional and sexual intimacy. Despite the media ideal being that of emotional and sexual openness, Giddens pointed out that any ‘transformation of intimacy’ is still blocked by the continued resistance to emotional intimacy of men and their continuous attempts to sexually dominate women. In 1991, Rubin claimed that emotional differenced are rooted in early childhood experiences and socialisation.In her US study she found that the continuous search for the media ideal left people with ‘a disillusion that for many borders on despair’.

James 1989 used Hochschild’s concept of ’emotion work’ to explain his theory of ‘feeling rules’. He claimed that emotions are socially managed by these ‘feeling rules’ that concern how an individual should feel in a certain situation. James says that if the individual does not automatically feel the socially accepted emotion in the given situation will do ’emotion work’ to try to act the right response.He argues that there are varying levels of acting: ‘Shallow’ acting can convince others, but the actor is still aware of how they really feel; ‘Deep’ acting occurs when the individual tries especially hard.

They may try so hard in fact that they begin to actually believe that they really feel the emotion they are trying to portray in the place of their true feelings. This approach of studying emotion is called a ‘social management’ and the processes may vary between individuals, over time and across cultures. In our society, James claims that this ‘management of emotion’ takes place within the home, under the responsibility of the woman.He says that girls are subconsciously trained to become more emotionally skilled in recognising and empathising with the moods of others from a very early age.

They are also trained to perform ’emotion work’ to bring those moods into line with happy family life. In this way a socially constructed gender asymmetry is formed between ’emotional woman’ and ‘rational man’. However, this invisible ’emotion work’ is left unseen in our male-dominated society. This links back to the newly wed couples in Duncombe and Marsden’s study, in which the women claimed they were ‘ever so happy really’.

Hochschild further argued in 1990 that most couples come to live a ‘family myth’ where the woman’s emotion work is used to obscure the fact that their husband failed to do his fair share of domestic work. She calls these conditions ‘the stalled feminist revolution’. Hochschild claims that if women openly attempt to fight their partners, they could face constant conflict, depression, divorce, single parenthood etc, so living with the ‘family myth’ makes life a lot easier. Duncombe and Marsden claim that women’s willingness to carry out ’emotion work’ alters with the decay of intimacy and increasing disillusionment.

Whilst in love or having a desire to be, women deep act to dispel any doubts they have concerning the relationship. When suspicions grow, they shallow act to maintain ‘the picture’ for their husband and the outside world. However, as time progresses, they may start to let out their doubts to their husband or friends. Eventually, if the relationship deteriorates sufficiently one or both partners may openly disparage the other and complain to absolutely everyone.

This shows that the standard of emotion work is directly linked to changing balances of power and affection within relationships.When looking at Duncombe and Marsden’s study, we must bear in mind that participants may not be totally honest. They may be ashamed or embarrassed to mention certain aspects of their relationship and may cover up negative aspects to save grace. We must also bear in mind that some women may be deep acting to the extent that they are in denial over the state of their marriages.

These sociologists claim that because of the emotional work that women do, it prevents conjugal roles from becoming symmetrical. It also keeps women in the part time, lowly paid employment that exploits their emotional skills.For the imbalance of emotional work to be made equal, a huge reorganisation of childcare would need to take place, as the foundations are steadily in place in early childhood. In 1980, Edgell conducted a survey on decision making within marriages in the middle classes.

He found that women were more likely to let men make the decisions, especially when it involved careers, when the male’s job frequently took priority over the woman’s. The only decision that was a clear exception was that of having children, which was made jointly.However, it could be argued that this was because it would effect the wife’s life considerably more, as studies mentioned earlier have shown. Having looked at the various studies mentioned in this essay, I think that conjugal roles have become more symmetrical, women are now working considerably more than they were 50 years ago, often in highly paid or professional jobs that would never have been open to them at that time.

Men are helping more with household tasks and childcare than they used to, and in some families, ‘househusbands’ are a true reality.However, I do not believe that conjugal roles are symmetrical, or that they are close to becoming so. I feel that there are huge differences between the roles that man and wife adopt, especially when looking at the emotional side of the family. I think that this is for several reasons, but that is primarily due to the way in which our society socialises it’s children.

I am also unsure that the majority of people would like their role to change within the family. I think that most women quite enjoy being able to have such a strong bond with their children and are happy to give up such things as employment to be able to do this.I also feel that most men are happy in their role of breadwinner and financial supporter of the family. I also think that power within relationships is not equal.

In a lot of relationships, men make the decisions, and it is rare to find marriages where the wife is in charge of the family. Another key sign of the inequality of power is the statistics of domestic violence, clearly showing that some men feel they have superiority over their partner. Having looked at these points in detail, I do not therefore that conjugal roles will become symmetrical anywhere in the near future.The majority of sociologists seem to agree with me in this statement, but what do the different groups think the reasons are for this? Functionalist Sociologists believe that the division of labour is natural and inevitable.

Marxist Feminist Sociologists believe that the housewife role serves the needs of capitalism by providing cheap labour. Housewives provide a reserve army for example, in times of war and provide a workforce that carries out housework for free, which is why the Capitalist society does not encourage conjugal roles to change. Radical Feminist Sociologists believe the view stated by Delphy, which is that the role of the housewife was created by the system of Patriarchy to serve the needs of men.

There are three main criticisms of these views: if these opinions are correct, why is it that women’s roles vary across the globe; Feminist opinions devalue the role of the housewife, but that role plays a key part in a functional society; Feminists also underestimate the power which women possess.

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