Britain on the couch: The female scapegoat

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TO WHAT extent, if any, is feminism responsible for the ballooning divorce rate? Hardly at all, I believe. Feminism is being used as a scapegoat for the increasing confusion of men and women about what they, and each other, are for, as advanced capitalism welcomes women into work: and this "role strain" is placing an insupportable burden on marriages.

Ambitious women face disturbing conflicts between their traditional role as an emotional support for their family, and the demand to be independent and competitive in their jobs. They are expected to be passive, unselfish and supportive, in line with their traditionally feminine role, and yet also to be assertive, self-sufficient and demanding - traditionally masculine - if their career is to progress.

This is well illustrated by studies of rates of depression and disharmony among women under differing social conditions. Crucial are whether or not a wife is employed, whether she has small children, and what both partners' attitudes are to the division of labour. One study identified four different kinds of marriage in a sample of 680 couples.

In the first, the wife does not have a job, she and her husband believe her place is in the home, and she does all the housework and child care. The wife is more likely to be depressed than the husband in this marriage, but less likely to be depressed than in the second.

The second is the same as the first, except that the wife has a job - even though both partners disapprove of her doing so. This is bad for both. The wife is more depressed than in any other condition and the husband is, in fact, considerably more likely than the wife to be depressed.

In the third type of marriage, the wife has a job but both partners approve of it, and the wife does all the home-making. Here, the man is contented but the wife is as likely to be depressed as in the first type; while her husband approves of her job, she ends up running the home, and she feels that this is neither sensible nor fair.

In the fourth type, both partners approve of the wife's employment, and share the running of the home. The wife is still considerably more prone to depression than the husband, but this is the least depressing for both sexes, and the difference between them is (by a small margin) the smallest.

In other words, it is critical whether both partners are happy with their particular status quo. If a woman finds herself in a role for which she is ill-suited, or of which there is disapproval, discontent and disharmony will follow.

Perhaps the greatest problem facing women today is identifying what role they will be truly happy in, and finding a man who is also content with that status quo. As they have to decide this younger than men (because of the need to get on and have children), they can easily find themselves in the wrong role at the wrong time.

But this applies to men as well. Studies since the early Eighties show that they have been reluctant to accept their wives' careers, and their mental health and marriages have suffered accordingly.

Men are often upset by wives' success at work. In America and Britain, divorce is generally more common, the lower a couple's income and level of education. But a big exception to this rule in America is the rate of divorce among women who have had five or more years of higher education. Their divorce rate is almost as great as that for women who did not even graduate from high school.

One study examined the marriages of 663 women with five or more years of higher education. As in other studies, the women were torn between home and work, and were heavily overstretched trying to meet the conflicting practical and emotional demands. But one of the most important factors was the way their husbands reacted to their careers.

Where a husband was unwilling to relocate for the wife's career progression, and where he was not understanding about the demands that her career placed on her, the marriage was in greater danger.

A 1984 study addressed this problem more precisely by examining 31 marriages in which all the wives were more successful than their husbands. Respondents said they were seen as deviant by friends, work colleagues and relatives. The authors reported: "Husbands were perceived as losers, eg lazy, irresponsible and unmasculine... Wives were deemed to be unladylike, domineering and manipulative." Nearly half the men complained of their wives' frequent absences and their lack of housework or involvement in child care.

A 1986 study found men in dual-earner set-ups were less satisfied with their leisure time, personal lives and jobs. Interestingly, men in dual- earning marriages who had high-status jobs were especially dissatisfied - they were liable to marry highly educated women who were committed to a career and were unprepared to accommodate their husbands' careers.

This was particularly galling to the high-status men as, ironically, even more than low-status men, they wanted a wife who fulfilled the traditional role by providing a home base for their career. Failure to have a "trophy" Little Woman at home might diminish his status at work. There was also a feeling of a diminished breadwinner status if the wife was successful.

In another study, husbands with working wives reported a lack of challenge, financial rewards, promotion and personal resources at work against husbands whose wives did not work - the wife's income reduced their sense of their adequacy as "the breadwinner".

So, it is clear men that have a long way to go before they can adapt to the new role of women - let alone take on some female roles. But a happy marriage also requires that the woman has a clear idea of what role she wants, and that she finds such a man.

She also needs, of course, to fancy him. We look at "role strain" in the bedroom next week.

Oliver James's book `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950, Despite Being Richer' is in paperback (Arrow, pounds 7.99)