What Married Women Want
Sociologists Steven L. Nock and W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia have presented a new study ("What's Love Got to Do with It? Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women's Marital Quality," available in digital form from Amazon.com) based on the findings of the National Survey of Families and Households. Stan Guthrie, a CT senior associate editor, interviewed Wilcox, who last spoke with this magazine about his book Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004).
What prompted this line of study?
My book suggested that men who were churchgoers with a strong, normative commitment to marriage were better husbands and were more likely, it seemed to me, to make their wives happy. They were more likely to spend quality time with their wives and more likely to express affection to their wives. I really wanted to test some academic theories that suggest that more egalitarian marriages are happier than more complementarian marriages.
Why did you choose to look at happiness?
About two-thirds of all divorces in the United States are, at least officially, initiated by women. One of the key factors [they cite] is the emotional quality of their relationships. In other words, if they feel that their marriages are high-quality relationships, they're not likely to seek divorce. If they feel otherwise, however, women are much more likely to head for divorce. One of the implicit concerns of this study was to figure out in what kind of context women are most likely to be happy and then are, of course, indirectly, less likely to divorce.
How do evangelical women fare in all this?
Based on my earlier research, evangelical women tend to be happier in their marriages than other women, particularly when both the wife and the husband attend church on a regular basis. This idea that Christians are just as likely to divorce as secular folks is not correct if we factor church attendance into our thinking. Churchgoing evangelical Protestants, churchgoing Catholics, and churchgoing mainline Protestants are all significantly less likely to divorce.
How much less likely?
I estimate between 35 and 50 percent less likely than Americans who attend church just nominally, just once or twice a year, or who don't attend church at all. It is true that people who say they've had a born-again experience are about as likely to divorce as people who are completely secular. But if you look at this through the lens of church attendance, you see a very different story.
What makes married women happy?
The biggest predictor of women's happiness is their husband's emotional engagement. The extent to which he is affectionate, to which he is empathetic, to which he is basically tuned into his wife, this is the most important factor in predicting the wife's happiness. This basically drowns out every other factor in our models.
Is that a surprise?
I don't think it is. But from an academic perspective, a lot of work has focused on, for instance, who does the housework and how that's related to people's perceptions of happiness in their marriages or fairness or whatnot. We have to recognize that for the average American marriage, it matters a lot more whether the husband is emotionally in tune with his wife than whether he's doing, say, half the dishes or half the laundry. If the wife had to choose between having a husband who is taking half the housework and having a husband who is really making a conscious, deliberate effort to focus emotionally on his wife, the emotional focus is much more likely to be a paramount concern.