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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Making modern marriages work

My horoscope in today’s Washington Post reads:
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Partners could be in the mood for love, but analysis and logic can chill a romantic atmosphere. Companions want to escape into a dream world, so avoid pricking tender balloons of love.

Analysis and logic … Hmmm. Doesn’t quite fit with my romantic notions. Then again, I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of modern marriages.

Next month Danny and I will celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. There’s no question that we’ve reached a difficult passage. But as I talk to more and more friends and colleagues at about the same juncture, I’m learning we are NOT the exception. And I’m beginning to formulate a theory on why.

Back in June I read an op-ed by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman discussing the new version of the movie “The Stepford Wives.” But what I found interesting, and what has been marinating ever since, is how she drew the link to the challenges in today’s marriages.

Goodman begins by reminding readers that the original movie was a horror flick. “Well, somewhere along the last decades, the Stepford wife became an archetype. She was Mrs. Perfect, Martha Stewart without the CEO title, the cookie-cutter cookie maker … The Stepford wife wasn't a victim but a conformist,” Goodman writes.

But in today’s world, the reality is that so many couples are drifting along, improvising their way through modern marriage. Husbands and wives are filled with uncertainty about our roles. Rather than loving exchange and tenderness, there’s an edginess that pervades our tone with one another.

Want proof? Just look at the popularity of the books The Bitch in the House and The Bastard on the Couch, the first written by a woman, the latter a response from her husband. I’ve not read these books, though perhaps I should.

So here’s my theory. Many of us in our late 30s and early 40s grew up with moms who were largely at home. No matter how modern we may think we are, we still harbor old-fashioned notions of what a husband and wife should be. The problem is that model doesn't work when both husband and wife expect to come home to a hot dinner. WE are the generation that is setting the model for the dual-income family. It’s unfamiliar territory to be sure. And try as we might to be enlightened individuals, we can’t help but slip back into traditional gender stereotypes. And it's not just the men. We women also conform to those stereotypes, somehow feeling that we have to manage it all in addition to a career. Some of us are pretty lousy at asking for help, until we've reached near-breaking point and erupt like Mt. Vesuvius, scattering our ashes of discontent and disappointment throughout the household.

Our husband's still want to come home to a clean house and still hope to find something in the pantry other than a jar of peanuts and a can of tomato sauce. But you know what? I'd like to come home to a clean house, too. Fortunately, my husband does a lot of the cooking. It's the cleaning, the homework help, the mental responsibility (not even the physical act) of ensuring all kids get where they need to go, when they need to go, permission slips are signed, lunches are packed, sports registrations are in, physicals are scheduled, etc. that can overwhelm.

The challenge to families today is: How do we find a way to balance our needs, those of our children and—gasp—somehow find time to nurture and cherish each other?

And for those of us who are struggling to communicate with one another, I think the latter is the biggest issue. Somehow, some way, we still have to carve out time for each other. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in another five years, looking at one another saying, “Who the hell are you?”

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