Describe marriage as a contract isn’t exactly romantic, but that’s what it is. Inequity at home and work is hardly an aphrodisiac.
Amazon released season two of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” this month, prompting women everywhere to abandon responsibility for a binge-watching therapy session. Although we were not alive in 1958, we did not come of age in the upper west side of Manhattan and our only access to the Catskills was when someone tried to put Baby in a corner, something resonates. Midge, the main character, experiences a deep tension between marriage and career that is all too familiar.
In the first episode, Midge and Joel’s marriage hit a crossroads when Joel catches Midge performing a stand-up routine, a skill she discovered she had a knack for when they were separated. Joel seethes as the audience roars, a response he never enjoyed during his own attempts at stand-up. He draws a line in the sand — it is either him or her career. Midge won’t quit. They exchange “I love you’s,” hers through tears, his through callous. And that’s that — she’s begun the most exciting journey of her life, and he’s not coming.
Decades after Midge’s day, I gained entry into a clinical psychology doctoral program, forcing my boyfriend and me to choose between long distance and moving in together. We moved in together but barbecues and fantasy football Sundays with his buddies lured him back home most weekends. After six months, he moved back. I was pursuing a career and he simply wanted to be home.
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A few years later, I ended up at the same rodeo. A day before my internship application deadline, my boyfriend announced he needs a “break.” After a year of dating, after we carefully selected my internship sites in cities with good job prospects for him, he needs a break. He also ended up moving back to his hometown. I suspect both of these relationships would have gone further if I had settled on a career path that wasn’t so high maintenance.
Gender equality still has a long way to go
We may have come a long way, baby, but we have not come such a long way when it comes to career equality in relationships. Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that 71 percent of men in academia who have working partners say their own career comes first. For men who have partners in academia, 50 percent say their careers come first. Men don’t generally have to compromise their careers for marriage. In addition to the working women who concede to putting their careers second, 29 percent of mothers stay at home, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis.
If a woman is set upon achieving her career goals she’s going to have to work harder to find a mate, but she’s also going to have to work harder even after she finds one. According to a recent study, nearly a quarter of millennials do not believe men and women should do equal work on the home front. This aligns with reality — women spend 11 more hours a week than men in unpaid labor, including domestic labor.
How much longer will marriage and career be trade-offs for women? To be sure, many dual-career couples strike the balance, with no major career sacrifices on either part and an equitable split of the domestic workload. I think we can all agree this is not the norm.
The question women need to ask is, why are we entering into contracts (ahem, marriages) that aren’t fair to us? Why aren’t we negotiating? In the same way that women’s reticence to negotiate at work has contributed to the pay gap, women’s reticence to negotiate at home may be contributing to the domestic-workload gap. Marriage is the only contract we sign without any terms or conditions. Prenuptial agreements are the exception. Perhaps women need a “prenup” to protect their non-tangible assets — their career aspirations and, most of all, their time.
Defining the terms of career and domestic workload in advance serves as an opportunity to assess whether fairness is even negotiable with a mate. A partner may believe in the spirit of equity, but is he willing to perform the work of it?
Negotiate — in work, and life
Dear single women, get it in writing. As for married women, the negotiation is trickier because precedents have been set. Not all is lost, terms and conditions can be established with the help of a good therapist who can set up ground rules, draft a contract and assist in course correction.
If the word “contract” seems harsh in reference to marriage it is only because we have forgotten that marriage actually is a contract. Divorce is the rudest reminder that you are in a contract since it requires a dissolution of the terms you never realized existed. The problem with not having a written contract is that memories of verbal agreements inevitably fade. We slowly regress to previous habits, and around we go, stuck in a maddening loop.
Surely, none of this is romantic. But inequity is hardly an aphrodisiac.
In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the great thing about Joel is that he made his terms clear. The heroic thing about Midge is that she stuck to hers, even though it meant walking away. She was ahead of her time. She may even be ahead of ours.
Sherry Pagoto, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut. She tweets at @DrSherryPagoto.
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