Marital satisfaction also called marital quality is defined as the happiness and satisfaction one feels about their relationship with their spouse, as well as how well one feels their spouse fulfills their needs (Booth, Johnson, and Granger, 2005; Peleg, 2008). Marital satisfaction is the subject of much sociological research. Most of this research has focused on how certain influences affect marital satisfaction. Current research examines how factors such as division of labor, income, and parenthood affect marital quality (Kluwer, Heesink, and Van De Vliert, 1997; Tichenor, 1999; Cox, Paley, Burchinal and Payne, 1999). Studies shows that many factors play a role in the happiness spouses feel about their relationships.
Much of the early research in this area focused on the traditional roles of husbands and wives. Because of recent trends such as the increase in dual-earner households and the fact that many women are making more money than their husbands, more recent studies focus on how gender role ideologies affect the marital relationship. Gender role ideology is how a person relates to family or marital roles that are usually linked to gender (Minnotte, Minnotte, Pederson, Mannon, and Kiger, 2010). Gender role ideologies are defined by Mickelson, Claffey, and Williams (2006) as spouses’ expectations of each other as well as of themselves within the context of the marital relationship. Mickelson et al. (2006) investigate the impact of egalitarian and traditional gender roles on marital satisfaction. Gender role ideology is shown to be a major influence on the levels of marital satisfaction reported by husbands and wives. Marital discord also influences marital satisfaction. Rogers (1999) defines marital discord as problems and conflict in the marital relationship. Communication and interaction between spouses can have a major impact on marital quality.
Does gender play a role in marital satisfaction? This article will examine previous research on the major factors that influence marital satisfaction, including gender role ideology, division of labor, income, children and parenthood, and communication and marital interaction beginning with the factors that correlate most with gender.
GENDER ROLE IDEOLOGY
Gender role ideology is defined by Minnotte et al. (2010) as the identity one assigns him- or herself with regard to gender-linked marriage or family roles. The difference in expectations between egalitarian and traditional gender roles can have a major impact on marital satisfaction. Lower marriage satisfaction in women seems to be the result of traditional gender role expectations (Ng, Loy, Gudmunson, and Cheong, 2009). However, lower marriage satisfaction in men tends to be influenced by egalitarian gender role expectations (Ng et al. 2009). Traditional relationships can appear to be less conflicted than egalitarian ones, but this is likely the result of conflict avoidance in the traditional relationship (Kluwer et al. 1997). Egalitarian relationships may seem to observers to have more conflict, however, they also have more communication and conflict resolution, whereas traditional relationships foster lower marital satisfaction by evading conflict management (Kluwer et al. 1997).
Studies show that the gender role ideologies of husbands and wives play a significant role in their levels of marital quality. Men’s marital quality is higher when the husband and wife share the same role ideology and is lower when the ideologies differ (Minnotte et al. 2010). When work responsibilities interfere with family responsibilities, the quality of marriage and other familial relationships can deteriorate. Minnotte et al. (2010) explain that egalitarian wives’ marital satisfaction suffers with relation to work-to-family conflict (lower marital satisfaction is related to high work-to-family conflict). Work-to-family conflict is defined as conflict that occurs when family needs are negatively impacted by the demands of one’s work (Minnotte et al. 2010).
DIVISION OF LABOR
Division of labor continues to be a contentious issue between spouses. Saginak and Saginak (2005) define labor in the context of marriage and family as responsibilities of the home, including domestic, emotion and organizational work necessary to maintaining a family home. Dew and Wilcox (2011), Faulkner et al. (2005), and Ng et al. (2009) all report that a perception of inequitable distribution of household labor is directly related to marital dissatisfaction. In addition, Kluwer et al. (1997) report that just because a couple does not report household labor conflict doesn’t mean that it is not present in their relationship. In traditional marriages, wives frequently avoid division of labor conflict, however discontent they may be, according to Kluwer et al. (1997).
Evidence shows that instrumental support is crucial to marital satisfaction for egalitarian wives (Mickelson et al. 2006). However, the level of egalitarianism in men is negatively related to their marital satisfaction, probably because there is a higher expectation of household labor duties for egalitarian men compared to traditional men (Mickelson et al. 2006). This shows that in spite of egalitarian beliefs, many men still do not consider household labor their responsibility.
The amount of money a woman makes doesn’t influence marital quality in the ways we may think. Tichenor (1999) finds that gender has more of an impact on marital satisfaction than status or income. In families where the wife earns more money than the husband, most women reject the power they may get from earning more money and create an image of their husband’s control of the family (Tichenor, 1999). These status-reversal relationships appear to seek the image of a conventional marriage (Tichenor, 1999). Tichenor’s (1999) research shows that most husbands prefer the label of provider and do not object to this manufactured image. Wives who earn more money than their husbands are still doing a majority of the housework while contributing a majority of the family income (Tichenor, 1999). This shows that housework is gendered and not influenced by wives’ income. Women cannot exchange money for housework by earning more money than their husbands (Tichenor, 1999).
Rogers (1999) reports that wives’ marital dissatisfaction significantly influences wives’ income. Marital discord can contribute to a woman’s decision to get a job, but husbands’ marital dissatisfaction has no influence over their wives’ income (Rogers, 1999). Interestingly, Faulkner, Davey, and Davey (2005) report that wives’ job loss creates less marital conflict and a higher level of marital satisfaction for them. However, the time their husbands spend working outside the home is negatively related to their marital happiness (Faulkner et al. 2005). When a wife is unhappy, she is more likely to get a job outside the home, but when an employed wife loses her job, it contributes to less conflict and more satisfaction in the marriage. This illustrates the tendency of many men to have traditional gender role expectations.
The effects of parenthood on marriage are also more complicated than expected. Cox et al. (1999) argue that having children creates a decrease in marital satisfaction, but that the severity of the decrease is significantly influenced by whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, the gender of the child, and the conflict managements skills of the couple prior to pregnancy. Levels of marital satisfaction have been shown to bottom out around the child’s first birthday, and then increase in small increments during the child’s second year of life (Cox et al. 1999). Planned pregnancies purported higher levels of marital satisfaction than unplanned pregnancies. Studies show that parents of male children report higher levels of marital satisfaction than parents of female children, although the difference was slight (Cox et al. 1999). Dew and Wilcox (2011) report that wives’ decrease in marital satisfaction shortly after childbirth was attributed to a decrease in time spent with their spouse as compared to prior to the birth of the child.
Communication plays a vital role in marital quality. Disclosure is the sharing of information about the self including past information and future plans (Finkenauer, Engels, Branje, and Meeus, 2004). Disclosure is a key aspect of marital communication. Finkenauer et al. (2004) state that disclosure in horizontal familial relationships is positively related to relationship quality. Sharing between spouses can lead to more intimacy and feelings of closeness (Finkenauer et al. 2004). Loss of time spent together as a couple can contribute to low marital satisfaction (Dew and Wilcox, 2011). Spending time together can lead to more sharing and disclosure, and has been shown to lead to higher levels of marital satisfaction for husbands and wives (Finkenauer et al. 2004).
Interpersonal differentiation is also very important to personal relationships. Peleg (2008) defines interpersonal differentiation as the capacity for both intimacy and autonomy in relationships with others. Peleg (2008) argues that the differentiation of self is crucial to marital satisfaction. There is delicate balance of togetherness and separation that contributes to a healthy marriage (Peleg, 2008). More marital conflict is experienced by couples with low differentiation (Peleg, 2008). Peleg (2008) also states that low differentiation can result in negative feelings, which can negatively impact marriage satisfaction. These factors were equally significant for both men and women (Peleg, 2008).
High marital locus of control (MLC) is associated with increased marital happiness (Myers and Booth, 1999). Locus of control is defined by Myers et al. (1999) as the level of control one feels over the conditions of their life. High MLC among spouses is directly correlated to lower reported marital instability and conflict (Myers and Booth, 1999). In other words, a perception of more control over marital activity equals increased perceived marital quality (Myers and Booth, 1999). Gender has not been shown to play a role in the MLC factor.
Another aspect of the level of marital satisfaction has to do with the increasing number of aging wives caring for their ill and/or aging husbands. Between impaired husbands and their care giving wives, reciprocity of emotional support is directly related to lower perceptions of burden and increased marital satisfaction in the wives (Wright and Aquilino, 1998). Although reciprocity levels depend on the impairment of the husbands, increased interaction leads to higher marital quality perception in care giving wives (Wright and Aquilino, 1998.)
There is no simple answer to whether gender influences marital satisfaction. Simply stating that one gender is happier in marriage than the other is oversimplifying the facts. Most literature on marital satisfaction focuses on the different factors that influence marital satisfaction such as gender role ideology, income, children and parenting, communication and marital interaction, and division of labor. Some research goes a step further to distinguish how each factor is affected by gender, and some does not.
There are so many angles from which to look at the quality of marriage that it would be next to impossible to isolate gender as the single most compelling issue in marital satisfaction. For example, a husband who has traditional gender role expectations is more likely to report higher marital satisfaction if his wife stays home with the children and does all the housework. However, if the wife does not share the traditional gender role expectations, she will be unhappy in the marriage, which will no doubt affect the husband’s satisfaction with the relationship. These multi-layered findings make it obvious that gender is not the most significant factor in determining marital satisfaction.
Differing gender role ideologies clearly influence marital satisfaction, as does each spouse’s expectations about their partner’s income. But husbands and wives are shown to have the same preferences when it comes to marital communication and disclosure. They also report almost identical patterns of marital satisfaction when it comes to the transition into parenthood. This illustrates how although influential, gender is not one of the most significant factors in marital satisfaction.
Future research on this topic could focus specifically on how gender alone directly affects marital satisfaction. Excluding other influential factors could mean isolating the specific ways gender affects marital satisfaction in a way that hasn’t been done before. This would be challenging, but finding a way to focus on gender would provide information that isn’t currently available.
This information can be useful to professionals who study the breakdown of marriage or to marriage counselors who are trying to help troubled couples salvage damaged relationships. It could also provide researchers with data that may predict the likelihood of success in future relationships.
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