Academic journal article Family Relations

Language and Processes in the Construction of Equality in New Marriages

Academic journal article Family Relations

Language and Processes in the Construction of Equality in New Marriages

Article excerpt

This study examines how newly married couples respond to social-contextual factors which both encourage and inhibit marital equality. This analysis of in-depth interviews with 12 egalitarian heterosexual couples in their first year of marriage reveals that none of the couples fully meets the criteria for equal marriages defined in the study, although all the couples talked about their reltionships using a "language of equality. " Conscious confrontation of both gender and equality issues appeared to be a prerequisite for the possibility of marital equality. Yet most couples avoided these issues and developed a "myth of equality. " Implications for couples, research, and practice are addressed.

Key Words: gender relations, gender roles, marital equality, marital interaction, social construction.

In the course of forming a marriage, couples must resolve a multitude of issues that will shape and define the nature of their relationships. In the past many of these issues were delineated by cultural and personal norms about gender roles that both partners understood and agreed upon. Today, however, most couples must forge their relationships in an environment of competing values and practical considerations in which there is little agreement about what constitutes appropriate gender behavior, except for a general desire for equality between partners (Keith & Schafer, 1991; Scanzoni, 1982; Stelmack, 1994; Walsh, 1989). Language is an important means through which couples negotiate the terms of their relationship.

In spite of the widespread goal of equality, numerous studies of married couples suggest that few couples actually achieve it (Blaisure & Allen, 1995; Daly, 1994; Hochschild, 1989; Horst & Doherty, 1995; Rossi, 1996; Stelmack, 1994; Zvonkovic, Greaves, Schmeige, & Hall, 1996). The literature on family and work is fairly consistent in its findings that most women continue to carry primary responsibility for household tasks, childcare, and care of the elderly even when they work outside the home. Hochschild's (1989) now classic work, The Second Shift, showed through longitudinal observational data how couples managed to rationalize the differences between their gender ideologies and actual behavior. One reason equality in marriage remains so elusive is that, in spite of the rhetoric of equality, men have more power and resources in American society than women, and this fact continues to structure marital relationships. A movement toward equality requires the direct challenging by both partners of the attitudes and institutions that hold these power differentials in place-a critical examination of what seems "natural" and customary in marriage.

Most studies like Hochschild's which have documented inequality in marriages have looked at well-established marriages. We were interested in how patterns of equality or inequality got started or manifested themselves in new marriages. We thought perhaps a study of dual-career couples in which both partners expressed the desire for equality might show strategies for achieving equality which could be useful to other couples. In this article we discuss the social construction of gender equality and inequality in marriage and examine how twelve White, middle-class couples negotiated the issue of equality in their relationships during their first year of marriage. We focus especially on the language partners used to describe their relationships.

The Social Construction of Gender Equality in Marriage

Our study of marital equality among newly married couples takes into account several different perspectives on marriage and gender. As feminist sociologists we are interested in making visible the processes and structures which maintain social inequalities or disadvantage women (Walters, 1990; Hare-Mustin, 1991) and ask who benefits from particular marital patterns (Luepnitz, 1988). We take a micro-structural view of intimate relationships; that is, what it means to be male or female is continually recreated during the life course by the opportunities available to individuals and through their interactions with each other (Risman & Schwartz, 1989, p. …

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