- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

Girls may “just wanna have fun,” as Cyndi Lauper once sang. But when girls become wives, they want love and support like what country heartthrob Randy Travis says: “forever and ever, amen.”

So says research published this month in the journal Social Forces by University of Virginia sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock.

The professors wondered whether egalitarian marriage — in which husbands and wives each work good jobs and split domestic duties down the middle — makes wives happy.

They reviewed data on 5,000 couples in the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), conducted in the early 1990s, and found that women’s happiness was tied most directly to the quality of their relationships with their husbands.

Wives are happiest when their husbands give them abundant concern, sensitivity, expressions of gratitude and undivided attention, said Mr. Wilcox, a resident scholar at the Institute for American Values.

“Marriage, now more than ever, is about meaningful conversation, empathy, affection and spending leisure time together,” he and Mr. Nock concluded in their paper, “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality.”

The two sociologists also found that contrary to popular ideas, wives’ happiness was not tied to having “equal” paychecks or having husbands do “equal” amounts of housework.

Instead, they said, wives were happiest when their husbands earned more than they did — even two-thirds more. Wives also didn’t care about the exact quantity of housework their husbands did, as long as the women felt the amount was “fair.”

A fourth finding was that wives’ happiness was stronger when they and their husbands both believed in the lifelong commitment of marriage and attended religious services together.

Taken together, Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Nock wrote, it appears that wives are happiest when their marriages combine the elements of “old” and “new” traditions.

The Wilcox-Nock study has sparked a spate of headlines, such as “The Return of the Happy Housewife” in the Los Angeles Times and “The Happiest Wives” in the New York Times.

Such fanfare dismays scholars such as Barbara J. Risman, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families.

The study’s finding that empathetic, supportive husbands make wives the happiest is certainly important, she said.

It shows that women aren’t impressed with “strong, violent, tough guys,” she said. “If you want to help promote healthy marriage, teach men to be more like Alan Alda than John Wayne.”

Buttheincome and housework findings in the Wilcox-Nock study are weak and have been “hyped” in the press, she said.

Elsewhere, feminists are arguing that “reality hasn’t yet caught up to women’s expectations,” Meghan O’Rourke writes in Slate magazine (www.slate.com) in an article called “Desperate Feminist Wives.”

“Women have entered the work force, but men still haven’t picked up the domestic slack — working wives continue to do 70 percent or more of the housework, according to one study,” she writes. “If you work hard and come home and find you have to do much more than your husband does, it’s little wonder that you would be angry and frustrated.”

The issue isn’t likely to subside, given the perennial interest in “mommy wars” and soon-to-be released book “To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife” by New Yorker staff writer Caitlin Flanagan.

Press materials say Mrs. Flanagan’s book will reassess housework and take “yuppie parents” to task for thinking it is OK for neither spouse to “know how to mend a fallen hem” or “have rudimentary knowledge of the workings of a fuse box.”

Meanwhile, psychologist Bill Harley, a veteran marital counselor and author of “His Needs, Her Needs,” says he sees firsthand evidence of the Wilcox-Nock findings every day.

Women’s top five emotional needs are affection, intimate conversation, honesty and openness, financial support and family commitment, said Mr. Harley, who runs Marriage Builders with his wife, Joyce.

As a result, most wives — even those with high-earning jobs — want to be financially supported by their husbands, he said, adding that he has seen “tons of anecdotal evidence” for that in his 35 years of marital work.

Men, on the other hand, generally want recreational companionship, physical attractiveness, admiration, sexual fulfillment and domestic support — orderly, harmonious, well-managed homes — from their wives.

The key to marital happiness is for husbands to meet their wives’ most important emotional needs, Mr. Harley said.

This is trickier said than done because “it’s easier for a woman to make a man happy than for a man to make a woman happy,” he said.

“But in marriage, when men fail to make their wives happy, the wife shuts down and won’t do even the simplest things to make him happy,” Mr. Harley said. That’s how couples get locked into downward spirals of fighting, bickering, hurt feelings and stalemated situations.

“So what I spend most of my time doing is training men how to make women happy,” Mr. Harley said. “If you want a woman to be in love with you, [meeting her top five emotional needs] are the things you have to be trained to do and do well, and she will follow you to the ends of the earth.”

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