The Perils of Love, or Why Wives Adapt to Husbands during the Transition to Parenthood

By Johnson, Elizabeth M.; Huston, Ted L. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Love, or Why Wives Adapt to Husbands during the Transition to Parenthood


Johnson, Elizabeth M., Huston, Ted L., Journal of Marriage and Family


Within a theoretical framework of interdependence and the feminization of love, we present evidence that wives' love for their husbands motivates them to align their preferences about the division of child-care tasks with their husbands' preferences during the transition to parenthood. The preferences of 69 couples were measured 2 months after they were wed and 2 years later, after the birth of their first child. Results of hierarchical linear regressions indicate that husbands' newlywed preferences predict changes in wives' preferences and that the influence of husbands' preferences depends on the level of wives' love.

Key Words. attitude change, dil.rion of labor, interdependence, love, marital influence, transition to parenthood.

Couples making the transition to parenthood are faced with new demands that challenge the norms that regulate their day-to-day activities. Culturally based assumptions about the roles of husbands and wives, which assign women the primary responsibility for maintaining the emotional wellbeing of the marriage, suggest that wives will take the lead in resolving potential conflicts about the division of child-care tasks. This study examines how love influences wives to adopt the attitudes of their husbands about child-care responsibilities during the transition to parenthood.

The origins of wives' emotional responsibilities can be traced to the emergence of the modern family in the early l9th century. In colonial America, marriage created a household in which coordinated action produced not only love, but milk, soap, and clothes as well. Cancian (1987), following the lead of a number of historians of the family (Degler, 1980; Zaretsky, 1986), describes a shift in the ideology of family that began toward the end of the 18th century as industrialization moved economic work out of the home and into factories. The tough and impersonal world that men encountered at work was balanced by the love and caring that women cultivated at home. During the l9th century, women's relationships with their husbands had a dual character: Wives were emotionally dependent on their husbands, and yet they were primarily providers, rather than recipients, of emotional support within the family (Degler, 1980). As marital companionship replaced raising children as the focus of married life, the husband moved to the center of the wife's sphere, and, Cancian notes, "her life was focused on getting the right emotional response from him" (p. 37). The centrality of marital companionship and the role of the wife as emotion specialist are generally seen as characterizing many families throughout the 20th century (Cancian, 1987; Degler, 1980; Dizard & Gadlin, 1990).

The contemporary emphasis on marital companionship can lead to difficulties adjusting to parenthood because patterns of companionate activity are disrupted by the arrival of a baby (Dyer, 1963). Research in the late 1950s and early 1960s characterized parenthood as a crisis for couples (Dyer, 1963; LeMasters, 1957). More recent research has identified both positive and negative aspects of parenthood, as well as variation among couples in the effects of a first child on the marital relationship (Belsky & Kelly, 1994; Cowan & Cowan,1992; Huston & Vangelisti, 1995).

Parenthood changes the "life space" within which couples function and brings with it a new set of tasks that require coordination between the spouses (Lewin, 1948). Kelley's analysis of interdependence provides a framework that can be used to lay bare the interplay between individuals' needs and abilities in relation to the ways they coordinate their parental responsibilities (Kelley, 1979; 1983; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). According to Kelley, partners in a close relationship are interdependent because they control each other's outcomes. There are two primary ways in which the actions of one affect the outcomes of the other. At times, the effects of a spouse's own actions are contingent on the actions of the partner. …

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