Sexual politics in the 90s: Husbands and wives - Love me tender, love me true

No wonder it's hard to stay married when men and women have such wildly different expectations, says Christopher Middleton

Marriage, we all know, is not a bed of roses. But it would be a lot less thorny if only our partners lived up to our expectations. The fact that these expectations may be rooted in nothing more than sentimental mulch is not the point. What matters is that, having won your shining knight or gorgeous Guinevere in the great lottery of love, your co-habitational Camelot is in danger of being destroyed by the discovery that he or she is not quite the heroic figure you imagined.

For me, that realisation dawned on the morning I woke up with flu and found that my wife was not going to look after me like my mother had. Rather than adopting a blanket policy of brow-soothing and Ribena-bringing, throughout my illness she maintained a faint but unmistakeable air of irritation, as though I had somehow deliberately gone out to attract this virus.

But surely men don't want mothering from the modern-day woman? Surely they're looking for a one-to-one, look-me-in-the-eye relationship with an equal who happens to be of the opposite gender? Don't you believe it. "Men's expectations are still that they will be looked after in the ways their mother looked after them," confirms Janet Reibstein, presenter of Channel 4 series Love Life. It may no longer be considered acceptable for the man of the house to come home and bellow "Where's my tea?," but there are few males who don't want from their wife the approval, admiration and general oh-dear-have-those-boys-been-horrid-to-you-again head-patting that our mothers used to dispense so effortlessly.

Ironically, of all the bits of anatomy that first attract us to a woman, it's the ear we end up most wanting to have. Forget the sex - a goodbye kiss on the cheek will do. Why, one American insurance company found that men whose wives had kissed them before they drove off to work were 50 per cent less likely to be involved in a crash than their unpecked counterparts.

Essentially, men want to be married to a pal with breasts. Ask yourself, though, whether such low-level emotional ambition would be enough to satisfy the average woman, gingered up by a good decade's worth of What Do You Want From A Relationship-type articles. The answer is a loud "no". While men's expectations of marriage have remained much the same, women's have changed dramatically.

A Fifties housewife might list children, financial support, to be married forever and to be looked after as her top priorities. Nineties woman, financially independent and not necessarily interested in children, would probably regard companionship, equality, domestic help, respect for her aspirations and career and good sex as the basic minimum. No wonder the sexes find it difficult to accommodate their respective needs and desires.

Neither sex, however, are above a bit of cake and eatism. A ring round my female friends produced a fairly standard list of demands. What most of them seemed to want from a husband was general anti-lonely insurance (ditto men), plus a father for their children and a general sounding-board for their problems. So far, so good. What about the details? What kind of personality were they looking for? "Strong" was a word which featured prominently. But how did they define it? "A strong man is one who is in touch with his feelings and not afraid to express them," said Caroline, 32, a graphic designer, echoing the words of several others. But would she like to see her man cry? "Yuk, no," came the reply. "It's such a turn- off."

The other contentious item on the wish-list was "security". Having established that this did not mean a man in a Group Four uniform, it soon became apparent that "security" meant "money". "I don't expect to stay at home and let my husband provide for me," said Diana, 29. "But I do expect him to be able to keep us going financially when the time comes to have children."

Men are also torn between two versions of womanhood. There's the wife that stays at home with the kids and welcomes her harried husband back to the peace of the domestic hearth. The downside is that the family must subsist on one salary and the wife is often frustrated and bored. Then there's the wife who shoulders equal financial responsibility and goes out to work - but neither partner sees much of the children and both are tense and cross at the end of the day. "Conflicts like these will only be resolved," says one female friend, "when husband and wife are able to work shorter or more flexible hours. That way a husband will be able to spend longed-for time with his children, and his wife won't have to make some hideous choice between keeping her mind and leaving her kids, or devoting herself to her offspring and screwing her career."

These days, of course, most men and women espouse the notion of 50:50 sharing, both in terms of cash and household chores. Not so in my mother's day. She had so little to do with domestic money matters that when my father died, she was completely at sea. Her dependence on him was brought home with painful vividness when, having dutifully informed the bank of his death, she spent the following two weeks getting to supermarket checkouts and finding her credit cards coming up invalid, because she was only classed as a "secondary" user.

But surely things are different among couples who got together in the Nineties, rather than the Fifties? Not as much as we might think. "With 90 per cent of couples, the person who has the higher income is the man, and the person who does the greater share of the housework is the woman." So says Dr Robin Russell, a marital psychology lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London, who has pioneered a marriage questionnaire which gives couples a detailed read-out of their compatibility rating.

Dr Russell is an enthusiastic supporter of pre-marital instruction of the sort provided by the Catholic Church, whereby all would-be brides and grooms are required to attend up to four fireside chats with the priest. As well as alerting couples to the possible surprises of marriage, these courses aim to eliminate more everyday inter-sex misunderstandings.

I would have liked someone to point out to me where I was going wrong in my assumption that with my manly, problem-solving approach to life, I would be able to free my wife from the endless treadmill of talking things through with her friends. It is only recently that I have come to realise that she positively enjoys the circularity of these conversations - and that when she tells me about a problem, she wants just a sympathetic ear, not a taskforce.

Given that the sexes speak different emotional languages, it is hardly surprising that arguing is such an integral part of marriage. However, according to Prof Michael Argyle, Reader in Social Psychology at Oxford University, it's good to talk, even if it is at full volume. "A couple may have some very happy and rewarding times, as well as a lot of rows," says Prof Argyle. "Marriage is the source of a lot of conflict. However, it is perfectly possible to enjoy a great deal of satisfaction at the same time."

And not just satisfaction, but improved health, too. A study in the American Journal of Sociology and Health found that single men were three times more likely to suffer mental disorder than their married counterparts (1.74 times more in the case of women). Having made a detailed study of 1,300 different couples, Dr Russell goes even further. "Being unmarried is a contributory cause of cancer, comparable to smoking," he claims. "In whatever country or culture you live, your marriage is by far the most important factor in determining your happiness and well-being - far more so than how you are doing at work. Your domestic environment dictates your mood far more than your working one; it defines you, whereas your job merely occupies you."

That's not to say being married is easy, as demonstrated by the fact that four out of every 10 marriages now ends in divorce. According to Julia Cole of Relate, what has made marriage particularly hard to maintain is the way in which it has changed from being a public duty to a private arrangement. "Marriage used to be very much an institution, something that involved a wider community of friends and family, and was linked to considerations of property and economics. Today the focus is far more on the couple's relationship and what they each want out of it. There is less cultural back-up, less support from the wider family - it's just the two of them out there on their own."

Sounds like hard work. So why do so many people still take that firewalk down the aisle? "Every research study shows that the vast majority of people are looking for one loving, secure relationship; for the chance to give love to - and be loved by - one person," says Cole. "And even though social conditions may have changed, it's the same personal qualities that make a marriage work today which have always made it work: care, patience, love, a sense of getting though the bad times as well as the good and an ability to deal with issues rather than flying off the handle."

In other words, there should be something solid between a couple. It's not so easy, though, in an age when concrete gender stereotypes are generally regarded as unsafe structures to live in. "I expect her to have a career and look after the home; she expects me to do the same," confides one male friend. "As a result, we are forever bickering over who does what. Sometimes, when we are arguing over whose turn it is to make the dinner, I can't help thinking how much easier it must have been in the old days."

Ah, yes. But so much more unfulfilling, argues Reibstein. "Sure, it's harder work making a marriage succeed these days, but when it does work it does so on a far deeper, more personal, level," she says. "What men and women are going through at the moment is confusion, sure, but I don't think it's unconstructive confusion."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee