The Emotional Weight of Being a Wife

Why is the maintenance of our relationship my responsibility?

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My husband and I have been married for 10 years, and we've worked hard to establish an equal partnership: He does his best to cook and clean and loves spending time with our two small children.

But most days, the hardest thing about my life is not my job, not my children, not even finding childcare or help around the house—the hardest part of my life is being a wife.

Like so many married couples, having two children has made us feel distant. Talking with the kids around means sneaking in sentences between shouts of "Dad, I made you into a mermaid with my magic" and "Mommy uppies!" By the time the kids are in bed, I just want to hide in a closet with a sign on the door that reads "Don't touch me."

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Closing that gap takes work. It means time, effort, date nights, babysitters. It often means saying "how was your day?" when I really don't care. It means listening to his retelling of disputes with colleagues when I don't have the emotional effort because I've been puked on all day. It means opening up when I want to shut down, or putting on a dress for date night when I really just want to fall asleep.

It often means saying "how was your day?" when I really don't care.

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All of this is normal couple stuff, of course. But here's the real problem: The maintenance of our marriage seems to fall to me. When life is stressful, I'm the one who patiently susses out problems from my husband. I set up the counseling appointments and the date nights, scour our town for sitters, make reservations. I do all the emotional heavy-lifting—and I don't think I'm alone.

Do a quick Google search for "how to help your marriage" and the first page of results is dominated by magazines with a female audience. What's more telling? Almost all of them suggest that woman need to do more.

Not happy in your relationship? Everything can apparently be fixed with more communication, more sex, more hand-holding. You must give more, we tell women.

Where is the advice in men's magazines telling them, "Sorry you don't feel fulfilled by your wife, but maybe it's not her job to fulfill your every need"? Where is the assertion that "You don't need to be everything to the people you love" in women's magazines?

I recently asked my husband to join me in couple's therapy—there wasn't anything "wrong" in our relationship, I just thought we could use a tune-up. Ten years and two kids takes its toll. He agreed to go, but not many men do. Actually, lots of my friends in long-term relationships say that their male partners straight-out refuse to go to therapy with them. And research bears this out: Men are less likely to go to talk therapy than women. In a heterosexual marriage, this often means relationship problems are left entirely up to women to fix.

He handed her a list of things to do like dressing nicer and wearing makeup every day.

But asserting a more equal division of emotional labor in a relationship can sometimes feel like swimming upstream—against a society that still lauds mothers as saints of the heart and hearth. My neighbor recently told her pastor that she was having trouble getting her husband to help out around the house and he handed her a list of things to do like dressing nicer and wearing makeup every day and making sure her husband comes home to nice hot meal.

It's how so many of us were raised: A good wife sacrifices everything for her family. A good wife is patient with her husband's foibles—she never nags, flaunts, or demands to be heard.

And it's way too dated an idea to persist.

But persist it does. In a recently obituary, The New York Times lauded Nancy Regan as the invisible force behind her husband—as if her erasure of self for the sake of her husband was an important quality to celebrate.

Despite my deeply entrenched feminist beliefs, the "wives are the fixers" pattern is one I still fall back on. But I think it's time for a new equality—one in which maybe, every now and then, the husband is the one who picks up the pieces.

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