Saturday, February 28, 2009

Asymmetry in Couples

Many of my peers are getting married or having babies. While I see many well-adjusted couples; I also see many for whom the couple's life is very asymmetric. The wife is expected to stay within one very rigid role while the husband has to fill another. While Indian families typically tend to constrain the role of the wife, the husband's position is also very strictly determined by society.

This is something that's been bothering me for a while. I see a lot of families in which the wife only manages the house. She is incapable of earning money, having a career, or being an intellectual. While the feminist movement makes us aware of this situation, we don't see the husband's limitations. Many husbands are incapable of cooking, running a household, being a loving and tolerant parent, or playing childish games with kids. This asymmetry is plainly visible in older Indians and many new couples face it as well.

Let me begin by saying that this isn't always the case. I am familiar with many examples of very determined wives, who are motivated, intellectually sharp, and have successful careers outside home. I am also familiar with husbands who can cook wonderfully, are warm and affectionate (and even childish) around kids, and can run a home with the grace and ability of the best house-wives. But these are the exceptions. These exceptions are exactly the ones where I see the most balanced couples: their relation seems the happiest and most fulfilling. So let's focus on families in which the couples have very asymmetric roles and they don't want to correct this asymmetry.

This asymmetry is most visible in the death or illness of either partner. When the wife is very sick, the husband is called upon to take care of the house, perhaps cook for everyone, and have the gentle touch required when taking care of the family. If the husband is ill for an extended period, the wife might have to start a career, to avoid becoming a dependent upon family. Even if the couple is healthy and never have to deal with such a situation, there might be days when the wife cannot take care of the house alone: and needs a person who is skilled to lend a hand. This is often the case with pregnant women. Or there might be trouble with the husband's career where the wife's career can ease the burden on the family.

This asymmetry is quite dangerous. It makes each person limit themselves needlessly. Women gradually convince themselves that car or the computer is off-bounds for them: it is something they cannot understand. Men learn that cooking or cleaning is futile -- a skill that is worthless. Such men are incapable of living alone for any length of time. They don't appreciate how hard it is to soothe a crying child or to discipline one. When such men are asked to take care of the child, they are either too strict or too lenient.

Society hurts the situation too -- It frowns on women earning more than their husbands. I'd be quite happy if my wife earned more than me. I would know: it has been true for most of my marriage. Also, Indian society does not lay much stress on the husband's cooking, cleaning, or child-rearing ability. How often do Indians compliment a husband for being great with kids? In the West, being good with kids is a strong attraction for women. Tommy Testosterone might be a great guy, but he isn't always a great father, or a loving boyfriend. Cooking well is as easily a way into a woman's heart as it is to a man's.

Finally, the world is moving away from these very rigid roles. Women are just as educated as men, and are just as determined and capable. Their earning ability and their intellectual interests are just as valuable outside the home. Men are marrying later, spending their youth with room-mates, learning how to run a house: cooking, cleaning, and figuring out the politics behind keeping a house-servant. Well balanced couples are more appreciative of each other. A husband who has tried to cook can truly appreciate the skill and effort required. He is generous with praise, inquisitive, and genuinely useful in the kitchen. Kids howl less when such a father proceeds towards the kitchen to make dinner. Similarly, a wife who can earn and is capable of doing taxes is a true asset. Some of the happiest married couples I know are ones in which the wife is just as good at fixing the computer or the car! Their kids get a very powerful role-model, where mommy is seen as daddy's equal.

After all, the healthiest relationships are between equals.