Do egalitarian heterosexual marriages exist?
September 26, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Do egalitarian heterosexual marriages exist as a cultural phenomenon?

To elaborate: I live with my wife in a completely egalitarian union. No roles are assigned based on gender, we share completely in household duties, child care and earning money.
The thing is that I have never met another couple that is not (to usually a rather large extent) mired in gender stereotypes, and also I have never met someone (man or woman) who doesn't assume apriori that we are as well.
People constantly assume that my wife does the cooking and cleaning, and that she does less sports, etc etc
This is all even though they know she works the same amount I do, and we are both academics, and working in academia.
So I'm asking: is there is some place in the world where this is not the case? Do people like us exist in a large amount?
posted by Mai2k3 to Society & Culture (57 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I was about to ask where you live, and then I clicked your profile. Based on what I've experienced, I would say this is becoming the norm in America, particularly for couples with the same level of education working similar (paying, time-commitment) jobs. Especially in large cities, and especially in academia, where folks tend to be a bit more liberal to begin with. And I would say that rather than "assigning roles," people tend to do chores they prefer--and if that means that the lady ends up doing the cooking or whatever, as long as everyone's cool with it, that's just fine.

Even my parents, who have been married for several decades, have a fairly egalitarian relationship despite their job/earning disparity. My dad does all the cleaning (because he's better at it and kind of enjoys it) and my mom does all the cooking (because she's better at it and kind of enjoys it), and the child-rearing was most definitely a shared endeavor.

Short answer: yes, there are plenty of places where this is not the case. Unfortunately, you appear to not be living in one of them.
posted by phunniemee at 10:39 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think looking at countries that have high support of paternity leave will give you a better idea of what you're seeking. A country that assumes that a father has just as important of a role as a mother probably comes closer to culturally bridging the gender gap than a country (like the US) that does not.
posted by greta simone at 10:41 AM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Anecdata: I grew up in the punk scene in D.C. in the 80s/90s, and many of the folks that I know from that time - and my partner and I - are now in couples that aren't mired in gender essentialism. There are different levels of role equality, largely based on available time and work circumstances, but it is broadly understood that heternormativity isn't healthy for anyone.

I don't know what kind of social circles you move in, but this doesn't seem at all uncommon in leftist / progressive communities.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:42 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to agree with phunnimee, my (MeFite) boyfriend and I make about the same amount of money and contribute equally to chores. He does all the cooking and kitchen cleaning, I do the rest of the house and laundry. We divvied it by what we are good at/can tolerate doing, not by any sort of gender norms.

This is fairly typical in our circle of friends, as well. I'd say it's fairly normal in the Bay Area at the very least.
posted by chatongriffes at 10:42 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

In certain American settings (cities, much of academia), this is pretty much the norm. In my social circle, I know of no contemporary couples that don't live this way, though I have come in contact with people (in my age group) who live in more "traditional" roles. Those people are usually highly religious, though.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:43 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry that should be "heteronormativity isn't healthy for anyone".
posted by ryanshepard at 10:43 AM on September 26, 2012

Thanks for returning some of my faith in the human race :-)
We are planning to move to the states (ny area or bay area) in a few years, so I hope we find more ppl there like us. Right now we are very lonely here in this respect
posted by Mai2k3 at 10:52 AM on September 26, 2012

The thing is that I have never met another couple that is not (to usually a rather large extent) mired in gender stereotypes, and also I have never met someone (man or woman) who doesn't assume apriori that we are as well.

I'm surprised that you're able to ascertain the degree to which any particular couple conforms to stereotypes more or less than you do. Perhaps with close friends, over time, you could determine such a thing. But everyone?

Also, how is literally every coupled person you meet communicating to you that they expect more gender conformity in your private relationship?

From your use of the word "mired" to describe people who (from your perspective) seem to have more traditional gender roles, and your claim that everyone else is both less egalitarian in their own roles, and surprised by yours, I suspect that you are far more attentive to this topic than others.

Yes, you are unusual. Yes, there are other people who arrange their relationships the same way. You are more likely to find this in academic and urban settings.
posted by General Tonic at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area of the US, and I'd say in general the default assumption among people my age at least (late-20s/early-30s) for heterosexual couples is the egalitarian version. That said, when things deviate from the norm, it is usually in the stereotypically-gender-roles way, not the opposite, though I do know stay-at-home dads whose wives work and whatnot.
posted by brainmouse at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Husbunny and I have a pretty egalitarian marriage. I handle the money, he vacuums. I cook, he empties out the dishwasher. I'm more handy, so I do the small handy-person jobs around the house, hanging blinds, fixing faucets, etc.

We mostly do whatever needs doing when it needs doing.

We sat down when before we were married and discussed it, and we're still tooting along over 10 years later.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2012

Chiming in as yet another American, no one has ever, to my knowledge, assumed that my wife does the cooking and cleaning because she is a woman. I don't know the specifics of many other couples, but there seems to be a fairly even distribution of housework among the couples I know in my urban, well educated setting. Part of that might have to do with how much the guys in my circles love to cook.

I also think that it's hard to judge what other people's home life is like unless you live with them, and it's even harder to judge what is "egalitarian" for a particular couple. I do all of the cooking and most of the cleaning in my house because my wife hates doing it; that's egalitarian for us because it's according to what works for us. It's not egalitarian in the sense of 50/50, but 50/50 would be a real hardship for her in a way that 70/30 or whatever isn't a hardship for me. It doesn't look egalitarian from the outside, but it is.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:00 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

mired in gender stereotypes

Forgive me, but please do not believe that a household where there is a single, male breadwinner is somehow "mired" and detrimental to "faith in the human race". I think it is up to the two spouses of that marriage to determine what is egalitarian for them.

I do not understand how the internal functioning of other households makes you and your wife "lonely". My wife and I (a mired couple) are friends with married couples whom, while I do not inquire into the management of their households, vary in terms of who works outside the home. Some are traditional single-income homes such as mine, but we also have friendships with couples of two working parents, DINKs (double income, no kids), and even one where the wife works and the husband stays home with the kids.

It frankly does not occur to me to inquire into how my friends run their marriages. You two might be a bit less lonely if you were not so attentive to these issues, either.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:14 AM on September 26, 2012 [20 favorites]

I find it hard to believe that most or even many couples in the US live without regard to ancient gender roles nor that they would all want to if they could. In my opinion, egalitarian and conformity to traditional gender roles are not opposites, and many of the best marriages I know of have both factors. There are certainly negative aspects to gender roles, and I know just as many couples who struggle with the more confining bits, but I don't know anyone who is totally free of them insofar as gender is a huge defining part of most people's identities and that those roles go a lot more deep than cooking vs repairing shit into emotional duties and other, subtler differentiations. I'm sure there are some heterosexual couples that are actually totally gender-role-neutral, but I don't personally know any, only points on a spectrum in between Betty/Don Draper and Valentine Michael Smith's family.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:14 AM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'd say in the US, egalitarianism is sometimes treated as ideal (especially in big cities; especially among people who are younger, more intellectual, or more politically liberal) but most couples who adopt it as an ideal still fall short. And I'd argue that that's okay.

I'd put myself and my wife in that category. We try our hardest to make equal contributions around the house, but if you timed us, I'm betting you'd still find she was spending more time on housework than me. We've ended up prioritizing my career over hers — and we made that decision after a lot of discussion rather than just assuming it would be that way, but still. I know a lot of egalitarian couples where the man's career "just happens" to be a higher priority than the woman's, and not nearly as many where the woman's is a higher priority than the man's; and we'd all claim that it was a rational decision, but it does appear that there's still some bias in the system somewhere, because things just aren't coming out 50/50. And so on.

And similarly, lots of really liberal and intellectual folks, in my very liberal and intellectual city in the US, will still make gendered assumptions about our goals and interests. People ask my wife a lot if we want kids; they don't ask me. People ask me a lot if I watch football; they don't ask my wife. Now, if I point out that I want kids more than my wife does, and she's more of an athlete than me, then nobody gets all OMG WTF HOW CAN THIS BE — they'll say "Oh, duh, right, I shouldn't assume" and things go just fine from there. But still — the cultural defaults are still there.

I mean, hell, I'm a dude who cooks and who hates sports, and I'm still more likely to talk about cooking with women and about sports with men. Some of that is residual irrational sexism on my part, and some of it is just being pragmatic about the whole thing: there are still a lot of men in the world who will get upset if you talk with them about stereotypically-girly stuff, and a lot of women who will get upset if you talk with them about stereotypically-butch stuff, and sometimes it's easiest just to play the odds and start with the topic that's statistically least likely to give offense.

I'm going on about this partly just to give my point of view, but partly also because of the way you framed your question. You've presented this like "My wife and I are TOTALLY FAIR AND RATIONAL about this and everyone else is MIRED IN IRRATIONALITY." And that seems unlikely to be true. Odds are (1) you and your wife have still retained some unconscious irrational assumptions about gender, despite your best efforts; and (2) some of the people around you are probably interested in gender equality too, and are likewise just doing an imperfect job of implementing it.

So I wonder whether you might be happier if you look for people who are headed in the right direction, trying to increase the level of equality in their marriage even if they're still far from perfect equality; and if you then treat those people as allies rather than looking down your nose at them.

I mean, okay, yes, Israel is more socially conservative than big-city upper-class North America in a lot of ways. But Tel Aviv is a big diverse city with for instance a huge gay and lesbian community and a lot of folks interested in progressive politics and so on. I have a hard time believing you and your wife are the only straight couple in Tel Aviv with feminist inclinations. If you've ended up feeling that way, it could be that you're too hasty to judge others as anti-feminist and insufficiently egalitarian, you know?
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:24 AM on September 26, 2012 [23 favorites]

Lemme try to put that in a less ranty way.

If you mean "Are there couples who think egalitarianism would be a good thing?" Oh, yeah, totally, all over the place, including I'll bet some couples like that right there in your home town.

If you mean "Are there couples who really and truly succeed at perfect egalitarianism?" Well, maybe a few, but they're going to be rare everywhere, because perfection of any sort is rare.

So I think wherever you live, you'll probably have to choose between having a bunch of sorta-egalitarian-ish friends, or having a very small circle of friends who are as serious and dedicated to egalitarianism as you are. I actually feel like either way you choose is okay. But there's definitely a tradeoff there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:34 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not married but I have observed a number of marriages where everything appears to be basically equal between partners. (As stated above, it's hard to know exactly what other people's private lives are like, but it's not at all rare to see what appears to be a pretty equal hetero relationship.)

But it seems you're conflating a few different factors here, and it might help to separate them. One is simply division of labor - whether or not one partner is doing more than (what you see as) their share of certain kinds of work. One is the type of chores/activities/whatever each person does, and this is where the gender stereotypes come in. Say there's a couple who divides everything exactly 50/50, and say the man's chores include taking care of the car and mowing the grass, and the woman's include cleaning the house and ironing. How can you tell whether they are mired in traditional gender roles, or whether partner A (who happens to be the man) likes cars and the outdoors, and partner B (who happens to be the woman) really enjoys having a clean house and loves the smell of spray starch? Even if they claim it's the latter, how can you tell if they really mean it, or if they were subtly influenced in their activity preferences by sexism they witnessed in their childhoods? I don't think, in most cases, that you can. And I think it would drive you crazy to try.

Something that I've seen also is that a lot of couples lives will change over time, so that at one point they may appear equal and at another not so, but eventually it evens out. A simplified example, my parents: before I was born they both worked. Then my mom stayed home with me did lots of cooking and cleaning and my dad worked. Then my dad retired, took care of me (though I was older and needed less, I suppose) and a lot of stuff around the house while my mom worked. You could look at them when I was 2 and say their marriage was super traditional and gendered, but then look at their 40+ yr marriage and say it was pretty equal. So immediate judgements may be working against you in finding other equal couples.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:52 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ha, well, you're getting fun blowback here. But I understand what you mean. When I'm with people who conduct their households in a traditional fashion, I also feel that isolation, because I don't feel like I fit in. It's fine that they do this! It's not my problem, and it's not even a problem, because it's not my household! But I do feel alien. And I have been in parts of the world where people say that the man is supposed to have dominion over the woman, and then, hoo boy, I start to black out.

But if you're moving to NYC or the Bay Area, you can definitely stop worrying. About 2% of my married friends in both places are "dude works, lady stays at home with baby" and even that one is not going to last long. (Although about 10% are probably more like "transgender same-sex couple dressing up cats as children" so maybe you have other culture shocks coming?)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:10 PM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Unlike some of the others in this thread, I'm not at all convinced that people in major US cities are really going to be more 'egalitarian' in this sense than in Tel Aviv.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:24 PM on September 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

I now live in Sweden. My experience of the society is that there's much more gender equality than in any other place I've been. I've certainly not met any of the gender expectations you mention and that I've noticed in other countries. So yes people like you exist in large amounts.
posted by abx1-se at 12:30 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

East Coast of the US, opposite-gender marriage of 12 years: My husband does way more of the housework than I do. I do way more of the yardwork than he does. I cook on the days he works in the office; he cooks on the days he works from home, and we both cook on the weekends.

On the other hand, he does most of the home repairs (I do plumbing and animal/insect control), and he is responsible for seeing to the maintenance of the car. He also is the larger earner right now, but that hasn't always been the case (I am working very sporadically because of chronic illness).

My brother-in-law was the primary caregiver for my nephew when he was little, as my sister-in-law had a much better paid job with far more opportunity for career advancement. This didn't seem odd to them, but my brother-in-law got a lot of what he felt was undeserved praise for being a primary caregiver and a man.

Maybe you need to hang out with more same-sex couples? Mix it up a bit?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:56 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know a couple of opposite-gender couples older than I (so Baby Boomer types, maybe in their late 60s now?) who don't use the words "husband" and "wife" to describe each other, but instead call each other "spouse". One of the spouses once explained to me that people have different preconceptions of "husband" and "wife" than they do of "spouse".

I have no idea if that's a valid or useful distinction in modern Hebrew, but it was one way that those couples consciously signalled a commitment to rethinking traditional gender roles in marriage.

And yet, I don't do that myself, because I am a real traditionalist when it comes to language.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:00 PM on September 26, 2012

I'm female. I don't like cooking or cleaning, my male partner likes cooking and cleaning substantially less than I do. Our compromise is that we pay for a professional cleaning person to clean our shit, and he provides food half of the time (this is 70% takeout and 30% grill), I provide food half of the time (which is 30% takeout, 50% frozen Trader Joe's or equivalent, and 20% homemade of some stripe).

If I can't stand it in the 6 days until the cleaner comes around I sometimes clean anyway, even though our agreement is that we pay for a cleaner and split it. When I do so, I accept that I'm doing it to please myself, not as part of our arrangement. Still, I'll often ask for some sort of benefit ("Hey, if I clean up the bathroom and do a load of laundry, will you fold it and go get milk at the store?")

It edges closer to heteronormative roles than my hippy-dippy upbringing makes me like, and it would make my 20-year-old self's teeth grind. Still, I'm the physical one with the intense, very physical job in an extremely male-oriented field, I'm paid double what my partner is, I've got lots more degrees than he does, I am into adventure sports and don't mind dealing with dead things or killing spiders. My partner is the one that talks to the cops, reasons and sweet-talks our annoying landlord, and does a whole host of things that I'm not able to do.

Where we are with it is though it might look to an outsider (like, perhaps, OP?) like we have a relatively heteronormative relationship, our reality is that we do different things well, and hate doing things at various levels. We try to play to our strengths. To me, that's been a big realization of my 30s, rather than insisting on mindless complete equivalency in all tasks.

If we did that, the dead lizard would still be under the sofa, and we'd likely have been served with an eviction notice 10x over.
posted by arnicae at 1:05 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I dunno--every chef I know cooks at home as well, be they male or female. My husband's a chef and he does all the cooking. I make coffee. I earn more $$, most of the time, because I'm in show biz and am a free-lancer, so I set my own rate and make my own deals. I don't know many people in LA who adhere to these very distinct roles based on what girls do/what boys do, and we're hardly trendy Westside lefties.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:07 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in looking into the Equally Shared Parenting movement and the related book. I think it places exactly the emphasis you talk about on sharing all roles within a heterosexual relationship.

I'm sure you can find egalitarian relationships in Tel Aviv if you look out for them. My parents raised me in a super-conservative, traditional city in India -- which also tends to be super-conservative and traditional for the most part and they have a very egalitarian marriage. They both have successful careers (and in fact my mom earns a bit more than my dad), they share household responsibilities and they certainly both took care of me. Their division of tasks does tend to take into account each person's proclivities and personality -- for example, my dad hates making phone calls and arranging for flights and accommodation, so my mom took care of all the travel planning. My mom hates doing arithmetic, so my dad does all the household accounts and taxes. They were not such unicorns, even in our conservative city, so I'm sure there are egalitarian households in Tel Aviv.

Sometimes, external factors prevent a couple from being completely egalitarian. For example, my boyfriend is older than me and likely to get a high-paying job before I do. If we stayed in the US, and wanted to have kids, I could imagine plenty of scenarios where it would make more financial sense for me to not work for a year or two. My mom's government job in India allowed her a full year of maternity leave, which enabled her to jump right back into her high-powered career after breast-feeding me for a year. In most jobs in the US, that would not be possible. So bear in mind the societal limitations imposed on full egalitarianism.
posted by peacheater at 1:10 PM on September 26, 2012

I think the more egalitarian move for us was when we moved to a percentage based payment of common (very broadly defined) expenses. So, for nearly all of our expenses we would total the expenses up at the end of the month and determine who paid what depending on how much we each made.

So if I'd made 20 and my partner had made 10, I would be responsible for 66% of the month's expenses and he was responsible for 33%. When we first started dating, we couldn't afford to do this - money was just too tight, so we split things down the middle. But as soon as we were able, we made the shift. I think it is a* very fair way to approach expenses.

*(note I said "a" not "the")
posted by arnicae at 1:14 PM on September 26, 2012

I think there are different ways to define "egalitarian" and some measures of egalitarianism are harder to see, from the outside, than others.

For instance, if spouses have an equal say in decisions on finances, housing, lifestyle, etc. I consider that marriage basically egalitarian. And I have no idea how most of my friends and acquaintances rank on this measure.

My husband stays at home with our son whiile I work. Not gender-normative. But he also is the one that builds and fixes things, while I do the laundry and the dishes almost 100% of the time. Gender-normative, right? We both have equal input on big decisions, like where to live, which house to buy, etc. So... are we egalitarian? I think so. If someone came over to our house and only saw that I was cooking dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, or that he was building an addition on our house, they might not think so, though.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:15 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think part of what makes your arrangement work is that you are both academics, which probably means you make about the same amount of money and keep about the same hours. That provides more luxury to live in complete equality than most other couples.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2012

From a feminist standpoint, I have to question that anyone can have a totally egalitarian union. Even with the best intentions of the most well-meaning individuals, gender stereotypes are going to creep in to some degree. For example: you do the chores you feel most comfortable with/are best at. Who taught you those chores? Are you a gender which is likely to be taught those chores? Do you have physical abilities that make those chores easier?
posted by corb at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for returning some of my faith in the human race :-)

Try not to do this. Plenty of couples find that splitting chores based on sex makes both partners happier, and there's nothing wrong with that. If a woman grew up learning to cook and enjoys it, and a man has no idea how to cook but enjoys doing physical chores around the house, there's nothing unegalitarian about them dividing up the labour in traditional way that makes sense for them but doesn't conform to the latest gender-neutral trend.
posted by Dasein at 2:55 PM on September 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

"Try not to do this. Plenty of couples find that splitting chores based on sex makes both partners happier, and there's nothing wrong with that. If a woman grew up learning to cook and enjoys it, and a man has no idea how to cook but enjoys doing physical chores around the house, there's nothing unegalitarian about them dividing up the labour in traditional way that makes sense for them but doesn't conform to the latest gender-neutral trend."

I think it's okay as long as it isn't the default and it is that way because it's what works optimally for the couple. For me, it's not even the issue of which work the couple does specifically, but it's how much work is being done in general, because when women are by default assigned carework and household chores (dishes, cleaning, laundry, repairing damaged household goods, private health care, raising the next generation of citizens if they have kids) in a mostly two-income household city, they end up doing a disproportionately large amount of work which the men freeload off.

I think there's different ways of doing more-egalitarian, but it's important to examine the division of labour to make sure that no one is freeloading off the other by default. So I don't think "gender neutrality" should be dismissed as a trend, but rather, as an on-going experiment that is worth partaking in.
posted by Hawk V at 3:10 PM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

People, regardless of gender, should divide household chores according to each person's preferences, skills, and availability.

That's not a "trend". That's operating from a foundation of respect for individual choice.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:45 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Almost every marriage I know amongst my peer group (also well educated, living in a large urban area) appears to be like yours, at least from the outside. I'm sorry you're not the rare bird you think you are.
posted by modernnomad at 3:45 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband was a stay at home dad for two years and some people (including relatives) would still assume he did no housework, knew nothing about our child etc. - all of which were not true when he was working and I was staying at home. We're switching back to me staying at home while he works and as much as some of our friends have sexist views on gender roles, in practice they are egalitarian (shared parenting, shared work etc.) although there are tendencies (primarily to do with acceptable levels of tidy/clean and the work associated with that).
posted by geek anachronism at 3:47 PM on September 26, 2012

Thanks for returning some of my faith in the human race :-)

I think "egalitarian" is over-rated. And yes, I identify as a feminist. The best relationship is the one where both people are respected and fulfilled, and most often, this means each person does what they are good at and/or what they enjoy doing. It's okay for you to fall into a stereotype, as long as you don't expect or want everyone else to fall into theirs.

I, as the woman, enjoy working and making money. My SO enjoys being nurturing. We have discussed having kids and he would love to stay at home and take care of the young kids. I would not have kids at all if I had to do take care of them full time. So that is our tentative plan.

It is not at all egalitarian. It is also not based on cultural stereotypes of genders. And it is also not bad.
posted by ethidda at 4:25 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've never used the phrase egalitarian heterosexual marriage in my life, but somehow we've managed to just do what needs to be done over 21 years of marriage without ever having a conversation about gender roles. I don't think your marriage (or mine) is nearly as exceptional in this regard as you do.
posted by COD at 4:30 PM on September 26, 2012

My household is tremendously egalitarian; neither of us have chosen chores or responsibilities based solely on gender. It just so happens that my husband is the sole income-earner and does a lot of the cleaning and all the bill-paying, while I raise the children and do virtually all of the cooking, home repair, and interacting-with-strangers. So really, it depends on whether you're going to claim that we're non-egalitarian just because some of our choices line up with traditional gender stereotypes.
posted by KathrynT at 5:14 PM on September 26, 2012

Interesting. I would say that my experience is different from what many people described. Arlie Hotschild's "The Second Shift" came out when I was in high school and it influenced my desire not to have children..until the baby hormones kicked in in my late twenties. I married a great guy; I outearn him by a significant degree, we have prioritized my career over his because of earnings potential. We have a reasonably egalitarian marriage.

And yet, when you have kids all bets are off if the outside world's expectations are different.

I live in a child-heavy suburb of DC, with lots of highly educated stay at home moms (SAHM). If my husband goes to PTA, he's likely to be the only man there. When he came to open house for my son's new school, my SAHM friends raised their eyebrows in surprise. The neighborhood is full of men mowing lawns on the weekends, and somehow when a new organizer of the neighborhood Halloween party was needed, I and three other women ended out in charge. The burdens can end out shifting despite your best efforts.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 5:27 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think "egalitarian" is over-rated.

If egalitarian means the kind of tit-for-tat chore distribution (I cook, therefore you must clean; I take out the garbage, therefore you must replace the bag), then I whole heartedly agree. I know it works for some people, but God does it sound awful.

Do what needs to get done, try not to let the other person get overworked, and don't stress about who does what seems like a better long term formula for success to me. I know I'm not everyone, but I feel like a lot of people would be happier if they stopped trying to split things 50/50.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:12 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's actually data on this. Well, there's data on how much (paid and unpaid) work women and men do and we can perhaps infer something from that, though separating out people living with an opposite-sex partner might be hard. You may be interested in the Centre for Time Use Research, which has a database on studies of time use. Here are some statistics from 10 EU countries.

The summary is that in an awful lot of countries, women do substantially more work (paid and unpaid combined) than men because women do the bulk of the housework even in relationships where both partners work. I believe Scandinavia generally comes out to be the most equitable. (In that survey I linked above, Norway looks to win, with men having 11 more minutes of free time a day than women. Slovenia and Estonia are the most inequitable, but, somewhat suprisingly to me, the other countries (including Sweden) do about the same.))

The answers to this question suggest that either MeFites are exceptionally good at work distribution or people deceive themselves about how equally they've split the work. That would be an interesting, but separate, question.
posted by hoyland at 6:13 PM on September 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

My husband and I are Canadian and we have an egalitarian marriage. Our chores are not a perfect even split, but they're not split down gender boundaries. I do more cleaning up, he does more cooking. When something needs to be constructed or fixed we both want to do it, and we make an effort to take turns fairly if there's enough of the fun task to share. I'm pretty sure I've read that egalitarian marriages are more common among educated people.
posted by fullerenedream at 6:34 PM on September 26, 2012

I'd just like to respond to a lot of the comments here about "perfection" "dedication" and so forth.
I don't see why it should be necessary to be dedicated to equality. On the contrary, usually inequality is the thing that takes dedication to maintain, equality is really the natural situation as I see it.
As for perfection I think that is missing the point - no two people are exactly alike, so there is no meaning to perfect equality. I usually get the feeling that people who say they have imperfect equality actually have way out of whack inequality.
And to those who said I am condescending or whatnot - I completely do not judge other people's choices in life, and I understand where they come from, I'm just sick of people constantly assuming (in my circles) that that is the only way to live as a couple.
Finally to all those who used my location against me :-) : I've been around the world, including living for a while in NY and have many relatives there, and while the situation is somewhat superficially better there I perceive a very clear gender divide that is still assumed as the norm by most people. I think mainstream American media pretty much validates this point as well.

Thanks for all the great answers and the interest in the topic tho :-)
posted by Mai2k3 at 6:58 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

We aren't parents, so I can't comment on that, but my husband and I have an egalitarian marriage--I actually make more than him. Which isn't to say we don't conform to some gender roles, but by and large they happen to hew to our natural intersts. I love to cook and have a lower tolerance for mess, so I do tend to cook more and take the lead on cleaning (he helps graciously when prompted, but does need prompting). He, on the other hand, is crafty and handy and likes to make stuff and fiddle with stuff and is exactly the kind of guy you call to install a ceiling fan or fix a leak, so he does that stuff. But i think we both see the division as one of interest, not gender.
posted by elizeh at 7:13 PM on September 26, 2012

My parents, born in the thirties and of "outsider" working-class stock, have always had a very egalitarian marriage. I knew of quite a few families like mine, and even more now. To me, it is natural. My experience has been that higher income families tend to be more unequal (and more gender normative); do you tend to interact with a narrow socio-economic strata?
posted by saucysault at 8:28 PM on September 26, 2012

"I don't see why it should be necessary to be dedicated to equality. On the contrary, usually inequality is the thing that takes dedication to maintain, equality is really the natural situation as I see it."

Interesting point, OP, but it really is culturally specific. I think more-egalitarian/equality is the goal, but it's not necessarily what people naturally gravitate towards because of unspoken assumptions, but again, depending on your partner. I grew up in a family where my mother wanted others (including my father) to take over some of the household work, but since she did it by default and felt like it wasn't her place to be more vocal about the division of labour, she has done a disproportionate amount of work (mostly unpaid) in our family. My dad used to be a high-powered executive, and as a result, he would delegate work to others and treat them like secretaries, including my mom.

She's resentful of it, and my dad has been slightly more helpful over the years, but my mom still does a lot of the traditional care, household, and "admin" work of their lives (she does anything to do with the house, does repair work, fixes broken toilets, mends clothes, cooks, cleans, finances, etc. He just... wears the suit and makes the money, Mad Men Style) . There is conflict in this asymmetrical more-traditional set up, but to my knowledge, it remains asymmetrical because my dad doesn't acknowledge the amount of work that my mom does and he is "too tired" to contribute more around the house. For some reason or another, they haven't been able to have a very open discussion about it and are stuck in this rut. Southeast Asian background, FYI.
posted by Hawk V at 9:58 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

The way it sounds is that both your parents are suffering from this arrangement, in that their relationship is not as good as it could have been, and this is a very common point that people bring up about unequal division of labor.
So what I'm saying is that if a good relationship (and not equality) is the top priority, then equality (whatever that means for that particular couple) will happen on its own, but if there is something more important, which is usually for the man to "be a man" then he will sacrifice the relationship for that. Usually when a woman keeps her career it is not so important to her that she will abandon her family life for it, since society doesn't expect it from her.
I don't buy it that people naturally gravitate to these roles. It is really a choice that they are making to conform with external society at the price of a healthy relationship.
posted by Mai2k3 at 10:19 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to define "egalitarian marriage" better if you want serious answers. As it is, you're going to offend some people -- such as myself -- who do not earn the same amount of money as their spouse, or do a different amount of work in or out of the home, but do not consider themselves to be subjugated or in any way lesser.

So do you mean marriages where both spouses earn the same amount of money? Where they do the same amount of housework? Where they spend the same number of hours volunteering in their children's schools? Etc.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:20 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an answer I will just quote my PhD advisor when asked to clarify what he meant by some vague concept:
"I can't tell you what it means, but if you come to me with a concrete example I can say if it is or isn't [this thing]"
So I guess "egalitarian relationship" is not really something you can define, definitely not in terms of division of labor (except in extreme cases), but you can tell one when you see one. You can tell when both people feel that they are getting the same opportunities for self fulfillment and that one has not been deprioritized in favor of the other.

Of course I'm not saying anything about your relationship, just generalities.
posted by Mai2k3 at 10:37 PM on September 26, 2012

Well, despite appearances (me being a 'stay at home mom' and my husband being the 'breadwinner') . . . I think we come close to 'egalitarian'. It must be somewhat radical, because his mother is horrified that her 'baby' has to work so hard!

He does the grocery shopping and the laundry, and most of the childcare when he's not at work.
He did the majority of the diapers and midnight jiggling when I was nursing. In the middle, I took over mid-night wakings because I'm more alert in the middle of the night, but now he's taken them again because the kids aren't as fragile if he's half-asleep, and I tend to stay awake once I'm woken up.
The finances have gone back and forth, I'm handling them now.
Whomever gets to sleep in is the one who makes the bed in the morning.
I do not buy gifts/send cards, keep track of birthdays, etc to his family.
He frequently makes dinner.
He walks the kids to school, I pick them up.
He doesn't do yardwork, but I wish he did.
I do more cleaning, but then cleanliness isn't important to him (and he somehow doesn't 'see' dirt as well as I do).
Our house is 100 yrs old, and I'm the one who knows which windows leak, anticipates temperature changes and monitors heat/air conditioning, has awareness & keeps mental track of needed repairs, etc.
Basically, I've spent our marriage contemplating in my mind what I want to do vs. what society thinks I'm supposed to do because I have a vagina, and deciding to do what I want. Barring that we break it down according to who has more skills in an area, or who cares more about specific thing. And as I referenced above with his mother, I do get a lot flack for not doing more of what's expected of me as a female.

For another data point, our eldest child is male, and 7 years older then our youngest two. I determined very early that I wanted to raise him to be a capable husband when he grew up. To date, he is 14 and I suspect I've failed -- his housework skills are inadequate (although he can clean a litter box and make a latte on demand). However, much to my horror, my daughter is very good at cleaning, and incredibly curious about cooking and laundry. She ends up doing more girly chores while the boys laze around, merely because she's good at it and trying to get my sons to do anything is painful. The nature vs nurture debate rages on at our house.
posted by MeiraV at 6:04 AM on September 27, 2012

Oh, and we both feel un appreciated and like we're doing more work than the other, for what that's worth.
posted by MeiraV at 6:07 AM on September 27, 2012

> The answers to this question suggest that either MeFites are exceptionally good at work distribution or people deceive themselves about how equally they've split the work. That would be an interesting, but separate, question.

The answers to this question don't really suggest either of those things. AskMe questions aren't a survey of Mefites. Responses are from a self-selected subset of people -- those who want to reply to the question of whether other people have similar view to the OP and his wife on roles within marriage, or whether this is unusual.

This is a pretty easy subject to comment on when your answer is "uh, yes, we do, and this is quite common in some circles."
posted by desuetude at 6:46 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your description and observations match ours. 20+ egalitarian years together.
posted by humboldt32 at 7:47 AM on September 27, 2012

"The way it sounds is that both your parents are suffering from this arrangement, in that their relationship is not as good as it could have been, and this is a very common point that people bring up about unequal division of labor.
So what I'm saying is that if a good relationship (and not equality) is the top priority, then equality (whatever that means for that particular couple) will happen on its own, but if there is something more important, which is usually for the man to "be a man" then he will sacrifice the relationship for that."

Great points, I love this discussion. Yeah, I do think that it isn't ideal and they are in a rut. But perhaps what I'm trying to get at is "natural" vs "unnatural" aren't helpful concepts especially when you are dealing with things like societal expectations, cultural norms, unspoken gender roles, etc. It's not "natural" for my parents to figure out a better way of doing things since it's not a "cultural thing" in their class and ethnic group to divvy up the housework/carework. I'm not even sure if my mom is aware of it, she's just as responsible for her situation as my dad. Western feminism never reached her ethnic enclave, and she describes a lot of western notions of family as "why they divorce so much," which I disagree with (and since when divorce evil)?

The social script that they have is to delegate the household work to poorer Filipina, both partners then go on to work full time and invest in the stock market, and that's how they achieve their relative gender egalitarianism. But my mom decides not to go for a domestic worker, and hence she's stuck with being the sole provider of that work. Actually, they both get a lot of pressure from family and friends to "just get a Filipina", but they decide not to, which is a decision I'm proud that they made. So it's not "natural" or "easy" when it's possible to lose all social support if your family/community thinks you're doing your life wrong.

I think that a discussion about egalitarian heterosexual marriages and the division of labour needs to also address the issue of class and how work is "outsourced". Some families may think they are doing the egalitarian thing right, when I personally think it's questionable if they are moving the problem of the underpaying gendered work to poor immigrant (whether national migrants or international migrants) women of colour.

So perhaps rather than trying to label which couples are egalitarian enough or not, I think it's more fruitful to have a discussion on how to provide opportunities to make heterosexual relationships more-egalitarian given different cultural, class, and national contexts. Because couples are working with different risks depending on which communities they derive their social support from.
posted by Hawk V at 12:06 PM on September 27, 2012

Although I agree with your general drift, I just want to point out that my original post was not about labeling people as egalitarian or not. My only issue was that most people I meet are severely unegalitarian and anti-egalitarian, if sometimes in a roundabout underhanded way, and I wanted to hear other peoples' experiences in this area.
Of course now I realize that my question became bait for a lot of people who want at least to think that their relationship is equal, but know that it isn't, and came here to justify themselves before my supposed judgment of them.
In any case it was a nice discussion and I came away with some interesting impressions, so thanks to all of you :-)
And to the "complete equality is not possible" crowd: just try that argument with men/women replaced by black/white, works every time.
posted by Mai2k3 at 11:39 AM on October 1, 2012

> I just want to point out that my original post was not about labeling people as egalitarian or not

No, it was. You asked "Do egalitarian heterosexual marriages exist?" and the way to answer that is to sort marriages into "egalitarian" or "not egalitarian."
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:05 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

At the risk of going into a thumb war:
No, that was not then and is not now my intention. As far as I am concerned any two people who don't make statements to the contrary are in an equal relationship. My problem is that not only do people state about their own relationship that it is divided along gender lines, but they assume it about mine as well.
I said heterosexual relationships for a reason, because in homosexual relationships this phenomenon is non existent. Each partner is just one of two partners, and not the male partner or female partner. Of course they are both different human beings, but they get to be whoever they really are inside the relationship.
That is how I view my own relationship and IMHO the best way to maximize the benefit of any relationship for both people. Doesn't mean it's perfect, just not limited by some external societal construct.
posted by Mai2k3 at 8:51 PM on October 1, 2012

And to the "complete equality is not possible" crowd: just try that argument with men/women replaced by black/white, works every time.

I honestly can't tell what argument you're rebutting, or what point is being made clear by your substitution of gender with race.
posted by desuetude at 9:55 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I said heterosexual relationships for a reason, because in homosexual relationships this phenomenon is non existent. Each partner is just one of two partners, and not the male partner or female partner.

Wait, what? Gender is not the same as biological sex and I have absolutely known same-sex marriages that are divided along gender lines (and it works for them so who am I to comment). I also know hetrosexual relationships that are divided on gender lines but where the woman "wears the pants" and the man has a nuturing, home-focused role. Again, it works for them. I also know many traditional, heterosexual relationships that to you may be "limited by some external societal construct" but the two people in the relationship are happy and fulfilled and they have "maximize[d] the benefit of any relationship for both people" for themselves.

It is awesome that you and your partner have reached consensus on what works for you but you can't really expect it is the only way, or the best way for everyone because people and relationship dynamics are different.
posted by saucysault at 10:06 AM on October 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

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